I’ve been at the climate summit in Madrid for the past two weeks. The question I was constantly asked was: “What will it take for Australia to treat the climate crisis seriously?” International friends, colleagues and strangers looked on in horror at the effects of the bushfires and outright amazement at the Morrison government’s denial of the link between the fires and Australia’s coal industry, and seeming lack of concern at this extreme impact of climate change.
Morning after morning I woke to check the news and the “fires near me” app. Seeking updates from friends. Was the Katoomba fire close enough to force evacuation of one? Had another been able to return to their house yet? How was the air pollution in Sydney? Was my partner, who is an asthmatic, coping?
This is not normal. This is life lived under a climate emergency. And yet the Australian government acted like business as usual in Madrid. Focused on watering down Australia’s ambition. Pushing for dodgy accounting tricks that would halve Australia’s (already completely inadequate) climate effort, with flow-on effects to weaken ambition of other countries. Analysis released during the summit showed that if Australia, China and Brazil used their hollow Kyoto units to meet Paris agreement targets, global ambition would decrease by 25%, delaying the transition to new energy systems and resulting in more global heating. Despite a coalition of countries coming out to oppose this weakening, the issue remains unresolved, with talks being carried into next year.
This approach is entirely aligned with the interests of the coal lobby, who were stalking the meeting halls of COP25. They were no doubt very pleased with the Australian government strategy. This strategy works directly against the interests of the rest of us living the climate emergency: the farmers facing worsening drought conditions, the firefighters battling more ferocious bushfires, the towns at risk of evacuation as they run out of water, and those struggling to breathe from air pollution.
Championing the Australian coal industry sells out not just Australians, but also sells out our Pacific Island neighbours who did little to cause the climate crisis and have few resources to cope with the impacts. They face not only the creeping threat of sea level rise but also stronger and more devastating cyclones. When Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu in 2015 with wind speeds never before experienced there, it caused loss and damage worth US$600m – 64% of Vanuatu’s GDP. In just one storm.
Solidarity for vulnerable countries dealing with extreme climate impacts was one of the key outcomes expected of the Madrid meeting. In the example of Cyclone Pam, Vanuatu received international support of 10% of the costs. The rest was left for the Vanuatu government and subsistence farmers and fisherpeople to deal with. This is typical of extreme climate disasters around the world. It is not only deeply unfair (after all, these countries did not cause the climate crisis), it will also likely eventually result in a series of failed states.
Vulnerable countries desperately need more funds to help them cope. Yet the Australian government stymied and blocked, joining the United States in ensuring that any progress was the smallest possible, tiny and incremental. Nothing like what vulnerable people need.
This lack of responsibility for the climate crisis filled me with despair. The Australian government scored a zero for climate policy in a global ranking of countries released at the Madrid summit. They should also rate a zero for compassion and a zero for international citizenship. The climate crisis will get worse – past emissions have baked heating into the system; and unless we radically transform our economy to clean energy it will get inconceivably worse. Unless we act together as a community we face polarisation and extremism. A situation which works for no one, not even the coal billionaires.
This is the first annual climate summit where the general mood was panic and climate grief. It’s the first COP where I’ve seen tears in meetings and the corridors at the terrible impotence of not knowing how to grasp the power back from the big polluters.
The ray of hope is the youth, demanding their future back. The rest of us have a responsibility to join them, to back their calls however we can. Force our government to show compassion. Demand genuine climate action. We can do this. Other governments are – New Zealand is showing us up. It is our government that is failing us, failing our neighbours, failing our youth. We’ve got no choice but to demand they act, and refuse to give up until they do. See you at a youth-led climate rally soon.
• Julie-Anne Richards is executive director of Climate Action Network Australia