by David Feith
We are facing so many problems. The problems seem overwhelming, so it is easier to ignore them.
Climate change is an over-arching issue impacting on people all over the world, but in different ways. In India ‘Extreme weather events’ means heavier, more frequent, less predictable monsoon rains; in the Philippines more powerful and destructive typhoons; in Australia longer, more destructive bushfire seasons, droughts and floods.
Many of us find the Climate emergency difficult to comprehend: the physical challenges, and the political quicksand. Australia’s two major political parties have failed miserably to respond to the Climate emergency. The Liberal-National Coalition still has within it dinosaur climate deniers, who seem to hold some power (Why? It’s beyond comprehension!!!). Some of the things they say indicate they have no understanding of the reality confronting us.
The Australian Labor Party (ALP), acted in the national interests when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister; when they worked cooperatively with the Greens and independents to legislate a price on carbon in 2011. That was a historic, positive achievement that should have been built on. Sadly, the aggressive, destructive, misogynist, self-promoting climate denier Tony Abbot came to power with the return of the Coalition, and undid the Gillard government’s positive achievements.
The Australian national treasure, Phillip Adams, likes to quote the famous cellist Pablo Casals. He wrote: “Towards the end of his (almost) 97 years Casals was honoured with a press conference attended by much of Madrid’s media… Having cast a grandfatherly eye over the problems of humanity — so serious in all regards, with crises in the environment, in famine, in disease, financial inequality and human rights — Casals fell silent for a long moment, thinking about his bleak assessment. Then the aphorism. Two sentences that don’t seem to fit together… Yet they seem to me profound, the quintessence of wisdom. “The situation is hopeless. We must take the next step.”” (Adams, 2014).
This rings true. The situation we face is hopeless, in so many ways. There are numerous testaments to the reality of the Climate Emergency, reports by the internationally respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and “1,864 jurisdictions in 33 countries have declared a climate emergency. Populations covered by jurisdictions that have declared a climate emergency amount to over 820 million citizens. In Australia… close to 100 jurisdictions representing 9 million people — over a third of the population — have declared a climate emergency, including the government of the Australian Capital Territory…” (Climate Emergency Declaration, 2021).
These figures demonstrate there is no doubt that we face an emergency, and given the political realities, many feel that the situation is hopeless. However, we must take the next step. What choice do we have? We can pretend it’s not happening, or we can do something.
Recently a conversation took place with the Dalai Lama, Greta Thunberg, Susan Natali, (Arctic Program Director at the Woodwell Climate Research Center), and William Moomaw, (Professor Emeritus of International Environmental Policy at Tufts University and the lead author of several reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) (recorded January 2021). There were some hopeful, and many deeply disturbing aspects to this conversation. One matter discussed was the importance of forests. Forests are extremely important in dealing with climate change, because they reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
William Moomaw, expert on forests, “pointed out that carbon dioxide emissions began to increase after 1750 and the beginnings of industrialization. However, half of all human sourced emissions have taken place since the first climate treaty in 1992. Halting emissions is essential, but to change our trajectory in the direction of a more benign climate, we need to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Forests are the most powerful way to do that.” (Dalai Lama news, 2021). Moomaw suggests that we need to plant more trees and create more forests; more importantly we need to allow all existing forests to continue to grow. Stopping deforestation is one of the most important actions.
In the Tarkine, in Northwest Tasmania, and in other places, old growth forests still exist. However, logging companies are trying to cut them down. In Victoria also, and in other states, companies are still allowed to cut down forests. Governments should forbid this. Only gross negligence, stupidity, or domination by vested interests could allow logging to continue. Self-destructive madness! Is it madness? Is it evil? Is it the failure of our political system? Or all of these?
The old political system in Australia is not responding adequately to the Climate emergency. I used to support the ALP; the Whitlam ALP government in the early 1970s gave me hope. It ended Australian involvement in the US war in Vietnam, introduced free university education, and brought in free health cover: Medibank. It recognised the Aboriginal Gurindji people’s right to land, in response to the Wave Hill stockmen’s strike and an eight year land rights campaign, and introduced many other positive changes. I supported the Whitlam government, and brushed aside my grandfather’s criticisms of financial mismanagement. However that ALP is dead. Gradually over the decades since then, I became disillusioned with the ALP, because when in government, it failed to live up to its promises. In opposition, it failed to oppose.
The political system has failed us. The two major parties have failed to act on the Climate emergency. They have failed to stop deforestation. They have failed to protect the Great Barrier Reef. This is partly because they have no plan, no vision for the future. They are limited by their focus on the next election, and trying to either win power, or stay in power. There is a vacuum instead of political leadership.
Three important examples of how the political system has failed us are Aboriginal rights, refugee rights, and the Climate Emergency.
The destruction of our environment began when the British landed in 1788 and took control of the land. The Aboriginal people who had lived on, and managed the land for some 60,000 years were pushed away, killed, dispossessed, marginalised; their understanding of how to care for the land was ignored, their wisdom and cultures scorned, misunderstood, and outlawed. Governments since then have failed to deal with Aboriginal issues, and our sad history is littered with injustice and broken promises. In 1988 the Hawke ALP government promised land rights and a treaty, but those promises were broken. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was created; then abolished fifteen years later. The Uluru statement from the heart was created in 2017, and was ignored and misunderstood by government leaders. Australia hasn’t recognised and dealt with the facts of its colonial history and dispossession of Aboriginal people. Our political system must address this, and Aboriginal understanding of caring for country could be highly significant in responding to the Climate Emergency.
Refugee policy is another example of political failure, and how it is easy to become disillusioned. Both major Australian parties have been inhumane, harsh, cruel, shameful, morally wrong and in breach of international agreements and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). Australia was a signatory to the UDHR in 1948; Australian Dr Evatt, then head of Australia’s delegation to the UN, William Hodgson, the Australian Ambassador, and Jessie Street, the only woman in Australia’s delegation to the United Nations, supported its drafting and adoption. This Universal Declaration clearly states: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” (Article 14) (Australian Human Rights Commission).
Sadly, it was an ALP government that first breached this right with the ruthless policy of mandatory detention of people who arrived by boat to Australia, in 1992. This controversial policy has been maintained by all governments since then, both Labor and Coalition. Subsequent governments have made the policy harsher, crueller and even more morally repugnant. The two major parties have been like Tweedledee and Tweedledum, trying to out-do each other in being ‘tough on border protection’. This was low politics, appealing to the underlying racism in Australia, and demonised refugees as ‘illegal’.
It is easy to become politically disillusioned. The major political parties have failed miserably on these important issues: Aboriginal rights, Refugee rights and the Climate Emergency. However, as Casals said, “The situation is hopeless. We must take the next step.” What is the next step? There are so many next steps. Everyone can do whatever they are suited to. Next steps can be financial, direct action, cultural, educational, business, political, or combinations of these.
The next step might be to move money from banks that support fossil fuel industries to Bank Australia, an ethical bank. Request that your superannuation fund divests from fossil fuel industries. If it refuses, change superannuation provider. The idea is that we take money away from industries that are damaging the planet. The organisation Market Forces assists people with this process. Our society is based on money, so use your money carefully — if you have a mortgage, who is it with?
The film ‘Wild Things’ (Ingleton, 2020) documents direct action as the next step: people with the Frontline Action on Coal physically stopping work on the proposed Adani coal mine in Queensland; the students involved in the School Strikes for Climate in 2019; and the people protecting the Tarkine forest from logging by physically preventing the trees from being destroyed. Other groups taking direct action include Extinction Rebellion.
Another step is reforestation. We need to grow back our forests. The most effective way is plant trees, then protect and nurture them. We need more trees — but we need seedlings to grow into healthy, mature trees. We need to acknowledge the important role of indigenous animals in the integrity of the soil and forest ecosystems. Tree seedlings must be protected from herbivores (sheep, rabbits, kangaroos, wallabies, hares), and watered through the hot summers, so they survive and grow.
Many next steps are cultural. There is a Climate Choir. Climate Change has inspired songs, films, and a growing genre of Climate Fiction, including Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, which deals with fears about climate change (Kingsolver, 2012), and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, which portrays how climate change will soon affect us all (Robinson, 2020). There is also a huge body of non-fiction dealing with the Climate emergency, e.g., Amitav Ghosh, an excellent writer of historical fiction (particularly his Ibis trilogy), recently wrote The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Ghosh, 2017); Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (Klein, 2014); and Paddy Manning’s Body Count: How Climate Change is Killing Us (Manning, 2020).
The next step is educational: teaching about the Climate Emergency; developing relevant curricula; and talking to other teachers about Climate. Greta Thunberg’s school strikes demonstrate that students understand the need for action. I have taught international students for many years about climate change and in 2019 invited my students to join me at the student strike. For most of them, from various Asian countries, it was their first experience of a demonstration. Perhaps it won’t be their last. Education for all about the Climate Emergency is vital.
For some, the next step is in business, e.g., Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, the Australian businessman who is now investing in renewable energy, and using the 2021 Boyer Lectures to talk about fighting climate change by developing Green Hydrogen.
The next step can be to join the Greens. The Australian Greens reflects the values of its members. There are elected Greens at all levels of government, and they work to bring about the changes we need to address the Climate Emergency.
Many people might combine some of these steps; for some it might be something different. There are many next steps. What is important is to take action. Action is a positive response to hopelessness. ‘The situation is hopeless. We must take the next step’. As Gandhi said “It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.” (Quotations of Mahathma Gandhiji).
Ghosh, A. 2016 The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, University of Chicago press
Kingsolver, B. 2012 Flight Behaviour, HarperCollins
Klein, N. 2014 This Changes Everything, Simon & Schuster
Manning, P. 2020 Body Count: How Climate Change is Killing Us, Simon & Schuster
Robinson, K.S. 2020 The Ministry for the Future, Orbit books
David Feith has worked as a teacher, teaching international students for many years, in Australia and India. Prior to that he worked with international development NGOs for a long time. He has supported the Greens for many years, and joined the party in 2015. He has been actively involved in election campaigns to support Greens candidates in Macnamara (formerly Melbourne Ports), and currently holds the position of Australian Greens International Secretary.