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Australian politics “weaponized” climate policy. Now, a brutal summer of wildfires has put the country on the front lines of a global crisis.   © AAP Image
Cover Story

Australia locked in climate policy 'paralysis' despite summer of fire

Mining exec says 'we're not the bad guys, we're part of the solution'

ARMIDALE, Australia -- A few days before Christmas, Kay Murray was sound asleep at her farmhouse about 100 km south of the Australian capital, Canberra, when the doorbell rang. It was 3 a.m.

Nestled between native forests and several larger pastoral properties, Murray's self-sufficient homestead is at the end of a long driveway, obscured from the main road. The day before had been, in her words, "one of the craziest days I can remember," as she and her husband battled to stave off a series of bushfires raging in the hills surrounding their 200 hectare cattle farm.

Hurrying out of bed, Murray, 67, turned over her worst fears: Had something happened to one of her four children? Was her home about to be engulfed by flames?

On her doorstep was a man with a water truck. He was ready to deliver the 1,000 liters that Murray had ordered the day before.

What, asked a bewildered Murray, was he doing there in the middle of the night? "Better not to ask," the man replied. "Then I won't have to lie to you about where it came from."

Bushfires have raged through rural New South Wales since September 2019, taking over four months to finally come under control.   © Getty Images

This has become the new reality for whole areas of eastern Australia, where years of drought have brought agricultural communities to their knees. Water is so scarce that a simple undertaking, like Murray buying enough to sustain her livestock, can now involve an act of subterfuge. Rumors abound of unscrupulous farmers tapping rivers, draining dams or even stealing water from their neighbors, just to pull through for one more week.

"After three years of no rain, the waiting, the longing for rain, it takes over," said Murray. "It drains you, demoralizes you, leaves you feeling that you cannot go through this again. And I don't think we can ever do this again."

Australia's east has been hit by years of punishing droughts, but nothing could have prepared its farmers for the "Black Summer" of 2019 and 2020. Since September, unprecedented bushfires have swept across the region. At least 34 people have died, and around 6,000 buildings have been destroyed. The toll on the country's flora and fauna has been unimaginable: 18.6 million hectares burned, and up to a billion animals killed. The economic damage is still to be tallied, but early forecasts put the cost at more than 100 billion Australian dollars ($67 billion). Some fires are still burning.

"It's frightening," Matt Kean, energy and environment minister for New South Wales, the state most affected by the fires, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "And this is the new normal, unfortunately. This is what the scientists told us would happen."

For many observers, the Black Summer has underlined Australia's -- and the world's -- vulnerability to climate change, and given a stark reminder of the cost of inaction. Australia is the highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases in the OECD. Even though the country has signed international treaties pledging to reduce its carbon footprint, its emissions have risen further over the past few years.

The cost of Australia's "Black Summer" is still being counted, with early estimates at more than $100 billion Australian dollars.   © Reuters

Backed by a powerful coal lobby and urged on by the right-wing press, successive governments have defied the international scientific consensus on global heating and represented "greenies" as an existential threat to the country's export-driven economy. They have, in Kean's words, "weaponized" climate change, binding it up with the politics of identity and Australia's culture wars.

The fires that are still raging should have been a reckoning, driving the Liberal government to some introspection about the shape of the Australian economy. Instead, they seem to have driven Canberra back into a familiar partisan shouting match.

"In Australia, we're still debating whether climate change is real," Kean said. "There has been policy paralysis in dealing with this for the last decade, and it's absolutely urgent that we move past that."

'The real Australia'

Commercial agriculture is the wellspring of Australia's foundation myths, and "frontier" culture is still palpably strong in rural towns like Armidale, more than 450 km north of Sydney. Like so many towns of a certain age, Armidale, the regional capital of the New England area, is full of cultural reminders of the country's colonial past.

In the park, the city's hub, a World War I memorial is inscribed with faraway places where Australia's troops once fought on behalf of the British sovereign -- Mesopotamia, Palestine, Egypt, Gallipoli. Among the names listed are Bourke, Kennedy, Simpson and Watson, Anglo-Celtic settler families that Australia's most celebrated poets such as A.B. "Banjo" Paterson and Henry Lawson shaped into the brawny heroes of their iconic bush ballads, paying tribute to the life of hardship and adventure of drovers and shearers.

"That's who we are; this here is the real Australia," said Libby Martin, Armidale's deputy mayor, sitting at a park table just a few meters from the war memorial. "We are farmers who produce the best meat in the world, the best food in the world, and that is what Australia does best."

Martin was born into one New England farming family and married into another. She now runs a 4,500 hectare cattle and sheep ranch with her husband and three children. They have just survived the driest period she can remember -- years without rain that turned rolling hills of green pasture into dust. The family was forced to cut their sheep numbers from 6,000 to 3,000, and go from 900 head of cattle to 400.

The past two decades have been brutal for Australia's farmers, even by the standards of a landscape that has always delivered punishing cycles of drought and flood. The so-called Millennium Drought, supposedly a once-in-a-century event, began in 2000 and lasted 10 years. Cotton and rice harvests collapsed, and livestock numbers plummeted. Australia's sheep population was halved to 72.7 million, the lowest since 1905, while the number of dairy cows fell by a quarter. The federal government has spent AU$8 billion in direct support to farmers since 2001.

Communities barely had time to recover before an even harsher dry spell hit in 2017. This time, scientists said it was the worst in 400 years.

Scientists have warned that this is Australia's future. The 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review, commissioned by then-opposition leader Kevin Rudd, predicted that a rise in global average temperatures of 2 C is likely to result in more frequent and more severe droughts. Greater temperature rises could make existing farmland unsustainable, leaving behind a hollowed-out rural interior and a thin but crowded urban corridor clinging to the country's edge.

But even after living through years of worsening conditions, Martin is not convinced that climate change is the cause.

"Certainly, I don't think we are helping the climate, but weather cycles and climate change are how the world rolls," she said. "I, personally, feel that climate change has become something of a catchphrase."

Panicked horses run through a property near Australia's capital of Canberra.   © Getty Images

She is not alone. About 50 km away, outside the much smaller town of Guyra -- population around 2,000 -- lives Geoff Bell, 65, the fifth generation of his family to take over Killarney, a homestead named after the southwestern Irish town of Bell's ancestors.

"I had no rain, not a drop, for two years," said Bell. "A drought like this -- it finishes people off, wipes them out. I saw men, big men, break down crying at the sale yards as they were forced to give up their last sheep and cows. It's heartbreaking."

Never married, and childless, Bell admits that he is one of the lucky ones. "I've spent [AU]$1.2, $1.3 million on hay the last two years, just to keep my animals alive. Not many people can afford that, and I'm down to my last breeding ewes, about 30 of them -- that's all of I've got left. This drought literally turned my hair gray."

And for the first time in his life, this summer has forced Bell to contend with the additional threat of bushfires. "In the evening, it would be glowing red on that horizon over there," he said, pointing northward.

But despite the harshness of the last years, Bell remains unconvinced that climate change is even real.

"I've never really believed in global warming," he said. "These are just natural cycles, that's the way I see it, and I reckon most of us around here don't believe in it either."

New England's representative in the federal parliament is Barnaby Joyce, the firebrand former leader of the conservative National Party that currently governs in coalition with the larger, urban-centric Liberal Party. In an interview with Nikkei, he said that he does not think his constituents really refuse to believe in climate change.

"If you give them a couple of beers, you get the truth, once they feel free to change their mind," he said. "And their mind is, yeah, there is a change in the climate, without a shadow of a doubt."

What people in his electorate are not sold on, said Joyce, is the idea it's all the fault of humans, and that Australia should go broke trying to fix it. "So much of what is happening in our climate change debate is dogma, not brains."

'Toxic brew'

The day before Australia's parliament opened on Feb. 4, the skies were clear. But by early evening, the wind had changed, carrying in a pall of smoke from the fires in the surrounding countryside which hung over the city for much of the next day. Speaking in the first session of the year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressed the crisis in lyrical terms.

"Fires that jumped rivers and highways; fires where days became night and the night sky turned red; and fires that raged into the heavens as clouds of fire, with it all a merciless smoke that lingered across our cities," he said.

Morrison has been a consistent opponent of climate change legislation and a cheerleader for Australia's mining industry, once bringing a lump of coal into the House of Representatives and telling lawmakers: "Don't be scared. It won't hurt you." However, it was a previous leader of the party, Tony Abbott, who is widely blamed for amplifying existing disputes over climate policy, and deploying them as an ideological weapon.

German tourists take a photo before the bushfire haze-shrouded Sydney Harbor Bridge.   © Getty Images

In 2009, while the Liberals were in opposition to a Labor-led government, Abbott leveraged internal party divides over whether to block an emissions trading scheme to unseat the then-leader, Malcolm Turnbull. In the years that followed, he branded attempts to cut back on carbon emissions and penalize heavy polluters as attacks on Australia's economy. The ETS scheme, he said, was "a tax on everything."

Ending it was a pillar of Abbott's economic pitch in the 2013 election, which the Liberal-National coalition won. On entering government, they immediately moved to repeal the carbon tax, and then to undo a "super-profits" tax on mining that the previous government had introduced in 2012.

"Tony Abbott's government, and sections of business, were able to turn what otherwise could have been a rational debate on carbon pricing into a toxic political brew," said Ben Oquist, executive director of the Australia Institute, an independent think tank based in Canberra. "So much so that, almost a decade later, it seems near-impossible for Australia to have a sensible climate policy."

The success of the message is partly explained by the structure of Australia's economy. Mining and resources make up around 8.5% of gross domestic product and 58% of total exports; coal, iron ore and petroleum gases account for more than 40% of gross export income. Education services, the top non-extractive item, make up less than 6%.

The sheer size of mining's contribution, then, has made it easy to portray anything that threatens miners' profits as a threat to jobs and prosperity.

The industry is "more important to the Australian economy than any other Western economy in the world except Norway," said Saul Eslake, a respected Australian economist. "Mining and resources companies exercise a degree of political influence that you would expect, given their size."

The mining industry spends heavily on lobbying. Research released in February by the Australian Conservation Foundation, a climate lobby group, found that donations to the major parties by fossil fuel companies grew from AU$894,336 in 2015-16 to AU$1.9 million in 2018-19.

The influence of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which owns around 60% of Australia's print circulation as well as the 24-hour cable and satellite channel Sky News Australia, has also played a role. News Corp. outlets have long denied the existence of anthropogenic climate change, and have been loud backers of the Liberals' agenda.

Abbott was eventually deposed as prime minister by Turnbull, who in turn was replaced by Morrison. But the Liberals continued to bang the drum on climate change, making it a front-line issue of Australia's right-left divide, according to Mark Butler, the Labor Party's spokesperson on climate change.

"We, in this building here in Canberra, have shown that we are totally incapable of dealing with anything that has the word 'climate' attached to it," Butler told Nikkei in his Parliament House office. "Every time we get close to agreeing on a bipartisan approach, we've fallen at the last hurdle."

Still, as Butler acknowledges, Labor has problems of its own. After three election losses in a row -- partly because of ambitious environmental policies that turned off the party's blue-collar base -- a growing number of Labor insiders have questioned the wisdom of being painted into a green-left corner.

"Climate change has become the Brexit of Australian politics," said Michael Stutchbury, editor-in-chief of The Australian Financial Review, a daily newspaper. "It is dividing the traditional base of both the major parties."

Along both sides of the divide, climate change has become an issue that can break a politician's career -- meaning that, even with fires burning and the world's attention focused on Australia's climate policy, politicians are still afraid to break ranks. Even as public anger rises about the government's response to the fires, and as voices across the political spectrum clamor for action, Australian politics remains ossified.

Morrison is already facing a backlash. His visits to fire-ravaged towns showed a man failing to connect with distressed communities. The first Newspoll of the new year published in The Australian newspaper revealed that Morrison's personal ratings had tanked as a result of his handling of the crisis.

"There is a massive recognition that people are sick of the way politics is being done right now," said Ralph Ashton, founder of the Australian Futures Project, a think tank. "And it's the job of the current crop of politicians to rectify that across the political divide."

"Climate change has become the Brexit of Australian politics"

Michael Stutchbury, editor-in-chief of The Australian Financial Review

With public anger also being directed against mining companies, some within Australia's business community are calling for compromise.

Leigh Clifford is the former CEO of Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, one of the world's most powerful mining corporations, and served as chairman of Australia's national carrier Qantas Airways from 2007 to 2018.

"I think everyone recognizes that there is merit in moving to a lower carbon-intensive energy generation -- and I say lower, not necessarily zero, certainly not in the short term," he said in an interview in his office at the top end of Melbourne's Collins Street, the traditional home of the city's business elite. "But we've got to manage the transition economically, and we've got to do that in a fashion that it doesn't crater key industries."

Clifford suggested that Australia could leverage its highly educated workforce to try to move into more knowledge-intensive industries, but that a wholesale transition is not realistic in the immediate future.

"Australia needs to play to its strengths, and it's got to build on those as well as tackle other opportunities," he said.

Some hours later, Clifford joined several hundred others at Melbourne's Town Hall for the 113th lunchtime gathering of the Melbourne Mining Club, where Clifford is the co-convenor, to listen to an address by Peter Bradford, the Tesla-driving, solar power enthusiast who heads Australian copper and nickel miner IGO.

"We're not the bad guys -- we are part of the solution," Clifford told the audience in an auditorium that once hosted The Beatles. "We will need these metals to create the future that we all want," he said, referring to the copper and nickel ingredients that are essential in the batteries that power green energy.

But among these signs of a change in tone, in an industry that has for so long opposed even the most basic acknowledgment of climate science, were demonstrations that old attitudes die hard.

Approached after the Mining Club lunch, co-convenor Hugh Morgan -- the former CEO of storied Australian resources company Western Mining Corp., former president of the Business Council of Australia and still a major power broker inside the Liberal Party -- offered Nikkei a bare-knuckled rejoinder to the suggestion that climate change had anything to do with Australia's summer of fire.

"It's crap, it's crap," he said. "It's got f--- all to do with it."

The cycle turns

Soon after the turn of the new year, steady rain began to fall over New England, and across eastern Australia. So much rain has fallen over the past few weeks that the dams are finally filling up, grass is growing again and rivers that had run dry have started to flow. Although the fire season has a long way to go, the rain has also helped to contain and even extinguish most of the blazes.

With the drought's end, farmer Geoff Bell is doubling down on the land. Along with five other New England businesspeople, he is investing in a AU$90 million meat-processing facility and industrial zone on his property outside Guyra. The abattoir's freezers will be run on solar power during daylight hours.

"It will take me a long, long time to get over the past few years," he said. "But that's the cycle, and good times follow bad."

An animal rescuer carries a burned kangaroo, injured by bushfires, in Peak View, New South Wales.   © Getty Images

Back in Canberra, there are some signs of change, and other signs of old political patterns. In February, the federal government announced it was supporting two new power plants in Queensland: one hydroelectric, the other coal-fired. "Transition" has become the new watchword -- away from coal and toward renewables. In January, the government signed a AU$2 billion agreement with New South Wales to help wean the state off fossil fuels.

"What this requires is leadership," said Kean, the state's environment minister, who says that the economics of climate change are moving under the federal government's feet. "Instead of stoking fears, and using climate change and the environment as a weapon, what we need are people who understand the reality, are prepared to explain that reality, and stand up to the misinformation being peddled by deniers and vested interests -- and that can explain the opportunities that are actually available to Australia."

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