In 1969, a Union Oil drilling platform ten kilometres off the coast of Santa Barbara, a small tourist town in California, had a drilling hole blow-out and, over the next ten days, eight million litres of oil sludge spilt into the ocean, most of it landing on nearby beaches.
At the time, it was the largest environmental
oil spillage in the United States, only surpassed by subsequent Exxon Valdez
spills in 1989 and Deepwater Horizon in 2010. The spillage had a significant
impact on the local wildlife, killing over 3,500 seabirds and other marine
animals, and creating ongoing hazards for the citizens of Santa Barbara over
the next decade.
Newly-elected US President, Richard Nixon, not
noted for any environmental credentials, and barely mentioning the environment
during the 1968 election campaign, saw enough of a political opportunity in the
spillage to claim: “preserving the beauty and the natural resources are so
important to any kind of society that we want for the future. I don’t think we
have paid enough attention to this. We are going to do a better job than we
have done in the past.”
Nixon used the Santa Barbara oil spill as
leverage to push forward an agenda to reduce pollution, an agenda which gave
rise to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
President Richard Nixon with workers cleaning up the oily beach at Santa Barbara in March 1969.
While it’s stretching a long bow to suggest Nixon was an environmentalist—he was, after all, simply following the electorate’s heightened concern about quality of air and water pollution—he did show right-of-centre politics can engage with environmental concerns, even if Republican Presidents since Nixon—Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush, George W. Bush and now Donald Trump—have repealed much environmental legislation since that time, as well as deregulating the EPA.
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Former British Prime Minister, Margaret
Thatcher, had a brief dalliance with environmental issues in the late 1980s, when
she outlined the effects of global warming, acid rain and pollution, to the
Royal Society in 1988 and, in a 1989 address to the United Nations, stressed the
importance of international legislation to manage and limit the world’s
Although Thatcher never acted upon any
environmental legislation in the UK, and her brief appearance in the field of
environmental politics had more to do with the rising Green vote across
Europe—14.9 per cent of the vote in the 1989 UK European Parliament election—it
was, nevertheless, another instance of conservative political leaders engaging with
environmental issues, even if they were only looking for political opportunities
or mouthing platitudes without an intention of addressing the serious climate
issues confronting them. But at least Thatcher made an attempt.
Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, doesn’t
even offer the semblance of concerning himself with climate change. He is,
after all, the one who brought in a large piece of coal into the House of
Representatives, a symbol of his climate change denialism and emphasising the
point that he is firmly in the ledger of the minerals and petroleum industries,
the largest donors to the federal Liberal Party. And to support these
industries, Morrison will stretch and fabricate every piece of data to claim Australia
is achieving all of its targeted climate goals, even if these claims are far
from the truth.
In September, Morrison addressed the United Nations and attacked global critics of his Government’s lack of action on climate change, claiming Australia had “overachieved on its 2020 Kyoto protocol targets” and would reduce “greenhouse gas emissions to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030”. These are clearly fabrications, as every key indicator shows Australia will not reach its 2020 Kyoto targets, and is unlikely to reach the 2030 Paris Agreement, unless significant policy changes are made.
This LNP Government is not for turning
Climate change is anathema to the contemporary
Liberal–National Party, and Morrison is even prepared to junk the environment
at the expense of burning communities. While it is the case in emergencies such
as bushfires and floods, there is not much for a prime minister to do in practical
terms—putting out the fires once they’ve commenced is a task for state and
territory authorities—there is still a great deal the federal Government can do
in implementing long-term solutions to minimise the chance of bushfires
occurring and, at the least, implement shorter-term solutions to manage crises
when they do occur.
One person who did want to discuss these
shorter-term issues is Greg Mullens. Not many people might have heard about
Mullens, but he is a highly respected expert in bushfire and natural disaster
management strategies and was the Commissioner for Fire & Rescue NSW. He
also has a strong international reputation, working with fire regulatory bodies
in the US, Canada, France and Spain, and representing Australia on the United
Nations International Search & Rescue Advisory Committee.
In April this year, Mullens delivered a letter to
the Prime Minister on behalf of 23 former fire emergency leaders and the
Climate Action Group, requesting a meeting to discuss fire management
strategies, such as the purchase of a fleet of larger water-bombers and introducing
specialised fire retardants, in the belief—proven to be correct—there was a
great danger of imminent and severe fires, and a national approach was required
to deal with this danger, if and when it occurred.
For the past seven months since the delivery of
that letter, Morrison has refused to meet with Mullens, or any other former
fire emergency leaders, and Government ministers such as Jason Falinski have
claimed the Prime Minister is a “very busy man” and too busy to set aside the
time to discuss climate change and fire management issues.
Obviously, the May election would have taken up a great deal of the Prime Minister’s time, formulating his new Ministry and creating a pathway towards the next federal election due in 2022. However, these are some of the other events that have clearly taken up Scott Morrison’s time:
- In October, he was the thirteenth man for the Prime Minister’s XI
in an all-day cricket game against Sri Lanka in Canberra.
- Early in the same month, Morrison was in Fiji running water for the
Australian rugby league team, as well as placing the kicking tee into the
ground for one of the team members.
- A few weeks ago, Morrison attended the Constellation Cup netball
game between Australia and New Zealand in Perth, taking selfies and chatting
with the public during half-time.
- In September, Morrison attended the AFL Grand Final, another
Scott Morrison had more than enough time to run the water for the Australian rugby league team in Fiji, but no time at all to meet fire emergency leaders to discuss climate change.
Some of these events, of course, we’d expect
the Prime Minister to attend, but others are overt media opportunities and
personal sports fetishes. Prime ministers do devote all of their time to
matters of state and some leeway has to be provided, but if there’s enough time
for a seven-hour game of cricket, or being the water boy in a meaningless two-hour
game of rugby in Fiji, surely there would be time to schedule a one-on-one meeting
with one of the most pre-eminent members of the fire emergency community.
A prime minister needs to consult with a broad
range of people and interests group to develop the best policies and the best
solutions in the best interests of the Australian community. Neglecting to meet
with the Climate Action Group is a serious oversight and, in the wake of these
bushfires—currently burning in every Australian state and territory—this is verging
on criminal negligence.
While it could be argued that whether Morrison
did or didn’t meet with Mullens is immaterial—any substantial outcomes from
such a meeting would take many months to formulate the processes, protocols and
budgets, and procurement would take up to a year from international providers—there
are other decisions made by government that do have a material impact on the
In New South Wales, the Liberal Government cut the
capital expenditure budget of Fire & Rescue NSW by $28 million, and the NSW
Rural Fire Service by $50 million in the 2019/20 NSW Budget—a total of $78 million.
This compares to the $729 million allocated to the demolition and rebuild of
the Sydney Football Stadium at Moore Park, and $810 million for the revamp of
the Olympic Park Stadium at Homebush in Sydney’s west.
When questioned about the significant cost of
rebuilding two sports stadiums in Sydney—taking into account the Olympic Park
Stadium is less than 20 years old—NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the state
could afford the vast amounts, due to the ‘better economic management of the
Coalition’ over the past eight years. Apparently, the coffers are so
overflowing that $1.5 billion for an unwarranted and needless rebuild of two
Sydney-centric sports projects can easily be found, but critical fire services
need to be cut by $78 million to make ends meet.
Something doesn’t quite add up here.
A vexed history
Climate change has been a vexed issue for many
governments over many years, and despite the many warnings for at least the
past forty years from a wide range of experts, analysts, environmentalists and
business leaders, little has been achieved.
The first substantial international report of
global warming appeared in 1972. The Club of Rome, formed in 1968 and comprised
of former heads of state, United Nations bureaucrats, politicians, government
officials, diplomats, scientists, economists and business leaders, released The Limits To Growth.
The main premise of this report is economic
growth cannot continue indefinitely because of resource depletion over time,
and it introduced ‘problématique’,
the understanding that the issues of environmental deterioration, poverty,
endemic ill-health, urban blight and criminality needed to solved collectively,
not in isolation, and urgent and quick resolutions had to be made to avoid the
collapse of the global system by the year 2050.
There was also an expectation—unrealistic as it
turned out—that by the year 2020, the international community would have
reached global consensus in introducing a raft of mitigating measures, such as
emissions reduction and carbon trading schemes, lead reduction in petrol, and
elimination of toxic wastage into water supplies.
The second major report published by the Club
of Rome, The First Global Revolution,
appeared in 1991. Its main concern was that since its first report nineteen years
earlier, little had been achieved politically and practically, although it
recognised there was a greater awareness of global warming among political
leaders in the 1980s.
Again, it forewarned that action on global
warming and reducing carbon into the atmosphere was imperative and the world
had a 30-year time limit to commence meaningful action, even though it also considered
that by 2020, it could be too late to halt irreversible damage to the
environment and the world community.
It also pointed out the world community would
need to manage the effects of this irreversible global warning and increases in
catastrophic weather events such as floods, extreme temperature shifts and
hazardous unseasonal fires.
In Australia, climate change and global warming
has transitioned from an environmental issue; through to a ‘moral’ issue in
2007, according to former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd; and now, 47 years after
the first warnings issued by the Club of Rome, it has morphed in a political
issue played by conservative politicians, satisfied to reap the rewards of divisive
debate and a divided community, while the rest of the country burns.
Leaders fiddle, the world burns
Ever since he became a member of Parliament in
2007, Scott Morrison has never shown any intention in implementing
climate-based solutions or any interest in global warming.
Fires burning in regional New South Wales.
While Morrison might be the ultimate marketing
man, he displays the ultimate in political cowardice. At the height of the
bushfires, he virtually disappeared from the public arena for three days,
finally appearing at Sydney Airport at a Friday-morning corporate event,
welcoming a Qantas Dreamliner long-distance flight from London. The fires were
still burning, but the media interest had dropped off, and Morrison felt it was
safe to appear in public again.
Of course, the Prime Minister disappearing while
the fires were raging around the country was a politically sensible act. Brand
‘Morrison’ is the winning brand and travelling to areas where he was likely to be
abused by victims of the bushfires and asked too many uncomfortable questions
about climate change, always had the potential to damage his brand.
Appearing at a Qantas airport promotion, where no one was going to ask climate change questions, or enquire about the symbolism of the amount of emissions generated by that long-distance flight—incidentally, about one tonne of CO2 emissions per passenger—was always going to be the safe option.
At the end of this week, 1.7 million hectares
have been burnt across Australia—mainly on the eastern seaboard—476 homes have
been lost, and four people have died. As a comparison, the Amazon fires that
spread through Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay burnt through 900,000
hectares; and the recent fires in California burnt 100,000 hectares.
The responses from the three leaders in these
regions have been equally bizarre and dismissive: US President Donald Trump’s
response to the California fires was to threaten cuts to federal funding and reiterate
his belief that there is no link between the fires and climate change. In
response to the Amazon fires, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro accused
environmental groups of starting the fires and refused all international
assistance offered from a wide range of countries.
Locally, Scott Morrison has largely retracted
himself from the bushfires, aside from the obligatory sending of ‘thoughts and
prayers’ to the victims, the common response of leaders so bereft of ideas,
they have little else to offer.
Before Morrison disappeared from the public view
for three days, he did ask for the debate to be taken “down a few notches” and
claimed that now was not the time to talk about the links between the bushfires
and climate change, or to engage in political point-scoring.
Politicising the bushfires, of course, was left to Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack and National MP Barnaby Joyce, who incorrectly laid the blame for the bushfires on Greens policies and inner-city activists: Joyce humiliating himself further by claiming the two people who died near the NSW town of Glenn Innes “most likely” voted for the Greens, and he rightly received the opprobrium from most of the Australian community for even suggesting this as a factor.
Climate change is an issue that will not be
disappearing any time soon. And managing the effects that result from a lack of
action on climate change—unseasonal and more frequent flood and fire events—is
an area that needs to be managed by government effectively.
Scott Morrison cannot simply defer the debate
about climate change by claiming ‘today is not the day’, or just shrugging his
shoulders and saying: “I’m going to leave that debate for another day”, a
statement he made on a recent visit to the drought-stricken region of Quilpie
in western Queensland.
The Liberal–National Party has been in office
for seventeen of the past 23 years, and a succession of prime ministers—John
Howard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and now, Scott Morrison—have done little
to address climate change issues. Morrison should be wearing the blame of these
bushfires like a crown of thorns, and hammered until he provides effective
responses to the crisis and takes on responsibility.
Today is the
day to talk about climate change.