The Politics of Climate Change

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The massive fires in Australia may be under control, but anger from the summer still simmers across the country. A scorched countryside and an ecological disaster are bringing together thousands of displeased concerned citizens to march on Australian capital cities. The masses blasting the lack of action on the climate crisis and demanding that those in charge offer change. The conservative party currently holds political leadership in Australia and many of the country’s citizens are upset with the governments downplay the threat of climate change.

“It’s
kind of heartbreaking to see that they’re still not taking it seriously,” said
Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a climate scientist with a focus on extreme weather
events. “We’ve been talking about climate change for longer than I’ve been
researching, maybe even longer than I’ve been alive, and it seems like it’s
falling on deaf ears.”

There’s been no shortage of those in Australia in recent years.

Scott
Morrison, Australia’s current prime minister, has been the target of much of
the criticism during and after the climate change-fueled fires.

“I
think recently there has been a lot of criticism of the prime minister for not
taking leadership,” said climate science communicator David Holmes. “He went on
holiday during one of the crucial times for the fires when he received a lot of
criticism. And I think people link that rightly or wrongly to perhaps him not
caring about what’s happening with climate change.”

The
global issue has been morphed into a political divide in recent decades.

“I
think it’s been made political by lobby groups that have been made for keeping
things as they are. Business as usual but also groups that sew a lot of doubt
about whether climate change is even real,” explained Holmes.

The
shift in the beliefs in Australia have been recent, and climate scientist
Michael Mann noted the change with the current administration.

“Australia,
which historically has not been aligned with those sort of climate
change-denying petrostates, finds itself currently with a prime minister who
has sided with other climate denialists. They now have a prime minister who
denies that climate change is real and has done everything to actually block
progress and acting on climate,” Mann added.

Perkins-Kirkpatrick says she also noticed the transformation in the government’s viewpoint of climate change.

“The
government now has changed from climate change is crap which is what the
previous PM has said. They’re like, it’s happening now but our emissions won’t
do much to affect that. They’re coming halfway to the table. They’re
admitting there’s a problem but they’re still refusing to fix the long-term
solution: the economy and coal. That’s what it comes down to, we will lose too
many jobs.”

Coal
is a pillar of the Australian economy. It’s the world’s largest exporter of the
rock, which is mined in every state in the country.

In
2018, more than 500 million tons of coal was extracted. As a lead in the coal
industry, the rock annually rakes in $46 billion dollars on exports. Coal
supplies almost a quarter of the world’s primary energy but is burned to do so.
As a result, 40 percent of fossil fuel emissions around the globe are from
coal. 

The
cost of climate change, on the other hand, is expected to rise to $26.7 billion
annually by the year 2050.

Coal
and serious climate change action simply cannot coexist. However, experts
explain that the economic void of coal could be filled by a transition into the
renewable energy sector.

“The
division is really today about climate change versus the economy,” Holmes said.
“We depend a lot on extraction industries and fossil fuels are a really big
part of our economies. And so that really does affect the politics and it
muddies the waters as far as being able to have clear action on climate change
but I think any government in Australia is kind of very heavily tied to the
problem that the fossil fuel industry is a big part of Australia’s economy and
the extractive industry is really big so they’re often walking this sort of
tightrope between listening to people’s concerns but also thinking about doing
the right thing for the economy.”

Experts
stress that the longer Australia’s economy relies on coal production, the worse
it will make its own climate crisis in the short and long term.

The
conversation often revolves around how much it will cost to do something about
climate change, but many are now seeing that it will cost far more not do
something about climate change. The economic impacts from this season’s
bushfire have had a trickledown effect.

“The
smoke affected businesses. Businesses were closed for days on end. It affected
people’s health. I don’t think it’s an option for us not to do anything,” said
climate scientist Sophie Lewis. “It also affected people’s bottom line. The
argument between sides is divided by dollar signs. With so much money at stake,
there are plenty of sources that help fuel climate disinformation.”

 “Australians
are quite divided on climate change,” Holmes said.

“I
think part of that is there’s quite a strong climate denial lobby group here.
And sometimes the media is a bit divided. The newspaper groups are
questioning whether climate change exists and really throwing a lot of doubt
about climate change. Some papers have been in denial and some news outlets
about how serious the problem is because it means for many that things are
going to have to change. Some people don’t want to hear change, so those
newspapers were delivering to their audiences as sort of a story where it’s
really not climate change, it must be something else.”

Holmes
added that the longer these stories dominate news cycles, then the more you are
putting the population of your country at risk.

Climate change denialism was on full display during these blazes as the arson falsely being played up as the main instigator.

“Those
things have been fact-checked since and shown to be quite exaggerated and
really what shines through or what is the dominating factor is climate change,”
Holmes said.

Deputy
Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service has stressed that the
world would not be watching Australia in flames if it wasn’t for lightning
strikes. 

Those
who know most about the state of our climate have stressed that moving forward
and making changes depends on educating the public. 

“We
listen to experts for almost anything else, right?” questioned ecological
geneticist Madeleine van Oppen. “When a car breaks down, we go to an expert to
have it fixed. When we are sick, we go to a doctor who’s trained. So,
why not believe the experts when it comes to climate change.”

“I
think what’s happening in Australia is there’s a lot more concern about climate
change particularly because people are noticing more and more extreme weather.
And they’re noticing it out their window,” Holmes said.

“We
can argue about what caused this or about what caused that but at the same time
we really just have to be focusing on all the positive changes we can make to
how we leave in this environment for our children,” Lewis added.

The political landscape of climate change isn’t only changing in Australia but also the conversation is changing across the country – and in South Florida.

From the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to South Florida’s coral reefs, climate change is taking a toll on marine life around the world. NBC 6 Meteorologist Angie Lassman reports.

“Climate
change is here.  It’s real.  We have to mitigate it – meaning that we
have to stop polluting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide emissions. And we
also have to start adapting,” said former Republican U.S. representative Carlos
Curbelo.

Curbelo
says he noticed the change of tune amongst his peers.

“The
conversation is changing rapidly. When I got to Congress in 2015, Republicans
did not even want to address climate change. They did not want to utter
those words climate and change together. Today, those are starting to take this
seriously and that’s good news for anyone who wants to get this solved.” 

Curbelo
explains why the change is finally happening, “number one, the science – every
day it’s more compelling. Every day this is less of a debate and we see what
the real life impacts of climate change are.” The younger generation may be
forcing some of this as well. “The other things that have changed are the
politics – this young generation of millennials that are starting to register
to vote.. They all want to see the government address climate change and the
environment in a meaningful way” 

Curbelo
remains optimistic in his party moving forward.

“Five
years ago, I arrived in Congress and this issue was dead. It had no
life. Today, it’s a discussion. I know we’re in a much better place than
we were a few years ago.

However,
not everyone is optimistic with the current United States administration
rolling back numerous climate regulations and withdrawing from the Paris Climate
Agreement.

“Unfortunately,
the current administration has shown no interest in acting on climate change
and working with our international partners to solve this problem. Instead,
Trump has filled his administration with fossil fuel and energy lobbyists who
run their energy and environmental policy and it’s pretty clear that they have
no interest in actually doing something about climate change,” Mann. 

“Well,
the president has certainly used rhetoric that contradicts, counters any effort
to meaningfully address carbon pollution, even the most prominent denialist,
which has been the president – is starting to evolve on this issue,” Curbelo
added. 

Many
wonder what the tipping point will be. Mann says “at some point we have to ask,
what is going to take? What is it going to take to get our policy makers to do
something about this problem, to stop listening to fossil fuel interests
who fund their campaigns actually?” 

Curbelo says at the end of the day, “this is not a political issue. This is a human issue and we all have to solve it.”


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