Just over a month ago, the earth’s atmosphere passed a significant milestone. Carbon dioxide levels measured above 400ppm at Mauna Loa Observatory, which means they are so consistently high now that they will never again fall below that level in our lifetimes. But so what? It’s just the latest in a series of statistics that seem to have no influence over policy debate in Australia.
The day the 400ppm threshold broke, a storm hit South Australia. A mid-latitude cyclone, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, it caused widespread damage and major flooding. Winds were so powerful that twisters formed and tore through a town not far from mine. We had a hundred millimetres of rain in twenty-four hours, and then we had it again. The river that I can usually cross in a single short-cut step became a raging torrent.
Power went out across the state. Here in the mid north, the blackout lasted twenty-four hours (in Adelaide it was around six). It took less than two for SA Senator Nick Xenophon to jump to the conclusion – incorrect, as it turned out – that wind generation was to blame for the power outage. One by one, confused politicians leapt on what they thought was a story.
Since the closure of Alinta’s Northern power station at Port Augusta in May, South Australia has been coal free. We’re an experiment in renewable energy at scale, and setting aside a single extreme weather event, it’s an experiment that has been working. SA generates around 40 per cent of our power from wind, and at 28.8 per cent of households has one of the highest uptakes of domestic solar PV in the world. It looks as though we’ll meet our official 2025 renewables target of 50 per cent sometime next year. These are facts that should be celebrated.
But in the weeks since the storm, the ‘debate’ about energy has been dismal. Malcolm Turnbull criticised the states for ‘extremely aggressive, extremely unrealistic’ clean energy targets (stopping just short of asking us to smash our solar panels). Federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan thought the Northern power station, which is already being decommissioned, could be switched back on. Minister for the Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg has used the term ‘energy security’ to cloak unscientific opinions about ‘base load’ generation. Premier Jay Weatherill has stood by SA’s record on renewables, but was spooked enough by the politics to move the goalposts of his own energy tender to favour gas generators.
Many have been so eager to point fingers at wind farms that they missed the significance of the storm itself.
Of course, it’s impossible to say whether a specific weather event was directly caused by climate change. But at the local level, we know something’s shifting. Seasons that could once be thought of as cyclic are changing fast and happening less predictably. In my region, farmers are already adapting their land use practices to meet these changing weather patterns. We don’t know how often we’ll have to cope with these ‘once-in-50-year storms’ in future. Resilience has to be built into the system at the level at which we live. We know it’s too late to prevent some warming. We’re working on adaptation.
Why are our representatives so slow to catch up? Since long before the closure of the Northern Power station in May, local groups like Repower Port Augusta have been campaigning for a solar thermal plant for the town, which (unlike gas) will provide hundreds of jobs for years to come. But without funding, the uncertainty is dragging out. With the long-expected shutdown of Hazelwood announced last week, we’re about to watch the same inept drama unfold in Victoria. Energy security and job security don’t mean coal anymore, and they haven’t for years. As the economy shifts inevitably towards renewables, the politics at work are becoming increasingly visible.
Over this past week, I’ve been watching the news roll in from Standing Rock, where protesters are fighting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline: dramatic images of police brutality woven through news of an election campaign where climate has been glaringly absent. Clinton, answering an audience question in the second debate, identified climate change as ‘a serious problem’, but she has also been a long-time supporter of fracking. (Fracked oil is what the Dakota Access Pipeline will carry.) In my newsfeed, a mix of independent and mainstream media, the images of the election and the images of #noDAPL sit side by side but never seem to interact, like an illustration of the chasm between climate policy and climate reality.
The militarisation of the police presence at the campaign has brought scrutiny from Amnesty and UN observers. Standing Rock Sioux chairman David Archambault asked the Department of Justice to investigate the ‘strong-arm tactics, abuses and unlawful arrests by law enforcement’.
Despite the dramatic images, police brutality is not the story here. The standoff between #noDAPL protesters, or protectors as they call themselves, led by Standing Rock Sioux and organisers from around 200 other First Nations tribes, seems a classic David and Goliath struggle, but it’s also a global one. The #noDAPL campaign has galvanised around the issue of water, which connects people to land, life to life, and Standing Rock to other struggles for water in the US and around the world. The story is the risk to life that fossil fuels place directly on communities, and our right to refuse them.
As Naomi Klein – currently in Australia to deliver the Sydney Peace Prize lecture – pointed out in This Changes Everything, a global climate movement needs just this kind of Indigenous leadership.
‘The exercise of Indigenous rights has played a central role in the rise of the current wave of fossil fuel resistance,’ she writes. As well as being valuable for the high legal authority of land rights, Indigenous worldviews often exemplify the deep culture of stewardship towards which we need to tilt to survive.
Watching the protests unfold in North Dakota, I keep thinking that it’s people like the Standing Rock Sioux who are already our leaders. People like the Adnyamathanha traditional owners who are fighting a proposed nuclear waste dump adjacent to their land near Ikara-Flinders Ranges. I’m not being sentimental here. While MPs recite the status-quo mantra of ‘good for humanity’ coal, some of the most traumatised communities in the world are already picking up the pieces.
On Friday, the Paris Agreement came into force. Australia still hasn’t ratified it – Turnbull could fast-track the treaties process, but the political climate he’s created is hostile. The man who once crossed the floor to support an emissions trading scheme now seems stuck with Direct Action. Our emissions targets are now so woefully inadequate that we go to follow-up talks in Morocco this week expecting heavy criticism. He should be grateful the states are taking up some of the slack.
We’re still cleaning up after the storm. The clumsy spin that whirls through after every natural disaster only serves to highlight the close relationship between policymakers and the fossil fuel industry. Climate change denial isn’t just about denial of the facts; it’s a denial of responsibility. The next question is why our elected representatives appear to be living in a reality so different to our own, and why some seem to be working PR for the fossil fuel industry.
If the statistics keep coming in a blur, the images of glacial melts and permafrosts and temperature changes, the charts and graphs and numbers, and if each one seems like a failure to get through, that could be because the real effect is cumulative. That 400ppm threshold we passed does matter. Taking responsibility for climate change requires measurement, it requires coming to a place where everything changes: our ideas about time, and community, about energy and trust and land and water and seasons and the weather – changes so fundamental that some still find them unthinkable. On the other hand, these tipping points are minuscule, local, individual. Each day we pass many more of them.
Political tipping points happen the same way: first at the level of lived experience, before travelling slowly to the level of governance. I say slowly because there’s a lot of cholesterol in the bloodstream of democracy right now. The trouble is, our realities are already changing. At the level of everyday life, we already weather the storms.