Whose emergency?

You often hear the word ‘inaction’ when people talk about climate policy. Last week, thousands of school students threw excellent shade at pollies while protesting that inaction, demanding far-reaching responses to the climate collapse we are all living through, and that they’ll live through the longest.


Days before the kids went on strike, the UN released a report saying that Australia was on track to miss its Paris targets. The day of the strike, quarterly figures showed emissions had risen compared with the previous year. According to the UN, the current policy is only a little better than doing nothing at all.


You could be forgiven for thinking “business as usual,” Scott Morrison’s oxymoronic methodology for dealing with climate change, is to blame. But policy stasis is the least of it. The government is in a state of emergency. Parliament House is pinballing off walls like a teenager drunk on Red Bears (or whatever is current these days). And it’s the self-declared political emergencies that are enabling the actual emergency of climate change to escape unnoticed.


Last night, Scott Morrison called an emergency after-hours meeting to pass new rules ensuring that Liberals could no longer chuck sitting leaders so easily. That’s right, an emergency night-time meeting to vote that the very circumstances that led to him being able to call that meeting could never happen again. (Except that they could. The new rules will require two-thirds of the party to agree to a leadership change. Party rules themselves can be changed with a fifty-percent majority, as Amy Remeikis pointed out in The Guardian).


What made this meeting so important that it couldn’t have been put off till, you know, daylight? Some are reporting a rumoured challenge from Julie Bishop. Some are saying it shows the Liberals are getting serious about signalling stability.


It doesn’t matter. The point is, at the very moment people are demanding politicians spring into action and enact drastic responses to the climate crisis, we find them fully occupied with crises of their own making.


The cynic in me expects nothing less. Historians will draw a direct line between leadership challenges over the past ten years and rising emissions already pushing the earth toward irrevocable damage. Human beings were tiny, squabbling, unable to see the bigger picture while everything around them burned. Self-interest got in the way of self-preservation.


But really, I don’t have a lot of time for that narrative.


That narrative says that for some reason, climate change runs on a parallel track to everything else. We’re told so often that social issues like gender, race and sexuality discrimination are “getting better” (whether you buy that or not), but for some reason climate is different – primordially linked not to a desire for justice or equality, but to the very worst human qualities. As if we are so psychically hobbled we just can’t help it.


I don’t think that version of events is fair to those kids who demonstrated, and it’s not fair to most people. Most people are perfectly capable of acting responsibly in circumstances that are difficult. That’s how life works. You don’t get to have a tantrum if something doesn’t go your way.


What we need is less moral signalling about climate change, and more concrete solutions to what is primarily an economic, not a spiritual, crisis.


Even Malcolm Turnbull, who keeps bobbing up to offer his “belief” in climate science, against the conservative right faction of his own party, isn’t being helpful. All he’s doing is inflaming an interminable Liberal war and I’m sure he knows that. I want to say to him: you don’t work here anymore.


When Turnbull was deposed, it was, like Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott before him, over energy policy. Climate has become a proxy war in this country. Who cares if it’s a war between climate sceptics and sympathisers? If they hate each other, it’s on a cosmetic level. Like our refugee policy, the terms of the debate are being increasingly dictated by conservative infighting.


Climate policy does not have to look this meagre. In the US, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is proposing a Green New Deal, modelled after the post-Great Depression economic stimulus packages, and aimed at radically de-carbonising the economy. It sounds big because it is. These are emergency measures, appropriate to the scale of the science, and while support is by no means guaranteed, at least this type of holistic, far-reaching action is being talked about.


In Australian politics, no one has put forward that kind of leadership. Not even Labor, who have said it would be difficult to “tear up contracts” on a self-funded version of the Adani mine, so as not to dint foreign investor confidence. Even if that is the case, I don’t see why it would be more difficult than, for example, interfering in the energy market to engineer cheaper energy from coal, which has also been floated. It’s the same logic.


As we’ve seen, “emergencies” require all kinds of changes to normal procedure. What’s the point in stabilising investment prospects if the coal industry is a ticking time-bomb?


And besides, wouldn’t you rather be the incumbent who took a stand on coal-fired power than the opposition who said, “we’ll let anyone can suck anything out of the ground, if the price is right”?


If there’s one thing you learn from following Australian politics, it’s that pretty much any reality can be willed into existence if you believe it hard enough. In this world, Craig Kelly’s preselection for a safe seat at the next election ranks as a higher governmental priority than the G20, where the world’s largest economic powers meet.


(If you don’t regularly watch Sky News, you might be thinking, who is Craig Kelly anyway? Trust me, it really doesn’t matter.)


The kindest reading of all of this is that it signals the death throes of a certain kind of conservative magical thinking. But my hunch is that the internal crises are yet more attempts to deflect from being fundamentally unable to offer credible policy on climate.


The real emergency is not Liberal chaos, it’s climate change. I’d say it’s time to start acting like it, except that in their own way, they already are.