‘Your Lives Are Nothing to Me’: Political responses to the rise of climate as super-actor

We don’t usually think of the climate as part of our political arrangements, but in a deep sense, what could be more ‘constitutional’ than the conditions for life? Australia’s prosperity has been undergirded by a set of biospheric elements that have been taken for granted. Notwithstanding all nostalgic references to the asperity of sunburn, drought and flooding rains, the systems of the Australian nation state are predicated on a presupposed level of predictability and tolerable variability in our weather patterns. Even as the wretched national contest to achieve effective climate and energy policy has twisted on, there has been an ambient presumption of continuity. Whether thoroughly understood or rankly denied, the impact of climate change—in Australia at least—has still been largely imagined as a thing of the future, a ‘risk’ or ‘challenge’ capable of being addressed (or ignored) in the ordinary course of things. The hollowness of that unvoiced expectation has now become terribly evident. Today, as I write, the record-breaking rain has come again to large parts of the east coast of the continent. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the mould creeping across the water-damaged ceiling of our house.

In the prologue to Spring, the third book in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, the Scottish novelist imagines the inner voice of Gaia expressing violent disinterest in human travails:

The truth is a kind of regardless

The winter’s a nothing to me.

Do you think I don’t know about power? You think I was born green?

I was.

Mess up my climate, I’ll fuck with your lives.

Your lives are nothing to me.

Globally, the vested interests of coal, oil and gas corporations and other major polluters have succeeded in frustrating hopes of systemic transformation at sufficient speed to preserve the climatic status quo. The consequence is that the climate has already been messed up by an average global temperature rise of 1.2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Like so many other climate and environmental activists and advocates, I have spent years speaking and writing about the imperative for very rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and for the nurturing of our precious ecology. And it is not as if great victories have not been achieved. Just last month, after immense sustained pressure, Australia’s worst domestic climate polluter, AGL Energy, which is responsible for around 8 to 10 per cent of our national domestic emissions, brought forward the closure of its coal-burning power stations to at least 2035, something that would have been thought unimaginable just a few years ago.

Time, though, is not on our side. In Australia, we must now rid ourselves of 75 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from a 2005 baseline by 2030 to be on a trajectory consistent with the Paris climate goal of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees. This transformation is technically feasible, and has the real potential to yield extraordinary collateral benefits for our society, economy and ecology. This should be a decade of energetic mobilisation for an incredible period of nation-building, with opportunities for participation by us all. Yet even if we now make the transition at emergency speed and scale with all the creativity and dedication we can muster, the confronting truth is that worsening climate damage is already baked into our near-term future. Even at 1.2 degrees, our accustomed lives are being well and truly fucked with. At a governmental level, it is now true to say that the constituting climatic foundations for the Australian nation state no longer pertain.

Fire for all

Despite harbinger events such as the Millennium Drought and the first mass bleachings of the Great Barrier Reef, it wasn’t until the period of Scott Morrison’s prime ministership that severe climate damage was perceived as our collective lot. The 2019–20 bushfires, which in the end burned through an unimaginable 35 million hectares, are thought to have impacted around 80 per cent of the population. Even for those a long way from the flames, the consciousness of a mass shared social experience was fostered by the plain tangibility of dense smoke hanging in cities that for a time made Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra’s air the most toxic of any capital in the world. Virtually every Australian citizen, whether here or overseas, would have been witness to the weeks of saturation coverage in mainstream and social media, imprinting visceral images of the inferno in our collective memory.

It appeared that the fires found Morrison quite prepared to be unprepared. Like his predecessors, the then prime minister had at some level simply assumed sufficient climatic continuity for things to more or less go on as before. So much was suggested by the notorious incident of his heading off on holiday to Hawaii while the eastern seaboard was aflame. When caught out, Morrison tried to repair the public relations damage with a radio interview in which he said that he and his wife had planned to spend their summer holidays on the NSW south coast, but instead decided to give his girls ‘a bit of a nice surprise’ by taking them to Hawaii:

I think that’s what dads try and [sic] do if they can, when they’ve been working hard all year. I know there are lots of dads and mums out there who’ve been working hard all year try to treat their kids at this time of year, and that’s what I was trying to do. It’s just unfortunate it’s come at such an awful time, particularly for those living in and around Sydney and NSW.

Like every other one of his banal and confected utterances, Morrison’s everyman plea for empathy was deserving of scepticism, but perhaps a thread of almost unwitting honesty was also present. Other prime ministers had been able to take climate continuity for granted, so surely the man whose defining political characteristic was getting away with things could expect to be able to nip off on a jaunt without the damned country burning down while he was away? Later the prime minister would say—spreading the responsibility with Nixonian limaciousness through the application of a plural pronoun—that with the ‘benefit of hindsight we would have made different decisions’.

The Wrecking Crew Regime

In order to better understand how Morrison dealt with the onset of mass climate damage it’s helpful to consider the regime-like qualities of his time in government. We don’t tend to think of Australian governments as ‘regimes’—indeed, it is not a word often used in polite conversation to describe the exercise of state power in Western democracies. Yet the practice of state in the Morrison years did evince some attributes of a distinctive ‘regime’, in the sense of involving the active prosecution of a mode of power that significantly departed from previously accepted norms and conventions of public administration, to the extent of creating a systems-level shift in how things were done. Morrison and company did not simply exercise power within the rules, they began to alter the form of governance.

Distinctive features of the Morrison ‘regime’ included contempt for evidence and serious policy development; unprecedented capture of civic resources and processes for partisan political gain; brazen lack of accountability and disdain for the precepts of ‘good government’; active denigration of the concept of the shared public; and greater militarisation of society. Put colloquially, it felt as if Australia had been taken over by a bunch of shonks with more in common with the Mayor of Porpoise Spit than with serious national politicians. The Morrison gang, it seemed, would say and do more or less anything just to get the best of a situation. These were not simply failings of character but essential components of a preferred practice of power. Some of the tendencies in question had emerged under previous governments, particularly those of John Howard and Tony Abbott, but Morrison took things to a new level. Journalist Bernard Keane aptly described the pattern and the maladministration in the Morrison years in systemic terms as ‘a coherent whole: a political style designed to avoid responsibility’. Political scientist Anne Tiernan noted that the structural nature of what was occurring meant that the ‘flagrant abuses of and disregard for traditions and conventions’ could become ‘normalised as the way politics is done’.

A decade or so ago, US commentator Tom Frank coined the idea of ‘wrecking crew’ politicians who wilfully govern badly, permanently damaging both the idea and the machinery of government in the general interest in order to advance their preferred ideological agenda. As Guy Rundle has noted, while Tony Abbott introduced this kind of politics in Australia, the malignant phenomenon became endemic and central to the exercise of power under Morrison. So-called ‘rorts’ are core wrecking crew behaviour, because shameless manipulation of the system to gain wrongful advantage corrodes trust in government for the common good, showcasing that officials really can’t be trusted not to act in their own interest and role-modelling both avarice and cronyism. Appointing ‘mates’ is also a particularly powerful ‘wrecking crew’ tactic, converting what should be perceived as a fair process into private patronage, undermining confidence in the whole ideal of fair administration. By January 2022, Australia had plunged to its worst ever score in Transparency International’s global Corruption Perceptions Index, and shortly afterwards it was noted as a ‘country to watch’ by the same institution on a list that also included Russia, Lebanon and Kazakhstan.

Implicit in wrecking crew politics is the drive to cut government services. The logic goes that as public provisioning begins to fail, people cease to value the amenity, so politicians have licence to further slash rather than expand or properly resource. If state-provided options are increasingly regarded as unreliable, then those who can afford to do so go private, while others are left to overstretched charities, or to get by as best as they can on their own diminishing resources. As weakened and devalued services become ripe to be sold off, further privatisation follows, setting up guaranteed public income streams to private providers and forcing a de facto tiered system which then feeds a vicious cycle, further degrading the principles of universality and the public good.

Another feature of a wrecking crew agenda is that extraction of fossil fuels for private gain should continue unconstrained, regardless of the public consequences. In a previous issue of Arena Quarterly, I wrote about the ‘Fossil Fuel Order’ as a set of political, economic, institutional, social, cultural and ideological structures that functions as a coherent complex of power. The Fossil Fuel Order thrived under Morrison; indeed, part of his government’s ideological raison d’être, as expressed in innumerable instances of both rhetoric and clear policy preference, was husbanding the coal, oil and gas sector. Yet the Morrison regime and the Fossil Fuel Order should not be conflated; the latter has proven to be highly adaptive to context, and is capable of mutating to suit and shape changed political circumstances.

Understood as a ‘regime’, the Morrison government can also be seen as having in part been constituted through a wider set of apparatuses and institutions that are not technically part of the state, but help facilitate and legitimise a shared agenda for power. Various extra-governmental entities, including certain industry peak bodies, think tanks, obliging management consultancies and other commercial experts for hire and aligned media can be seen as agents or elements of the regime. NewsCorp in particular played a conspicuously important role. Clean energy investor and philanthropist Simon Holmes à Court has given an evocative description of his personal perception of the propaganda arm of the regime:

I’ve heard people say this before but now I absolutely see how the Murdoch media is the PR arm of the Liberal Party. There were stories that were definitely fed to them by [Senator] Andrew Bragg and [MP] Jason Falinski that they would magnify with innuendo and bullshit. Then it would be printed and within seconds the MPs would tweet the articles out again and that would be turned into a derivative story on Sky, but stripped of any of the context that was mainly missing.

I was just seeing this sort of machine where the party machine, including sitting MPs, were very much part of this News Corp machine. Not even a blurred line. No line.

As journalist Christopher Warren observed recently, ‘News Corp is not a normal news organisation and does not act like one’.

Regime Change

In December 2019, as the fire crisis was still evolving and worsening, it seemed possible that the sheer pressure of public outrage aroused by Morrison’s bushfire response might force him from office, much as Robert Menzies had been disposed of in not entirely dissimilar circumstances of national predicament in 1941. Instead, the ‘regime’ responded, fighting back to reassert authority by spreading misinformation about the conflagration being a catastrophe wrought by crime and mismanagement of the land estate rather than driven by climate change. In this context, NewsCorp played a decidedly important role, memorably identified by Emily Townsend, a commercial finance manager who resigned from the company as an act of conscience at the height of the fire crisis. In Townsend’s own testimony, she had been ‘severely impacted by the coverage of News Corp publications … in particular the misinformation campaign that has tried to divert attention away from the real issue which is climate change to rather focus on arson (including misrepresenting facts)’.

Catastrophe offers rich potential for ruthless wrecking crew politicians. As Naomi Klein pointed out years ago, disasters constitute periods of ‘shock’ during which there’s an opportunity to push through extreme measures that would be unthinkable at any other time, and which then become permanent. Belatedly, Morrison did appear to recognise that some essential change in the fundamental state of things had occurred. After his return from Hawaii, he told the nation that ‘the fact is the next ten years, and beyond—we are going to be living in a very different climate’. Significantly, he argued that this ‘new normal’ would necessitate an urgent reshaping of expectations as to how Australia would be governed. Among the shifts he foreshadowed were an increase in power to the Commonwealth executive, greater military presence on the streets, and the winding back of environmental regulations to enable dam-building and land clearing.

The spread of COVID-19 to Australia would create a supervening national emergency, which to some extent abridged the immediate political legacy of the fires, exercising a chilling impact on the expression of residual community outrage, and creating an alternative focus for debates around the role of the state. Two years later, just as the COVID situation began to be administratively and discursively ‘normalised’, extreme climate impacts returned to Australia’s eastern seaboard in the form of rains of astounding duration and intensity. As with the earlier inferno, the months of torrential downpours have been a mass experience for a majority of Australians. A friend who lives in the Northern Rivers region of NSW tells the story of her neighbour’s small children who now wake in fear at the sound of raindrops on the roof. Apart from the psychological impacts and the most obvious legacy of unremediated wreckage and homelessness, the longer term consequences have included a mass decline in the liveability of housing. According to one commercial estimate, around a third of Australian homes are now afflicted by mould from residual damp.

When, just as with the fires, the Morrison government was tardy in grasping the scale and significance of the floods and providing practical Commonwealth support, it seemed they had learned nothing. An alternative interpretation is that they’d learned plenty. If the implicit ideological aim of Morrison’s response to the floods was to operationalise a wrecking crew response to the ‘new normal’, then the regime can be regarded as having succeeded in those callous terms. As journalist Jenna Price wrote, beleaguered communities were forced to the harrowing conclusion that ‘the cavalry won’t be coming’. Poll findings would later support the proposition that confidence in government had been shaken in the wake of the floods. Morrison himself made the point explicitly, indicating that there were limits to what people could expect because ‘there can never be enough support in natural disasters’. In another context, Morrison had opined that ‘welfare must become a good deal for investors—for private investors’. As reported by journalist Ben Cubby, private enterprise was now discovering new opportunities in disaster recovery, finding a ‘profitable niche by taking on roles that were once assumed by government’.

With hindsight it is easy enough to see the crisis of ‘regime’ legitimacy occasioned by the fires as being suspended by the events of COVID-19 and then rapidly reawakened by the catastrophic impact of the floods. In the interim, Morrison had also failed to outline any credible pathway on emissions reduction, and would go to the 2022 federal election with Australia rated among the very worst in the world for action on climate change. Tellingly, what was emphatically unpopular with the Australian electorate was not only the policy failure on both emissions reduction and climate impact response, but the character of the government—its regime-like qualities. According to one study, three of the four top policy areas most likely to have driven people away from the Coalition between 2019 and 2022 were climate action, disaster relief, and political integrity. The unprecedented success of the Greens in Brisbane in particular was widely attributed to social organising in the face of climate impacts. Similarly, the extraordinary breakthrough of community independents was based on widespread dissatisfaction with the Morrison government’s performance on climate, lack of political integrity and persistent misogyny (as well, of course, as the patently positive qualities of the individual candidates and their dedicated local campaigns).

Returning to how things should be done

The new Labor government led by Anthony Albanese has clearly abandoned Scott Morrison’s wrecking crew approach and is seeking to revert to the norms and precepts of earlier political times. The ‘shonks’, intent on wrecking the joint for partisan and private gain, have now been replaced by a team containing more than a few ‘wonks’, who regard public administration—including responding to climate change—as essentially consisting of technocratic service delivery on the back of data- and stakeholder-informed policy formulation. Albanese’s ministry is evidently seeking to resurrect the recent Labor tradition of government that is characterised as ‘modernising reform’. When applied to ecology, this worldview has been aptly described by US political scientist Steven Bernstein as ‘the compromise of liberal environmentalism’, under which the threats to the natural world that emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century can be remediated through the application of existing institutional approaches to resolving public policy challenges.

Given the emergency imperative of rapid emissions reduction, liberal environmentalism presents specific vulnerabilities and problems, not least the ability of the Fossil Fuel Order to readily adapt to altered political circumstances. Powerful remnants of the old regime also remain in place in the form of NewsCorp, lingering Morrison appointees to various ‘stacked’ institutions, and assorted other residual mechanisms of power left untouched by the result of the federal election. There has been no concerted attempt at ‘de-Morrison-ification’. The complex mechanics typical of liberal environmental remedies also risk the kind of goal displacement inherent in managerialism, where measured outcomes become compliance with the process and achievement of indicators rather than producing the desired change in the physical world.

Despite these and other limitations of liberal environmentalism, government as currently being practised under Albanese feels reassuring, a cherished return to a form of administration that more closely accords with our expectations of how political representatives should properly behave. Yet its very legibility creates a new challenge. In the gladly received resurrection of norms of good government, there is the implied conceit that the option still exists for us to return to life as usual. Indeed, the continuation of climatic regularity is to some extent inherent in the compromise of liberal environmentalism, which is habituated in institutional orderliness and the narrative rhetoric of responsible incrementalism. The compromise of liberal environmentalism did not emerge as the response best suited to the collective experience of mass crisis, and is ill-suited to a changed world. This morning when I opened my email, news bulletins from three different outlets sat side by side:

Floods Inundate Victoria, Tasmania

Why Is Victoria flooding?

Major Flooding

The old world is not coming back, even though we are blessed again with superior standards of ministerial behaviour.

The Great Forcing

Climate-change disruption is not the first example of the constituting conditions for human life on the Australian continent being subjected to radical upheaval. The Eora people who witnessed the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove no doubt also held their own assumptions about environmental continuity. First Nations were not only subject to direct military attack and dispossession but to an all-encompassing brutality at an ecosystemic level, as the lands, waters, plants and creatures of Australia were violently transformed. The colonial experience of First Nations offers a profound historical analogue for what happens when the relationship between law and country is subjected to relentless pressure through the indiscriminate conversion of the latter into a convulsive new state. In The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh writes of the extent to which the wars of the European colonial powers and their successor states against Indigenous peoples involved the ‘weaponization of the environment’, with an impact that was totalising:

Indigenous peoples faced a state of permanent (or ‘forever’) war that involved many kinds of other-than-human beings and entities: pathogens, rivers, forests, plants, and animals all played a part in the struggle. The nonhuman enmeshments of these conflicts are so extensive that they confound the accustomed categories of ‘history’ and ‘politics’, both of which are imagined, in the modern sense, as domains of exclusively human activity.

As the global climate and ecological crisis deepens to become a general condition—a kind of undeclared forever war of the Fossil Fuel Order against human society—the same enmeshment with the nonhuman world now confronts us all. As Morrison experienced and Albanese is now encountering, climate change has become a kind of hyperactive super-actor in our politics, whose interventions are manifested in recurrent instances of extreme weather events and sudden tipping points of ecosystem collapse. Mess up my climate, I’ll fuck with your lives.

There is no longer any option except transformative change. The only question is what it will be like. In an Annual Review of Environment and Resources article published at the end of 2021, a team of more than twenty scientists reflected together on the relationship between ecology and politics in the following terms:

In a real sense, a critical tipping point has emerged. Whatever direction is chosen, the future will be a radical departure from the present. Societies may decide to instigate rapid and radical changes in their emissions at rates and in ways incompatible with the zeitgeist, or climate change will impose sufficiently chaotic impacts that are also beyond the stability of the zeitgeist. Within both of these futures, the existing power structures and paradigm … are simply unfit for purpose.

Global warming has begun to apply an immense forcing, not only to our continent’s ancient and intricate ecology, but also to our human systems. The existential challenge is to overcome the Fossil Fuel Order rapidly enough to secure reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at emergency speed and scale. The calling of justice is how to remake our nation, using the colossal pressure of climate damage to shape an Australia of greater democracy, fairness and equality. The demand of ecology is that we must also simultaneously do our utmost to buffer our ecosystems and wildlife against the worst, and embark on a pathway of regeneration of vast scale and ambition.

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty argues that the achievements of social democracy in the twentieth century were enabled by the destruction and chaos of the world wars, which ‘erased the past and enabled society to begin anew with a clean slate’. The French economist was in no way glamorising warfare or being nostalgic for the idea of blood sacrifice as purifying but rather forensically diagnosing the difficult truth: that times of appalling misery can also usher in periods of vital change. The same scale of moral irony, of opportunity walking in step with unimaginable loss and damage, is now before us.

In the context of the world wars, it was not only the scale of social and material destruction but the collective experience of suffering that enabled the post-conflict remaking of societies with a greater focus on the common good. The mass participation of populations in total war created the conditions of a generalised expectation of the provision of social democracy and security. A contemporary politics of justice and equality in the face of climate change will be most powerful if conducted on similarly common grounds, reflecting the universality of our shared subjection to global warming.

Among the many benefits that comparative economic equality brings to any community is the kind of social cohesion and resilience that will be essential in the face of climate change. The future of progressive politics should be premised on a reinvigorated, general social contract, fit for purpose to respond to the exigency and opportunity of global warming—a ‘climate contract’ positively embedded in the changed constitutive conditions for life. Our promise to each other: that we acknowledge our community of fate, and that we will do our best, together, to build a fair bridge to the possibility of future flourishing. Such would be the strongest socio-political basis for our shared pursuit of an earth capable of nurturing life in all of its magnificent diversity.

About the author

David Ritter

David Ritter is the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. David’s most recent book is The Coal Truth: The Fight to Stop Adani, Defeat the Big Polluters and Reclaim our Democracy. David also holds affiliations with the University of Western Australia and the University of Sydney. Before joining Greenpeace, David was one of Australia’s leading Indigenous land rights lawyers.

Twitter: David_Ritter; Instagram: davidr_greenpeace

More articles by David Ritter

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