In 1971, the Liberal Billy McMahon – routinely judged the worst Australian prime minister ever, an achievement not to be underestimated in a nation where the worst routinely rule – created a new portfolio: Environment, Arts and Aboriginal Affairs. Nobody wanted the job: given it, Peter Howson observed that he was responsible for “trees, boongs and poofters.”
What’s changed with our conservative rulers over the last half century? On the evidence of the shame the prime minister, Scott Morrison, visited on all Australians last week at the Pacific Islands Forum, not very much. There he tried to pressure Pacific leaders to remove from the final forum communique and climate change statement all references to coal, to limiting warming to less than 1.5C, and to setting out a plan for net zero emissions by 2050.
Tuvalu’s prime minister, Enele Sopoaga, was too diplomatic when he told Scott Morrison: “You are trying to save your economy, I am trying to save my people.”
Because it isn’t Australia’s economic security that is at stake, but the security of the profits of coalmining corporations and their owners – the likes of Gautam Adani and Gina Rinehart – along with the security of the seats of influential Queensland MPs for whom Clive Palmer’s $60m-plus election campaign was so important.
And for them, and his own electoral security, Scott Morrison was willing to sacrifice any sense of national security.
Not content at a time of growing global tensions to have deeply damaged our standing with our close neighbours, the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, observed that Pacific islanders would “continue to survive because many of their workers come here and pick our fruit”, thereby managing in a single sentence to dismiss Pacific islanders’ concerns for their future and simultaneously invoke Australia’s horrific blackbirding past that saw 19th century Pacific islanders kidnapped and coerced into semi-slavery working on Australian sugar cane plantations.
And when next it is our homes that vanish in an unprecedented mega-fire, or flood, or cyclone, or under a rising sea, what patronising cant might our Marie Antoinettish leaders offer up for our future? Help in the kitchen of a coal company executive? Work in the garden of a National party grandee?
Like so many Australians, I have felt powerless watching the climate crisis unfold in our country. Last week’s events brought home to me how the most powerful in our country seemed to be those that would ensure the very worst future eventuates in their craven service to the fossil fuel industry and its propagandists, thereby ensuring we exacerbate the climate emergency rather than seek to limit its damage.
The question of the age is how. In the face of a human-induced change that threatens the future of our species how to act? How to live? How to be?
In seeking the answer we find ourselves alone in the universe without illusions. There are no leaders, no parties, no nation, no gods that will save us. We discover at this terrible moment a shocking truth: we only have ourselves. And each of us finds within ourselves only failure, cowardice, timidity, in short, a despair at our general weakness.
This sense of futility haunts us all.
And yet within that failure is hope. Having only ourselves we finally discover bedrock: ourselves.
Everywhere – in every party, organisation, workplace, club, gym, street, café and pub – are to be found those who do not agree with where power is taking our country.
And at the moment, we can still keep climate change within the 1.5C change. It is difficult. But it remains possible. And science tells us that at 1.5C we can still exercise control over our future.
But if we choose not to act now within a decade we will be looking at between 2C and 6C of warming by 2100. And at that point science tells us that we can no longer control anything.
It won’t matter whether we fight or not, because the fight will be lost. The changes will not be able to be contained and we will be living on a planet increasingly hostile to human existence.
And so the situation is not yet terminal. It remains in our control if we wish to take control. There is hope if we dare hope. There is a better future if we are willing to express it and demand it.
And it is clear that the concerns that so many of us have dwarf the differences of groups and parties. I thought on the things that we could unite around as Australians, that we could use to go forward, that would make our country, as it has been in the past, a global leader, and a proud country once more.
Words only have the power others grant to them. If we do nothing we are endorsing Michael McCormack’s words and Scott Morrison’s actions in Tuvalu.
Or we can use other words.
And so I sought to distill into as few words as possible what could be done by us as a people. What was feasible, what was achievable. None are new ideas, all are founded in science, and all are being fought for in various ways. But everywhere we see them dismissed and attacked as impossible, ludicrous and unworkable.
Yet when reduced to their essence how reasonable they are. When conceived as a mutual and national endeavour how possible they become. And writing them I felt my despair lift. I realised that there can be a positive vision for our future, a future that brings us together rather than divides us, that makes us a better, stronger country.
And in six sentences I saw hope is possible.
That neither the government nor Labor party would at present even contemplate such things is beside the point. That we must compel them is.
At the end of the Pacific Islands Forum, Enele Sopoaga asked the world to not forget his people: “We ask, please, understand this: our people are dying.”
I don’t doubt that there are far better words than my six sentences to be had and which will and should appear.
But we need to act now for if we don’t the fate of the Tuvalese may soon be ours also.
It’s time to take our future back. It’s time to stand and fight.
And though these final words seem strange as I write them, I feel them to be true: we will discover the language of hope in the quality of our courage.