The Australian bushfires have brought the threat of climate change into sharp political relief.
Climate change is making Australia hotter and drier and intensifying climate change-influenced crises, including the recent bushfires and a growing national water shortage that threatens to leave towns and cities in Australia dry.
– Recent environmental disasters in Australia threaten to destabilise the country’s social, economic and political systems
– The bushfires and water shortages will significantly weaken Australia’s economy, potentially leading to a public loss of faith in the government and governance structures
– This could result in a significant breakdown in social cohesion across Australia that could foster public disorder and encourage a rise in militant environmentalism or eco-terrorism
HOTTER AND DRIER
From late 2019 to February 2020, hundreds of bushfires burned across Australia in the worst summer the country has ever experienced. Thousands of homes were destroyed, more than 1 billion animals died and 33 people lost their lives. Simultaneously, Australia is undergoing an ‘unimaginable water crisis’, with many cities and towns across the country expected to lose drinking water entirely in the coming months. These are two of the worst climate crises to ever hit the southern continent.
While Australia has always had dangerous bushfires and a propensity for drought caused by its unique climate, human influence has exacerbated the size and impact of these events. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology indicates that ‘climate change is influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bushfire conditions in Australia,’ through factors like changing weather patterns and higher air temperatures. The water shortages are likewise exacerbated by human factors, including desertification, overgrazing of sheep and cattle, and high water consumption through agriculture.
A POLITICAL PROBLEM
These disasters are occurring within a country divided about the very existence of climate change; in a January 2020 Ipsos poll, 24% of respondents said they had serious doubts that climate change is occurring. Campaigns for the 2019 national election were dominated by the various parties’ climate policies, and the conservative Liberal-National Coalition victory caused intense controversy. Since taking government in 2013, the Coalition has alternatively opposed or avoided significant climate change action, angering large parts of the Australian population.
However, given the recent crises, the Coalition’s stance on climate change is growing unsustainable. Almost two-thirds of Australians (64%) think Australia should be doing more to address climate change, up 10% in three years. The catastrophes have pushed the country’s social and political will towards climate action, creating a national context in which calls for climate action are growing more intense and frequent. Due to this, the Australian government is under increasing scrutiny for its weak climate stance.
The bushfires and water shortages will cause significant harm to the Australian economy. Moody Analytics estimates that the bushfires will result in more than A$4.4 billion in economic damage, with losses felt particularly hard in Australia’s vital farming and tourism industries. The water shortages will exacerbate these losses, given that close to 70% of Australia’s water supply is dedicated to farming. The economic consequences of drought were seen during the Millennium Drought of 1997-2005, during which nearly 50% of Australia’s agricultural land was devastated. These economic pressures will put significant stress on the Australian government — and particularly the rural-based National Party — to respond. The government’s current inaction around climate change and unwillingness or inability to effectively address climate-related challenges will potentially lead to a loss of public faith in the government and governance structures.
Part of the government’s struggle with climate change is economic — the Australian economy is heavily reliant on coal exports. However, climate change also forms a key divide between Australia’s two big political blocs: the ruling Coalition has been internally riven over climate policy, while the Australian Labor Party (ALP) has advocated for a strong climate policy that is ‘night and day’ to the Coalition’s. This divide is reflected in voter support: while only 9% of Labor voters question the existence of climate, 38% of Coalition supporters doubt its occurrence.
The Coalition won the recent election based in part on its weak climate stance. Coal mining communities across Australia, which form a significant voting bloc, voted against the ALP, as they perceived the party’s climate policies as a threat to their livelihoods. The debate over the future of the proposed Adani coal mine in the key state of Queensland was a critical feature in the ALP’s defeat.
NO EXCUSE FOR CLIMATE INACTION
Regardless of its economic imperatives, the Coalition’s approach to climate change is politically unsustainable. With the recent climate crises, the public is increasingly in support of more decisive climate action, and the widening gap between Australian voters and the government that will undermine faith in governance structures. The climate crises could cause a significant breakdown in social cohesion. The stress from the recent climate crises and the impact it is having on people’s standard of living could cause social friction across the country. Within the cities and towns running out of water, dwindling resources are breaking down community bonds, as people revert to self-preservation — reflected in the rise of issues like water theft.
Across the country, frustration with government inaction around climate change has the potential to incite large-scale demonstrations, already seen with the global youth climate protests on 29 November 2019 and the more recent climate protests held across the country on 22 February 2020. While these protests are currently non-violent, they have the potential to escalate as people grow more desperate and frustrated. Public willingness to mobilise and protest will only be encouraged by similar demonstrations across the globe, most popularly seen with the Extinction Rebellion protests that have generated significant discussion in the UK.
The recent climate crises could encourage hardcore activists to radicalise. The murder of climate activists across the world and the rhetorical targeting of protesters by incumbent politicians may fuel this process, leading to the emergence of militant environmentalism or eco-terrorism. Two factors commonly occur in radicalised communities, both of which are present in Australia: first, a real or perceived grievance, and second, a belief that the normal or legitimate channels for inaction are ineffective or inaccessible. If climate crises continue to worsen, if the Australian government continues to ignore climate change and refrain from taking definitive climate action, or if the fabric of society continues to erode, Australians could see the emergence of native eco-terrorism in the coming years.
Climate crises will continue to ravage Australia. The economic harm caused by climate change is a reality that cannot quickly be undone, but government action could mitigate some of the risks. By acknowledging climate change and taking decisive to curb emissions and mitigate against disaster, the government could placate rising tensions and friction. Voters want to see action. Without any sign of it, a breakdown of social cohesion and descent into riots is possible. The rise of eco-terrorism is potentially not too far behind.