Fossil fuel web leading Australia to a Deadly Recovery | RenewEconomy

Fossil fuel web leading Australia to a Deadly Recovery

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It is possible to recover from a deadly crisis through a trajectory that prevents another deadly crisis. We have to fight for that future.

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Like me, you wake up in the morning, unlock your phone, mutter “Okay, get on with it” and spend the next thirty minutes being systematically slapped hard in the face by a long, slowly-progressing queue of coronavirus articles that have built up overnight. This is compulsory now. You cannot opt out of the daily Rona face slap ritual.

This buzzing maelstrom is the perfect cover under which fossil fuel executives can don a false moustache and a top hat, clasp their hands behind their back and skip through the distracted, exhausted crowd, while whistling a jaunty tune. They have a newfound cover for the thing they like to do: pulling carbon from the ground and pushing it into the sky.

We know the people who add carbon to the sky have a deadly impact. So it is jarring when you realise that while you redefine your existence around isolation to save lives, these people are figuring out how to use this crisis in a way that takes lives. 

In Australia, nuggets of climate news are already sneaking under the radar. The NSW government approved a coal mine underneath one of Sydney’s major water reservoirs, due to be dug by the coal behemoth Peabody Energy. Australia’s energy minister, Angus Taylor, seems to be positioning to allow funding for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA, a former employer of mine) to dry up. These stories are being covered, including by outlets like RenewEconomy, but cut through is difficult. 

Perhaps some of these were in the pipeline pre-covid, but the impact remains the same: we are going through our isolation already smarting from the coronavirus news slapfest. Even if we wanted to read about these sneaky efforts, they’ll be buried by the opaque systems of algorithmic content presentation on the social media sites we get our news from.

Every major media outlet has little choice but to provide a huge quantity of corona content every single day. There is no escape.

 It is the masking effect of news saturation that is the most immediate usage of the coronavirus crisis by the fossil fuel industry to enrich itself (at the cost of our lives and welfare). One way out of this is balancing the news we consume, but that is hard, because the social media tools we rely on to serve up these articles are tuned to whatever everyone else is reading, and so corona dominance tends to have a sticky quality that doesn’t make room for less prominent issues. Another way is donating to the good people of RenewEconomy, who have already done so much work to draw attention to these stories, and have the unique advantage of being a specialist publication.

Once the public health crisis begins to ebb away, the economic recovery will begin. It is at this point that the post-corona carbon racket will well and truly kick off. The plea will be that countries should recover from a deadly crisis through the creation of more death, this time through the uncontrolled boiling of the planetary systems that sustain human life, rather than the spread of relentless viral particles that ravage our lungs. 

It is going to get bad.

The carbon push is predetermined

Back in mid-March, I pointed out that government stimulus payments will become a conduit for funding fossil fuels. This might sound a little cynical, but there are two reasons that it is properly inevitable, on a quantum, deterministic scale.

The first point is that the same people are in power, and they exist within the same power structures. 

A country-level climate-intensified bushfire event tore through Australia and the leaders of both major parties made literally zero change to their climate platforms. If weeks of people choked by the smoke of those climate fires couldn’t inspire change, nothing will. 

Every other structural factor sustaining Australia’s carbon addiction remains. There has been no alteration to the bonds of kinship that form a glistening web between fossil fuel executives, industry lobby groups, conservative journalists and politicians in major parties. These people are still in each other’s phone books. 

bushfire nsw queensland firefighter climate change - optimised
“Australia’s PM couldn’t cope with the bushfire crisis because it was linked too closely to an industry he supports. If Australia dug coronavirus out of the ground and sold it to other countries, the same problem would exist for that crisis too”. AAP Image/Darren Pateman

The second reason is that there is a pre-existing, bespoke rhetorical assumption Australia’s fossil fuel industry can easily slip into. You will recognise it. It is the star at the centre of Australia’s climate change discourse galaxy. 

It sounds something like this: “Fossil fuels make the economy work, even when things are normal. To restart your country after this crisis, you’ll need coal and gas and oil, the great Economic Engines of the world”. The key players have pointed to this fabricated co-dependency for decades. Australia’s climate policy discourse has been defined, solidly, by the largely-unquestioned mythology of economic prowess bestowed upon countries (in exchange for habitat ruination and life-taking bushfires). 

Media outlets have been captured by it. People are born into believing it and they never, ever shake it off. This argument will be spun up to ten thousand RPMs. It’s going to be nitro-boosted. It’s going to rev and roar. It’s going to go be stunning

It’s bullshit, you know. For so many reasons, but here’s one: a recent study by UK researcher Dr Julia Steinberger explains that fossil fuels are good at supplying cash (concentrated unequally in the hands of a few) – hence, a link with GDP and fossil fuel development. But it is bad at improving human well-being and life-expectancy, and consequently, her research only finds a weak relationship between the presence of fossil fuels and happy human life. 

The long-held assumption is that we are too shit to figure out any way to power an economy other than atmospheric and oceanic destruction. This is the substrate from which the climate-wrecking corona recovery will grow.

It is already starting

Around the world, efforts to plug a high emissions habit into coronavirus recovery have already kicked off. In the United States, a $2 trillion stimulus bill passed without any consideration of emissions reductions, alongside the blocking of a stimulus bill for clean energy. China’s $7 trillion deal funnelled money towards new coal plants, and Canada’s government has provided huge quantities of cash to the companies creating fossil fuel infrastructure, including the Keystone XL Pipeline.

In Texas, regulation of fracking is being decimated, resulting in serious emissions impacts. We are seeing these things happen either through direct cash injections to fossil fuel companies, or through the removal of public health and safety protections. Horrifically, the American coal industry called for funding for victims of black lung to be cut, citing coronavirus. “As the country faces this unique and mounting challenge around the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. coal miners continue to work to provide the resources necessary to power America”, they said.

Australia is catching up, fast. This non-exhaustive list is just the beginning:

 * “Bringing jobs to regional Australia is always important but even more so at a time like this”, said Federal Resources Minister Keith Pitt, of the Acland coal mine, in late March 2020 (which was roughly eighty years ago, using Quarantine Time). 

 * “Gas already plays an essential role in energy reliability, but it could be even more important through a gas-fired recovery”, said Australia’s energy minister, Angus Taylor, who is a long-time proponent of gas

 * “Governments have been working closely with industry over recent weeks to remove regulatory burdens”, declared the historically anti-climate-action industry lobby group Business Council of Australia. “We will be presenting our plan based on lower taxes and aggressive deregulation agenda”, concurred the country’s finance minister, 24 hours later. 

 * Right-wing politicians unashamedly urged the reversal of plastic bag bans, weakly offering that the cotton reusable bags are just lathered in the ‘rona, so we need to revert to their petrochemical ancestors. “When the time is right, we’ll be ready to play our role in the recovery”, assured Woodside Energy, Australia’s biggest oil and gas operator.  

 * “Our resources industry is responding to coronavirus…..while also doing our bit to help the economy”, the country’s chief coal lobby, the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), is broadcasting into homes through a series of new TV spots. “Mining can make an even larger contribution to the economy, regional communities and living standards if job-creating projects were approved faster’,’ the MCA’s chief executive is already urging

 * The head of Australia’s ‘COVID-19 Commission’ Neville Power (“the mining sector’s most decorated and respected executive”) says Australia should source “cheap power” from gas (currently the key driver of global emissions). “We have significant reserves of gas on the east coast that are not connected up. We have significant reserves in central Australia and significant reserves in Western Australia. There are options to connect our major demand centres with our major supply centres”. Power pleads for “lower energy costs”, but neglects to mention the cheapest form of power in Australia – an omission that perfectly illustrates his position. 

 * “To help refineries, the Government will work on a temporary change in fuel standards to provide refiners with more flexibility to adapt their operations to manage the changes in demand and oil prices as a result of COVID-19”, said Angus Taylor, announcing the weakening of environmental standards for fuel. 

 * “The Prime Minister says we need to look at everything with fresh eyes, and coming out of COVID-19 there is no better candidate than the 20-year-old [Environmental protection] EPBC Act. The last thing I want to see is unnecessary blockages getting in the way of key projects at the time of recovery” – Australia’s environment minister, Sussan Ley, announcing efforts to scrap environmental regulations to aid recovery. 

 “Our simple model predicts that when industries are hurting, governments will be more likely to manipulate health, safety or environmental standards to benefit those industries,” Australian National University researcher Dr Emma Aisbett told RenewEconomy, on a new paper examining how fossil fuel industries like to seize on economic recovery efforts. This precedent is playing out in real-time, precisely as predicted.

Unfortunately, both Australia and the United States are uniquely vulnerable to this argument actually being supported. A recent Ipsos Mori poll examined this question, and found the following

Australia and the US sit at the bottom of the list of countries, when people are asked how much they support the prioritisation of climate change as part of coronavirus economic recovery. It’s still majority support, but it’s shaky. If you recall, the collectively and widely loathed carbon pricing was axed after then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott warned it would make an entire town vaporise. Add to this shakiness the aforementioned historical propensity for fossil fuel firms to seize on a crisis, and the pre-existing idea that economic growth only comes from carbon, and you get an idea of how bad things are going to get. 

There is also an important rhetorical game emerging around this issue. Even the merest suggestion of directing stimulus funding anywhere other than fossil fuel industries is considered an offensive act. As a perfect illustration, the dudes at Sky News Australia (a botched experiment to clone Fox News that resulted in some chilling mutations) were genuinely emotionally damaged by the suggestion that stimulus might go towards industries that save lives, rather than take them.

There will be a clear purpose for this pantomime. “How very dare you suggest we use this real, horrible crisis to feed your ideological whimsy. This is not about your inner city, latte-sipping obsessions”. It happened with the bushfires, and it’ll happen with this. It is a faux-outrage they are practised at, and it’ll become the protective firewall around the aforementioned fossil fuel gravity well created to suck up corona-dollars and permanently kill regulation. ‘You are saving too many lives. We did not sign up for this’. 

The advocates of fossil fuels will actively, openly and happily urge a pathway of economic recovery that creates harm to human life, in response to a pandemic that also harmed human life. Stimulus that hurts us on a planetary scale ought to be nearly impossible to suggest without an immediate backlash. It is a horrific, death-culty pathway to propose. But the alternative – using stimulus to save even more lives – will be the trajectory widely seen as ludicrous and offensive. 

There is little hope Australia’s opposition, the Labor party, will call out the bluff. Consider that party’s response to the bushfire crisis, in which its leader, Anthony Albanese, announced that the climate target the party had in 2015 is……..still the target. Neatly, he paired it with insisting that in the year 2050 Australia will still be extracting a toxic, life-taking substance and selling it to the world. Their high level of fossil fuel donations do not help. The Labor party’s resource spokesperson, Joel Fitzgibbon, just told the Sydney Morning Herald that there needs “to be a discussion about further incentives for exploration” and “a rational discussion about the rise and rise of environmental activism”. 

I wish it weren’t the case, but on recent record, the party cowers when it’s threatened with a tiny plastic knife. It does not take real threat for them to retreat. They will not oppose the grand effort to make the coronavirus recovery deadly. 

How to make climate action better than good

There will be many who succumb to the bad-faith concern-trolling bullying that’s going to spawn in Australia and around the world. Crises will be pitted against one another, and any mention of using corona recovery to help the climate will be treated as a vile slur.

But hopefully there will be many more who decide not to take part in that fucked up game of shuffling around coffins so the profits of a few horrible people are maximised. There are some promising signs of resistance to the idea that the only way out of a deadly crisis is a deadly recovery. There are pathways emerging for this better future to bloom. 

There is already a nice, simple plan for the cheapest possible transition to a low carbon grid in Australia’s biggest electricity network (the NEM). The ‘Integrated System Plan’, developed by the country’s grid operator, outlines the fact that wind and solar are now relatively economic, and don’t need subsidies. But there will be a big build-out of infrastructure required to fully decarbonise. Transmission lines, electric vehicle charging, zero emissions public transport, batteries, expansions of hydro storage and major energy efficiency and demand control programs all existed as planned pathways for Australia prior to coronavirus. There is a ready made nation building energy transition waiting to happen, far bigger and more ambitious than the huge hydro power nation building program Angus Taylor’s grandfather, William Hudson, led in the recovery from World War Two. If you’re thinking purely about Jobs And Growth, the vast and immediate upgrade of Australia’s energy infrastructure into a 21st century machine should be the first option. That comes paired with decarbonisation. Isn’t that nice? 

Where I live (Europe), there are already efforts to ensure that economic recovery is paired with climate action. Here’s the common feature between all of the really good ones – the things that decarbonise human life must also be good at improving human well-being, improving health, introducing equity and fairness into places where it wasn’t, and generally just making life less shit. 

One stark example is Italy’s small effort to reclaim road space from cars and give it back to people. “Milan is to introduce one of Europe’s most ambitious schemes reallocating street space from cars to cycling and walking, in response to the coronavirus crisis”, the Guardian point out. There is a big list of these initiatives here. Australia’s current economic potential around renewables, efficiency and transport could go from good to great, if they learnt from these global initiatives, particularly around improving cities and urban spaces. 

The best of these nascent ideas have something in common: they are directly involved in the lives of citizens. They aren’t just job-creating ventures (though decarbonisation is certainly a massive job-creation machine). They aren’t just far better for the economy than deepening investment in a dying, deadly industry. 

They are life-changing. They are directly enriching. If you are spending more time at home, your electricity bill is increasing. How would you feel about solar panels that reduce your bill – something that would relieve the increasing drumbeat of financial stress? If you are threatened every single day with a catastrophic respiratory illness, how would you feel about cleaner air? If you are struggling to awkwardly maintain distance from people on narrow footpaths, how would you feel about a spacious road converted into something you can walk on, resulting in fewer cars? Good climate action is tangible and physical. It is deeper than economics, and deeper than carbon emissions. It is curative, right to our core. 

The impact of the pandemic is societal, psychic and cultural. Hearts are broken, and breaking. Families are struggling. Decarbonisation gets both jobs done – healing the economy, and feeding our souls. Well-deployed policies that pair emissions reductions with greater levels of justice and equity, that make climate action tangible, and that enrich lives would be the incredible and excellent alternative to the deadly recovery that will be the default if we let it be. 

Climate action shouldn’t be seen solely as a tool for rescuing a bunch of economic indices from the troughs they’ve fallen into. It must also, importantly, be a safety net for the workers and communities left to fall on their own by rapidly shrinking fossil fuel industries. A “just transition” means creating new work that fulfils criteria of “safety, job security and pay”, writes American researcher Sandeep Pai. They cannot be simply shoved into renewable energy jobs. It is a complex process that requires strong leadership. There will be many who are discarded by a nervous fossil fuel industry, and they deserve to reap the benefits of climate action, too.

The locked-in destiny for the response of the fossil fuel industry and its media and political champions is a well-worn debate about a fabricated coupling of economic prowess to the digging up and burning of old, dead plants, deployed with a roaring and terrifying intensity. The wall of noise will happen. I have foreseen it.

What we do in response, and where the future lands, is not predetermined. We can choose to participate in the spat about economics, but it’s a circular drain. It does not matter whose modelling shows what. Everyone ends up in the waste water pipe, no matter how well made and wordy your point is. 

It is possible to recover from a deadly crisis through a trajectory that prevents another deadly crisis. The pathway out of this pandemic can soothe our broken hearts while repairing our damage to the sky and the seas. 

We have to fight for that future. The default is deadly.

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