Making sense of Australia’s climate exceptionalism

Why does Australia act as if it can ignore the climate crisis, and how long can it keep to this seemingly suicidal posture?

Fire burns in the grass near Bumbalong, south of the Australian capital, Canberra, Feb. 1, 2020 [AP Photo/Rick Rycroft]

2020 has had no shortage of images of catastrophe and suffering, but the ones that haunt me the most are from the inferno that engulfed my home country, Australia, at the very beginning of the year.

For us Australians, the year started with images of giant flames climbing up the cliffs of the Blue Mountains and the news that over a billion animals had perished in the fires raging across the continent. Over the previous month, we had witnessed the Sydney skyline disappear under a dystopian, orange pall of smoke and would soon watch in worry as hundreds of vacationing families huddled together on beaches to be rescued from fast-approaching fires.

We Australians have long imagined ourselves as a uniquely nonchalant and irreverent nation. But at the dawn of 2020, long before COVID-19 even reached our shores, we found ourselves dismayed by our apocalyptic present and terrified of what likely lies in our future.

This year’s bushfires, and the unprecedented devastation they caused, have left an indelible scar on the collective consciousness of Australians. As the carnage we experienced made clear that the climate is changing faster than our worst fears, we hoped that our elected representatives would finally take the necessary steps to address the global climate emergency.

Yet, just a few months after the fires, in an attempt to swiftly lift Australia out of the COVID-19 recession it found itself in, Prime Minister Scott Morrison authorised a “Gas-Fired recovery”: a raft of new policies that completely ignores the country’s gloomy ecological reality and aims to revitalise the economy by getting “more gas into the market”.

Australia’s seemingly suicidal posture towards climate change often puzzles foreign observers. Indeed, the Australian state’s persistent reluctance to take meaningful action as the country wilts from the worst effects of climate change defies rational explanation. Noting that “Australia is already having to deal with some of the most extreme manifestations of climate change”, renowned British conservationist David Attenborough once described the Australian government’s disinterest in responding to the climate emergency as “extraordinary”.

Coming to terms with our exceptionalism

Australia’s apparent indifference towards this global emergency is not so much a case of climate change denialism as it is exceptionalism. There are some climate change deniers on the far right who exercise an inordinate amount of political power relative to the size of their support base. However, more fundamentally, what guides the Australian state’s problematic stance on climate change is a form of exceptionalism.

Australia’s climate change exceptionalism rests on several pillars.

First, the conviction on the part of successive Australian governments that our national consumption patterns have no material effect on climate change and the resulting belief that we can extract ourselves from the global effort to combat it without this causing much harm.

Second, a purposeful downplaying of the contributions of Australian extractive industries to carbon supply chains, which paints the country as an incidental intermediary in the production of global emissions, encourages Australians to view climate change as somebody else’s problem. This, despite Australia now being the third-largest exporter of carbon dioxide in fossil fuels, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia.

These convenient fictions allow Australian governments to ignore the scientific consensus on climate change when politically and economically convenient and opt in an out of climate change mitigation and adaptation measures as they see fit.

This was not always the case.

In the 1980s, when the public first became aware of the “greenhouse effect”, as it was then commonly termed, Australia was among the countries taking the problem seriously, developing policy frameworks that began to address the problem and participating in international forums on the issue in good will.

The turning point on this issue was the election of the conservative Liberal-National Party (LNP) leader, John Howard, as prime minister in 1996. Howard defied expectations and became Australia’s second-longest-serving prime minister, remaining in office for eleven long years. During his time in power, he fundamentally altered Australian political discourse in ways that influence the country’s stance on important issues, such as climate change, to this day.

In the international sphere, Howard’s tenure saw Australia break its commitment to multilateralism and international cooperation and focus solely on its relations with “countries that share its values” – namely the Anglosphere.

Under Howard’s leadership, Australia quickly signed up to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars but refused to ratify the Kyoto pact on climate change. Trying to explain his reasons for refusing to ratify the protocol in 2002, Howard claimed such a move would “would cost us jobs and damage our industry”.

He and his ministers persistently argued that purposefully reducing greenhouse gas emissions would unnecessarily harm the economy while bringing marginal environmental gain. After all, what was the point in us making sacrifices while more populous nations like India and China were free to pollute all they liked?

This cynical reasoning has since become a cornerstone of Australia’s environmental exceptionalism – it is not so much that Australian politicians do not believe the climate is changing, they simply do not think they should be the ones paying the price to fix it.

Racism and a chronic indifference towards the suffering of communities of colour, both inside and outside Australia, also play a significant role in the country’s climate exceptionalism.

In 2015, for example, three of Howard’s former ministers – Peter Dutton, Tony Abbot and Scott Morrison – were overheard mocking and ridiculing the plight of Pacific Island nations facing rising seas from climate change. During a conversation about Pacific Island leaders supposedly arriving late to a meeting, Dutton quipped that “time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door”.

It was textbook environmental racism, marrying, in a single breath, the old white colonialist trope of non-western peoples not respecting industrial capitalism’s nexus between time and work-discipline with callous indifference to the communities of colour that are most exposed to climate change.

A similarly hostile indifference has been displayed by successive governments towards Australia’s own Indigenous citizens. Torres Strait Islanders, whose homes are at risk of being submerged by rising sea levels in the near future, have taken the extraordinary step of launching a complaint with the UN’s Human Rights Committee against the national government over its failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Coalaphilia and Its Legacies

Australia’s current Prime Minister Scott Morrison is very much an inheritor of the Howardesque technique of appealing to the so-called “silent” Australians, against the troublesome noise of critics and environmentalists.

In a theatrical stunt in the national parliament in 2017, Morrison brandished a lump of coal and shook it in the air as he goaded his opponents, whom he accused of being afflicted by the malady of “coalaphobia” – an “ideological, pathological fear of coal” that allegedly harms the economic prosperity of everyday Australians.

Morrison’s performance of coalaphilia, while containing a decent dose of “petro-masculinity”, was not entirely chest-thumping cosplay. His unshakeable conviction in the inherent benefits of mining tapped a deep reservoir of cognitive dissonance.

Like other settler-colonial nations, Australia’s official identity has always been built upon twin, mutually-reinforcing logics: the erasure of Indigenous sovereignty over the land, and overreaching optimism in the national territory’s boundless potential for capital investment and extraction of mineral resources.

While extractive industries have always played a prominent role in Australian politics and economy, their power has paradoxically grown over the past quarter-century alongside the necessity to regulate their atmospheric “externalities”.

The mining industry, in concert with the Murdoch press, has the power to make and break elected governments in Australia. In his first tenure as prime minister (2007-2010), in the midst of a phenomenal mining boom tied to China’s rising demand for minerals, Australian Labor Party (ALP) leader Kevin Rudd attempted to increase the government’s take of the super-profits from mining, in the form of a Minerals Resource Rent Tax.

The backlash, orchestrated by mining tycoons employing tactics similar to the Koch brothers in the US, was astonishing. After months of hostile press and slipping approval ratings, Rudd was deposed in an internal coup and replaced by Julia Gillard.

After taking office in June 2010, Gillard immediately dropped the fight with the mining magnates. But when she tried a modest route towards emissions reduction, in the form of a tax on carbon, she received her own drawn-out political crucifixion.

Upon assuming office as prime minister in 2013, Tony Abbott’s first item of business was to repeal Gillard’s maligned “Carbon Tax”, which, during its brief period of operation, had succeeded in reducing our emissions. Australia thereby became the first country in the world to abolish a demonstrably effective pricing mechanism on carbon. Having crushed the brief interregnum on climate inaction, Abbott restored the environmental exceptionalism in which we remain mired to this day.

Tragically, at precisely the moment Australia needed to take radical action to decarbonise its economy, its government determined that the country’s economic prosperity was irrefutably tied to its capacity to allow multinational corporations to dig minerals and fossil fuels out of the ground. This, despite the said corporations paying minimal contributions back to the citizenry.

However, in Australia, the psychological inability to accept the scale and implications of the climate crisis is not limited to the government. In 2019, for example, Australians responded to the emerging calls to reduce unnecessary air travel on environmental grounds with near-universal derision. Even the left-wing press baulked at the suggestion that like others living in Asia, the Americas and Europe, Australians too should alter their travel plans to help the global fight against climate change. It was as though geographical remoteness gave us a free pass not to act: Surely the famous “tyranny of distance” that shaped Australia’s history would also mean its residents would continue to fly as often as they wish, without even considering their carbon footprints, amid a climate crisis?

This is a classic feature of Australian environmental exceptionalism: any uncomfortable discussion is closed before it begins, bargained away into a corner of the collective Australian consciousness where it might not bother anyone too much.

The end of exceptionalism?

Will 2020 prove, finally, to be the turning point in Australia’s climate exceptionalism?

In July of this year, a substantial and sudden erosion of the New South Wales shoreline near Sydney demonstrated how vulnerable the majority of Australia’s inhabitants who live in proximity to the coast will be to future sea level rises, king tides, and other extreme weather events. Further north, the main beach at Byron Bay, one of Australia’s most famous beachfronts, has dramatically collapsed into the sea.

For a nation obsessed with the pursuit of homeownership, it may be the threat of a changing climate to individual private property that will strike the strongest chord. There are warnings that flood- and bushfire-prone communities will face increasing insurance premiums and may even become uninsurable in the near future.

As pressure mounts on the federal government to change course, the corrosive influence of the Murdoch media empire on our political discourse has been highlighted from various angles. The current government and the Murdoch press have been accused of working as a team, coordinating messaging, and the timing of the release of sensitive information. News Corp’s active promotion of climate scepticism has been more meticulously documented. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd launched a petition for a Royal Commission into media ownership in Australia; this has garnered more than half-a-million signatures from Australians fed up with Murdoch’s monopolisation of the media.

Meanwhile, internationally, a series of developments this year have highlighted the distance between our glaring inaction and the gathering action of other countries.

As our major trading partners have announced they will enforce new standards for environmental reporting among agricultural producers, calls are being made for Australian exports to be subjected to “climate tariffs”. Importers of Australian coal – China, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines – have all announced in recent months that they are banning coal in the near future as part of moves towards zero net emissions.

Perhaps most significantly, as measured by the political calculus of Morrison’s government, even our allies in the Anglosphere are abandoning us, like the uncomfortable, drunk cousin at a birthday party we have consistently shown ourselves to be. Morrison was reportedly “livid” when sidelined by Boris Johnson from speaking at a UN-sponsored climate summit because of Australia’s well-publicised laggardness on climate action.

Likewise, Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election promises a definitive shift in international carbon politics that may punish Australia or at least further expose our carbon isolationism.

Perhaps, finally, the pressure will have become too great for us to keep making excuses. Lame explanations for why our history, our geography and our culture render us uniquely exceptional when, across the globe, other countries are taking responsibility for tackling the climate emergency. Perhaps we can finally acknowledge that on a continent highly vulnerable to climate change and as a nation that has wreaked especially damaging ecological and cultural harm through colonisation, claiming exceptionalism is a particularly disturbing – and self-destructive – form of delusion.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.