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Climate indifference is an Aussie tradition



My Canadian friend first learned of Australia Day when he saw the snow bogans. It was 26 January in the Rocky Mountains, and three blokes were snowboarding bare-chested down the slope wearing Australian flags as capes.

Scott Morrison dressed as Santa offers a child 'a whole tonne' of coal if it's good. Cartoon by Fiona KatauskasHe told me this story as we drove up a winding road to the Victorian alps on 26 January this year. Rather than white with snow, the grass was drought-yellow in the paddocks on the valley floor far below. At the car park to our hiking trail we applied sunscreen and tightened the chinstraps on our floppy hats. The sun was low in the sky but already searing.

As we took our first steps on the trail, I thought how my friend's story provided a refreshing perspective on Australia Day. Rather than the conflict over colonial invasion, he had identified something else in the national holiday — a kind of yobbo pride at defying the elements.

Those blokes snowboarding shirtless in Canada were braving the cold, but back home many Australians show the same macho attitude to the heat. We are weirdly boastful of our sweltering summers. I've been guilty of it myself. When my Canadian friend arrived on a hot December day, I joked about him struggling in a mere 32 degrees.

But for all this tough talk, a study by Macquarie University academics found that since 1900 more Australians have died from the heat than all the floods, cyclones, bushfires, lightning strikes, earthquakes, tornados, tsunamis and landslides combined. And the most deaths from the heat were on 27 January, which the researchers suggested was probably due to the after effects of boozy barbecues in the sun on the preceding national holiday.

It says a lot about our attitude to the environment here. On 26 January, in the peak of summer, many Australians fire up their personal furnaces and drink diuretic alcohol, pissing away every last drop of deference to the hot climate.

In a sense, our current prime minister was channeling this pride when he held a lump of coal aloft in Parliament. It was a defence of our coal export industry, of course, but also a she'll-be-right shrug at the elements. We don't change our plans just because it's going to be hot, his gesture seemed to say. We're Australian. We wipe the sweat off our brows and keep right on digging.


"Our current prime minister was channeling this pride when he held a lump of coal aloft in Parliament. It was a defence of our coal export industry, of course, but also a she'll-be-right shrug at the elements."


Later in our hike that day, when the sun was directly overhead, my friend and I came across a small mountain stream. We spent the early afternoon there, swimming in a shady spot beneath a rocky overhang. About 3pm two Aussie hikers arrived, a father and son. 'We're going all the way to the lake today,' the man told us. 'Quick dip then we'll push on.'

The lake was another 12km away, mostly uphill, and the route was exposed to the hot sun. We saw them the next day and found out they'd hiked all afternoon, eventually scrabbling up the boulder-strewn mountainside at 10pm using their smartphones as torches. The father had gotten sick from dehydration. 'But we made it,' he told us, grinning.

I see this same recklessness in our government's indifference to the impacts of climate change. Conservative politicians like Tony Abbott remind us that Australia has always been a land of 'drought and flooding rains'. And yes, it's true that mainland Australia has highly variable rainfall and that our forests have evolved with regular fires.

But this excuse has stretched way beyond credulity. Bushfires, for example, have pushed the boundaries of both location and time, incinerating previously unburned cool temperate rainforests or sparking in winter and autumn. Bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef was first observed in 1982 and has accelerated drastically since. Heatwaves keep smashing historical records.

Perhaps if we were more attuned to our environment, our response to these signs of dangerous climate change would be more urgent. But one of Australia's foundational myths is of white settlers weathering nature's worst. It's actually in our national character — the story we tell about the nation — to dismiss climatic extremes like heatwaves. Maybe one missing part of taking climate change more seriously in Australia is a shift in culture to respect the heat.

On that Australia Day hike, while the father and son were pushing ahead to the lake, we decided to take it easy. We walked six kilometres then spent a relaxed evening in the shade of tall eucalypts by the river. We weren't sunburnt and we didn't crack open any beers. It was a long way from the stereotype of what Australians do on 26 January, but I thought there was still a lot of pride in how we were celebrating the country.

'This is the best way to spend Australia Day,' said my Canadian friend. 'Enjoying the beautiful environment here.' And respecting the hot climate, I thought.



Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is a Melbourne writer and the author of the book Changing Gears.


Topic tags: Greg Foyster, climate change, bushfires, heatwaves



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Existing comments

Thanks for a thoughtful article. However, I don`t think there is the sort of general community denial of climate issues that you propose, and the backlash against the Turnbull coup would support that. The current government is committed to the Paris agreement of 28% reduction in CO2 release by 2020 and seems to be getting there. Even so, we need a return to an explicit NEG, which Labour will probably do, which highlights for everyone in a grown-up world the necessary balance needed between emission control, guaranteed energy supply and economic damage (including higher energy prices to families and loss of jobs) inherent in this.

Eugene | 03 February 2019  

Rather than listen to pro-coal politicians, I suggest readers go to the Climate Council website which states: “To put into context what this means for Australia, the Climate Council has prepared its own report: “The good, the bad and the ugly: Limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C”. The world has already seen 1°C of warming. Since mass industrialisation, along with increasing greenhouse gas pollution from the burning of oil, coal and gas, the world has already warmed by one degree. This poses serious risks. Here at home, Australians are already seeing the effects, including more frequent, longer lasting and more intense heatwaves, harsher droughts, coastal flooding and longer, more dangerous bushfire seasons. The IPCC report is a timely reminder of the science-backed case for urgent international climate action. Key findings include: • Global temperatures have been rising rapidly, posing grave risks for humanity. • The global effort to tackle climate change has begun, but must be accelerated. • Australia is one of the most vulnerable developed countries to the impacts of climate change, but is contributing little to solutions. • Inaction has already cost us dearly. A 1.5°C world, our best possible future, will change our lives even further. • Limiting global warming to no more than 1.5°C is a formidable challenge but solutions are available.” To read the above Report, go to: https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/CC-IPCC-report-1.pdf

Grant Allen | 03 February 2019  

An enjoyable read Greg, digging deep into our national psyche. I'm a bit ambivalent in that it's an admirable Aussie characteristic to make do with what we have and not to winge. Yet, as you say there needs to be a sensible limit if we don't want to end up like the Monty Python knight who couldn't bring himself to surrender, even when his arms and legs had been hewn off! Personally I've not seen this blind intransigence in Aboriginal friends, so maybe it's more characteristic of some settler Aussies than of the original Aussies? Aboriginal ancestors circumvented the so-called Neolithic Revolution of temple building, broad-acre cropping, over-reproduction, dense populations, and of course, monarchs, hierarchies, and continuous bloody wars, and the mayhem that accompanies wars. I'd hazard a guess that attitudes of 'press-on-regardless', 'laugh in the face of privation', 'she'll-be-right-mate' arrived here with the farmer/civic invasion and simply became ecollated to our floods and fires. It's surely past time for us to include descendants of the original Aussies in positions of respect and honour in our legislative assemblies. Their long-perspective might be just the ticket we need for modulating the 'gung-ho' myopia of the likes of Morrison & Co.

Dr Marty Rice | 03 February 2019  

Grant is quite right to point out that both the cause and response to anthropogenic global warming have to be global, although Australia is a pretty small player. Any CO2 reduction that we as a country engineer will have no or at most a negligible effect, yet the cost of this economically and financially for the whole community is and will be substantial. To deliver our Paris commitment is therefore tremendous national gesture of good-will to the international effort by all of us, and I don`t think you should underestimate this sacrifice Dr Marty, even by white-fellas.

Eugene | 04 February 2019  

Thanks Eugene. But, why assume that "tremendous national cost" and "sacrifice" are the inevitable consequence of an energetic program of environmental responsibility? Australia (unlike most other nations) has enormous material and creative potentials for doing things differently (and profitably). Frankly, it seems that a basic impediment is the mental laziness of many of our CEOs and investors and their mimicry of technologies and industries innovated in completely different environments. Can we dare to hope that a Shorten era government will break with our 200 year tradition of being 'followers' and allow the intelligence and industry of Australians - of every ethnicity, gender and age-group - to transform this awesome island continent into the future-secure, eco-sustainable, global role-model it can so easily become. One essential is: sincere respect for the 65,000 years of Aboriginal practical wisdom on what constitutes 'healthy country'. It's imperative that we cognitively circumvent the fake news that there're only 2 ways forward: dirty/profitable versus clean/unprofitable. Australia's self perception needs to mature as: "We're clean, profitable, and eco-culturally wise".

Dr Marty Rice | 04 February 2019  

Don't worry! Tony Abbott and some of his knowledgeable mates reckon it's a "lot of crap". And as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford he should know. Or perhaps Oxford also got it wrong - on the appointment that is, not on climate change!

john frawley | 08 February 2019  

Since this article and discussion has re-emerged in the w/e edition I will try and make another "rationalist" contribution. It is just wrong to say that Australia has made no contribution; indeed, we have striven really hard to develop international agreements on CO2 emissions, albeit with limited success especially with India and China, and other developing countries (which have very good reasons for not committing!). We have also spent huge amounts of money on sticking to what has been agreed for advanced economies (28% reductions on 2005 emission levels by 2020), and that (as a real fact) for no possible climate gain for anyone at all, anywhere! This conversation, unfortunately, is dominated by "gut feelings" and emotional responses rather than hard reality and evidence of what we as Australians can in fact achieve alone, which is essentially nothing positive. But we can in the process make a lot of relatively poor people even poorer, and lose well-paying jobs which will/are move(ing) off-shore and so hollow-out our middle class. There are two parts to the current conversation which although overlapping need to be kept separate. Firstly, given the current state of technology, what should our planned energy source-mix be to give the best balance between emission reduction commitments, community cost, and reliability 24/7; and secondly, should we be selling coal overseas? The response to the first I have tried to deal with, but the latter also needs to be dominated by the facts: several billion humans in developing countries have no access to electricity (and as a consequence no running water and modern toilets etc), ; coal is currently the only feasible energy means by which poor countries are going to improve the energy lot of their people; Australia is blest with some of the "cleanest" low emission coal in the world, and using our coal rather than the costlier available alternatives will reduce emissions by 30%, or even more with newer cleaner technology (which we should also be adopting in OZ). Those opposing for example Adani, are not just short-sighted but are being cruel and discriminatory at an epic level. We need a very different approach which has to be new-technology and research-based.

Eugene | 09 February 2019  

Hi again Eugene. In service of rationality, maybe check https://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article/australia-needs-its-own-green-new-deal

Dr Marty Rice | 10 February 2019  

Thank you Greg for an excellent article that examines the prevailing attitude of many macho Australians towards the environmental problems we face. Australians who have a responsible attitude to environmental care were appalled when Scott Morrison took a lump of coal into parliament and then saw it brazenly passed around by LNP Coalition MHRs. Could it be that this reflects the situation in the eastern states where fossil fuels are mostly used to generate energy? Such events make us feel the future is very bleak, however, I feel that there is much cause for optimism. Farmers for Climate Action and the Lock the Gate movements have taken off and seem to be coming quite influential formidable in farming communities across the nation. In SA, the former Weatherill ALP government closed the Leigh Creek coal mine and converted the energy source of the Port Augusta Power Station from coal to solar and backed it up by obtaining a huge battery to store the energy. It was very pleasing to see that the people of Gloucester in NSW only a week ago stopped the plans to develop the Rocky Hill coal mine. This is being hailed as a landmark in "climate litigation" – not just in Australia but also overseas. In the meantime, we all need to support indigenous communities in the NT and other parts of the nation to resist Origin as it proposes to gear up for fracking following the expiration of the moratorium against it. We all have to demand that our future energy needs will come from clean, safe and sustainable sources.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 21 February 2019