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The complicated path to saving the world


What happens in a story after the hero defeats the big bad villain? In a saga like Star Wars, the fall of the evil Empire heralds the beginning of a new era. While often these stories end before this new world is fully realised, we’re left confident that our heroes’ commitment to freedom and justice will continue to prevail as a new order takes shape.

I was interested, then, to see the post-imperial Star Wars universe revisited in the recent TV series The Mandalorian. As the show delves deeper into the galaxy in the aftermath of the Galactic Empire, it becomes clear that the structures that supported the old regime and allowed it to thrive are still in place. The wealthy elite still conduct their business as usual, even quipping that it doesn’t matter to them who is in charge. Meanwhile people looking for help from the new government are still subject to the calculus of bureaucrats, and those on the margins can expect very little other than platitudes.

The message is disheartening: The totalitarian Galactic Empire might be gone, but the new rulers are struggling to make meaningful changes to the economic and bureaucratic structures that supported the old regime.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the discussion around climate policy in recent weeks. It’s clear that the work involved in saving the world from climate change is a lot more complicated than just changing governments.

After eight years of the Coalition dragging their feet on meaningful climate action, people were looking forward to seeing what might be put in place after Labor’s election victory. The Powering Australia Plan was released last year, and outlines the new government’s plan for tackling climate change and cutting emissions to achieve net-zero by 2050.

There is much ‘new hope’ in the plan. Renewable energy will play an important role in the country’s future. The aim is for renewables to power 82 per cent of the National Electricity Market by 2030 and there are plans to create 604,000 direct jobs and 540,000 indirect jobs in the sector. There are also plans to modernise and extend the energy grid, develop new technologies, and improve carbon farming and offsetting opportunities.


'I hope that whatever change can be pushed through at government level is enough to avoid climate catastrophe for the world’s vulnerable populations, and ultimately for us all. But unfortunately we can’t place all our hopes in our government’s ability to change the structures and mechanisms that have dominated our society for so long.' 


However, while it’s welcome to see these new initiatives, there’s little ‘out with the old’ to go with them. Indeed, a lot of it looks like business as usual for the fossil fuel industry.

Firstly, all indicators point to an expansion in the industry. According to the Government’s latest forecasts, Australia’s coal exports are expected to increase over the next five years despite falling global prices. Meanwhile, there are 116 new coal, oil and gas projects planned, which it’s estimated will lead to the release of around 1.4 billion additional tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually by 2030.

The recent deal with the Greens was a positive step. While these new projects won’t be stopped, they will be subject to limitations under the Safeguard Mechanism. There will be a cap on total emissions by 2030, which means that any emissions from new projects will need to be balanced out by overall reductions. Analysts say that half of the 116 proposed new projects could now be blocked. The pollution impact on any new projects will need to be considered after they’re approved, and there will also be some controls around the use of carbon offsets to ensure companies are making a real effort to cut emissions and not just offloading them.

Governments operate in the real world, not in fictional societies. They need to make policies that balance the competing interests of all their constituents. What has come out of the discussions between the Greens and Labor might not be ideal, but there’s a good argument that it’s the best possible deal for this moment. One wonders, though, if these best possible deals are enough.

The latest warnings from the Intergovernmental Panal on Climate Change (IPCC) are particularly dire. The IPCC warns that more than three billion people are living in areas already ‘highly vulnerable’ to climate breakdown. Populations in Africa, Asia, North, Central and South America and the south Pacific are struggling to adapt to severe climate changes, and are vulnerable to displacement. Global action is required.

A big issue is that the Powering Australia Plan takes responsibility only for emissions generated in Australia. There is no consideration given to the emissions from the fossil fuels that we are planning to export to other countries. Even if Australia manages to meet its emissions reduction targets, we’ll still be benefitting economically from emissions elsewhere while the rest of the world suffers the consequences.

Unless there’s an effort to find a way for Australia to prosper sustainably in a world without fossil fuels, one wonders how we can make a positive contribution to the global fight against climate change. 

The other science fiction series I’ve been thinking a lot about is the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. These books are set in a future universe where civilisation is on the brink of catastrophe. There are some who can see this catastrophe is coming, but they can also see that the current rulers are not capable of avoiding the inevitable. Instead, this group sets out to preserve what they can by creating a community on the outskirts of civilisation, gathering the wisdom and skills that will help society rebuild after the inevitable collapse.

It seems that our own civilisation is approaching something of a tipping point, a place where not one thing but a cumulation of smaller catastrophic events is making it harder to sustain the lives we’re currently living. Are our current structures going to be able to adapt enough to avoid catastrophe? And if our efforts aren’t sufficient, what seeds might still be planted to provide a hope for future generations?

This is where is where I find hope in our past, and a role for people of faith. Religious communities have always existed on the outskirts of society; places where different ways of living can be imagined, where wisdom can be preserved, and new life might flourish. While we can continue to hope (and vote) so that our governments might achieve some level of meaningful action to tackle climate change, communities also have it in their power to start imagining and building a different way of living in relationship to our earth, and with each other.

What often happens after a hero defeats the big villain is that they return to a quiet life at home. Sometimes other characters might say they are abandoning their responsibilities, but often it’s about the hero recognising that the skills involved in being a hero don’t translate well to government. But perhaps it’s also recognising that the work of building a new society doesn’t start at the top – it starts with the sort of society we build at the local level.

I hope that whatever change can be pushed through at government level is enough to avoid climate catastrophe for the world’s vulnerable populations, and ultimately for us all. But unfortunately we can’t place all our hopes in our government’s ability to change the structures and mechanisms that have dominated our society for so long. At the community level, we all need to be working to create a new foundation by finding sustainable ways of living with each other that might endure beyond our reliance on fossil fuels.




Michael McVeigh is Head of Publishing and Digital Content at Jesuit Communications, publishers of Eureka Street.

Main image: Neo-futuristic city (Getty Images) 

Topic tags: Michael McVeigh, Climate, Environment, Climate Change, AusPol



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