Science is integral to climate action, but to survive the climate crisis we will need to embrace the politics of climate change

New South Wales continues to burn. The Sydney basin is shrouded in smoke. Not haze. Not smog. Smoke. Smoke from megafires burning in the greater Sydney area and across NSW. Particulate pollution in some parts of Australia’s first city reached twelve times the level considered hazardous this week. Australia was counted as the second highest country globally for air pollution on Tuesday, 10 December 2019, ahead of India and China.[1] We are living through a climate emergency. However, the mass environmental destruction of NSW is not just a result of climate change. Climate change is an accelerant, like pouring petrol on a fire. The razing of NSW’s forests could only have happened because of extreme environmental mismanagement: extreme mismanagement of water resources; extreme mismanagement of forests; extreme mismanagement of pastoral land.

At state level, the Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian Liberal/National Party (LNP) governments have never put community interests first. Instead, they have securitised democracy, sold off public assets, and facilitated large scale environmental destruction. Over two million hectares of forest has burnt in NSW alone, with over a third of this in national parks.[2] Some of this was temperate rainforest, including remnants of the ancient continent of Gondwanaland which had never seen fire in tens of millions of years of existence.[3] These ‘hyper-catastrophic’ fires have destroyed vast swathes of already massively depleted and precious ecosystems and animal habitat, killing literally countless animals and releasing millions upon millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

This is also a national emergency. It’s not just NSW that is burning. Wildfires are currently burning in all six states and the Northern Territory.[4] Yet Scott Morrison’s federal LNP government is more interested in waging cultural and social lawfare: releasing a revamped version of proposed legislation to allow already state subsidised religious organisations to discriminate against people they don’t like in the name of ‘religious freedom’;[5] reintroducing its punitive ‘union busting’ legislation designed to silence workers and destroy collective action in the workplace, after it has already been defeated in the senate; and doing secret parliamentary deals to repeal the ‘medevac’ legislation which had forced the LNP government to provide medical treatment to refugees and asylum seekers it has effectively imprisoned indefinitely in offshore concentration camps in Australia’s former colonies in the south-west Pacific. The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy darkly observed echoes of Emperor Nero blithely playing the violin while Rome burnt, poignantly reminding us that, ‘Ultimately, we get the politics we deserve’.[6]

At the national level, the Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison LNP governments have unashamedly and almost criminally mismanaged Australia’s legal and moral responsibilities for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the natural environment, including significant world heritage sites that have been affected by these unprecedented fires.[7] This national, social and environmental disgrace is also part of a general global crisis which encompasses critically dangerous anthropogenic climate change, sickeningly extreme levels of wealth and income inequality, and a chilling slide into the brutality of illiberal politics.

In a healthy society, the unconscionably corrupt and craven wouldn’t get near the reins of power. But the resurgent culture wars fuelled and fanned by the conservative and neo-fascist right wing of Australian politics in hegemonic concert with the extreme concentration of mass media in the hands of the Murdochs and a few other very rich people, have distorted the truth, manipulated people through fear, and poisoned our democracy. Liberal and National Parties at both state and federal levels are incredibly compromised and complicit in the destruction of public institutions that support communities and protect the physical environment. According to Australia’s Prime Minister for Thoughts and Prayers, marketing magician extraordinaire Scott Morrison, Australia’s volunteer firefighters, exhausted from fighting unprecedented megafires in tinder dry conditions across vast areas of rugged country and forced to crowdfund essential equipment, are doing just fine, thank you very much, and, besides, they ‘want to be there’.[8]

And then, sensationally, NSW Environment Minister, Matt Kean, in the role since April this year, broke ranks with his federal Liberal colleagues on 11 December, the morning after the Sydney’s air quality reached third-world megacity levels of toxicity:[9]

We’ve got to stop making climate change a matter of religion and we’ve got to start making it a matter of science and the science says that we need to reduce the impact of global warming by two degrees and in order to do that we need to get to net-zero emissions by 2050.”

This shouldn’t come completely as a surprise. Despite the NSW Labor leader, Jodi McKay, characterising Premier Berejiklian as ‘missing in action’,[10] her government does have some pro-climate action form, with NSW Energy Minister Don Harwin blindsiding his federal counterpart, the allegedly corrupt allegedly Angus allegedly Taylor, over emissions targets in the Negative Energy Guarantee at COAG in December 2018.[11] And in another highly significant move, the federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley, representing the water-starved far western NSW seat of Farrer for the Liberal Party, quickly followed suit. Minister Ley attributed the ‘unprecedented’ conditions to the ‘dryness of the vegetation, particularly in the north of NSW, and the reduced streamflow’, adding that this is ‘what climate science has told me and I completely agree with it’.[12]

Minister Kean is of course absolutely right. Climate change is not a matter of religion. The scary thing is that he is saying it in 2019. We cannot afford to be beholden to a reactionary right bent on power and domination at all costs, and who peddle medieval superstitions to scandalise science and benight the realm, wiling their wicked ways into the dark heart of the Australian psyche. Anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism are hallmarks of totalitarianism – they are integral to the functioning of the dual machines of fear and misinformation, which operate in parallel though state security and mass media.

Yet, climate action cannot just be about science. Climate change is also inherently political. Politics has created the climate emergency through the development of modern industrial capitalism. More to the point, the impact on our global climate of fossil fuels has been clearly known since at least the 1970s.[13] The continued use, despite their undisputable contribution to the greenhouse effect, of coal and natural gas for electricity energy production, of oil for transportation, and of industrial animal farming were all political decisions of one kind or another. That is, decisions of institutionalised collective action. The acceleration of industrial consumer capitalism under neoliberalism has been presented as necessary for deserving western citizens to ‘maintain a way of life’, ‘protect jobs’, ‘ensure prosperity’ or what have you. Of course, it is really about protecting profit, maintaining privilege and ensuring continued domination by national and global elites.

Only politics can avert the worst, hyper-catastrophic impacts of critical climate change. Effective and timely emissions abatement, local and regional impact mitigation and community and environmental adaptation are all only possible if we take political action now. Science is also an integral part of this process, being deeply and instrumentally implicated in anthropogenic climate change. Science led to the technologies which have physically created the climate emergency. And science will be essential to abatement, mitigation and adaptation. However, science is not a panacea. Nor is it independent of politics. Science is knowledge, and knowledge is a function of power. To survive the global climate crisis, we will need to harness scientific knowledge and technologies and deploy them in the interests of people, animals and the natural environment. This requires political action.

Calls for climate action to be non-political appear to be motivated by two different agendas – reflecting two different uses of the concept of ‘politics’. The first approach arises from a well-meaning, but in my view ultimately mistaken, attempt to unify people to take action by divorcing the climate emergency from the political process. This discourse equates ‘politics’ with toxic, adversarial and bipartisan approaches in Australia’s two party system, reasoning that by separating out and excluding the political, they can depoliticise climate change and bring people together in a consensus for change. This angle was adroitly deployed by Kenneth Hayne, who led the Royal Commission into Australia’s out of control banking and financial services sector which wrapped up in February 2019. Hayne has said that company directors ‘can’t hide behind confused politics and “culture wars” to evade their duties on climate because the law and the science are clear’.[14] This appears to be an eminently reasonable, appropriate and constructive approach to the issue.

However, there is a second, insidious agenda at play in the depoliticisation discourse around the impacts of climate change, particularly in relation to the burning of NSW and other parts of Australia before the end of summer’s second week. This is the agenda of the destructive and reactionary right wing who want to silence Australians and stymie political action to address the climate emergency in order to shape a confused and morbid vision of Australian society. To achieve this, it seems, a deal with the devil has been made, and the price is the desertification of the rest of the Australian continent. This use of ‘politics’ refers implicitly to the broader concept of political activity in general, though it is couched in terms of apolitical unity as opposed to its real intention which is to shut down collective discourse and action.

The problem is, though, if we accept the first, ‘sensible’ type of depoliticisation, we create the conditions for the second insidious, instrumental and anti-democratic type to close down the national conversation on the critical importance of political action in saving this country and the entire earth and its inhabitants – humans, animals and plants – from the devastating impacts of climate change. Further, if we attempt remove the climate policy from the political sphere, where citizens are able to affect change, we will effectively be handing it over to an unaccountable and non-transparent technocratic power structure, and we would risk losing any ability to influence government policy.

Anthropogenic climate change is political. Deeply and intrinsically political. Climate change is not just about science. While science is essential to surviving the climate crisis, it is not a scientific problem per se – that is, something that can be solved by science. Rather, it is a political problem. Politics created the current climate emergency, and politics is our only effective tool for managing the crisis. The climate emergency is the result of collective human action, and can only be addressed through collective human action. By its very nature, it requires a political solution.

Kurt Vall
Sydney, NSW

*Originally posted on 12 December 2019, this post was updated on 16 December 2019 to correct minor errors not affecting the meaning of the text.


[1] World’s Air Pollution: Real-time Air Quality Index, accessed 11 December 2019, https://waqi.info/?fbclid=IwAR2XvFGcdVWRBV6eskKmQKNvVBJFd70Mhk9UHolDsRPJIKzE42DcV_XvmC4.

[2] Bo Seo, ‘“Breaking point”: Bushfires to grow Australia’s carbon footprint’, Australian Financial Review, 5 December 2019. Accessed 12 December 2019, https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/breaking-point-bushfires-to-grow-australia-s-carbon-footprint-20191205-p53h30.

[3] Ann Arnold, ‘Bushfires devastate rare and enchanting wildlife as “permanently wet” forests burn for first time’, ABC News, updated 6 December 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-27/bushfires-devastate-ancient-forests-and-rare-wildlife/11733956?fbclid=IwAR2G1naiVaVgpWJnM3_RfwSSXgkTEcewWkSb1vMwelV4J1o862Rc9Y5zhIM

[4] My Fire Watch, accessed 12 December 2019, https://myfirewatch.landgate.wa.gov.au/.

[5] Paul Karp, ‘Coalition’s revamped bill allows religious organisations to discriminate against staff’, Guardian, 10 December 2019. Accessed 12 December 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/dec/10/coalitions-revamped-bill-allows-religious-organisations-to-discriminate-against-staff.

[6] Katharine Murphy, ‘Scott Morrison and the Coalition are fiddling as Australia burns’, Guardian,10 December 2019. Accessed 12 December 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/dec/10/australia-is-burning-like-a-tinderbox-and-the-coalition-wont-acknowledge-voters-rising-fears.

[7] Ben Smee, ‘World heritage Queensland rainforest burned for 10 days – and almost no one noticed’, Guardian, 24 November 2019. Accessed 12 December 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/nov/24/world-heritage-queensland-rainforest-burned-for-10-days-and-almost-no-one-noticed.

[8] Scott Morrison, Twitter, 8 November 2019, https://twitter.com/scottmorrisonmp/status/1192993222173188096?lang=en; Helen Davidson, ‘Scott Morrison rejects calls for more bushfire help, saying volunteer firefighters “want to be there”’, Guardian, 10 December 2019. Accessed 12 December 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/dec/10/scott-morrison-rejects-calls-for-more-help-saying-volunteer-firefighters-want-to-be-there; Lucy Thackray, Luisa Rubbo, Bridget Murphy and Peta Doherty, ‘NSW firefighters crowdfunding upgraded face masks amid claims RFS gear insufficient’, ABC News, updated 11 December 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-11/nsw-bushfires-firefighters-raise-money-to-buy-face-masks/11790096; NASA – Goddard Space Flight Center, ‘Bushfires on east coast of Australia out of control’, Phys.Org, 8 November 2019. Accessed 12 December 2019, https://phys.org/news/2019-11-bushfires-east-coast-australia.html.

[9] Hanna Higgins, ‘This is climate change: Kean on bushfires’, Standard, 11 December 2019. Accessed 11 December 2019, https://www.standard.net.au/story/6537325/matter-of-science-kean-on-climate-fire/?cs=10264&fbclid=IwAR2DgGuPwKJnJB4eOjIfXKb6qcj3gIT4BDMHnhEICQFiQ_aN69IJ9fpJr-4.

[10] ‘Sydney news: Smoke less visible but pollution levels still far beyond hazardous levels’, ABC News, updated 11 December 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-11/sydney-morning-briefing-wednesday/11786520.

[11] Sophie Vorrath, ‘NSW slams federal Coalition over “extraordinary” refusal to reinstate emissions in NEG’, Renew Economy, 19 December 2018. Accessed 11/12/2019, https://reneweconomy.com.au/nsw-slams-federal-coalition-over-extraordinary-refusal-to-reinstate-emissions-in-neg-18516/.

[12] Emma Elsworthy, ‘Liberal MPs Matt Kean and Sussan Ley link bushfires to climate change’, ABC News, updated 11 December, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-11/matt-kean-blames-bushfires-on-climate-change/11787498?fbclid=IwAR22M2AWPskBnREnjJ_bhW_UFmZhnfFsbIWl04u6qyd6ej4ShUgXM1RsMfA.

[13] Shannon Hall, ‘Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago’, Scientific American,26 October 2015. Accessed 12 December 2019, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/exxon-knew-about-climate-change-almost-40-years-ago/.

[14] Kenneth Hayne, ‘What Kenneth Hayne says about climate change’, Australian Financial Review, 9 December 2019. Accessed 11/12/2019, https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/what-kenneth-hayne-says-about-climate-change-20191206-p53hiw.

Published by Kurt Vall

Based in Melbourne, Australia, Kurt studied linguistics, philosophy and Asian history at the Australian National University and is currently a graduate student in international relations at the University of Melbourne. He has over a decade's experience in public policy and administration in Australian federal and state government.

4 thoughts on “Science is integral to climate action, but to survive the climate crisis we will need to embrace the politics of climate change

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