98% of the world’s scientists believe human activity is causing climate change through the mining and burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas), in turn driving the frightening increase in greenhouse gases, which warm the Earth’s atmosphere. With that comes: extreme weather, endangerment of ecosystems and water security, the warming of oceans and subsequent bleaching of coral reefs, infectious diseases, famine and a threat to national security (war). It’s not some lefty greenie conspiracy—even the US military consider climate change a “threat multiplier” for conflict and believe Australia is neither prepared, nor taking the opportunity in the Asia Pacific region to lead the way.
Reflections on Climate Change in Four Uneven Acts
Act 1: A Recent Conversation at the Butcher
(Livestock grazing occurs on 55% of Australian land and has major impacts on land condition and biodiversity but I continue to eat grass fed steak—although sparingly)
Butcher: How is this weather?
Me: I hate it, Sydney has become Singapore—which is not what I signed on to living here. It’s climate change.
Butcher: I’m glad you said it… I mean, let’s say for the sake of argument that climate change is happening—that it’s real…
Me: Do you believe, for the sake of argument, that the world is flat?
Me: Do you believe in climate change?
Butcher: Yes… but not everyone does.
ACT 2: The Angry Summer and a Lars Von Trier Movie in Paris.
One February summer afternoon, overwhelmed by searing temperatures combined with 100% humidity, ‘cabin fever’ (usually associated with weather so ferociously cold that berserk behaviour sets in when trapped inside) took hold… but this was heat and it was something else. Heat had never put me off doing what I wanted to do, despite being genetically designed for Scotland. I spent my early childhood in Western Australia where, without sun-screen, we fried our faces and would bust blood blisters on the soles of our feet so we could run bare-foot and pain-free, on hot, melting asphalt and across prickle-infested verges… It’s not like I haven’t experienced hot summers. This day, as is the daily habit—not mine but that of the man I live with—I checked the BOM weather map on my iPhone; the image was a vision of swirling red, yellow and orange: Australia looked like it was on fire because it was.
I headed for a park by Sydney harbour, one I go to most days because it’s walking distance from my inner city home and a sublime break from urban intensity—green open spaces, trees, water, all manner of people, dogs, wild native birds, the odd cat on a leash, fish that jump, and visiting fairy penguins all of which co-exist—the mood is always gently joyous, even on grey days. This day, the park was spookily empty. On any other weekend at 5pm, there would have been several packs of 20-30 somethings picnicking, dog-walkers, teenagers playing football, toddlers making a run for it as their parents try to catch them and bundle them home, the odd crazy white person still sunbathing while looking overly tan… But it was evidently too hot to venture out. Those who had were either standing still or taking it very slow—stunned like the cockatoos untypically silent and the flighty lorikeets barely shifting in the trees.
I looked up at the sky and thought: the light reminds me of Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia…
(It’s a jump, I know, but go with me here…)
In 2011, I saw Melancholia in a grimy Paris cinema, close to the Sorbonne and with an audience who, like me, takes the subject—the end of the world—in their nervous stride. (My partner not so much but then he’s allergic to dark films and prefers anything Will Ferrel). Written and directed by Lars Von Trier, this story is more psychology than special effects. The main characters are two sisters—one seemingly conventionally well-adjusted (Charlotte Gainsbourg doing demure and well meaning): she’s married and lives on an estate with her husband and young son; the other sister (Kirsten Dunst at her sly and sceptical best) sleeps with another man (not husband) at her own wedding, is depressive and not given to being nice to people or horses (there’s a whipping scene). Outside the drama of family relationships, there’s a sci-fi storyline running about a rogue planet—‘Melancholia’—that has emerged from behind the sun and threatens to collide with earth.
In the final act of the film, the planet passes, (as some scientists in the film predicted) but it circles back (as the internet doomsayers in the film predicted). Made deliberately melodramatic by the Wagnerian score, the Kirsten Dunst character guides her nephew into a half-finished skeletal tepee—a make-believe ‘magical’ place. At home with darkness and looming catastrophe, she knows what to do. Her face a picture of smiling peace, she takes her nephew’s hand and asks him to close his eyes; his mother is close behind but by contrast to their beatific calm, the Charlotte Gainsbourg character is consumed by pure terror…
Then, the vast fiery mass that is the rogue planet ‘Melancholia’ roars up ferociously behind them and they are all blown off the face of the earth.
After Melancholia, we exited the cinema and stepped out into a very cold Paris winter’s night—I took in the details as one does when alert to the possibility of not existing: Christmas lights like fireflies adorning grand facades, lovers folded into bulky coats; café windows misted by the warmth of human breath. We walked home past the Cluny museum, which houses the medieval treasures of Paris and has survived revolutions and two world wars, across the Seine via an ancient bridge which has been re-built many times, past the gothic beauty and gargoyles of Notre Dame and through the imposing and battered 17th century back door of our building opposite the Shoah museum in the Marais (where it’s impossible not to notice that the list of victim’s names inside the building far out-stretch the external wall naming the ‘righteous’).
There’s no escaping the palimpsest of history and humanity’s past crimes in a city like Paris. In Australia, it’s not the same, escaping we do well.
Act 3: What’s Wrong with Us?
I hadn’t thought about Melancholia or that winter’s night until the ‘angry summer’ of 2016/2017, and the strange light that triggered my memory. Melancholia is about depression, not climate change but It made me think of something else: Australia’s disconnect as represented by our dangerous drift on doing sweet nothing about climate change. We are NOT going bravely forward into this new century. We are slow and apathetic, leaderless and on the wrong side of history or as Mike Sandiford, Professor of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne put it when asked about Australian politicians on climate policy, we are “swaggering like a drunken sailor”.
Us non-Indigenous Australians have barely come to terms with the negative consequences of our colonial history, the reality of Indigenous experience and deep knowledge, or the land—whose value and beauty often elude us but we exploit mercilessly and fail to care for, even when those actions threaten to cause serious harm, and that land is the source of our great wealth and well–being.
I can’t imagine the French bulldozing the Louvre or the Cluny Museum because there was coal to be dug, or negligently trashing centuries of art and artefacts to achieve a short term political, or profit-driven business goal by an individual with a private or publicly listed company for whom lobbying works. The French not only understand the value of culture, connection and history, they’re not commercial schmucks either—those places and what they house within them, are one of the main reasons people visit and spend money in their country. They understand why it’s necessary to take very good care of their cities and countryside.
We might not have the Louvre or the Cluny Museum, but this is an ancient land and much of Australia’s extraordinary treasures are in nature: the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu, Uluru National Park, the Daintree…We are a country home to the first songbirds in the world (lyrebirds, parrots)—intelligent birds that evolved 1 million years before intelligent apes. 70% of our mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs, about two-thirds of insects and 86% of plants are found nowhere else on the planet but we have one of the worst extinction and decline records in the world. We continue to log forests for cheap paper products, destroying the habitats of our unique creatures like the endangered Leadbeater’s Possum, Swift Parrot and Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo. Cutting down trees pumps more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; planting significantly more trees would contribute to the arresting of climate change. (And there’s many jobs—the 4 letter word with the greatest rhetorical thump worn thin by politicians currently—in looking after national parks and growing trees but that doesn’t get much airplay).
When will we get that we cannot continue to live as we have since the industrial revolution? We have to design new ways of living to care not only for future human beings but for the creatures of this world, and nature whose existence never depended on the burning of fossil fuels.
I think of the brilliant Pixar film Wall-E. Set 700 years in the future (although it could be now), human beings have abandoned Planet Earth, which is nothing more than a giant land-fill site with spooky malfunctioning advertising. There’s not a tree or plant in existence, the sky is nicotine yellow and ghost skyscrapers stick out like broken limbs in a war zone. No ‘life’ remains because humans have junked the planet. Wall-E, a sweet and lonely robot with a pet cockroach and a talent for remaking junk into domestic art lives out his days, stacking metal garbage. Meanwhile in a far-off galaxy, morbidly obese humans float around like giant babies sucking down slurpies on a McDonalds-inspired Cruise ship listening to fake histories — unaware of the planet from where they came. In the end, they are saved by Wall-E who leads their return to earth with his supersonic love Eva. They return, precious green plant in hand, hoping to re-plant Earth and start over. It’s the movies, of course, but we’ve learned a lot from the movies. Why stop now?