New Weather, New Politics

The extremes now hammering Australia leave old perspectives stranded.

by George Monbiot

Five children and their grandparents survived an inferno by spending
three hours clinging to a jetty in the sea

I wonder what Tony Abbott will say about the record heatwave now ravaging Australia. The opposition leader has repeatedly questioned the science and impacts of climate change. He has insisted that “the science is highly contentious, to say the least” and asked – demonstrating what looks like a wilful ignorance – “If man-made CO2 was quite the villain that many of these people say it is, why hasn’t there just been a steady increase starting in 1750, and moving in a linear way up the graph?”. He has argued against Australian participation in serious attempts to cut emissions.

Climate change denial is almost a national pastime in Australia. People like Andrew Bolt and Ian Plimer have made a career out of it. The Australian – owned by Rupert Murdoch – takes such extreme anti-science positions that it sometimes makes the Sunday Telegraph look like the voice of reason.

Perhaps this is unsurprising. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal – the most carbon intensive fossil fuel. It’s also a profligate consumer. Australians now burn, on average, slightly more carbon per capita than the citizens of the United States, and more than twice as much as the people of the United Kingdom. Taking meaningful action on climate change would require a serious reassessment of the way life is lived there.

Events have not been kind to the likes of Abbott, Bolt and Plimer. The current heatwave – so severe that the Bureau of Meteorology has been forced to add a new colour to its temperature maps – is just the latest event in a decade of extraordinary weather: weather of the kind that scientists have long warned is a likely consequence of manmade global warming.

As James Hansen and colleagues showed in a paper published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the occurence of extremely hot events has risen by a factor of around 50 by comparison to the decades before 1980. The extreme summer heat which afflicted between 0.1 and 0.2% of the world 40 years ago now affects 10%. They warned that “An important change is the emergence of a category of summertime extremely hot outliers, more than three standard deviations (3s) warmer than the climatology of the 1951–1980 base period.” An extremely hot outlier is a good description of what is roasting Australia at the moment.

So far Tony Abbott has commented, as far as I can tell, only on the fires: “Our thoughts are with the people and the communities across the country who are impacted by the bushfires,” he says. Quite right too, but it’s time his thoughts also extended to the question of why this is happening and how Australian politicians should respond. He says he’s currently on standby with his local fire brigade, but as his opposition to effective action on climate change is likely to contribute to even more extreme events in the future, this looks like the most cynical kind of stunt politics.

To ask him and others to change their view of the problem could be to demand the impossible. It requires that they confront some of the most powerful interests in Australia: from Rupert Murdoch to Gina Rinehart. It requires that they confront some of the powerful narratives that have shaped Australians’ view of themselves, just as we in the United Kingdom must challenge our own founding myths. In Australia’s case, climate change clashes with a story of great cultural power: of a land of opportunity, in which progress is limited only by the rate at which natural resources can be extracted; in which this accelerating extraction leads to the inexorable improvement of the lives of its people. What is happening in Australia today looks like anything but improvement.

This, I think, is too much for Abbott to take on: as a result he has nothing to offer a nation for which this terrible weather is a warning of much worse to come. Australia’s new weather demands a new politics; a politics capable of responding to an existential threat.



17 thoughts on “New Weather, New Politics

  1. It seems that the only thing that is going to bring on a change of attitudes is a sustained and ongoing environmental and economic crisis. As for those of us who are awake, we just have to keep voting against the corps and the pollies by continuing along the path of reskilling. Every food product and energy resourse that we have produced by our own means has done its little bit to undermine their power.

  2. Hi

    I’m interested to know how established Permaculture sites in Australia are holding up to this kind of extreme weather, compared with conventional farms/gardens.

    Surely this is a crisis but it could also be an opportunity to show the benefits of permaculture…

  3. The just released [Nov2012]World bank report “Turn down the Heat” needs to be required reading for all pollies, & all schools. BUT THE PROBLEM IS & ALWAYS HAS BEEN IT’S NOT HAPPENING TO US SO IT’S NOT OUR PROBLEM. Remember less than 10% of Ozzies now live on the land the rest are in the cities & 50% in Oz are in the Big cities (a bigger % than any other country in the world) & these people who don’t read Permaculture Bytes they see it all on TV as they sit in their A/C “living room”. & the news flows over them like water off a duck’s back – no effect whats-soever.And in 3 months time summer will be over & people will be thinking about easter hols in Bali.
    Eventually, in about 50 to 100 years, Surfers Paradise, South Melbourne, Glenelg, Freemantle & Botany Bay including Mascot Airport will be almost wiped out by rising sea levels due to glaciers speeding into the Antarctic seas after the Antarctic ice shelves have sublimated out of existence. Also threatened will half of Jakarta, Rotterdam, Calcutta, Bombay, Shanghai New York, London, & Venice & New Orleans again plus half of Bangladesh & of course all the small Island states plus Kuta {thank’s be to G} plus plus. Then & only then can we expect some belated response from our pollies. Until then prepare for mutual group self-sufficiency using permaculture etc like small towns of old & get free of dependence on the interlinked systems which will eventually crash as crisis overwhelm them.

  4. The likes of Tony Abbot are a source of embarrassment to many Australians.
    I would like it to be well understood by the non Australian Permaculture community that many Australians citizens and Australian permiculturalists are trying to change things here, just like everyone else on the planet who understands the issues at hand.
    However, changing things here politically is akin to swimming in mud or that great Aussie saying “Pushing shit up hill”.
    Most of the first world has been anesthetized by the Murdock empire sponsored consumer driven “lifestyle”. It is the jail cell you can not touch, see, taste or smell.
    All that wanting and buying and more wanting is a bizarre lie that is stacked up like a house of cards, and to suggest consuming less is almost treason.
    I find it almost impossible to discus either climate change or peak oil issues in my community, it really is a taboo, you simply can not mention it.
    When I am not physically working to enrich my biosphere I am exploring ways to help people wake from their destructive, consumer driven slumber and roll over into an abundant, enriching life. Some days its hard work, other days impossible, and on the odd occasion there is a rare breakthrough.
    It is mostly unacceptable so even say “hey, look, there is a ‘better’ or even ‘another’ way to do things” as ultimately I am threatening someones LIFESTYLE or livelihood.
    Two days ago, just 30 km away from me, six homes were lost in a 1300 hectare blaze. I drove through the area and with my permaculture EYES I observed the fire path and pattens. The houses lost were on ridge tops, surrounded by either eucalyptus or pine tree monoculture, others equally exposed to the fire which survived were surrounded by a mixed European forest culture such as birch, oak, ash and fruit trees, or built on mid-slopes or in valleys.
    If I were to state this obvious observation within my community I would be made a social outcast. I can not even discuss the causes and effects of the devastating floods we experienced here 2 years ago when 50 houses in the town were damaged. No one wants to know that things could be done differently, it would be like they would have to acknowledge there have been errors made and no one wants to own up.
    Most victims of both these events will make no connection between their suffering, the extreme climate events our collective culture has produced and the products of badly designed infrastructure.
    The government is content to stay in denial and apply band-aids so that the status quo can be maintained.
    I am always happy to discuss ways we can DESIGN and ACT to get out of this mess.
    Carolyn Payne
    Mudlark Permaculture

  5. Carolyn, agreed! It really is pushing shit up hill trying to bring bad news to every day folk, especially if it goes against their belief systems. From my experience – not a good use of my time or energies. Even if you manage to find commom ground on an interlectual level, taking it from the head down to the heart and further on to the hands and feet is a real skill.

    Me thinks the ‘fragmentation of our human existance’ is the bottle neck that blocks the flow of any real positive change. For example, without a solid community with a shared vision, based on love and trust, there exists no ‘sacred ground’ where folk can express all their hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties, failures and loses, etc, etc. This is another shared experience we desperately need to bring back to life again. Without that support, for most, the leap is too big.

    I came across a quote by Michale Meade who talks about young men and initiation – (para) that when young men have community support from Elders, Fathers/Uncles and younger men, woman and families, all within their community – they “burn” their passion and youthful exuberance on the “hearth” of their community – a Community designed to hold them safe, however, when there is no “Hearth” – no Community structure for them to “do what young men need to do”, then they will burn the Community down!! ”

    From my experience, by simply sharing in all the good stuff of life, is fun for me, less stressful and most likely to help people take that first step.

    Just a thought:-)


  6. Feeling for you guys over there! I’m in a similarly blaze prone region of the US, and made it through a horrendous summer last year. Carolyn, I wish you the utmost of success. Don’t discount the small and slow, perhaps even invisible effect your work might be having. Planting seeds is all we can do sometimes.

  7. A poignant reminder of how our vote is damned if we do…damned if we don’t in an election year…as Jason Gerhardt said so succinctly and poignantly…”Planting seeds is all we can do sometimes”…seeds of change are the most important of all but seeds are seeds

  8. Hi all,

    Yeah, we’re feeling it Down Under and today is another maximum of 37 degrees with winds howling in from the centre of the continent. I’ll do a video update over the next few days – assuming I don’t get burnt out in the meantime – to show what is working and what isn’t. I’ve had to make some hard choices…


  9. George seems to have Tony Abbott summed up pretty well, but of course it is not just Tony’s side of politics that have got it wrong. The other side has done nothing that will make an iota of difference, only sugar coating the problem. The US has just gone through an electoral year of political stagnation and I guess it is our turn for much the same this year. As with the US, it doesn’t matter who wins the next election, it will still be more of the same. You get what you pay for, and those influential entities doing the paying, already know they will get what they want. Heck, they even know how to somehow make it look like we are getting what we need. Here as in there, and I suspect many other countries, it is the party political system that encourages such gross incompetence and corruption and nothing short of revolution or nature’s wrath is going to alter that.

    Meanwhile, things are moving fast. Tying in with Georges theme, I want to point to a recent blog post of mine…
    …in which I link to the Dave Pollard blog ‘how to save the world’. Dave has now given up trying to save the world, or at least the human society part of it, as pretty much so have I. All of the environmental, political, permacultural activism in the world is not going to make more than a small dent in the armour of our civilisation in the time we have left to attempt that. So why bother? Better to put our energies into ensuring we ourselves (and anyone who will listen of course) have the practical skills and knowledge to at least give us some chance of continuance through and beyond the coming upheavals.

  10. This is an amazing photograph. It will actually wake some people up to the global warming problem, I believe. In momentous times pictures can sometimes do a lot, hope this one goes far. Best wishes to those in the midst of fires.

  11. Unlike most people i have read plimers book
    He doesnt deny climate change may be caused by humans,he merly sugests there are other cycles going on that may have a greater or lesser affect on climate
    the following are facts.;;;
    Water evaporates less at altitude and in the soil
    It is cooler in the shade

  12. Yes, Andrew Curr, you have obviously read Plimer’s book because you are behaving just the way he does in raising random facts that have no bearing on the subject, using evasion and distraction techniques to draw attention away from points that you know to be unarguable.

    Here is a quote from one of his interviews that illustrates my point: “So carbon dioxide is absolutely vital for living on earth; it’s plant food, all of life lives off carbon dioxide. To demonise it shows that you don’t understand school child science.”. Those are just random facts that are totally irrelevant to the subject and a conclusion that completely misstates the intent of those who oppose his views.

    Ian Plimer’s views and denialist position can be dismissed out of hand because they are coloured by his mining industry role. Did you know that he is a director of many mineral exploration and mining companies and has hundreds of thousands of dollars of mining shares and options? He therefore has a vested interest in playing down or twisting climate change facts. Dirty business.

    His stated position on the Australian carbon-trading scheme was that it could decimate the Australian mining industry. What a joke. It has had little if any effect on that industry, which actually makes it a quite useless measure in the overall scheme of things. But that’s another story.

    So Andrew, what’s your connection with the mining industry?

  13. Thanks Glenn. Yes, I do like the Dark Mountain Project and I visit there (the website) occasionally for inspiration. I remember making a comment here a while ago on this post:, when I first came across their work.

    Sadly, the group operate in the UK and not internationally. I don’t see a way that it could realistically operate here in Australia because of distances and also I don’t think we have that same sense of community in this country like the Brits do. Any sort of cultural community here is made up of senseless hippies or middle class yuppies who like to party but couldn’t tear themselves away from their lifestyle for the life of them. Mind you, I don’t dismiss the possibility that it may also be the same situation generally over in the UK but I would like to think that these ‘mountaineers’, as they call themselves, are actually genuine people with a genuine interest in what they are doing.

    So, I really don’t mind watching Dark Mountain from afar.

    I also like Charlotte Du Cann and have been following her writings in the Transition Network for some time. A master wordsmith is Charlotte. She has recently taken some sort of work with the Dark Mountain Project and has penned this wonderful picture of where they stand going into their fourth year:

  14. bernie >>>> just did some more recearch on mr plimer
    it turns out myself,Charles darwin Abe Lincon,Ian plimer are all born on the same day;;;; see any patterns developing
    try and focus your energy more positivly whils maintaining your rage
    PLimer is a Geologist so hardly suprising mining peeps use his skills nb geology and mining are kind of related
    i would suggest the coolnes s of shade is VERY important in a greenhouse

  15. Cheers Bernie,
    At the black mountain project … Ya just don’t know, nothing is for sure, the answers just come …or they don’t. Seems like a good way of being. Thanks for the well. Glenn

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