The events around the removal of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister of Australia have caused dismay and anger right across the country, not just because of the internecine politics involved but because the malcontents have undermined efforts to face the terrible threats posed by global warming and climate change.
Our new prime minister, Scott Morrison, will likely be haunted by his photo wielding a lump of coal in parliament to taunt the Opposition: ‘This is coal–don’t be afraid, don’t be scared.’
For decades the scientific evidence about climate change has been overwhelming, and climate scientists are growing very alarmed about Australia’s failure energetically to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As the leading earth scientist Will Steffen wrote, climate change could be much worse than anticipated, a view amplified by fellow earth scientist Andrew Glikson in this SPC news.
Denial about climate change is strongly driven by some among powerful coal and gas interests which are intricately represented in parliament and key government departments, and not least in conservative media.
These fossil fuel interests are of course immensely important for Australia as the world’s largest exporter of coal and one of the largest producers of liquefied natural gas. Energy exports constituted about 40 percent of our exports in 2015. Coal exports in 2017 were worth $56.5 billion, and employed 59,000 people in 2014. Natural gas exports are expected to rise from 52 million tonnes in 2016-17 to 77 million tonnes in 2018–19. LNG earnings will increase from nearly $30 billion in 2017-18 to over $36 billion in 2018-19.
A Faustian bargain
But this is truly a Faustian bargain, with the promise of astonishing riches dragging the world into environmental devastation and climate disaster. Pope Francis and other religious, scientific and civil authorities are warning of ‘catastrophic’ consequences.
Already extreme weather events are increasing in number and severity, breaking records from Africa to Tokyo. Europe and much of the northern hemisphere have experienced exceptional heat and drought, and even in Australia the fire season has pushed back two months earlier into winter, raising concern about the approaching summer in such a long dry period.
Australian farmers are well aware of the impacts of climate change. The president of the National Farmers Federation, Fiona Simson, recognised that climate change was making drought worse, and lamented that political representatives were tiptoeing around the reality.
Even if we keep increasing global temperatures down to an increase of only 2 degrees C to meet the Paris goal, Sydney and Melbourne could still face 50 degrees C, and many more heatwave days. Sophie Lewis and wrote in The Conversation:
‘An attitude of ‘nothing to see here’ from our leaders, when all the evidence says otherwise, leaves our health sector, economy, ecosystems and, as we see now, our struggling farmers exposed to climate change impacts.
‘It may also leave those politicians and industry leaders making such claims wide open to potential liability for future loss and damages, if recent legal cases are any guide.’
In the Pacific and Asia, rising sea levels are causing alarm, not just in low-lying islands and parts of Fiji, but in the great river deltas and agricultural areas. By 2100, sea levels are expected to rise by a metre or even significantly more if the great ice sheets in Greenland or Antarctica were to melt. Some 100 million people currently live only a metre above high tide levels. Flooding of many of the great megacities could displace even more people.
One of the leading climate scientists, Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, in the foreword to What Lies Beneath, The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk, by Ian Dunlop and David Spratt, warns that at stake ‘is the very survival of our civilisation, where conventional means of analysis may become useless’ and that ‘climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.’ Schellnhuber advised Pope Francis in the writing of Laudato Si’ and helped launch it in the Vatican.
Cardinal Mueller’s attack on Laudato Si’ & Pope Francis
On a recent visit to Australia, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller in an article by Tess Livingstone in The Weekend Australian (28-29 July) was quoted saying ‘environmental policy is nothing to do with faith and morals. Those issues are for politicians’ and voters. ‘Bishops are not scientists, environmental experts or politicians’. They ‘should concentrate on religion’.
This was an astonishing statement from Mueller, former Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith till 2017. On his logic, the Church should refrain from speaking on issues that rely on scientific evidence or informed experience, such as, presumably, how to deal with hunger, poverty, bioethics, nuclear weapons or issues of war and peace.
Yet in all such areas, the Church is advised closely by specialists, just as Pope Francis is advised on climate change by top international specialists and organisations.
The Church is bound to speak on many issues which affect human wellbeing. That is what morality and religion are all about, especially when it involves feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, naked, prisoners etc. on a global scale, as with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which are so closely linked with Laudato Si’s alarm about the environment and gross inequality.
The heading for The Australian article on Mueller, ‘Pope not infallible on environment, leading cardinal said’, was misleading, since the Church has never claimed to speak infallibly on moral issues.
Nevertheless, Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ is certainly one of the most authoritative forms of Church teaching. Catholics are of course free to form their own consciences on these issues, but to simply dismiss the science is gravely irresponsible and risks complicity in failing to oppose an immense human and environmental tragedy.
There is nothing in Catholic teaching preventing people believing in flat earth theories. Such people would be simply silly to ignore the evidence. But wilful ignorance about the anticipated disastrous consequences of climate change, which will threaten the lives and wellbeing of hundreds of millions of people, is surely morally culpable.
As Professor Robyn Eckersley from the University of Melbourne said, this is a moral argument: ‘this is a generational and civilisational challenge which they are ignoring.’
It is bizarre for Cardinal Mueller to attack the Pope’s concern for social justice and the alleviation of poverty. No wonder Francis did not reappoint him to his previous role in the Vatican. Why was Mueller invited to speak to the conservative Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy in Sydney, and why have his views apparently not been contested? The Australian printed no response to Mueller that I could find, including my own letter to the editor.