In the "before times" - before lockdowns, vaccinations, daily case numbers and press conferences - schoolchildren took to the streets to protest the Australian government's climate inaction. Inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, students around Australia demanded to be heard and pleaded for politicians to treat the climate crisis as a catastrophe. Children understand the ramifications, yet these have clearly gone over the heads of our government.
In the lead-up to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this month, the Coalition government spent weeks infighting about what emissions reduction target it should bring to the table, if any. After facing local and international pressure to bring forward our 2030 target, shot down by the Nationals and ruled out by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, they fought over even the more conservative aim of net zero by 2050. Just days before COP26, the junior Coalition partner conditionally agreed to back it but declined to publicly disclose its list of demands. It's infuriating to watch this navel gazing over an ineffective target that many have now moved on from to focus on more ambitious goals. We cannot wait until 2050 - we need meaningful and critical action before 2030. Yet we're being held to ransom by a minority Coalition partner, intent on allowing the coal industry to persist well into the 2050s, who only received 13.2 percent of the national vote.
Who exactly are the Nationals representing? They don't represent the vast majority of Australians - 61 percent of whom support action to halve greenhouse emissions by 2030. They also don't appear to represent their own constituents who overwhelmingly support climate change action. According to Australia's Biggest Climate Poll, conducted by YouGov, 51 per cent of Coalition voters want more action on climate change and 20 per cent said this issue will most affect their vote, while one-in-four rural voters consider this to be the most important issue for the next election. After all, rural and regional Australians will be most affected by climate change, and 90 per cent say they're already impacted.
Like many of my peers, I feel as if my future has been stolen.
Young Australians have an even greater stake, as it's our future that will be most at risk. In 2019, the Australian Medical Association declared climate change to be a "health emergency" and the Australian Psychological Society called on the federal government to take urgent action due to its severe impact on the mental health of young people. In a class action against Environment Minister Sussan Ley by a group of Australian teenagers earlier this year, an independent expert witness calculated that climate change will cost each young Australian up to $245,000 over the course of our lives, not including the financial cost of health impacts. Climate change isn't a distant concept for us - it affects our choices and perceptions of our future. One-in-three women under 30 surveyed by the Australian Conservation Foundation and 1 Million Women said they are "reconsidering having children ... because of concern about an unsafe future from climate change". That we are having to make this difficult decision at all is indicative of the severity of the situation.
It's not surprising, then, that we overwhelmingly support climate change action. The Lowy Institute's 2021 Climate Poll found that 88 percent of Australians aged 18-29 believe that "the benefits of taking further action on climate change will outweigh the costs" and that 97 per cent support "subsidies for the development of renewable energy technologies". That the government ignores this - so much so that a group of teenagers felt compelled to sue the Environment Minister to prevent the approval of yet another coal mine - is beyond infuriating. It is downright deadly.
Most Canberrans spent the summer before the pandemic donning face masks and keeping indoors. Not to protect themselves from a virus, but from the acrid bushfire smoke that blanketed the nation's capital for over a month. We watched as the fires loomed closer, bringing supercell thunderstorms and a sense of impending doom, in a glimpse of what's in store for our future. The green city I fell in love with when I moved here in 2015 was unrecognisable; brown, dusty, parched and covered by orange haze, a colour we labelled "post-apocalypse orange". It felt like we had stepped into a future we knew would inevitably arrive, but we thought we had more time.
The Black Summer fires burned an estimated 18.6 million hectares, killed or displaced over three billion animals, destroyed over 5900 buildings and took the lives of 34 people, while the effects of smoke inhalation have so far contributed to a further 400 deaths. The fires were followed by a catastrophic hailstorm that damaged 45,000 cars and blanketed the lawns of Parliament House with golfball-sized hailstones. Yet before we had fully processed what we endured that summer, we were inundated with what could possibly be another climate change-induced crisis: COVID-19.
Climate catastrophe is taking its toll on mental health, especially that of young people. Eco-anxiety - a persistent fear of ecological disaster - is sharply increasing. Research conducted by the Australian Psychological Society estimates that 95 per cent of young Australians "believe that climate change is a serious problem", four-in-five are experiencing eco-anxiety and three-in-four feel that their concerns are not being taken seriously. It's also affecting our hopes for the future. A comparable yet compounded anxiety is felt by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. As Sue-Anne Hunter, proud Wurundjeri and Ngurai illum wurrung woman, wrote: "The traumatic legacy of dispossession, assimilation and racism lives within us, and continues to impact our communities ... the bushfire crisis adds another layer of trauma and complexity."
Harry Haggar, a 14-year-old climate activist from the Bega Valley, told me that that the fires that tore through 58 per cent of the Valley, destroying 448 homes and ending four lives, took a massive toll on residents' mental health. "There's still massive amounts of PTSD ... and this has especially impacted on young people," they note, yet "the best way to deal with this is through action," whether it's helping to organise or simply participating in local protests or organisations. Their advice to other young people experiencing eco-anxiety is to mobilise, "don't sit around doing nothing because inaction doesn't help ... at least if you're doing something you're trying to make an impact."
Young people like Harry are fed up with the inaction of this government and they're using their anger to fuel resistance. From the School Strike 4 Climate and Extinction Rebellion to Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network, many young Australians are fighting for a sustainable future. They're angry that the government has ignored their pleas to take the climate crisis seriously. I spoke with Kirsten Hoffman, a Canberra-based 23-year-old law student and environmental activist, who told me she is "over being outraged by the Coalition", noting the upcoming election and the inadequate climate policies of both major parties. Harry labels the government's inaction "extremely arrogant ... [they] haven't done enough, knowing the consequences. They've seen what's coming ... yet are doing nothing about it."
Hoffman, like Harry, finds solace in activism and calls for a "non-violent rebellion" to bring about change, although she also notes that "the priority when talking about Australian climate activism is to respect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander resistance". Jamie Graham-Blair, a proud Trawlwoolway Pakana man, argues that "sovereignty is climate justice" and, "for the sake of our planet Indigenous voices need to be heard, Indigenous strength must be shared". Otherwise, prospects are bleak.
Like many of my peers, I feel as if my future has been stolen. Thunberg powerfully articulated this collective trauma shared by younger generations in her speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019, spitting out the words:
"How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood ... And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!"
The rallying cry of a generation: how dare you!
- Dr Blair Williams is a research fellow in politics and gender-specific studies at the Australian National University.
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