Climate change, as seen in Australia

Australian politicians are fond of looking down the barrel of a camera and saying “Australia is meeting – and beating! – its international emissions targets”.

They’re lying.

OK, technically they can look their kids in the eye and claim they’re not lying – just – because if you employ a couple of loopholes built into those targets back in the 1990s, Australia is (technically) meeting them. But that’s a bit like various bad actors that pay zero tax saying they meet all their tax obligations. They might domicile themselves in low-tax countries and/or use shell companies to avoid paying taxes. Yes, to the letter of the law, they are acting ‘legally’. According to the spirit of the law – i.e reality – they’re tax-avoiding arseholes.

Australia is a climate arsehole. Climate change in Australia is a bit of a joke.


As I write, Australia is in the grip of a national fire crisis.

Bushfires have so far burned 5.8 million hectares of land (over 22,000 square miles). That’s twice the area of Belgium, or around half of Pennsylvania – burned. At last count, 19 people have died. Over 1700 properties have been lost and an estimated half-billion animals have died, including thousands of already endangered koalas.

For too many Australians, the Australian summer tradition of beaches and BBQ’s has been replaced by P2 breathing masks and wholesale evacuations. This weekend, all down the south-east coast, Australian towns saw sunny days turn into visions of hell itself, complete with blood-red skies (if not complete darkness).

Evacuees at Mallacoota

It’s only January 5. Summer won’t end until Australia’s hottest month is done with. That’s February.

These fires are so bad that they’re creating their own weather systems. One created a fire tornado powerful enough to overturn a 10-ton fire truck, killing one of the volunteer firefighters inside (Australia’s large cities have professional paid firefighters. Outside of the cities, we have professionally trained and equipped volunteers).

This is a big bowl of not-good we’re eating.

Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was asleep at the wheel when it all started and has scurried (tripping over his own feet) to make amends ever since.

This weekend, he announced a significant assistance package from the federal government. That assistance is welcomed (even if it’s late) but in reality, it’s just applying a bigger bandaid to the symptoms of Australia’s climate recalcitrance.

Australia needs prevention rather than triage.


Making sense of Australia’s climate arseholery requires a bit of a history lesson.

It all starts with an emissions agreement called the Kyoto Protocol. Let’s go back to 1997, when John Howard was still a first-term Prime Minister, and some 8 years before he bowled a cricket ball like a punchdrunk gibbon (which has nothing to do with anything. It’s just funny).

This is the short version. For the full Kyoto story, check out The Conversation.

Australia’s Environment Minister at the time was Robert Hill. He went to Kyoto and by all accounts, he earned every dollar of his salary by negotiating an extraordinary agreement. Hill argued special circumstances for Australia and, keen to have everyone on board and ensure some positive optics, the conference eventually (and reluctantly) agreed. While other regions committed to reducing their emissions by 5-8% compared to 1990 levels, Australia was allowed to increase emissions, committing to a cap of 8% over 1990 levels.

Hill also argued for an insertion now known as the “Australia Clause”, whereby emissions from changes in land use would be included in calculations.

Emissions were supposed to be based primarily around the burning of fossil fuels. The inclusion of land use (i.e. land clearing) was a big deal because around 1990, Australia had been clearing land at crazy rates. That rate had dropped substantially by 1997 so Australia’s emissions target – an 8% increase – would be measured against an artificially inflated base year. We could do next-to-nothing and still meet our targets, which is exactly what we did.

Australia went on to increase fossil fuel emissions by around 28% but because of the Australia Clause (let’s call that the Kyoto Loophole), the government could claim we had still met our 8% increase target.

Fast forward to 2007, when Kevin Rudd was elected as Prime Minister. Rudd called climate change “the greatest moral challenge of our time”. He was right.

Rudd’s government developed a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme but after the debacle that was the 2009 UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen (where countries would not agree to binding commitments, only to “take note” of agreed targets), Rudd found himself devoid of the numbers to pass his Scheme in parliament and devoid of the management skills to do anything about it. Constantly pricked by the opposition leader, Tony Abbott (the blackest soul to ever darken the door of Australian politics), Rudd went into meltdown mode and was eventually replaced as Prime Minister by his deputy, Julia Gillard.

Australia’s first real attempt at a climate policy had gone down in flames.

I won’t go in to further detail on the history of Australia’s climate policy here. If you’re a wonk and you want some more info, check out this timeline that covers the dotted history of attempts at a carbon tax in Australia (including a jaw-dropping cameo by Al Gore posing with one of Australia’s biggest – figuratively and literally – mining barons).

Suffice to say that Australia has rarely tried and ultimately failed on climate change. Julia Gillard got an emissions trading scheme up and running but Tony Abbott repealed it when he came to power a few years later. Abbott established a direct action fund that let businesses set their own targets and then made it easier for them to expand those targets if they couldn’t meet them. Malcolm Turnbull proposed a National Energy Guarantee that would look to cut emissions from power generation, then lost his Prime Ministership over it.

Australia first failed to establish a climate policy way back in 2009 and we’ve had no credible climate policy and no credible national leadership since.

Even worse, we’ve had cynical politicians treating us like mushrooms (keeping us in the dark and feeding us bullshit), counting on the notion that history has forgotten the Kyoto loopholes.

Tony Abbott, our conservative Prime Minister from 2013 to 2015, was the first to make the cynical claim that Australia was doing more than other countries because we were actually (invoke Dr Evil fingers here) ‘meeting our targets’. Anything to appease the masses.

That talking point has now evolved into various conservative MPs claiming that we will meet our Paris targets “in a canter”. If we meet our Paris targets – a big if, given that emissions continue to rise – it’ll only be because of decisions taken by the conservative government to include ‘carryover credits’ calculated using the dodgy Kyoto Loophole.

Yep. Against plenty of international criticism, we’re stacking the deck again.


Australian politicians also like to say that our country only contributes 1.3% of world emissions.

Again, this is Australia being a climate arsehole.

The raw statistic is technically true but the statement ignores a couple of things.

A) – the fact that we’re the world’s second-biggest emitter per capita. Yes, we emit 1.3% of world emissions here but we’ve got just 0.3% of the world’s population.

B) – Even worse, the coal we dig up here counts for the emissions totals of other countries. If the coal we profited from around the world counted towards our emissions totals, we’d be responsible for something more like 4-5% of world emissions.


I know I’ve used the term ‘Climate Arsehole’ to describe Australia and its historical behaviour in this article. The truth, really, is even more damning.

One of the worst things you can call an Australian is a ‘bludger’ – someone who doesn’t like work; who doesn’t do their fair share, preferring to slack off and rely on the efforts of others. It goes against something at the core of our national character – the Aussie notion of a fair go, doing your bit and helping out your mates.

Australia is a climate bludger.

What makes that even worse is that Australia being bludgers gives permission for others to be climate bludgers as well. It reduces our credibility as a country on the international stage. It reduces the trust that other nations have in us.

Worst of all, and most important of all, it places our country at significant risk because Australia is getting hotter and hotter. The fire season claims more properties, more ground, more businesses and more lives every year – and it’s only getting worse.


To the Australians reading this…..

Whenever a politician says that our climate policies are credible, that we will meet our targets – they are bullshitting you. They are counting on you not knowing the truth behind the numbers, and being too busy to find out.

Australia can’t fix climate change by itself. That much we know. But we have to be real about the science and what it means for our country, and for the world. We have to get on board and work with sincerity to get other countries on board, too.

Mother Nature doesn’t care about your talking points. She will have her way.

If you want to make a difference, you need to write to your local member of parliament. Here’s how you can do that (Facebook link). I might cover that more in a follow-up post.


Conservative politicians were recently fond of saying that Australia’s national debt was “intergenerational theft”.

I couldn’t think of a better description for our climate policy debacle yet strangely, you don’t hear that phrase at all from Canberra during bushfire season.


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post-script…..

Someone will bring up the idea of The Greens being responsible for Australia’s fires because they wouldn’t allow backburning or fuel reduction burns.

This is a theory fondly pushed by Barnaby Joyce on occasions, and recently mentioned in passing by Scott Morrison as well.

It’s bullshit.

#1 – Making a policy like that requires the power to make laws. When have The Greens ever held power anywhere at state or federal level sufficient to develop, impose and enforce such a policy? They haven’t. They shared power once in Tasmania and no such policy was enacted. Other than that, they’ve been a bit player in Australian law-making, at best.

#2 – The Greens own website talks about fuel reduction burns and their support for them. Check it out.

The widely acknowledged reasons for any existing drop in fuel reduction burns are:

  • A shorter window for doing so without risk of the burn-off spreading.
  • Reduced funding restricting the number of personnel available to conduct these burns.
  • Local community groups being concerned about them.

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16 Comments

  1. I was amazed when I recently read that Australia is one of the worst for burning coal. The cigures I saw stated that 80% of Australia’s power is derived from coal whereas in the UK the figure is 2%. We actually had one day last year of totally coal free power production. Still lots to do but at least we are heading in the right direction.
    Aside – On a recent trip to the Netherlands I was amazed by the number of Teslas on the road. Then again whether that is helping will depend on how the electric is generated of course.
    One last thing – regardless of the causes of the reduction in back burning it does seem likely that this has exasperated the situation. What do you think about whether this should be encouraged in future?

    1. Hi Steve,

      Yes, we are coal whores. That’s a whole other post.

      Backburning and fuel reduction burns – they absolutely have to be done. For that to happen, they have to be funded and an appropriate safe window selected for the burns to occur. That window is getting shorter and shorter each year, however, thanks to climate change.

      I’m not advocating a case for just being a hippy and hoping for the best. We definitely need to have measures to mitigate and repair fire damage.

      Put it this way – we are in the new normal. Even if the world pulls its collective finger out and reduces emissions, global heating is only going to rise slower. Average temps (long term) are unlikely to fall from what I understand. The extraordinary scenes we’re enduring now – and the measures required to address them – are unlikely to get any easier.

      We need to strive to keep this as a base line. Now that is a scary scenario.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to research and write such a coherent, compelling story. It’s scary and sad, however, that so many just turn their backs and don’t listen because they’ve been told climate change is a hoax.

    1. Ted, agreed excellent piece by swade.
      IMHO I think we are in the grips of a double whammy in that it is likely that the world is in natural warming phase but this is coinciding with the human race being completely irresponsible. This is both a short and long term issue as we may push things to the point that the earth will never cool again and just get hotter and hotter. Better get those Mars colonies built I guess 🙁

  3. Our native Australians have been back-burning for over 40,000 years. I lived in Arnhem land until the mid 1980s and flew over the area several times a week. It was common to see minor fire-fronts burning steadily but under control, before the dry season. the vegetation and the wildlife thrived and there were no major disastrous fires.

  4. everybody that’s educated on the issues understands it is the same problem, the environmentalists, and Democrats have created in the US, specifically, the disasters in California.

    not doing back burning that has been a long held policy to mitigate these risks.

    it’s all documented. look at the correct research.

    and as long as the idiots dictate the wrong policy, we will continue to see enormous damages from bushfires.

    1. Backburning is becoming one of the talking points here, too, but it’s a risk of also becoming a distraction.

      From the news here in Australia today (reputable source – The Age):

      Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants to see more action on land clearing and hazard-reduction burns, but experts warn burns are ineffective against extreme fires such as the destructive blazes seen this summer.

      They also say Australia is carrying out more prescribed burning than in previous decades and to do much more would lead to heavy smoke affecting communities throughout winter….

      …..Associate Professor Philip Zylstra, from Wollongong University’s Centre for Sustainable Ecosystem Solutions, said fuel loads in forests, and state government management, were not responsible for the catastrophic fire season.

      “I think that for the federal government to say there needs to be a focus on hazard-reduction burning at this stage appears to be passing the buck to the states,” he said.

      “The reality is we are at a peak of prescribed burning by state agencies. More has been done in the past decade than in many, many decades.”

      NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean said there were 960,000 hectares burnt for hazard reduction last year, while the previous highest yearly total since 2000 was 260,000.

      Professor Zylstra said a vast increase to the current hazard reduction effort would blanket cities and towns with smoke over winter and create “huge risks” of accidental property damage and even death…..

      …..A 2010 study from Wollongong University, The Effect of Fuel Age on the Spread of Fire in Sclerophyll Forest in the Sydney Region, found there was only a 10 per cent chance a fire would be stopped by a hazard-reduction burn. It said road barriers were most effective at halting fires.

      “This summer’s fires have burnt though many areas that had hazard-reduction burning. They can help control fires in moderate weather conditions, but in severe conditions it might just help reduce the severity,” he said.

      Cleared buffer zones in the bush within 40 metres of houses reduced house losses by an average of 43 per cent on Black Saturday, Professor Gibbons’ study found. But he said no one technique was a solution.

      And a poignant quote at the end:

      “If there was a silver bullet on bushfires we’d have found it by now, after the 51 inquiries since 1939.”

      The big variable in those 51 enquiries in 80 years is climate. The baseline environmental conditions in which fires burn now are much hotter and drier than they’ve ever been.

      Managing the fuel load IS important. Managing it wisely is even more important.

      But it doesn’t replace the need for real global action on climate and that’s something Australia simply isn’t participating in.

      1. interesting read, thanks.

        i’ve been in the US for 20 years, and haven’t kept up with Aus policy positions, but surprised there’s no push for the environment, and global warming, particularly, given the hole in the ozone layer being above Aust, and the consequent health issues related to rising numbers of those inflicted by skin cancers etc.

        Where’s Peter Garrett when you need him? Greens to Labor, now where? Burning the Midnight Oil?

        maybe they need to have large tracts of land with no vegetation to mitigate?

  5. To add to the sadness here: Australian authorities have arrested over 180 miscreants for arson in connection with this crisis. It is incomprehensible to me to deliberately destroy anything of value, much less put people, animals and farms in harm’s way.

    Whether you subscribe to wildfire mitigation, blame government, blame coal miners or blame careless businesses or not for the dry and hot circumstances, I hope you can identify with personal injury and vandalism as reprehensible and contribute to relief efforts.

    1. Eggs, you know when I see a surprising claim on here that I’ll investigate it, right?

      Sadly, the #1 source that I found was Breitbart. Please don’t use Breitbart stories to inform contributions here.

      That 180+ arrests have been made for fire-related offences is true but as always, the devil’s in the details. Only 24 of those arrested are suspected of arson. The rest are for minor infringements that could (potentially) lead to fire, such as lighting a prohibited BBQ on a ‘total fire ban’ day.

      (I believe the story from The Australian that Breitbart would have used would have likely spelled out the detail in the text, though it would be hidden in the headline. That’s the way Rupert’s people seem to be working nowadays).

      Those arsonists should be prosecuted and subject to the full force of the law. And the penalties should probably increase. No sympathy from me. The destruction they’re causing – whether it’s loss of life, loss of property, loss of businesses or loss of wildlife – is horrific in the true sense of the word.

      With regards to loss of business (just one aspect but an important one) – Australia relies quite heavily on tourism. It’s a major, major revenue source nationally, and especially in the areas that have been hit hardest by these fires. The stories of tourists cancelling their visits to areas hit by fires couldn’t come at a worse time. It’s summer. It’s their peak season for generating income that will sustain them through the rest of the year.

      The point – government laziness on this issue doesn’t just hurt in the sense of immediate property loss or loss of life. It’s going to become a major, major reputation issue for a country that treasures its reputation as a summer destination.

      (Realising at this point that I’m brain-farting and this isn’t so much relevant to your comment – this is pretty much another blog post)

      We are all sympathetic towards those hit by the fires. We’re all doing our bit to pitch in and help through donations, etc. But how long can we reasonably expect the world to help a country that doesn’t help itself with the way it lives?

      1. Not Brietbart, I do not read that site. The Australian, Newsweek and Sydney Morning Herald all reported the 183 number. (The Australian is first in Google results.)

          1. Strange. It was the #1 source when I checked the claim this morning. In fact, it was the only source that showed up on my phone, which is even stranger.

            Anyway, apologies for the assumption.

            But the breakdown of the numbers remains true.

            To quote:

            Since November, authorities in NSW have charged or cautioned 183 people for some 200 bushfire-related offences – malicious and otherwise.

            Of those, 24 people have been charged with deliberately lighting bushfires.

            Another 53 were charged or cautioned for failing to comply with a total fire ban and another 47 with discarding a lit cigarette.

            24 people were malicious. The rest were stupid and as we all know, it’s not always possible to legislate against stupid.

  6. they should give them life sentences, send a strong message of deterrence to those of similar ilk.

    charge them with murder.

    1. Disagree. By all means, make the penalties tougher for Arson. But the justice system has different laws for different offences for a reason.

      1. how many deaths from the fires so far?

        hearing 25 in the media here, assume that number will continue on a northbound trajectory, unfortunately.

        would those people have been murdered, had it not been for the arsonists. highly unlikely based on purely statistical facts, regarding how infinitely unlikely it is to end ones life as a result of murder.

        if they get some empathetic prosecutors there, they should file murder charges.

        they’d likely be reduced to manslaughter.