Getting Real on Climate & Power

“Even as our fellow citizens died in the flames or fled for their lives, and as billions of creatures burned alive, truth and power stood in mortal contest over the meaning of the immolation.”

min read
David Ritter
Share this post

One warm spring lunchtime four years ago, I arrived at Luna Park in Sydney, passing under the unblinking eyes and deranged rictus grin of the iconic nine-foot face to speak at a corporate luncheon being held in one of the venue’s waterside conference rooms. There was a fairly neutral crowd in attendance. No fossil fuel executives as far as I could see, but nobody institutionally inclined to environmentalism or climate activism either.

In the amiable pre-lunch chat, I was told repeatedly that there was an expectation that what I had to say would be “interesting.” I hoped to effectively advocate a particular case, based on the evidence at hand, that no corporate strategy or organisational plan was capable of withstanding the kind of temperature rise from global warming that was currently projected if we did not rapidly change course. For that reason, I would put it to the group, it should be part of the mission of every business, organisation and institution to play an active role in the high-speed transformation of our energy system.

Two minor incidents from the event stand out in my memory. The first is that, when I delivered one of the key lines about the likelihood of global catastrophe under business as usual scenarios, someone at the back of the dining room dropped a tray of cakes with the kind of clatter that would not be out of place in a goofball film. Correlation is not necessarily causation, but the comic timing was impeccable. Maybe this is the way the world ends, not with a bang or a whimper, but with crazy hijinks at the funpark.

The second came a little later, during the questions, when one 30-something man in a suit whom I didn’t know thanked me for my talk, and then good-naturedly gestured at the window and challenged me with all the amiability of two buddies on a golf course. “Come on David,” he began with sunny confidence, “Look outside! Can it really be that bad?"

The intervention felt companionable, not condescending – like my interlocutor was looking out for a mate who worried too much about life. I could almost imagine the friendly pat on the shoulder. And, for sure, as I followed his hand motion out across Sydney Harbour, the world looked exquisite as the waters gently waved to us, criss-crossed by ferries and pleasure-craft caressing their tender ways under an ambient cerulean sky.

I’ve checked my diary and the event in question took place in October 2017. That perfect day fell during a month in which the Bureau of Meteorology recorded Sydney’s temperatures as having been 1.5 degrees above historical average. One of the features of this phase of the climate emergency is that perfect days may not be what they seem. In the same period, the extent of Arctic sea ice was down almost 20 percent on the 1981-2010 average.

Almost exactly two years later to the day, I was back on the banks of the Sydney Harbour in a different venue, this time attending the Asia Pacific Impact Investment Summit. In contrast to the earlier occasion, nobody was taking comfort from the diurnal surroundings. Light ash was falling from the sky and the brownish air smelled of burning, but among the gathering, reactions were muted as if nobody knew quite what to say.

It was an early day in Australia’s unprecedented spring of fire. There had already been deaths and appalling destruction on the frontlines, but in the heart of the emerald city, the uncongenial atmospheric conditions were yet to acquire their full menace – still more like the rude intrusion of gross novelty best ignored than the dominating circumstances of wholesale cataclysm that would prevail over the summer to come.

I was at the forum to participate on a panel consisting of impact investors Danny Almagor and Michele Giddens, with Charly Kleissner joining by video from the USA. As the session progressed, our discussion became full of emotion. One of the attendees later blogged that it was “very un-conference.” Danny spoke with visceral vulnerability, beginning with his family’s suffering in the Shoah, before turning to the commitment he feels is needed to be “all in” as an impact investor, to transition the world to a new economy built on principles of decency and sustainability.

I remember wondering how on earth to follow Danny’s rawness, and found myself talking about the coming of the cinders in the air and what they might herald. I wondered aloud whether the escalating inferno could be Australia’s “Chernobyl moment” bringing undone a political order premised on deceit and mismanagement. Empires, though, have a habit of fighting back, and if that requires denial of truth, so be it.

As the fires took hold, in the virtual world of the web, strange things were happening. Back in May 2019, Greenpeace had published an investigation in partnership with journalist Michael West called Dirty Power, which laid out the extent of the connections between the Morrison Coalition government and the vested interests of the fossil fuel corporations. Now, as Australia began to burn, the number of organic visits to the video sharply spiked. There was, it seemed, heightened interest all over the world about why the national government of a country so vulnerable to severe climate change damage had no credible plan for reducing carbon emissions.

The catastrophic fire scenario was brought about by a combination of extreme drought, heat and dryness, all symptomatic of worsening anthropogenic global warming, of which the use of coal, oil and gas is the greatest driver. The fossil fuel industry created the tinderbox and then, in the vast majority of instances, it was dry storm lightning that lit the spark. Yet as the wildfires spread, so did a smog of lies about what had caused them.

Queensland University of Technology social network analysis expert Timothy Graham told The Guardian that based on his real-time analysis, “Australia suddenly appears to be getting swamped by mis/disinformation as a result of this environmental catastrophe.” Bots and trolls vastly exaggerated the role of arson in causing the bushfires, or ludicrously sought to put the blame on forest conservation. The ABC reported in late January 2020 that only about one percent of the land burnt in NSW and even les sin Victoria could be attributed to arson. Nonetheless, the dishonesty caught hold and put truth to the torch.

A follow up Greenpeace investigation, Dirty Power: Burnt Country was made possible by a generous philanthropist with a family history in quality journalism, and laid out the extensive role of News Limited in particular in driving the epidemic of lies. Even as our fellow citizens died in the flames or fled for their lives, and as billions of creatures burned alive, truth and power stood in mortal contest over the meaning of the immolation.

Then came COVID-19 and the pandemic fell like a frost, chilling political conflicts. Scott Morrison’s response to COVID-19, the mooted “gas-led recovery” accompanied by his government’s continued obfuscation on climate action, creates the impression that the regime wasn’t shaken.

However, while Canberra remains dismally stuck, elsewhere there are profound signs of people driving momentous change based on the truth. Strong anecdotal evidence is that the number of impact investors who are “all in” is surely growing. The state governments have announced step-change turns to renewable energy. And in the mainstream corporate world, household names like Bunnings, Telstra, Aldi, Woolworths and others have renounced the dirty power of fossil fuels and committed to buying only clean electricity by 2025 or sooner.

I’ve spoken with the heads of those businesses and others, and while each leader had their own take, recurring themes are also in evidence: matter-of-fact acceptance of the science, close analysis of the business case, the imperative of community, employee and stakeholder expectations, and a proper reckoning with the duties at hand. As one of the chief execs said, his business had never doubted the facts of global warming, and when they looked at what needed doing, “it was just common sense.” Memory of the fires remains powerful too, sometimes permitting the personal to surface; as one CEO said bluntly: “I have kids too. I have to be able to sleep at night.”

In the Trente Glorieuses, those 30 years after 1945 when global economic equality increased in the western democracies, business was more closely aligned with the public interest and stood in greater harmony with government and workers. The long crisis of 1914-1945 and the threats, first of fascism and then state communism, engendered circumstances that delivered a generation and a half in which prosperity and economic fairness rose together. This is not to be pollyannaish about the period. Sexism, racism and other prejudices remained largely unaddressed; nuclear annihilation was just a button away; there was domestic political oppression associated with the Cold War; and of course countless bloody conflicts fought between proxies of the superpowers in the developing world, among other blights. At the same time though, there is no doubting that it was a period of an unparalleled, sustained and extraordinary increase in economic equality and security in the west.

Now, just as then, capitalism faces existential threats – this time from global warming and ecological collapse. Once again, there is the opportunity for a new era. What is required is an historic alliance of community with capital, in balance, with a program based on a true understanding of the finite boundaries of our planet, and the infinite capacity of our species for achieving astonishing things when we work together, for the common good. Maybe yet, truth will be the daughter of fire.

David Ritter is the Chief Executive Officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, campaigning to secure an earth capable of nurturing life in all of its magnificent diversity.

//---Read time---// //---Share social---//