Inside Story

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Hollywood ending?

Amid the relief at Joe Biden’s engagement with climate change, did we lose sight of what’s happening on the ground?

Jo Chandler The High Road to Glasgow 30 April 2021 1916 words

One hundred per cent improvement: US president Joe Biden speaking at last week’s Leaders Summit on Climate. Anna Moneymaker/EPA

What’s that feeling? When you dare not believe that something, the thing, might finally be real? When bitter experience teaches that there’s still plenty of scope for it all to go to hell?

Surely the Germans have a name for it? Sehnsucht, which I gather translates as a sickness of yearning, might get close. “Collingwood?” suggests a sad case of my acquaintance. In my vernacular it’s Copenhagen Syndrome.

It’s the morning of 20 December 2009 and the copy of the Sunday Age carted aboard a flight from Melbourne to Hobart, en route to Antarctica to join scientists at work on the front line of the fracturing ice. “COPENHAGEN COP OUT,” bellows the front page. “The Copenhagen climate change conference last night appeared to have ended in chaos.” Puff goes Hopenhagen, vanishing in so much hot air.

Climate long-haulers can track their moments of rupture further back. “This time I am not holding my breath. This time I am not smiling,” wrote Adil Najam, an international relations specialist and co-author of two epic International Panel on Climate Change Assessment Reports (3 and 4), as he nursed his own Copenhagen wounds en route to the 2015 UN “Conference of the Parties,” or COP, talks in Paris.

“I am not a cynic — just old,” he went on. “Old enough to remember the dashed hopes of Kyoto [COP 3, 1997], the purposeful energy of Berlin [COP 1, 1995], the naïve optimism of Rio de Janeiro in 1992 where the UN framework convention on climate change was first adopted, and even the calls for urgency when the negotiation process was first launched by the United Nations in 1990.”

The Paris COP21 turned out not to be another epic fail, at least in terms of aspiration. As to what it delivers, that remains in the balance as we hurtle towards Glasgow COP26 this November, a year late courtesy of Covid-19 and with the core Paris goal of holding heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius now “virtually impossible” in the assessment of the Australian Academy of Science, among others.

The last best hope is a high road of supercharged ambitions to Glasgow. So it is that the pit stop contrived last week by US president Joe Biden was — is — crucial.

Having spent fifteen years, on and off, reporting on climate science and the fallout from warming on nature and humans, becoming all too viscerally attuned to where every fraction of a degree is taking us, watching the predictions play out is a grim business. Not just the big stuff of hellfire summers and cooked coral reefs, but the invisible shifts in the firmament that unhook bees from pollen, bogong moths from pygmy possums, krill from penguins, crops from nurturing seasons, fishers from their catch, children from the meal of the day.

So I’m barracking for Biden’s program. What choice is there? And yet.

I pore over his speech opening the summit, trying to divine solace, something to cling to. He’s not mad, or malign. There’s a 100 per cent improvement.

He’s not just brought the United States back to the climate table, but also upped the ante by pledging to halve its emissions by 2030 (50–52 per cent), inspiring similar moves by Japan (46 per cent) and Canada (40–45 per cent). For the moment let’s avert our eyes, like polite society, from prime minister Scott Morrison, hunkering down on Australia’s measly 26–28 per cent and playing for time we don’t have with vaguely defined technological fixes (an article of faith somewhat dulled when he got stuck on mute).

Let’s contemplate the prospect that while concerted action by other nations won’t restore a friendly, familiar planet — we’re way past that — it may render it “less bad,” as veteran Australian scientist David Karoly optimistically frames it. As in, less circles of hellish.

I keep recalling that scene in Postcards from the Edge, where the Carrie Fisher daughter character (Meryl Streep) catalogues the damage done to her by the Debbie Reynolds mother character (Shirley MacLaine). “I was such an awful mother,” her mother responds. “What if you had a mother like Joan Crawford or Lana Turner?” “These are the options?” responds the daughter, incredulous. “You, Joan or Lana?”

The White House virtual climate summit put a rocket up world leaders with a meticulously crafted enunciation of realpolitik. Biden’s opening speech enlisted a judicious sprinkling of appeals to the better angels (“moral imperative,” “the existential crisis of our times,” a “healthier, fairer, cleaner” planet); an undertone of urgency (“we have to take action,” “time is short,” “we really have no choice”); and a raw soundbite (“the world beyond 1.5 degrees means more frequent and intense fires, floods, droughts, heatwaves, and hurricanes tearing through communities, ripping away lives and livelihoods.”)

But most of the eight minutes that would change the world were devoted to the hard sell of global heating not as calamity but as opportunity. The prospect that action will deliver rich nations still more wealth and their leaders the catnip of popular votes. This would be “an extraordinary engine of job creation and economic opportunity,” “millions of good-paying, middle-class, union jobs,” an “economic imperative” and “a strong foundation for growth.”

“The countries that take decisive action now to create the industries of the future will be the ones that reap the economic benefits of the clean energy boom that’s coming.” (That’s only what economist Ross Garnaut has been spruiking to Australian leaders and voters since 2008, but never mind.)

Biden conjured up from his Zoomed lectern visions of shiny, happy future workers capping abandoned oil wells, toiling on assembly lines of electric vehicles, replacing gas stations with charging stops, capturing carbon and pumping out green hydrogen. Farmers on the new frontier tilling carbon into the soil. Deliverance from the flames and a Hollywood ending.

And don’t get me wrong — bring on the renewable economy. I get it. And yet there’s so much missing, obscured, in this vision.

Our new post-carbon prosperity will enable us to “help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change.” Urgent questions of climate justice, equity and reparations are not touched on. The cynicism is gobsmacking.

These would be the same countries rendered vulnerable by shattering histories of colonisation, disenfranchisement and extraction. Countries now being lectured on adaptation and resilience as the spoils of their exploited labour and minerals are returned to them as droughts and cyclones and rising tides.

How unconscionable this looks up close we saw a few weeks ago in Timor-Leste, with thousands displaced and the death toll mounting, Dili awash, and Canberra offering commiserations and support. Given Australia’s “slow-walking” on climate action, straight-shooting development veteran Gordon Peake likened the situation to pumping out water with one hand while running the tap with the other.

Biden’s summit curtain-raiser was also mute on the millions of human lives already and inevitably disrupted, cut short, lost in the gathering momentum of the forces we have unleashed. On the spiralling extinctions of creatures we profess to value, and on the vanishing of wild places.

Cynically, strategically, pragmatically, call it what you will, the architects of this critical intervention have taken to heart the observation credited to Stalin that while a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic. And they’ve taken on board Paul Slovic’s work on psychic numbing, on statistics representing “human beings with the tears dried off.” Both were discussed in a recent Climate One podcast by US scholars Anthony Leiserowitz and Ed Maibach, directors of the Yale and George Mason universities’ climate communications programs, exploring what we understand about human perceptions of risk and responses, and how this can be enlisted to get traction on policy.

It ain’t rocket science. Or ice-sheet dynamics. “The most powerful form of communication we have is what we relied on when we were still huddled around fires in the stone age, and that is telling stories,” explained Leiserowitz. “Telling and sharing experiences from one person to the next. Don’t eat that berry, someone in our tribe ate that berry and died… Story is absolutely crucial.”

With apologies to those thousands of scientists slogging their way through countless datasets to find consensus and produce the IPCC’s epic sixth assessment report next year, it seems none of it will cut through as seismically as well-told tales of the travails and triumphs of individuals. Narratives of “polar bears or abstract future generations” clearly haven’t cut it. It’s got to be about us. And it’s got to be framed in terms of the solutions, not the problems.

More cynically, observing the spotlight dwelling on Biden’s farmers and workers, it seems it’s got to be about people recognisably “us,” and the solutions that work for “us.” What does that say about our ability to connect to the humanity of others? If their stories don’t resonate, what’s to blame? Is the failure in the lack of stories, in the content, or in the story telling itself?

Which brings us to the imperative business of what stories are told, and of who tells them. These are questions being asked in and of newsrooms in the context of Black Lives Matter, and which apply equally in climate coverage, recognising the entwined undercurrents of race, colonialism, equity, access, justice, suffering.

The great individual, human story shared at the opening of the Paris COP, the one that lingers in memory and conversations as prescient, transformative, effective, connective, was one that would have struggled to find column space in a mainstream newspaper or digital site. It’s the ordinary, extraordinary story of a mother of the Marshall Islands, Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner. It’s angry, empowered, resolute and authentic. It’s recounted as a poem addressed to her daughter, “a seven month old sunrise of gummy smiles… bald as an egg and bald as the buddha.”

I want to tell you about that lagoon
that lucid, sleepy lagoon lounging against the sunrise
men say that one day
that lagoon will devour you
they say it will gnaw at the shoreline
chew at the roots of your breadfruit trees
gulp down rows of your seawalls
and crunch your island’s shattered bones
they say you, your daughter
and your granddaughter, too
will wander rootless
with only a passport to call home
dear matafele peinam,
don’t cry
mommy promises you
no one
will come and devour you
no greedy whale of a company sharking through political seas
no backwater bullying of businesses with broken morals
no blindfolded bureaucracies gonna push
this mother ocean over
the edge
no one’s drowning, baby

Journalists and editors can’t escape the conclusion that our storytelling has not risen to the task in this make-or-break moment. Sure, there were and are extenuating circumstances. The collision of the devastating digital disruption, with its hollowing out of newsrooms, and the spiralling climate crisis has been magnificently exploited by a fossil-fuelled machinery of denial and delay. Regardless, as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote in 2018, when the UN sounded the siren on the vanishing prospect of a 1.5 degrees guardrail, “just as the smartest minds in earth science have issued their warning, the best minds in media should be giving sustained attention to how to tell this most important story in a way that will create change.”

There are other voices, other renderings, other priorities. Other mothers. Other options. •

The publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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