Record high temperatures — including the UK reaching 40 degrees for the first time — fires blazing in Spain, France and Greece, infrastructure failing and thousands of heat-related deaths suggest Europe is having a Black Summer moment.
The future has arrived, and earlier than expected. We’re used to thinking of global warming as a slow-motion emergency, one for the long term, with policymakers bandying around targets for 2050, not just safely off beyond the next electoral cycle but beyond a timeframe most of us think about our own lives with.
Then a major event arrives to remind us that, sorry for the inconvenience, lazy thinking ain’t gonna work. Like Black Summer in Australia. Then floods. Flood after flood after flood. Now it’s the northern hemisphere’s turn. White people like most of us, making it more photogenic for Australian media.
The disasters will cause a spike in calls for action and voter resentment towards politicians who seem disinclined to take action — as happened with Scott Morrison in Australia. A moment of genuine change will seemingly beckon when the sense that the emergency must be addressed seems unstoppable.
But meanwhile, fossil fuel companies are busy behind the scenes, constantly using every tool available to control the policymaking process: funding, employment, fake research, publicity campaigns, the cooperation of allied “media” companies like News Corp to deny climate change.
Evil never sleeps, and evil is patient. Fossil fuel companies know that electoral spikes in demand for climate action can be resisted and seen off. The weather will change, the issue will drop out of the media, daily life will once again preoccupy us. And the hard work of capturing and keeping the state policymaking apparatus will continue.
In the US, Democrat Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia has just derailed the Biden administration’s plan for significant climate action. Not merely is West Virginia a coalmining state, but Manchin is also a recipient of massive coalmining donations and an investor in coalmining.
He’s only the most egregious example of the way in which fossil fuel companies — supported, inevitably, by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News — have blocked climate action for decades by controlling senators, especially when flyspeck states like West Virginia, population <1.8 million, get the same number of Senate votes as California (40 million) or New York (20 million).
Less ostentatiously, state capture continues in Australia despite the ouster of the corrupt Morrison government. The Albanese government remains committed to expanding Australia’s coal and gas exports. Like the Coalition, Labor receives large donations from fossil fuel companies. Like the Coalition, Labor figures work for fossil fuel companies. Labor even has fossil fuel interests — via the Australian Workers’ Union and the mining division of the CFMMEU — embedded within its structure.
Labor is committed to a much more ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target than the opposition, which remains in climate denialist mode. But Australia’s direct contribution to global heating, as the denialists love to tell us, is very small. The problem is our massive gas and coal exports to other countries.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of those exports is a European company, Shell, which pays no tax on its exports of offshore gas, despite making tens of billions of dollars from it. Another beneficiary is the European company Glencore, Australia’s biggest coalminer, and another of the world’s tax dodgers. European policymakers may not be captured so directly by fossil fuel interests as Australian and American politicians are, because there is relatively limited resource extraction in Europe, but Europe is home not merely to Shell and Glencore but BP too.
These companies all work assiduously to convince policymakers to pursue business as usual, to resist calls for urgent climate action, to focus on the long-term — even to sponsor their own scam solutions to global warming like carbon capture.
The weight of public opinion can be resisted with enough money and enough long-term relationships forged with the right political figures. Look at the Liberal Party in Australia — despite losing a huge number of seats in May, it remains wedded to denialism.
Only genuine political disruption will defeat the business-as-usual policymaking of states captured by fossil interests. Just another summer of discontent won’t be enough.
Bernard Keane is the political editor of Crikey, where this article originally appeared