$1 billion Australian dollars – Enough to Fight Against Environmental Catastrophe?

As featured in Edition 40, available here.

BY KALLI JAYASURIYA (Masters student - Gender and International Development - Coventry, UK)

In late January 2022, the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, officially declared state plans to invest $1 billion into protecting the Great Barrier Reef. Increasing temperatures have accelerated and worsened coral reef bleaching, a problem that other reefs around the world face. Since 1910, Australia’s average temperature has increased by 1.4 °C. Add to this unregulated tourism and overfishing and we end up with a nasty tangled web of decreasing biodiversity. Given that foreboding environmental crises are interconnected and transnational, Scott Morrison’s decision will have far-reaching effects. Not just materially, but also politically.

It is only mere coincidence, then, that this ‘ecological’ commitment, which is highly uncharacteristic of Morrison, comes before a fast-approaching general election. Research shows that environmental action is a political tool that is wielded when it will result in electoral benefits for political representatives. Thus, Morrison’s real motive behind his decision reflects the wider inter-governmental approach to climate change: ‘rhetoric makes us look good’.

Environmental destruction affects life on earth unevenly and unfairly -- the least culpable are often the most victimised and least powerful in society, which means that top-down action only occurs when it is guaranteed that it will allow those in powerful positions to retain their elite status.

Morrison is only superficially performing the role of ‘eco-warrior’, as his actual track record leaves a lot to be desired in the way of environmental consciousness. We only have to think back to Morrison’s heavily critiqued response to the horrific bushfires that Australia suffered in January 2020. Whilst the everyday Australian witnessed a ravaging inferno, the PM was vacationing in Hawaii!

What makes the situation even more immoral, if that is even possible, is the fact that prior to January 2020, in April 2019, fire chiefs made an appeal to Morrison to centralise and streamline resources for emergency services. They foresaw tragedy. They recognised the importance of a collective capacity and a collective response. In the end, the PM refused to meet with these emergency leaders. One word can summarise his attitude and actions towards the environmental crises: non-existent.

Hence, it comes as no surprise that the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index ranked Australia as the sixth-worst performing out of 57 other countries. Australia was absent from the UN’s Climate Action Summit that took place in September 2020, and withdrew funding from the Green Climate Fund, which is a global fund that allows countries in financial difficulty to access monetary resources for adaptation and mitigation. Likewise, Morrison has shown reluctance to legislate Australia’s performative commitment to the Paris Agreement; there are no concrete national mechanisms or goals in place. As a result, not only is he a passive bystander within his own country, he is actively distancing Australia from collective international action to save life on Earth. Despite this, he is adamant that Australia’s environmental strategies are supreme and sufficient.

Morrison’s impressively eco-hostile CV aside, let’s critically analyse his promise to invest a large sum of capital into protecting the Great Barrier Reef. As previously mentioned, this move is most likely an attempt to save face, not just with his electorate but also with UNESCO. The agency threatened to remove the Great Barrier Reef from its World Heritage List if action was not taken to prevent further damage.

Only time will tell if the investment will be successful. Jon Day and Scott Heron at The Conversation doubt that it will do much. As they rightfully argue, money should be invested in weaning Australia off fossil fuels and moving onto renewable energy sources. Instead, a portion of the investment is destined to go into developing scientific technologies, such as heat-resistant corals and coral seeding. However, technology does not address the root cause. It is only a plaster that may produce unwanted side effects.

I believe that the correct way to tackle environmental issues is to approach them holistically. They are all connected and derive from one thing: capitalism’s need for constant growth. It is not enough for Morrison to focus on the Great Barrier Reef. He must reverse his prior complacent and isolationist response to climate change. He must listen to his electorate. He must prioritise collective action that is inclusive of Indigenous and non-Indigenous issues and concerns.

Image: Flickr (Rafael Wagner). From the Great Barrier Reef, Australia - A bird’s eye view of the Great Barrier Reef.