Up in smoke

WE’RE TWELVE DAYS’ walk from the nearest road, on an island on the edge of the world. There’s no official bushwalking track, although at times there is a faint trail, a sign that for an hour or two we don’t have to battle the impossible scrub of south-west Tasmania. Some of the hills and creeks behind us have never been named by Europeans – they are reduced to contour lines on maps. ‘Scrub,’ says the map. ‘Marsh.’ No large group has gathered on this beach since Aboriginal people more than a hundred and fifty years ago. They are no longer here, a horror in which my ancestors were complicit at best.

I’m standing on one of the huge middens the Aboriginal people left behind. Two metres deep and at least fifty metres long, it’s a shifting bank of shells with a few bones and flints mixed in – the remains of long-forgotten meals. The bones have been charred by fire. The flints look quite sharp and suited to the palm of a hand. 

We won’t see anyone else for the next eight days, and the wind and the call of the crows will become eerie. As the summer hail whips my raincoat, I look out on a landscape that has remained largely unchanged for centuries. Somehow, this land has escaped the reverse Midas touch of modern people, with their creeping concrete, plastic, noise and stink. 

So far. Not long after this bushwalk I’ll travel to the other side of the earth, to an event that will help decide whether the landscape continues this way.

Over time, hotter temperatures and off-kilter rainfall could change the make-up of forest and heath, could bring more fires and dry the creeks, could drive some animals into the history books, could foster the weeds that seep from ships. By the time I’ve gone the way of the people who tossed their scallop shells on this midden, rising seas may have washed the midden away. 

BUT PERHAPS HUMANITY can step back from the brink at the UN climate change summit in Paris. In late 2015, I pack my bag and go along as an observer, doing research for the University of Melbourne. My topic is the politics of climate change policy. I got interested in this issue, which I thought would come and go, as a journalist in my twenties. Since then politicians have serially botched the issue to the extent that it’s looking like a long-term career choice.

The start of the summit is not auspicious. Men have walked into a Paris concert hall and restaurants and murdered a hundred and thirty unarmed strangers in the name, apparently, of a god. Humanity’s attempt at maintaining a safe climate is overshadowed by the more immediate threat of being blown up by a person you’ve never met. The media is diverted; French politics is thrown off its axis. People in Paris walk a little more briskly in the Metro and panic at incidental bangs. When I go into a museum to see some delicate nineteenth-century paintings, I must open my coat to show the guard I wear no bomb vest.

However, the attacks do not derail the summit. If anything, there’s more co-operation due to the common enemy, sympathy for the French hosts, and aggravated French pride. The summit’s negotiating bullshit is somewhat toned down. Because when it comes to humanity working out whether the earth’s future climate will be safe, expect delays, diversions, excuses, lies, blame games and bullshit.

These annual summits, organised by the UN’s climate change arm, tend to be epic in everything but outcome. More than a hundred and ninety countries attend. They are supposed to work on formal agreements to deal with climate change: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, helping vulnerable countries cope, shifting dollars, sorting out rules to track emissions. Sometimes a summit is supposed to reach a new deal; Paris is one of those. Quixotically, the idea is that everyone has to agree on everything before the gavel drops. 

The summits are also a trade-fair for people who work on climate change: diplomats, ministers, activists, journalists, businesspeople, celebrities looking for an edge, researchers, opportunists. There are more of the latter at Paris than at previous summits, which I take as a positive sign. This summit has a certain joie de vivre, with a pongy fondue stall on site and pre-poured glasses of wine with foil across the top for sale at the cafes. People keep laughing and pointing at the ready-to-go glasses of wine, but by the time they’ve reached the register many have put one on their tray. 

My orange pass gets me into the venue – a weird former aircraft complex called Le Bourget on the city’s outskirts – along with forty-five thousand others. I’m allowed into the more formal negotiating sessions, which is to say the ones that are mostly about grandstanding and dogged repetition of the same points until 4 am. There is one venue where all countries sit for the major sessions – technically this is where the action happens. I’m excited to go in. I find myself in a very large wooden hall with rows of tables for the country representatives and some banks of seating for observers. It’s a blandly pleasant space that puts me in mind of an IKEA showroom. What they’re talking about is dull and I eventually work out that this is not where the action happens. For the most part decisions are made, and deals struck or lost, in closed, informal meetings that fly under the radar. These are not shown on the TV screens that scroll through the day’s events. Who’s in and who’s out shifts, and sometimes a climate celebrity like Al Gore or the Pope is involved (indeed central). At one point, the American actor Billy Baldwin bowls past me with an entourage; he seems to be skyping a family member on his tablet.

Teams of negotiators roam Le Bourget. The veterans have been going to these summits – plus many related meetings in between – for twenty years or so. They know each other well, their positions are entrenched, and their meetings have a curious pathology that does not seem conducive to breakthroughs. Negotiators tend to look ostentatiously exhausted – it’s a point of pride for participants to get as little sleep as possible. It signifies that one is important. It’s also important to march with purpose down corridors and to get a lot of texts. I get at least six hours sleep every night and not many texts. 

I’m curious as to whether these negotiators – with their ‘landing zones’, ‘red lines’ and ‘high-levels’ – are actually powerful, so I ask people who are inside the negotiations. They say the fate of these summits lies with a small number of world leaders, who are usually not there in person, and a group of perhaps twenty others. This includes high-profile climate officials, but also ‘old dinosaurs’ of the process – well-respected ministers and senior bureaucrats whom I have never heard of. This ad hoc group is charged with passing on what their factions think about a possible climate deal and with shaping their faction’s views. They cobble together a deal with the official organisers and see if everyone will accept it.

Also sitting around the halls are teams of scientists and lawyers, who governments consult on specific topics. One of their tasks is to sniff out foul play in the negotiations; a common tactic is for some country to insert a word or phrase into the draft deal that sounds harmless but has a scientific or legal meaning that could trip up the deal. The experts are called up and given twenty minutes to work out what ‘anthropogenic’ would mean for a certain type of emission, or the legal implications of ‘should’ versus ‘shall’.

The summits go for two weeks (eleven negotiating days). The first half is governments repeating their key points to appease people back home while the real work happens in the background. Bigger announcements come in the second week, often relating to money, to prod the talks along. As the summit draws to a close governments have made their key points often enough that some feel they are allowed to compromise. Towards the end of day eleven it becomes clear whether or not the wheels have come off. The talks usually tip over into an unscheduled day twelve, to manufacture some pressure and allow some countries to compromise without losing so much face. (‘We’ve gone into extra time, let’s get this done!’) By then some participants are wild-eyed and badly missing their kids. Final phone calls might be made between a handful of world leaders. A deal is done – or it is not. 

I WAS WORKING as a journalist at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit when a deal was famously and emphatically not done. It was a result I hadn’t expected. Naively, I thought the summit was just about climate change and governments would work together to solve it. If this were the case, these summits might have a better chance of success – but there is so much more at play. Poor countries that are fed up with being poor and exploited and want to take a stand; colonised countries that want payback, finally; colonisers (some repentant, some not); rich countries that don’t want the joyride to end; non-capitalist regimes looking for glory. Geopolitics, rivalries, egos. Money.

So I wasn’t expecting a strong deal at Paris; there was so much standing in the way of it. I’m drinking red wine and watching the summit online from my Paris flat when the deal goes through on day twelve (there had been so many delays that I got sick of Le Bourget). After the usual confused hubbub in the main conference hall about what is happening and when it will happen, the chair of the summit, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, his face apprehensive, mounts the stage in front of the many delegates. He says a few things, I eat some peanuts, and suddenly he’s rushing towards a decision, giving countries a final (and very brief) chance to oppose the deal, which no one takes up. Hands shaking, Fabius bangs his gavel and the deal is through. The room erupts with cheers. I’m stunned. Has he really…? Did they manage to…? Is this what I think it is? But…how?

The Paris Agreement is ambitious. It makes it easier to imagine a future climate that is fairly safe. It makes it harder for governments to lag behind on cutting emissions. Crucially, it creates the perception that the world is acting together to address climate change – and perhaps the world actually is. The deal does not solve climate change because the UN, sitting over a seething pit of sovereign states defending their interests, can’t do that.

The deal happened because too many states wanted action on climate change and too few didn’t. The developing world – which has in the past blocked deals, largely due to understandable concerns that richer countries were trying to shift the burden – split. The European Union, the US and some Pacific nations led, China went along, and India and Russia did not block the deal (a few oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia tried to). Australia, three months into the change from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister, scuttled from recalcitrance to acquiescence, with occasional, possibly fake, attempts to help secure a stronger deal.

The Paris outcome is about as much as could be expected from multilateral negotiations. The question now is whether governments act on the deal or not (and it’s not easy to force them). Posterity will probably remember the summit by that footage of an emotional Fabius banging his gavel as diplomats cheer – a moment possibly akin to Neville Chamberlain’s ‘peace for our time’ declaration. The hard-nosed, uber-green contingent at the summit already think so.

It’s also possible that, whether they abide by the Paris deal or not, governments will be overtaken by a tide of companies, consumers, investors, local councils, consultants, landholders and lawyers who decide to get on with it and cut emissions.

I DREW THE most confidence that the future climate may be safe not from Monsieur Fabius and his gavel, but from an unpromising and poorly attended side event (governments organise these in their ‘country pavilions’ inside the venue). I went to a Chinese event on government climate policy. It was in a stuffy room and mostly in Mandarin with stilted translation available (one long allegory about a bowl of noodle soup went badly astray). Official-looking photographers patrolled the room, snapping and filming us, making me uneasy. What I heard was extraordinary.

The government officials and (government-approved) researchers said that climate change was a serious problem and that China’s emissions were far too high. China’s emissions had to level off and come down. This would require strong policies that were efficient and effective; the speakers discussed various options, describing how they would work, and how much they would bring emissions down by, and where and when. 

This is not what many governments say. Generally they focus on making their existing policies and targets sound much better than they are while coming up with reasons why other countries should do more (Australia has perfected this to the extent that it seems to be what federal ministers and bureaucrats dedicate their climate time to). Yet the Chinese officials did not pretend their existing policies were enough, nor did they mention any other country. The impression I took away was of smart technocrats who have been given a task to do – bring down emissions over time – and intend to do it. 

If this is genuine, it will be the single most important factor influencing the climate. China’s annual emissions are the world’s highest and are rising, but China has not committed to reduce emissions until 2030. The Middle Kingdom could fry the planet on its own if it does not make sweeping changes, and fairly soon. 

The possibility that China may do exactly that is exciting, but it made me ponder the value of democracy – the Chinese regime may be able to use all the advantages of not being one to protect the climate. Most representative democracies have failed to act on climate change with anything like the urgency that scientists recommend. Such governments have to look to the next election, three to five years away, and are slaves to opinion polls. They have to manoeuvre policies through difficult parliaments. They may face oppositions who finance populist campaigns to minimise action on emissions. They face a hyper-liberal internet, where a scientist’s view on climate change is less convincing than that of an aged white man with a temperature gauge. I’ve seen the effects of all this as a journalist in Parliament House.

China faces none of these obstacles.

To be clear, China’s emissions are very high, and so far it has proved no more successful at reducing them than democracies. But China’s age of ascendancy is just beginning. We may enter an era where China will be the world’s largest economy and will lead the world in reducing pollution. It may be a clean superpower, or the clean superpower, while Western countries sink into a grand post-imperial decline. This is in keeping with the future imagined by French author Michel Houellebecq (although he’s more interested in Islam than China). His novels imagine the West as on the slide, under threat, its values no longer fashionable as Western countries are swamped by other cultures and religions. It’s certainly clear from the French media and recent regional elections that some French people feel their way of life is under threat from ‘the other’.

THE PARIS CLIMATE summit was about gases that build up in the atmosphere and trap heat. But it was also about this strange species of ours, and its capacity to be both dangerously stupid and very clever, both selfish and kind. The species that can cure your cancer using remote-controlled, keyhole surgery can also shoot you in the face in a concert hall. Humans may make sacrifices now to reign in climate change and save future generations, and other species, from a great deal of suffering and death. Or we may decide to enjoy our polluting lifestyles and leave the future to its overheated fate.

Which will it be? After Paris, I’m inclined to think we’re heading into a new climate, a hotter future that will change the world as we know it, and cause extensive suffering for people who did not cause the problem. Many people don’t realise that no, governments do not have this problem in hand. Most climate policies are too weak to make a real difference – and policymakers know this. Even the gold-standard schemes are less lustrous on close scrutiny; sometimes polluters quietly hollow them out, sometimes they’re spinning wheels that attract attention but don’t change anything, sometimes the scheme does cut emissions by a small amount – only to be swallowed by soaring emissions in the province next door. It’s a story of obfuscation, sleight of hand and cowardice, and it’s the same story almost everywhere. We are not doing enough on climate change. We are failing. 

If I’m wrong – and I hope I’m wrong – and the future climate remains fairly safe and familiar, I don’t think it will be because of a global swell of altruism. Ten years of working on Australian politics has cured me of any ideals in that direction. No, I’m pinning my hopes on humanity’s incredible ability to change very quickly. Things – ideas, gadgets, technology, ways of thinking and behaving – go from new and outlandish to commonplace in a few years. I’m only in my thirties but I remember life before mobile phones, when no one had an email address because there was no email. Now I watch toddlers work their iPads in cafés. (This must be like a horse and cart anecdote to a twenty year old.) If that pace of change can happen in ways that cut pollution – and it doesn’t have to be about climate change, it might be about cost, or quick returns, or responding to government incentives, or getting sick of smog – then the grim graphs from the scientists may be out, and in a good way. 

A MONTH AFTER Paris I’m back in south-west Tasmania. It’s mid-summer, and we walk through ancient rainforest to the summit of Mt Wedge where we look out on Lake Pedder and strings of mountain ranges. Near the top a wedge-tailed eagle hangs in the mountain breeze, observing me coolly. My friend, worried I’ve missed the sight, yells out to me. I look at him in exasperation then back at the eagle, who stays on for a few seconds, watching, letting me know whose domain this is, before gliding away. 

It’s a glorious walk, although an odd one. I’ve never seen the forest like this. A long-running drought has been capped off by the driest spring ever recorded in western Tasmania, and it’s been unusually hot. This forest is normally dripping, the path muddy, the creeks drinkable: brush aside a branch and it leaves a trail of moisture on your hand; steady yourself with a hand on a tree trunk and it comes away muddy. But this vegetation is dry, the path is dry, and the creeks are dirty puddles. This rainforest looks and feels wrong.

I’m glad I took some photographs, because two weeks later this scene gets incinerated. Lightning strikes started a bushfire – the experts talk about climate change.

The fires burn through Tasmania’s wilderness. The bushwalkers, who know which types of forest burn and which don’t, know right away that these fires are badly askew. Some of the vegetation – the rare alpine varieties, the pencil pines and cushion plants in the glossy coffee-table books and calendars – evolved without fire and is unlikely to grow back. The photographs of charred wastelands are also photographs of the future.


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