If irony exists after the ominously named Anthropocene, our descendants may look back on the 2020 wallaby food drop as a biting example of their ancestors’ abiding idiocy.
Wildfires in Australia driven by searing temperatures and little rainfall have so far killed more than 800 million animals according to best estimates of scientists.
The scientific community has also been warning decision makers for decades that mounting concentrations of atmospheric carbon from burning fossil fuels will lead to exactly the devastating conditions seen in the Australian infernos.
Australia, like most nations, has ignored those warnings.
Now, to global media fanfare, the government directed the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service to drop more than 2,000 kilograms of vegetables from helicopters to feed starving rock wallabies whose habitat has been obliterated by the fires — and by government inaction on cutting carbon emissions.
While a case can be made for trying to save remnant wildlife populations by whatever means necessary, restraining our continual contributions to the climate catastrophe still apparently takes a back seat to a feel-good photo op.
The AStar helicopters used by the park service burn about 180 litres of fuel an hour with a three-hour flight time, and can carry about 700 kilograms of wallaby food – mostly carrots and yams. Every 2,000 kilograms of vegetables dropped from the sky could require burning up to 1,500 litres of fuel — hardly a long-term strategy to save wallabies or a ruined biosphere.
Unsurprisingly, the global coverage of Operation Rock Wallaby comes on the heals of damning media reports on the Australian government and its wretched climate record.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, freshly back from a Hawaiian vacation, dropped into a fire-ravaged community with a camera crew in tow and was greeted with jeers from local residents who called him an "idiot" and a "fucker." Several residents and a local firefighter refused to shake his hand.
According to the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index, Australia ranked 56th out of 61 nations in meeting the global emissions emergency (Canada was 55th.)
On climate policy, the authors of the report placed Australia dead last, stating "the newly elected government has continued to worsen performance at both national and international levels."
Morrison’s government last June approved the controversial Adani coal mine project that could eventually extract over two billion tonnes of low-grade thermal coal from the Galilee Basin, destined for generating plants in India.
At a time when investors are fleeing the filthiest of fuels, Australia is scaling up the climate-killing sector. Critics calculate that at peak production the mine will result in more emissions than the countries of Belgium or the Philippines. A new 190-kilometre railway from the mine to the Queensland coast will further endanger the Great Barrier Reef and facilitate more mines in the Galilee Basin that could double Australia’s current carbon output.
Canada faces its own decisions on climate destruction
The Canadian government faces its own mega-mine milestone. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must soon decide whether to approve the Teck Frontier Mine in Northern Alberta. Purchasing the Trans Mountain pipeline earned the Liberal Party such glowing goodwill in Alberta it must be tempting to hand another gift to the fossil fuel industry.
However cutting emissions was a priority for voters in the October federal election. Will Canadians be again reminded that Trudeau’s Liberals seem to care most about climate when campaigning? The country will be watching closely.
Catherine Abreu, executive director of the Climate Action Network Canada summed up the issue in a CBC interview.
"If they are serious about net-zero by 2050 they cannot in good faith approve the largest oil sands mine proposed in Canadian history, that is scheduled to operate until 2067," she said. "A project of that scale, of emissions of that concentration, just blows all of those targets and all of those good intentions out of the water."
Besides increasing Canada’s carbon emissions by four megatonnes per year — equal to three per cent of Canada’s projected carbon budget in 2050 — the mine would also destroy 3,000 hectares of forest and 14,000 hectares of wetlands.
Trudeau, of course, has the power to approve the project. But what’s left of his lofty environmental persona would become a laughingstock.
This decision might be tougher if there was a credible business case for the mine. According to Teck’s submission to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the company assumes an average oil price of $95 per barrel until 2066 — a level not seen anytime in the last six years.
Back in the real world, oil and gas stocks were ranked dead last for performance on the S&P 500 in 2019. French energy giant Total SA threw in the towel on its approved Joslyn bitumen mine back in 2014 when Western Canada Select oil was trading over $80 US per barrel. It is now about $35.
And the oil and gas industry’s unsecured environmental liabilities in Alberta already top $260 billion and counting. Do we really need to add to that tally?
Australia backs a dying coal industry
In Australia, the government continues to hitch its wagon to a destructive industry circling the drain. Several coal giants in the U.S. have already gone bankrupt, passing their massive operations onto little-known newcomers that could one day leave the taxpayers holding the bag for enormous unsecured cleanup costs.
Australians have been told that India will be a secure market for the Adani Mine for decades to come. In fact, the subcontinent has seen a seismic shift in investment away from coal to cheaper and cleaner renewables — a transformation that will only pick up speed with improved technology. In 2018, 80 per cent of new energy lending in India went to solar, wind and hydro projects.
Twenty years ago India planned to build 600 gigawatts of coal generating capacity. Eighty per cent of these planned projects have now been displaced by cheaper renewable technologies that are plunging in price. One solar company in Rajasthan is profitably providing local electricity for less than four cents per per KWh.
Even existing coal plants are struggling to compete financially. India’s minister of power warned in 2018 that over 20 per cent of the county’s generating facilities weren’t making enough money to cover their interest payments and five per cent were "totally unviable."
Even as the planet burns in 2020, citizens still apparently need to be on guard against political leaders inclined to approve carbon megaprojects despite scientific warnings, citizen opposition and dubious economics. The cost of further climate inaction is increasingly and tragically obvious, often right outside the window. And it won’t be solved by dumping carrots out of helicopters.