“Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you. It’s coal.” With these words Australia’s Treasurer Scott Morrison taunted the Opposition, attempting to ridicule its commitment to renewable energy.
He handed the lump of Hunter Valley coal to a delighted Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and it was then passed, to much hilarity, along the front bench and over to the back benches. Handling a lump of coal leaves hands black, but this lump had been turned into clean coal with a coat of lacquer.
The exuberant deployment of a lump of coal to mock those who want to hasten the transition away from fossil fuels came soon after Prime Minister Turnbull’s shock announcement that Australia ought to be building a new generation of coal-fired power plants, subsidized by the government if need be. Even the coal-fired electricity generators have distanced themselves from Turnbull, declaring that it just won’t happen.
More to the point, the audacious celebration of the wonders of coal occurred in the middle of one of the most severe heatwaves eastern Australia has ever experienced.
Temperature records have been smashed, fire danger levels have been set at ‘catastrophic’, and everyone who has opened themselves to the scientific warnings struggles to ward off a terrible feeling of foreboding.
The coal taunting incident in Parliament seems to reveal a new dimension to the climate debate in Australia, one that goes beyond denialism and political culture. It’s almost as if, like King Lear raging at the storm, Turnbull, Morrison and Joyce are defying nature to do its worst, almost willing it to happen because mankind will prevail.
We forget that, for some people, there are desires more urgent and goals more grand than that of protecting others, and their own families, from plunging into dark and dangerous times. The glory and self-satisfaction of defeating one’s enemy, for instance.
Drama in human affairs
One cannot help noticing that this display of bravado by the nation’s leaders is especially vigorous from alpha males, men who act as if the future is a horror movie in which the anticipated terrors are to be relished but also withstood, except that they forget that this one has no end. We will all be trapped in the cinema as the never-ending movie becomes ever-more terrifying.
I have written more about the sociology, psychology and power politics of climate change than most. Yet now these kinds of explanations seem too weak, given what’s at stake and the wilful refusal to face it. It is almost as if there are forces at work in the climate change drama above the everyday ones.
The denial industry often reminds us that carbon is the source of life, and perhaps that thought lay behind Morrison’s swaggering parliamentary performance with his lump of coal. Yet carbon now in its fossilized form reminds us of our mortality. Is that so hard to grasp?
Perhaps he and his kind do grasp it; but they are not horrified by it as others are, because it only means hastening the fate that awaits us all anyway. He does profess to be some kind of Christian.
The braying asses of the Murdoch press will scoff at this kind of reflection; but we must remind ourselves that they are humans too, with the same inner fears, hidden doubts, and desperate needs that others have, even if they lie more deeply buried. Every mythological narrative must have characters like them.
If the climate drama needs to be thought in ‘mythic’ terms, those who value life might respond in ways guided by that way of thinking.