In 10 years Australia went from Abbott to Albanese – but how much has really changed?

<span>Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/AP</span>
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/AP

This is my last column for Guardian Australia. I started contributing to the then new publication in 2013.

Back then the climate emergency remained, for many of us, largely hypothetical: a great moral challenge (as someone once put it) rather than an immediate and palpable threat.

Today an unseasonably balmy spring feels so unsettling precisely because of the emergency’s ubiquity. The northern hemisphere just recorded its warmest summer ever. If July was possibly the hottest month of the past 120,000 years, August marked the fifth month in a row that the ocean set temperature records. Scientists describe the decline in Antarctic sea ice as “almost mind blowing”; a new study suggests rapid deoxygenation of the rivers.

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In Libya, the toll from climate-driven floods continues to climb. Great swathes of Canada have been burning. Horrific fires in Maui, Hawaii, were merely one among 23 extreme weather events experienced in the United States so far this year. The recent heatwave in China culminated in a new temperature record of 52.2C.

Everywhere, the press records variations on the same awful story.

I began a regular column with Tony Abbott coming into power in September 2013. I’m finishing under the government of Anthony Albanese, who promised to end the climate wars that Abbott so assiduously fuelled.

Yet despite the desperate warnings from the UN that the planet cannot afford fresh fossil fuel projects, the government’s already approved four new coalmines or extensions. Indeed, the campaign group Oil Change International recently listed Australia as one of the five wealthy countries (along with the US, Canada, Norway and the UK) that will be responsible for more than half the planned expansion of oil and gas fields by 2050.

Margaret Thatcher labelled Tony Blair and New Labour her “greatest achievements”. Abbott (and his mentor John Howard) might make the same claim about a whole generation of politicians.

The Aukus deal could fund a new renewable energy grid in Australia four times over

It’s not just that Tanya Plibersek’s attempt to turn Australia’s disintegrating ecosystems into a “Wall Street for nature” exemplifies a deep commitment to the market-driven orthodoxies traditionally championed by the Liberals. It’s also that Labor’s genuinely ambitious plans mostly don’t centre on climate but on a national security agenda that Abbott would have welcomed with an eight flag press conference.

As I wrote in March, the $368bn pledged to nuclear submarines under the Aukus deal could fund a new renewable energy grid in Australia four times over. The willingness, in the midst of a climate emergency, to spend that money on military equipment rather than decarbonisation says far more about real priorities than any number of photos with koalas.

Now, quite possibly, the new subs will never arrive. But in a sense that doesn’t matter. The government sees the Aukus deal first and foremost as an investment in the US alliance, locking Australia into Washington’s military embrace for the foreseeable feature.

Let’s think about what that means.

Almost certainly, the 2024 presidential election will see a contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. If Trump couldn’t accept a Biden victory in 2020, how would he accept one now, given that he and his followers increasingly see the resources of the Oval Office as their best chance to avoid jail? Already many of Trump’s more unhinged supporters mutter darkly about civil war. What will they do if Biden manages another narrow win?

Related: ‘Missing half the equation’: scientists criticise Australia over approach to fossil fuels

Alternatively, let’s say Trump genuinely outpolls Biden, something many surveys show as a real possibility. Would the Democrats accept a second Trump presidency? Or would, in that scenario, the US also plunge into an internecine conflict, as sections of the military and civil establishment could flatly refuse to work under someone they regard as entirely unhinged?

That’s the context in which Australia’s now tied itself, more closely than ever, with the strategic policy of the US.

If I sound despairing it’s because, in a lot of ways, I am. In the short to medium term, bad times are coming, with a potentially unstable America facing off against a more aggressive China.

But that doesn’t mean we’re entirely without reasons for hope.

In this column I’ve tried, as best I could, to make the case for grassroots politics in opposition to both conservative cynicism and liberal paternalism.

Over the last 10 years, ordinary people have proved themselves, again and again, much better than those who rule them. Liberal and Labor politicans combined to render same-sex marriage illegal – and then Australians voted overwhelmingly for equal love. The bravest responses to climate change have come not from statesmen but from school students. Despite the draconian anti-protest laws enacted all over the country, civil disobedience continues – and will, I think, inevitably grow.

Writing for the Guardian, I’ve much appreciated the lively community of readers debating and discussing the articles. “Never look at the comments,” they say, but I always did – and invariably I learned something.

Thank you, one and all.

• Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley award-winning writer, editor and broadcaster