David Spratt on why the climate catastrophe leaves no room for pragmatism
Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road tells of a homeless man and his son tramping through a lifeless, blackened, post-apocalyptic landscape. In February 2009, in a blaze of unprecedented and unstoppable fury, McCarthy’s dystopia became manifest in Melbourne’s north-east hinterland.
Yet the politics of global warming in Canberra become ever more surreal. Either the two major parties are truly ignorant of the consequences of their policies or they are guilty of a criminal failure. Neither has got to first base on climate, failing even to elaborate a target – a maximum temperature increase – against which their performance might be measured.
While Prime Minister Rudd acknowledges that ‘we need to build a low-pollution, clean energy economy’, his policies remain alarmingly deficient. His carbon trading scheme will not reduce Australia’s emissions. Treasury modelling assumes the large-scale purchase of carbon permits overseas so that, while the number of pollution permits issued in Australia may fall, total emissions will rise. In any case, the extra volume of coal flowing through two new export facilities approved by Labor will increase global carbon pollution by more than Australia’s total greenhouse gas output.
The climate debate in Canberra is embedded in a culture of failure, with the scientific imperatives that should determine the speed and depth of action ignored. The laws of physics and chemistry, which allow an understanding of planetary warming, are deemed open for political negotiation, as if climate policy were a wage case or a Senate deal. As the Prime Minister said when launching the carbon trading policy at the National Press Club in December 2008, ‘We will be attacked from the far-Right for taking any action at all. We will be attacked from parts of the far-Left for not going far enough by refusing to close down Australia’s coal industry. The government believes we have got the balance right.’
The Murdoch editorials the next day were full of praise: Rudd’s approach was common sense, took account of the real world, was prudent, cautious, flexible. But the belief that the laws of science can be balanced against the demands of business might more appropriately be described, like the activists who interrupted Rudd’s launch suggested, as an appeasement of Australia’s worst polluters. The government appears to not understand that the planet cannot be traded off, that doing ‘something’ but not enough will still lead to disaster, because climate is a binary problem. Like a large-scale war, you apply enough resources to win – or you lose.
‘We’ve reached a point where we have a crisis, an emergency, but people don’t know that’, says the world’s best known climate scientist, James Hansen of NASA. ‘There’s a big gap between what’s understood about global warming by the scientific community and what is known by the public and policymakers.’ In 2008 Hansen warned, in testimony given to the US Congress, that the ‘elements of a “perfect storm”, a global cataclysm, are assembled’.
Serious climate change impacts are happening both more rapidly and at lower global temperature increases than anticipated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If the present level of greenhouse gases is maintained, the ensuing warming will be sufficient to produce, among other outcomes, the loss of the Himalayan glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet, leading to a seven-metre sea level rise and jeopardising the lives of two billion people.
The complete loss of eight million square kilometres of Arctic sea ice in the northern summer is considered inevitable in the near future, and the Greenland ice sheet has probably already passed its tipping point. These events, when added to carbon cycle feedbacks (where terrestrial and oceanic stores of carbon become sources of atmospheric carbon), may well kick the climate system into run-on warming, helping to create an aberrant new climate many degrees hotter. By the middle of the century, rapid economic and carbon emissions growth could produce Arctic amplification (a warming of the polar north more than three times the global average) sufficient to trigger large-scale destabilisation of vast quantities of permafrost carbon. The game would then be over, and further action to mitigate human emissions pointless.
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the climate science adviser to the German government and the EU, says that ‘we are on our way to a destabilisation of the world climate that has advanced much further than most people or their governments realise’, so much so that our survival depends on whether we can draw down carbon dioxide to 280 parts per million, compared to the present level of close to 390 parts per million.
In other words, the task – put most simply – is to stop emitting greenhouse gases and to cool the planet. This requires emergency action. For high-polluting nations such as Australia, annual emissions cuts in the range of 8 to 10 per cent a year are likely to be necessary, while 5 per cent or more of world production may be required for a sustained period to build a global renewable energy system and a low-pollution economy. Ian Dunlop, formerly a senior oil, gas and coal industry executive and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, says: ‘Honesty about this challenge is essential, otherwise we will never develop realistic solutions. We face nothing less than a global emergency, which must be addressed with a global emergency response, akin to national mobilisations pre-WWII or the Marshall Plan … This is not extremist nonsense, but a call echoed by an increasing number of world leaders as the science becomes better understood … In the face of catastrophic risk, emission reduction targets should be based on the latest, considered, science, not on a political view of the art-of-the-possible.’
An imaginative, large-scale emergency program comparable in scope to a war economy needs courageous, transformative leadership. As a sustainable society is built, Australians face the challenge of living better by consuming less, while ensuring the transition is just and that it impacts least on the most disadvantaged nations and members of society.
This understanding was reflected in the first national climate action summit, held in January 2009 in Canberra, with five hundred participants declaring: ‘We face a climate emergency. Our vision is to work together at emergency speed to restore in a just way a safe climate in time for all people, all species and all generations.’ The summit emphasised the need for broad alliances with the capacity to inflict real political pain on the major parties, and a commitment to non-violent direct action against the fossil fuel industry, with not just a handful but hundreds and thousands of citizens engaging in a popular revolt against government and high-polluting companies.
Many local climate action groups have evolved out of the sustainability and land management movements to emphasise practical sustainability – household and community renewable energy projects, tanks and water recycling, permaculture – and the government’s solar panel rebates have also encouraged many newer groups. But at the climate action summit, there was a clear recognition of the need to build political support for emergency action on climate.
In Australia, this community-based climate action movement is supplanting the large, corporatist green advocacy groups in providing leadership and ideas based on a realistic assessment of the science and the required urgency of our response. Greenpeace is the only big group so far to adopt the climate emergency meme. Other groups face a political crisis, since the immediate challenge involves constructing a determined political revolt in circumstances where public support for government action is broad but shallow, rather than advocating policy.
After Labor’s election, the political pressure eased as the larger climate groups switched to developing detailed policies, assuming a government willing to listen. For its part, the government only gave real access to climate advocates prepared to support its ‘clean coal’ policy. Such groups were taken for a ride during 2008, and were left devastated by the appalling policies announced at the year’s end.
The US environmental strategist and former deputy-director of Greenpeace Ken Ward neatly sums up the process: ‘We have approached the problem by pre-negotiating with ourselves on behalf of our opposition … We calculate what concessions are necessary to placate whichever interest, power, or nation it is thought must be mollified, and then devise a scheme to fit within those limits’. One large Australian environment group calls it putting the science ‘through a political filter’. Ward says we must ‘stop seeking and celebrating dinky achievements’ because ‘nothing that we are doing, nor even seriously contemplating, comes anywhere near such a massive transformation, yet every actor on the political stage … downplays the terrible realities and trumpet small-scale solutions wrapped in upbeat rhetoric … We are racing toward the end of the world and have no plan of escape, but it is considered impolite to acknowledge that fact in public.’
To date, many of the policy players – including business, unions and welfare groups – are supporting action only so long as it does not hurt their constituencies in the short term, an approach that quickly reduces to sectoral self-interest and political equivocation. Too much climate alliance building has been about box ticking and elite-to-elite relationships, rather than committing participants to large-scale action to educate, resource and mobilise affiliated organisations and individual members. Some of the leading labour movement figures in the climate debate have been engaged in special pleading and a defence of the coal industry, though a more enlightened group has recognised that radical change is necessary and focused on the need for just transition programs for their members. Welfare groups, judging by the output of reports and the character of their public statements, have been more concerned about actions to reduce emissions not being inequitable than they have been about the actual impacts of global warming on poor people. It is an inversion of priorities that led several to oppose the introduction of feed-in tariffs for solar panels.
In advocating a climate emergency, the community climate action movement is, for the moment, at odds with most of those engaged in the climate debate in Australia. Most intellectuals and public commentators, lacking any significant engagement with environmentalism, seem bewildered by global warming. Most seem to not understand that contemporary climate science observations and projections tell us that failure will produce a world in which there will be no place to hide.
Few intellectuals appear terrified enough by the coming climate apocalypse to engage wholeheartedly with an issue that is unrelentingly disturbing. It forces us not only to look at what we think and say, but at how we live. It is confronting, for example, to recognise that the overseas conferences, festivals, retreats and holidays to which we look forward have become indefensible carbon indulgences. For many of those who could take a public role in building support and creating a movement for transformative action, climate is still just another issue.
In Australia, one political party, the Greens, has been ahead of the environment lobby in taking up the challenge of putting the science before political pragmatism. The Greens’ role is crucial, as they move closer to taking lower-house seats from Labor, particularly in inner metropolitan areas. Such a result – like more devastating climate impacts themselves – would jolt Labor into climate policy reality, as would scientists – the most credible voice in the public debate – advocating with greater clarity and common purpose, free of the reticence which constrained them during the Howard era.
The obstacles to building a post-carbon society are principally cultural and political, not technological and economic. Transformative political action and leadership is necessary and possible – and has arisen before at times of crisis. Climate is now the biggest crisis of them all, requiring a great social and economic upheaval, a revolt against the corporate interest, the cultural comfort and political incapacity that are driving us to catastrophe, sooner than most of us recognise.
Like this piece? Subscribe!