Sunday, March 15, 2009

Young people must take the lead in fighting climate change


"LOSING a future is not like losing a few points on the stock market." Severn Suzuki said this to a room full of negotiators at the UN Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, when she was only 12 years old. The message was pertinent then, but now, 17 years later, we should post it on every street corner in the country.

How many days left do we have to solve climate change, to turn our emissions trajectory around and make the deep cuts in carbon pollution we need to save our planet? No one really knows. Some scientists are saying we have already passed the climate tipping points.

Last week was busy. As part of the expanding youth climate movement in Australia, I began the week by giving a speech to a group of 170 young people gathered by the NSW United Nations Youth Association. I spoke about a friend in Bangladesh, and the impact of climate change on the Bangladeshi people. The population there is 147 million, and almost all of the country is less than 10 metres above sea level. If the seas rise by one metre by the end of the century, one-fifth of Bangladesh will disappear.

After my speech, a high school student came up with tears in her eyes. She was Bangladeshi-Australian and had family living in Bangladesh. "How long before the sea could rise?" she asked me. And it broke my heart to tell her that it depended entirely on the actions of governments around the world in reducing greenhouse pollution, including our Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. The thought didn't give either of us much hope.

The Federal Government is conducting a national consultation on a charter of rights. It is clear to me that not taking the necessary action on climate change is a violation of the rights of today's young people, whether they be Bangladeshi children scared of rising seas or young Victorians already scarred by bushfires. If our Government continues to refuse to set strong targets — in line with climate science and our global responsibilities — we are violating the most basic human rights of all those generations to come.

I believe we still have time to solve climate change. Sometimes, after a long day like last Tuesday, when Climate Minister Penny Wong released the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme legislation, with its measly 5 per cent target for cutting carbon by 2020, I question whether young people's concerns about our future are even on the table in the negotiating room. How can they be, when recent climate science suggests Australia should make greenhouse pollution cuts of at least 50 per cent by 2020 to protect our future, and the Government's target is only 5 per cent. How I wish it was just a typo and they accidentally left off the zero! But no, it's not a typo — just a betrayal of our generation.

This Government has steadfastly refused to set its targets on the basis of climate science, and has instead caved in to the coal industry, the mining industry, the aluminium industry, the cement industry and other big polluter lobbyists.

But a movement is brewing. Last week, on Wednesday and Thursday, a two-day meeting of the Climate Action Network Australia took place in Melbourne Town Hall. Many climate, development and community groups gathered for their annual strategy and planning sessions for the year ahead. New alliances are being formed with unions, faith groups and ordinary citizens who just feel betrayed by Kevin Rudd's weak targets.

The mood at the CANA conference was grim but determined. Last year, the climate movement failed to achieve strong targets. Even the minimum target — 25 per cent by 2020 — advocated by the groups most closely aligned to the Government was locked out of the target range. The Government treats us like just another stakeholder to be balanced against industry demands, like somehow they can negotiate with climate science.

This year will be different. The youth climate movement is getting stronger every day. Young people are the ones with the most at stake in the climate crisis, and perhaps the most moral legitimacy to demand stronger action.

The fact that 25 of Australia's youth organisations are members and partners of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition shows our generation really is uniting around this problem.

We are working towards Australia's first national youth climate summit, to be held in Sydney in July. Thousands of young people will attend. It's called Power Shift, because that is what this youth movement represents. A power shift from old ways of doing things, and old powerbrokers, to a new generation of change-makers. And a power shift is what we are demanding. A power shift away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, green jobs and strong greenhouse reduction targets that will help secure a global deal to reduce emissions.

During the summer holidays, many hundreds of young people volunteered with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. By the time Power Shift comes around, this number will be thousands. I invite you to join us.

I know we're running out of time, and that the best time to be doing this work, this transition to a sustainable economy and society, was 20 years ago. But you know the second best time to do it? It's today.

Anna Rose is founder and co-director of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and is a contributing author of The Future, by Us, to be published this week by Hardie Grant.

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