- David Spratt
- The Age, January 29, 2009
The Government is jogging on the spot when it needs to take big strides.
WHEN representatives of community climate action groups from around Australia gather in Canberra for a meeting this weekend, discussion will focus on understanding how the Rudd Government got climate policy so wrong, and what can be done in 2009.
The proposed carbon pollution reduction scheme will allow Australia's greenhouse gas emissions to increase, just as the scientific case for reducing emissions towards zero as quickly as possible becomes more compelling. While emissions permits will drop 5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, the Treasury modelling that underpins the scheme plans on the large-scale purchase of permits from other countries, so that Australia's total emissions, as opposed to domestic permits, will rise.
And when coal flows from two new export infrastructure projects announced in 2008, in the Hunter Valley of NSW and at Gladstone, Queensland, the addition to global emissions from burning that coal will be an amount each year greater than Australia's total greenhouse gas emissions, cancelling out the planned reduction by 2020 many times over.
How did it come to this, when there was optimism after its election that the Government would take a lead in climate policy in 2008, not jog on the spot at the rear of the field? Was a mistake made in taking the political pressure off in 2008 as the large climate groups switched from mobilising people power to advocating policy detail, assuming the Government was predisposed to listen? Did the Government decide to give real access only to those climate advocates who were prepared to support its "clean coal" policy, narrowing and conservatising the range of voices to which it listened? Was the Government always going to put the views of big business and the fossil fuel lobby first?
It is not unreasonable to answer yes in each case.
The climate action movement's message is big and unsettling, so it is easier for government not to want to listen. Many of the policy players — business, unions, welfare groups — are sending mixed messages about supporting action as long as it does not hurt their constituencies in the short term, which quickly reduces to sectoral self-interest and political equivocation.
It is also clear that the Government does not understand how big the scientific imperatives are. If it did, its failure to act in accord with the size and urgency of the problem could justifiably be characterised as a failure to carry out its duty of care.
But the evidence points to another possibility. In a Rumsfeldian manner, it seemingly does not know it does not know; it is ignorant about the most recent climate science knowledge.
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Europe's leading climate scientist and 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". Schellnhuber says only concentrations of greenhouse gases close to the pre-industrial levels may be safe, around 280 to 320 parts per million, compared to the present level of close to 390 parts per million.
One sign of this problem in Australia is the way the Prime Minister and Climate Minister have adopted a traditional Labor approach to climate: something for the environment lobby and something for business. But solving the climate crisis cannot be treated like a wage deal. It is not possible to negotiate with the laws of physics and chemistry, and believing that it can reflects only an ignorance of the task at hand.
The planet cannot be traded off. There are absolute limits that should not be crossed, and doing something, but not enough, will still lead to disaster. This the Government appears not to understand at all.
Serious climate-change impacts are already happening, both more rapidly and at lower global temperature increases than projected. We have passed the tipping point for complete loss of the Arctic's sea-ice in summer.
"The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coalmine for climate warming, and now, as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died," says Dr Jay Zwally, a NASA glaciologist.
The Arctic sea-ice is the first domino and it is falling fast. Other dominoes, including catastrophic levels of carbon release from warming permafrost in Siberia, are likely to fall unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases and cool the planet to get the Arctic sea-ice back.
When transformative national and global leadership on climate is now necessary, the many thousands of Australians who work diligently in their local climate action groups see a spectacular failure of political imagination in Canberra.
And the conclusion to their four-day meeting in the national capital? It will be back to doorknocking the neighbourhood, talking in local churches and workplaces, engaging with local MPs and building an enormous grassroots movement that aims to make our politicians energetic advocates for transformative action on global warming, but a movement also capable of inflicting political pain on those who continue to taken them and the planet's health for granted.
David Spratt is co-author of Climate Code Red.