Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Forget sports extravaganzas, here's a major event Melbourne has to have

The state has a chance to take a lead role in saving the planet.

IT IS no surprise that economic sustainability has trumped environmental sustainability as "the" issue of the day.

While there has been an unprecedented global response to tackle economic problems, there has not been a sufficiently immediate and personal threat to focus enough minds on global environmental urgency and action.

The world has a surplus of individual leaders, organisations and experts "addressing" environmental sustainability of the planet but a deficit of action demanded by the large, complex and high-stakes issues.

A path has to be found through or around past thinking and ideals, lack of political will and courage, change-averse bureaucracies, corporate short-termism, flawed economic models, unsustainable energy assumptions, negative or under-engaged media, lobbyists, vested interests, and greed-driven strategies.

If Charles Darwin had joined a recent meeting in Copenhagen of 2500 scientists from 80 nations, he would have been disappointed that, 150 years on, so much of his seminal work had been narrowcast as "survival of the fittest". His full story was that the survival or extinction of any species would result from the degrees of required mutuality of interest within and between species; interdependence of human and natural environments; dynamics of advantage and disadvantage; unintended consequences of behaviour; resilience and adaptability; living within the means available, and working co-operatively against common threats.

He would have been alarmed by scientists' reports that global warming is worse than the worst-case scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: the Antarctic melting as fast as the ice shelf on Greenland (by EarthWatch calculations enough to cover Victoria with 18 metres of water every 24 hours); global temperatures rising 20 times more than climate scientists say should be occurring; and global warming from methane release due to melting of frozen landscapes now equal to that caused by human activity.

Assuming these trends, the outcome is that however well intentioned, governments making commitments to reducing carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, or by 20 to 40 per cent of 1990 levels by 2020, will still change and challenge the human experience.

Accepting the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize as head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri said: "If there's not action taken by 2012, that's too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future."

A recent study showed that even if all governments fulfilled their current promises, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will still have reached a level almost twice what scientists say is dangerous.

A worldwide network of thought leaders is working on an urgent ambition to mobilise citizens everywhere to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2020.

Inspired by Lester Brown's Plan B, the State of the World Forum (www.worldforum.org) is launching a 12-year "Global Transition Initiative" intended to mobilise action around climate change and global warming, engineering a complete shift of the global economy to renewable energy, stronger alignment of all human activity with the natural systems of the earth, and a better balance between ecological and economic life.

The State of the World Forum network will meet in Washington in November and then annually in different cities.

Because of the depth and width of transformational change needed, the network is pressing for more urgent and wise collective recognition, capability, willpower and action across all global mechanisms and institutions.

Melbourne could put its hand up to bring true meaning to its reputation as "liveable", "thinking" and "innovative".

We are achingly familiar with the impact of natural disasters from extreme heat, fire, flood and drought. We are one of the closest major cities to the thawing Antarctic ice. Our economic wellbeing assumes continued coal access, associated manufacturing exports and a friendly food-producing climate.

The State Government should commit Victoria to switching itself to a sustainable economy. Premier John Brumby could join other leaders, such as those in Brazil, and commit to cutting Victoria's carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2020 and shifting the basis of the state's economy to renewable resources.

This requires a resilient futures framework to ensure the long-term commitment and engagement of key stakeholders across politics, business, media, academia, science, education and community.

Such commitments now would be sound economic and environmental investments. Politically astute also, given that leaders will increasingly be judged on what they do about this single global issue.

It might also allow Melbourne to host the State of the World Forum in Melbourne in 2013 to show how a whole community took a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help ensure human civilisation's wellbeing. That would trump all other "major events".

Steve Harris is former publisher and editor-in-chief of The Age. He is principal of Alqemi, a strategic leadership agency. Professor Richard Hames is an author, adviser and founding director of the Asian Foresight Institute.

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