Policymakers have severely underestimated the risks of ecologicaltipping points, according to a study that shows 45% of all potential environmental collapses are interrelated and could amplify one another.
The authors said their paper,publishedin the journal Science, highlights how overstressed and overlapping natural systems are combining to throw up a growing number of unwelcome surprises.
“The risks are greater than assumed because the interactions are more dynamic,” said Juan Rocha of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. “The important message is to recognise the wickedness of the problem that humanity faces.”
It then cross-referenced the 30 types of shift to examine the impacts they might have on one another and human society.
Only 19% were entirely isolated. Another 36% shared a common cause, but were not likely to interact. The remaining 45% had the potential to create either a one-way domino effect or mutually reinforcing feedbacks.
Among the latter pairings were Arctic ice sheets and boreal forests. When the former melt, there is less ice to reflect the sun’s heat so the temperature of the planet rises. This increases the risks of forest fires, which discharge carbon into the air that adds to the greenhouse effect, which melts more ice. Although geographically distant, each amplifies the other.
By contrast, a one-way domino-type impact is that between coral reefs and mangrove forests. When the former are destroyed, it weakens coastal defences and exposes mangroves to storms and ocean surges.
Thedeforestation of the Amazonis responsible for multiple “cascading effects” – weakening rain systems, forests becoming savannah, and reduced water supplies for cities like São Paulo and crops in the foothills of the Andes. This, in turn, increases the pressure for more land clearance.
Until recently, the study of tipping points was controversial, but it is increasingly accepted as an explanation for climate changes that are happening with more speed and ferocity than earlier computer models predicted. The loss of coral reefs and Arctic sea ice may already be past the point of no return. There are signs the Antarctic is heading the same way faster than thought.
Co-author Garry Peterson said thetipping of thewest Antarctic ice shelfwas not on the radar of many scientists 10 years ago, but now there was overwhelming evidence of the risks – including losses of chunks of ice the size of New York – and some studies now suggest the tipping point may have already been passed by the southern ice sheet, which may now be releasing carbon into the atmosphere.
“We’re surprised at the rate of change in the Earth system. So much is happening at the same time and at a faster speed than we would have thought 20 years ago. That’s a real concern,” said Peterson. “We’re heading ever faster towards the edge of a cliff.”
The fourth most downloaded academic research of 2018 was theHothouse Earthpaper, which considered how tipping points could combine to push the global climate into an uninhabitable state.
The authors of the new paper say their work goes beyond climate studies by mapping a wider range of ecological stress points, such as biodiversity loss, agricultural expansion, urbanisation and soil erosion. It also focuses more on what is happening at the local level now, rather than projecting geo-planetary trends into the future.
“We’re looking at things that affect people in their daily lives. They’re things that are happening today,” said Peterson. “There is a positive message as it expands the range of options for action. It is not just at an international level. Mayors can also make a difference by addressing soil erosion, or putting in place social policies that place less stress on the environment, or building up natural coastal defences.”
Rocha has spent 10 years building a database of tipping points, or “regime shifts” as he calls them. He urges policymakers to adopt a similar interdisciplinary approach so they can better grasp what is happening.
“We’re trying to connect the dots between different research communities,” said Rocha. “Governments also need to look more at interactions. They should stop compartmentalising ministries like agriculture, fisheries and international relations and try to manage environmental problems by embracing the diversity of causes and mechanisms underlying them. Policies need to match the scale of the problem.
“It’s a little depressing knowing we are not on a trajectory to keep our ecosystem in a functional state, but these connections are also a reason for hope; good management in one place can prevent severe environmental degradation elsewhere. Every action counts.”
It’s been little over a month since newly-elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortezjoined some 200 young climate activistsfor a sit-in in soon-to-be House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand that Democrats back a Green New Deal, a plan to transform the U.S. energy economy in order to stave offclimate changeand promote greater equality.
Since then, support has ballooned for the revolutionary policy plan, with 38 Congresspeople now pledging to back a select committee to develop it, and to renounce donations fromfossil fuelcompanies, according to thelatest tallyfrom theSunrise Movement.
The survey gave a brief explanation of the Green New Deal and then asked respondents, “How much do you support or oppose this idea?”
Eighty-one percent of registered voters either “strongly” or “somewhat” supported it, and, while support was stronger among Democrats, a majority of Republicans were also in favor.
While 92 percent of Democrats supported it, 64 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of conservative Republicans also thought it was a good idea.
However, there is a catch: The survey did not mention that the Green New Deal has so far been promoted by progressive Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez.
The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication explained why this could alter Republican support as the deal and its proponents gain more national attention:
Other research has shown that people evaluate policiesmore negativelywhen they are told it is backed by politicians from an opposing political party. Conversely, people evaluatethe same policymore positively when told it is backed by politicians from their own party.
Therefore, these findings may indicate that although most Republicans and conservatives are in favor of the Green New Deal’s policiesin principle, they are not yet aware that this plan is proposed by the political Left. For any survey respondents who were previously unaware of the Deal, it is likely that their reactions have not yet been influenced by partisan loyalty.
The survey also showed that most of its respondents had not heard of the deal.
Before it offered its paragraph of explanation, the survey’s authors asked if respondents had heard of it. Eighty-two percent answered that they had heard “nothing at all.”
For Yale postdoc Abel Gustafson, who co-authored the report on the survey’s findings, the challenge for the deal’s proponents is how to spread awareness in a way that does not alienate potential supporters.
“Given that most Americans have strong support for the components and ideas of the Green New Deal, it becomes a communication strategy problem,” Gustafson toldThe Huffington Post. “From here, it’s about how you can pitch it so you can maintain that bipartisan support throughout the rest of the process.”
Her comment came a few days before a major UN climate summit, COP24, held in Katowice, Poland.
Other panellists on Q&A contradicted Ms Vanstone, saying emissions were rising.
This prompted many viewers of the program to call on RMIT ABC Fact Check to investigate Ms Vanstone’s claim.
Ms Vanstone’s claim is misleading.
Latest federal government figures suggest that although greenhouse gas emissions have fallen over the past 10 years, emissions started trending upwards again about four years ago.
The upturn, since 2014, has coincided with the Abbott government’s removal of the carbon tax.
Also, while emissions from electricity production have been falling, the decrease has been outweighed over the past four years by rising emissions in other sectors of the economy, such as transport, where emissions are associated with increased LNG production for export.
Emissions can be measured in different ways: for example, as total emissions or emissions per capita or per GDP.
In the past year, Australia’s total emissions have been rising. But emissions per capita or per dollar of real GDP have been falling, mainly due to Australia’s rapid population growth.
However, it is worth noting that Australia’s progress in cutting emissions under its international obligations (the Paris Agreement) is measured by changes in total emissions rather than by other measures.
As one expert put it: “The atmosphere doesn’t care how many people are contributing to emissions; it’s the total quantity of emissions that matters.”
Ms Vanstone made her claim during a discussion on Q&A about a protest by Australian schoolchildren titled ‘Strike 4 Climate Action‘.
She was speaking about the climate policies of Australia’s two major political parties, and in the broader context of greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on the environment, as perceived by young people.
Ms Vanstone did not specify which kind of emissions she was talking about. Nor whether she was referring to simple totals or ratios.
Fact Check invited her to clarify this. She said she had not been expecting to talk about emissions: “I can’t tell you that I had a particular tight construct in my head at the time,” she said.
“I think I was just making a general remark about emissions generally over a long period of time.”
Fact Check considers it reasonable to assume that her claim refers to Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions over the past 10 years — the length of time examined by the Government’s most recent report on emissions.
What others are saying
Ms Vanstone is not alone in claiming emissions in Australia are decreasing, though other speakers have been more specific.
Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, also on Q&A, said carbon emissions per capita and by GDP were at their lowest levels in 28 years.
Federal Environment Minister Melissa Price also highlighted this low ina press releaseannouncing the Government’s latest quarterly emissions data.
Nonetheless, she acknowledged that total emissions had risen over the year to June 2018.
Others have also pointed to the rise in total emissions.
Labor senator Lisa Singh, another of the recent Q&A panelists, argued that “emissions have continued to go up since 2011”.
Andon ABC radiothe same week, Richie Merzian, the climate and energy director for think tank the Australia Institute said: “For the last four years, Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing.”
The Australian Department of the Environment and Energy collects and publishes a series of reports and databases, known as theNational Greenhouse Accounts.
The accounts track greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 onwards, and fulfil Australia’s international reporting obligations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and Kyoto Protocol.
Quarterly reports, released as part of the accounts, track total emissions as well as emissions by sector, per capita and per GDP.
Thelatest report, released three days before Ms Vanstone’s Q&A appearance, provides estimates of Australia’s national inventory of greenhouse gas emissions up to the June quarter of 2018.
The report examines emissions produced by eight sectors: electricity, stationary energy, transport, fugitive emissions (for example, leakages), industrial processes and product use, agriculture, waste, and land use, land use change and forestry.
Are emissions per capita and per GDP useful measures?
Put simply, no.
Dr Saddler said focusing on emissions per capita was meaningless, since the measure used in international agreements was the more crucial total emissions.
“The atmosphere doesn’t care how many people are contributing to emissions; it’s the total quantity of emissions that matters,” he said.
Professor David Karoly, an internationally recognised expert on climate change, said the emissions per capita was a useful measure when it allowed for country by country comparisons.
“The Australian per capita share at the moment is higher than any other developed country in the world — higher than the US. Yes, it’s coming down, but it is still the highest.”
Both Dr Saddler and Professor Karoly confirmed the fall in emissions per capita and GDP were due to rapid population growth in Australia.
Experts assess the claim
Professor Karoly said if Amanda Vanstone’s claim was made in reference to total Australian emissions, “they are going up”.
He noted that the start of the recent rebound in emissions from mid-2014 coincided with thedumping of the carbon taxby the Abbott government in July of that year.
Professor Mark Howden, the director of ANU’s Climate Change Institute, told Fact Check: “I think it is correct to say that Australian emissions were coming down, but are now rising steadily.”
He said an argument could be made that emissions have come down, given they are lower now than at their peak between 2005 and 2008.
“However, this is a problematic argument,” he said.
“Under the current mix of policies and economic activities, emissions are clearly not coming down but instead are rising steadily.”
Pep Canadell, a senior principal research scientist in the CSIRO Climate Science Centre, and the executive director of the Global Carbon Project, suggested that 1990 was a good reference year for gleaning a long-term view of changes to emissions.
“Good annual data only starts from 1990, which is the reference year of the Kyoto Protocol and why the Government started the good quality data then,” Dr Canadell said.
Emissions per capita have fallen 37 per cent since 1990.
However, Dr Canadell added:
“Given Ms Vanstone’s statement is present tense, I disagree [that emissions are falling]. According to the data, emissions have been going up since 2013, with ups and downs, and, if anything, accelerating recently.”
International climate negotiations have failed to curb runaway greenhouse gas emissions since the first UN treaty on emission reductions was adopted in 1992.
Consumer-focused solutions to climate change such as eating less meat or reducing food mileage, though important, simply won’t be enough to address the systemic nature of the crisis.
So what needs to be done to halt global warming?
Truthout spoke to Simon Pirani about his newest book,Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption, and the prospects for transitioning to a post-fossil fuel world.
Anton Woronczuk:Burning Upsituates the last few decades of accelerating fossil fuel consumption alongside the social and economic history of energy production and policy.
How does this context help us understand what is driving, and what has driven, the growth of greenhouse gas emissions through today?
Simon Pirani:When people think about the threat of dangerous climate change, and decide they want to do something about it, it is not easy to work out what to do. It is clear we have to move away from fossil fuels, but not clear how. Governments claim they have solutions, which people instinctively (and rightly) disbelieve, and newspapers report simple, bullet-point proposals – such as “stop eating meat” – the effect of which is unclear.
Moving away from fossil fuels is difficult because they are so deeply embedded in economic activity, in the way that we live.
InBurning UpI hoped to make clearer how that has happened through recent history.
Take the example of cars and urban infrastructure based on them.
There are technological drivers.
Using an internal combustion engine for motor transport was a truly remarkable innovation. But it took place in an economic and social context: the rise of American capitalism. The USA had oil resources. It had aggressive entrepreneurs who not only pioneered the use of production lines to build cars – and to help discipline and control the workers who made them – but also dreamt up sales techniques to turn the car into a marketable commodity and an object of consumerism.
By the late 20th century, the motor manufacturers had become a fearsome political lobby.
They had undermined alternative forms of transport, remade American cities to serve cars, and frustrated fuel efficiency regulation.
The American example was followed by cities across the rich world during the post war boom, and beyond it from the 1980s onwards.
It was not inevitable that motor technology would come to be used so inefficiently, or that urban transport systems would become subservient to it.
That was conditioned by the way capitalism expanded.
We need to account for technological, social, economic and political elements, to understand how fossil fuel consumption has become unsustainable.
We also need to specify what we mean by “unsustainable.” The human price paid for fossil fuels has always been high – coal miners killed down pits, urban residents’ lives cut short by air pollution.
Global warming, the nature of which only became clear to scientists about thirty years ago, has made it unsustainable in a whole new way.
You repeatedly emphasize throughout your book that energy technologies must be understood as inseparable from the social and economic systems in which they function.
What is the significance of this idea, especially when many institutions promote technological fixes, like geo-engineering or carbon capture, to the climate crisis?
The story of fossil fuel consumption growth is a story of technologies used, misused and moulded by the corporations that control them; of capitalist expansion, particularly after the second world war; and of government complicity.
Even today, most fossil fuels are used by technologies of the late 19th-century “second industrial revolution,” and their more-or-less direct successors: cars with internal combustion engines, power stations and electricity networks, urban built infrastructure, energy-intensive manufacturing, fertilizer-heavy industrial agriculture.
The technologies of the so-called “third industrial revolution” – computers and communication networks that appeared from the 1980s – have not only not helped make the economy less fuel-intensive, they have made things worse.
The internet now uses more electricity than India uses for everything – not because it could not function more efficiently, but because it has developed as a commercial rather than a collective network, loaded with commercial content.
By contrast, networked technology’s tremendous potential to make urban energy systems more efficient – to make them integrated, using multiple decentralized renewable energy sources such as wind and solar – has hardly been tapped.
Ideologies of “economic growth” and productivism have played a huge part in frustrating efforts to deal with global warming in the most effective way – by cutting fossil fuel consumption.
Enthusiasm for geoengineering is the ultimate and most extreme manifestation of such ideologies.
Carbon capture and storage will probably never work at a large scale.
Other geoengineering techniques are outside my area of expertise, but I know that climate scientists view politicians’ enthusiasm for these techniques with huge concern.
I recently went to a seminar with researchers who worked on the IPCC report on ways of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
With reference to schemes to reflect sunlight back into space, one participant reported political pressure on scientists not to use the phrase “solar radiation management,” but rather to talk about “solar radiation modification.”
Someone wants to make it sound less like the giant, Promethean intervention in natural processes that it actually is!
Moving away from fossil fuels will mean completely changing these technological systems, and the social and economic systems in which they are embedded.
Some people point to technological fixes to avoid talking about such deep-going change.
Common solutions promoted by some environmentalists are often framed in terms of changing individual consumption or those of populations, especially of the rich world.
Some of these include eating less (or no) meat, buying more local produce, using more public transportation, etc.
What do these solutions obscure in terms of how fossil fuels are consumed in and through societies (unequally) across the world?
For a start, focusing on rich-world hamburger eaters ignores the whole supply chain that produces such fuel-intensive, unhealthy products.
Appealing to rich-world drivers to get the bus only makes sense as part of a challenge to the whole urban transport system they depend on, that favors cars.
I try to minimize my own hamburger consumption and car use, but I don’t treat consumption as a moral issue. And it is not primarily an individual phenomenon: fuels are consumed by and through technological and economic systems.
Second, working people in the rich world spend their lives fending off the effects of elites’ encroachments on their living standards.
Under the present economic and political conditions, reducing consumption would often make their lives harder.
It needn’t do, but that’s how things stand now.
The French government wrapped up its latest attempt at austerity as a climate policy, and came unstuck.
Too bad for them.
In reality, averting global warming, working out ways to live better lives, and countering social injustice are all part of the same approach to life.
We need to work out how to express that politically.
Look at the reaction in France to the proposed fuel tax increase.
It ignited a general revolt against neoliberal encroachments on working people’s living standards.
The government has retreated, and not only abandoned the planned tax increase, but also promised to increase the minimum wage.
Right-wing commentators have falsely claimed that the protest movement was against climate policies.
I saw no evidence of that.
While the movement is politically heterogeneous, an overarching theme is that working people are sick of being asked to pay for everything.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), established in 1992, was heralded by many as a major accomplishment in international efforts to address global warming; but you argue that Rio, and subsequent UN conferences, ensured that ecological imperatives were subordinate to economic interests.
Can you explain what this entailed and how it persisted through the Paris agreement?
Climate science has a history too.
The world’s ruling elites have long known that coal mines kill mineworkers, and cared little. But they did not know that fossil fuels were feeding into the global warming threat until the 1980s.
Only then did scientists clarify how warming happens, and the role played by greenhouse gases and fossil fuels. But once the ruling elites had the science in front of them, they fought desperately to limit the actions taken to those that reinforced, or at least did not threaten, their economic dominance.
The political expression of this was the refusal by the US and other governments to countenance the idea of binding emissions reduction targets.
This was consistent in the international climate negotiations from 1992 onwards. Another theme was that market mechanisms should be used to reduce fossil fuel consumption. This was the basis of the Kyoto protocol of 1997 and the disastrously unsuccessful emissions trading schemes it provided for.
A huge amount of political energy is expended to convince us that the international climate talks are dealing with the global warming problem.
They simply are not.
Since 1992 the annual level of greenhouse gases emissions from fossil fuel use has risen by more than half.
That is a failure.
If we don’t characterize the talks in that way, we cannot deal with the political consequences.
The 2015 Paris agreement marked the final collapse of attempts to adopt binding emissions targets.
I do not want to say the voluntary targets adopted are worthless, or that the policies adopted in some countries to achieve them are not helpful, or that serious efforts – most obviously, the substantial investment in renewable energy for electricity generation – are not being made to move away from some uses of fossil fuels. But we need to assess progress soberly and not confuse hopes with reality.
A widely celebrated proposal for a “Green New Deal” has been touted by many center-left politicians, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders and Yanis Varoufakis, as a solution to the multiple crises we face today.
What is your evaluation of it?
The “green new deal” appears to have several meanings.
It has been used by mainstream neoliberal politicians to describe an investment program, operated completely through markets, that would shift the economy away from fossil fuels.
The left-wing politicians you mention see the “green new deal” as a program of state infrastructure investment, a mobilization of resources on the scale of a war effort.
Whether such a war-type mobilization would ever be implemented in any significant capitalist country remains to be seen.
The political scientists Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright suggest in their bookClimate Leviathanthat there could be an international agreement between the US, China and others that would undertake such spending, but very much in the strongest countries’ neo-imperial interests, and with a big dose of geoengineering.
Obviously the left politicians’ perspectives are quite different.
InBurning UpI argued that not just a social-democratic spending program, but a much deeper-going shift to post-capitalist social relations, could provide the context for the fundamental changes in social, economic and technological systems that will be necessary to break the economy’s many-sided dependence on fossil fuels.
That’s how I see the future.
By saying that, I don’t deny the need for immediate responses. But the most noticeable immediate responses will come from governments.
If anyone tells me they are up to the job of dealing with climate change, I would point to the fact that annual global fossil fuel consumption has risen by more than 60 percent since the Rio convention was signed.
That’s the result of governments’ response.
Australian school pupils understand that simple arithmetic better than they understand politicians’ promises, which is whythey went on strikein protest at inaction on climate change.
They will not be the last ones of their generation to do so.
Jeff Sparrow is an Australian leftwing writer, editor and former socialist activist based in Melbourne, Victoria. He is the co-author of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within. He is also the author of Communism: A Love Story and Killing: Misadventures in Violence.Wikipedia
Demonstrators stand next to metal barriers around the tomb of The Unknown Soldier at The Arc of Triomphe during a protest of Yellow vests (Gilets jaunes) against rising oil prices and living costs on the Champs Elysees in Paris, on December 1, 2018. (IMAGE: vfutscher, Flickr)
As the globe – and the political climate aimed at saving it – heats up, we need a different politics to tackle an entrenched problem, writes Jeff Sparrow.
Sensible centrism will doom us all.
Take Emmanuel Macron, once hailed everywhere as the savior of liberalism.
“Macron,”explainedPoliticoin April this year, “has stepped audaciously into the vacuum created by Trump’s abdication of America’s historic role as keeper of the liberal democratic flame.”
Nor was this an anomalous view in the English-speaking world.
MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid expressed the perspective of many American Democrats, when she quipped that Macron should be running Washington.
AsSalon put it, “Macron appeared to have everything that centrist Democrats could ever want in a candidate; he was young, smart and charismatic, yet also mature and pragmatic (as all centrists are, in the neoliberal worldview).
Macron also appeared to be different and innovative, like a political version of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and claimed to be “neither left nor right,” as if to have a political ideology was to have an outdated worldview, something like using a flip phone in 2018.”
In Britain, he generated the same kind of excitement among the same kind of people, with Labourite opponents of Jeremy Corbyn enthusing over the ‘new Tony Blair’, even as a new Macron-inspired centrist party called Renew came into being.
With riots, blockades and protests spreading across the country, the demand for Macron’s resignation provided a central slogan uniting an often fractious movement.
But his failure represents something more than the misfire of an overhyped media personality.
It illustrates the peculiar danger posed by the ongoing infatuation of supposed progressives with the so-called ‘radical centre’.
Macron’s international boosters had presented him as the figure to stem the rise of reactionary populism in Europe, someone who would combine market-based prosperity with liberal reforms.
When, in December 2017, Trump repudiated the Paris Climate Accords, Macron launched a slick social media campaign around the slogan ‘Make the planet great again’.
To that end, he proposed a so-called ‘eco tax’ on fuel, a levy intended, he explained, to discourage car use and to raise funds for climate change mitigation.
Symptomatically, though, he provided no alternative for working class drivers in the outer suburbs, small towns and rural areas without public transport.
The meteoric rise of the Yellow Vests reflected the widespread (and accurate) perception that the fuel tax constituted another attack by a government of the rich on some of the poorest people in the country.
In many ways, the tax represented the final straw for a population long sick of austerity.
The Macron bubble had, in fact, already burst well before the Yellow Vests took over the streets.
Nevertheless, for those of us watching from afar, it’s worth reflecting on how centrism brought the rhetoric of environmentalism directly into conflict with the aspirations of the people, in a manner that gave ammunition to the worst denialists.
Hasn’t every right-wing demagogue, from Donald Trump to Pauline Hanson, denounced climate change as a chatter class preoccupation imposed to shackle the working man?
Thus, rather than defeating the reactionary populists, Macron provided them, via his tax, with an effective talking point, a confirmation of the perspective they’ve long argued.
As he back-pedalled, the president acknowledged what he called the tension between ‘the end of the world’ and the ‘end of the month’.
The formulation was repeated by sympathetic commentators who declared that, in the future, environmental measures must be imposed gradually, so as to ease the pain of those living payday to payday. But that argument, too, accepts the underlying frame of the far right, positing workers as innately opposed to an environmentalism that, by definition, rendered them poorer and more miserable.
In reality, it’s climate change, not climate action, that necessarily threatens ordinary people, simply because the environmental crisis can no longer be disentangled from the broader crisis of a decaying capitalism.
The catastrophic weather associated with global warming will, for instance, overwhelmingly affect those already targeted by austerity – the individuals too poor to relocate or rebuild or use aircon or take other preventative measures.
The refugees from rising seas will be indistinguishable from the victims of war and poverty; the political ruptures provoked by drought, land degradation and other environmental disasters will blend into the general instability of the 21st century.
The tension between climate activism and the working class emerges not from the nature of the problem but from the logic of centrist solutions, which always centre on neoliberal mechanisms such as carbon taxes.
But there’s no environmental reason to rely on the market to combat fossil fuels.
A government could, after all, forcibly acquire polluting industries at the stroke of the pen, much as almost every regime nationalised parts of the economy during the Second World War.
To put it another way, the decarbonisation of the developed nations could be presented in a program designed to extend democratic control over industry, improve working conditions and materially improve the lives of the populace.
If it’s not – if climate action instead becomes a fig-leaf for austerity – that’s because of political choice rather than necessity.
Centrists pride themselves on their political acumen.
Carbon taxes and other market mechanisms might not be ideal, they say, but they reflect the horizon of the possible.
We must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and it’s better to do something than nothing at all.
Macron’s example demonstrates the bankruptcy of that argument.
To their credit, the Yellow Vests seem to be moving to the left rather than to the right.
Nevertheless, the French situation will inspire right-wing populists everywhere to bring climate denial to the front of their agenda, adding to the difficulty of achieving genuine environmental change across Europe and elsewhere.
The fight for climate change depends on ordinary working people.
We have more to learn from the Yellow Vests and their militancy than we do from ‘sensible centrists’, no matter how much they drape themselves in green.
Now, more than ever, climate action must become radical.
In 2007, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a story calling for a “Green New Deal.”
Friedman explained that he no longer believed that there was one silver-bullet program that would solve climate change.
Rather, just as a variety of programs were part of former US president Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” for economic revitalization in the 1930s, so it would take a variety of investments in environmentally-friendly technologies to help stabilize the climate.
Friedman almost certainly could not have imagined that some day politicians would propose a Green New Deal that might include a universal basic income.
Newly elected US congress member and rising Democratic star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigned for office on an ambitiousclimate-change platform which she also calls a Green New Deal.
The plan has gained attention and supportersover the last month, and is becoming a main talking point among Democrats who are looking for a meaningful agenda for the party over the next decade.
Ocasio-Cortez envisions the federal government leading efforts to eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions by investing in renewable energy infrastructure, improving the efficiency of residential and industrial buildings, and constructing an energy-efficient electricity grid.
To achieve the Green New Deal’s goals, the government would need to hire millions of people. Ocasio-Cortez sees this as an opportunity to transform the economy.
The Green New Deal would include training and education for workers, as well as a federal job-guarantee program.
Further, all investments would be focused on low-income communities.
Presenting climate-change mitigation as a jobs program, rather than an economy killer, may be politically savvy.
As if all that wasn’t ambitious enough, the Green New Deal would also include “basic income programs, universal healthcare programs and any others as the select committee may deem appropriate to promote economic security, labor-market flexibility, and entrepreneurism.”
It is basically everything liberals desire and more.
Supporters defend the need for these welfare programs as ways to alleviate the disruption that would be caused by the elimination of fossil fuel-supported jobs.
With a universal basic income and government-guaranteed health care, losing your oil-industry gig wouldn’t be as bad.
The program would of course be very expensive.
It’s hard to estimate how much it would cost, as the details are still murky. Green Party leader Jill Stein estimated that her version of the Green New Deal, which isless ambitiousthan the one presented by Ocasio-Cortez, would cost $700 billion to $1 trillion annually.
Ocasio-Cortez says hers would be funded by debt spending and tax increases.
In Friedman’s original conception, the government played a much smaller role in the Green New Deal.
He believed the government’s place was not in funding projects, but in seeding research and creating tax incentives andefficiency standards (paywall), and that harnessing the power of the private sector was the key to taking on climate change.
While Ocasio-Cortez believes the private sector has a role to play, she argues that the scale of the project is too big to leave to government-guided market forces.
The Green New Deal has come a long and very expensive way.
It still far cheaper than catastrophic climate change.
Australia’s climate policy has further deteriorated in the past year, as it focusses on propping up the coal industry and ditches efforts to reduce emissions, ignoring the record uptake of solar PV and storage and other climate action at state level.
The Australian government has turned its back on global climate action by dismissing the findings of theIPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°Cand announcing it would no longer provide funds to the Green Climate Fund (GCF).
Australia’s emissions from fossil fuels and industry continue to rise and, based on the most recent quarterly inventory, are now 6% above 2005 levels and increasing at around 1% since 2014.
Under current polices these emissions are headed for an increase of 9% above 2005 levels by 2030, rather than the 15–17% decrease in these emissions required to meetAustralia’s Paris Agreement target.
This means Australia’s emissions are set to far outpace its“Insufficient”2030 target.
The government hasabandoned any policy effortsto achieve emissions reductions in the energy and transport sectors. Instead, its plans to underwrite a new coal power plant are completely inconsistent with the need to phase out coal globally by 2050 and in OECD countries by 2030.
If all other countries were to follow Australia’s current policy trajectory that we rate “Highly Insufficient”, warming could reach over 3°C and up to 4°C.
While the federal government continues to repeatedly state that Australia is on track to meet its 2030 target“in a canter”,the Climate Action Tracker is not aware of any scientific basis, published by any analyst or government agency, to support this.
Australia’s emissions have been increasing since 2014, when the federal government repealed the carbon pricing system, and the latest quarterly emissions inventory to June 2018 (published in November 2018) shows continuing increases. Emissions are projected to grow through 2030, instead of reducing in line with the 2030 target.
The federal government continues to promote coal as a solution to an energy security issue it claims exists but which has not been identified by the Australian Energy Market Operator.
It proposes to underwrite new coal-fired power generation by guaranteeing to pay any future carbon price-related costs, create barriers to renewable energy and obfuscate its climate policies, the reality on the ground at the state level, public opinion and across the business sector in Australia, is very different.
The government continues to push for policies aimed at propping up uncompetitive coal-fired power.
This follows a rejection of the recommendations of the2017 Finkel report, as well as, in August 2018, dropping an alternative instrument, the National Energy Guarantee. The Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF)—the so-called “centrepiece” of the Australian government’s policy suite to reduce emissions—does not set Australia on a path to meeting its targets as has been reiterated in the latest review by the Climate Change Authority (Climate Change Authority, 2017).
Instead of introducing new policies to address the structural change needed (CCA 2017), the government is now considering allowing international units to be used for compliance. The safeguard mechanism also risks counteracting the emissions reductions the ERF is supposed to deliver and further undermines the achievement of the 2030 target (Reputex, 2018) by increasing emissions allowances for large industry facilities.
All states and territories (except Western Australia) now have strong renewable energy targets and/or zero emissions targets in place (Climate Council, 2017).
South Australia is widely seen as a global leader: it has one of the highest shares of variable renewable energy, with 48% share of wind and solar total generation in 2017 (IEEFA, 2018), the world’s largest lithium-ion battery, and innovative projects for renewable hydrogen and virtual power plants. Households across Australia are massively deploying small-scale solar and increasingly combining this with battery storage: about 29% of dwellings in South Australia and 27% in Queensland had solar PV by early 2018, with substantial shares in several other states and territories as well, a trend that is showing no sign of slowing down. Public opinion is supportive of renewable energies and climate policy (Essential, 2017).
In a recentpoll, more than 70% of Australians want the government to set a high renewable energy target to put downward pressure on power prices and reduce emissions. In “Australia’s climate policy survey”, capturing the views of Australian business and industry, 92% of respondents say Australia’s current climate and energy policy is insufficient to meet the required targets. A further sign of escalating and widespread public disquiet and concern at their government’s lack of action on climate change was a unprecedented,nation-wide strike by school childreninlate November 2018
Australia ratified the Paris Agreement on 6 November 2016. Its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), includes a target of reducing GHG emissions, including land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF), by 26–28% below 2005 levels by 2030. This target is equivalent to a range of 15.1–17.4% below 2005 around levels of GHG emissions excluding LULUCF in 2030 (or referenced to 1990, 3% to 6% above 1990 levels of GHG emissions excluding LULUCF in 2030). However, current policies are projected to increase GHG emissions excluding LULUCF by about 9% above 2005 levels by 2030.
With a few notable exceptions, the Australian movement for action on climate change has struggled to achieve big tangible wins in recent years.
We’ve had a few isolated victories, but even if Labor wins the next federal election and the Liberal Party’s position reverts closer to where it was under John Howard, the likely policy shifts aren’t going to come close to what’s needed unless there’s a strong push from civil society.
Here in Queensland, a Labor state government (where Labor’s left faction already controls more votes than the right faction) is still allowing the Adani coal mine to proceed, potentially opening the door to further new coal mines in the Galilee basin.
If these mines go ahead, the burning of the coal they produce will lead to the flooding of coastal cities around the world, the desertification of thousands of hectares of farmland and forest, and more intense bushfires and cyclones.
In defiance of public opinion and basic common sense, the Queensland Labor government is prioritising the financial interests of the mining industry ahead of the safety and security of literally billions of people around the globe. The various forms of pressure that environmentalists have been applying to Labor (both through internal and external channels) don’t appear to have had much impact.
So for those of us who don’t want our grandchildren growing up in some kind of dystopian combination of Water World and Mad Max: Fury Road, what effective courses of action are left available to us?
Here in Queensland, anti-coal campaigners have used a variety of tactics to apply pressure on the political establishment, from peaceful public rallies to locking on to mining equipment. But even a rally of several thousand people isn’t enough to counteract the undemocratic influence that mining lobbyists are exerting over senior Labor ministers. While non-disruptive rallies and marches can help energise and inspire campaigners and draw attention to an issue, they do not directly challenge the underlying logic of capitalism, and are too easy for politicians to ignore. Even the protests against the Iraq War, which saw around six hundred thousand Australians take to the streets, didn’t change John Howard’s mind (if the following Monday, all those people had refused to show up for work, it might have been another matter).
Lock-ons and other arrestable actions do directly hurt the profits of the target companies, but when only a very small proportion of the community are willing to risk arrest, such tactics can’t easily be scaled up to have a big enough impact on political decision-makers, and the costs of fines and legal fees start to take their toll on a movement over time.
The Leard State Forest Blockade against the Maules Creek mine down in NSW was one of the largest civil disobedience actions in Australian history, involving thousands of protesters and hundreds of arrests. The campaign had a range of positive outcomes and flow-on effects, but sadly, the mine eventually went ahead.
So we need to recognise that while both protest marches and lock-ons have their uses, it’s well past time we started exploring other methods of expressing dissent and pressuring the government. We need tactics that large numbers of people can realistically participate in at minimal personal cost, which also directly challenge the power of the state and the profits of the corporate sector.
Organised labour strikes have become more difficult in recent decades. Legislative changes first initiated by Prime Minister Bob Hawke in the 1980s have largely neutered traditional trade unions and made most kinds of strike action illegal. Automation and overseas outsourcing threaten many industries, while more and more of us are casual workers with little to no job security.
But that doesn’t mean striking is no longer a viable tactic. We may not all work together in large factories or worksites anymore, but that doesn’t mean we can’t coordinate our actions across different industries and workplaces. And the fact that large strikes are somewhat rarer than they used to be actually means that if enough of us did get our act together to organise one, the impact upon our political leaders would be more significant.
So what might a general strike against the Adani coal mine look like in practice? I don’t pretend to have detailed answers to this, but basically it would mean as many people as possible taking a day off work. Some workers would simply call in sick. Others would take a day of paid holiday leave, or perhaps just unpaid leave. Some of us might not be able to skip work for one reason or another, but could perhaps still donate a portion of our day’s wages to support the strike. Those of us who are stuck in work for the dole programs shoulddefinitelycall in sick.
If you do have a job, think about your workplace, and how it can throw a spanner in the works when just one or two people call in sick unexpectedly. Now imagine if as many as 1 in 5 or even 1 in 4 staff members all stayed home at the same time… from every workplace in the city. The ripples throughout society would be significant. Some businesses would simply have to shut their doors and give everyone a day off.
I’m confident that if even half the people who care about climate change all stayed home from work on the same day, our politicians would have no choice but to sit up and take notice. The recent school student strikes got a lot of attention, so why shouldn’t the adults join in?
What I’m now starting to wonder is whether we might have an even bigger impact if we all agreed that on the day of the climate strike, we also refused to engage in any kind of for-profit commercial transaction? Don’t go to the shops. Don’t buy anything online. Don’t even fill up your petrol tank. If your rent’s due that date, pause the automatic transfer and pay it a day later (fun fact: late rent payment doesn’t even technically count as a breach of your lease conditions).
Instead, take a day off and spend it with family and friends.
Go to the park.
Go for a swim.
Read a book.
Cook a proper meal.
Major party politicians have spent a long time arguing (wrongly) that supporting the coal industry is good for the economy. Maybe it’s time to force them to recognise that the opposite is true. A general strike might seem a drastic step to some, but it’s an entirely proportionate response to the danger and devastation of runaway climate change.
I know other activists around Australia are also starting to talk about climate change-related strikes in the lead-up to the next federal election. I think the sooner we pick dates and organise such actions, the better. Waiting until March or April to start putting this kind of pressure on Labor and the Liberals will probably be too late for them to change their policy positions prior to election day. But if we start a little sooner, we could help make this into the key election issue that it ought to be.
And if they don’t change their policies, we can keep striking on a monthly basis until they have no choice, or they’re voted out of office. Heck, maybe this would be a good way to finally achieve a four-day work week.
I don’t pretend to have this all worked out, or that such a tactic would definitely succeed. But it’s clear that climate activists need to start trialling and experimenting with a more diverse range of actions. Although they’re fun and energising, climate change rallies and marches are little more than empty rituals if they don’t lead to other kinds of action. And convincing people to take a day off work might actually be a lot easier than convincing people to give up their Saturday morning marching in the hot sun.
But it seems many Australians don’t agree with Mr Morrison’s comments that there should be “more learning in schools and less activism”.
New national ReachTel polling conducted after the Student Strike for Climate Action revealed widespread support for the students.
The Australian Youth Climate Coalition released results from the survey of 2345 people, which found 62.7 per cent thought school students had a right to demand action from the Government on climate change. Among Labor voters, this rose to 86.4 per cent.
A majority of 58.1 per cent also thought the Labor Party should show leadership on climate change and oppose Adani’s coal mine, including 80.7 per cent of Labor voters.
“This new poll shows Australians support the students’ actions and that the Prime Minister’s attacks on the kids are mean-spirited and out-of-step with public opinion,” Australian Youth Climate Coalition national director Gemma Borgo-Caratti said.
“The poll also puts Bill Shorten on notice that a clear majority of Australians, and the vast majority of Labor voters, want him to act to stop the Adani mine.
“Labor voters want strong leadership on climate change, not a would-be prime minister who says the Adani coal mine would make no difference to carbon emissions.”
Jean Hinchliffe, 14, said students would continue to push governments to act on climate change.
“We’re not going to stop until change is made,” she told news.com.au.
She said young people around Australia were working on big plans for the school holidays and for 2019.
Melbourne Climate Strike
The rallies on Saturday protested against the Adani coal mine and Jean said they were opposed to the use of coal for electricity and were also against the development because of the potential impact on the Great Barrier Reef.
“It will drive Australia and the rest of the world away from a sustainable future and that’s something we don’t agree with,” she said.
“Young people will not stand by and let Adani dig its mine, or let politicians get away with waving through a project which will destroy our future.
“Climate change is breathing down our necks. We’re fired up and ready to do whatever it takes to stop Adani.”
This weekend’s protests follow a nationwide student strike last weekfollowed by a “sit-in” inside the lobby of Parliament Housethis week. High school students staged the protest after their requests to speak with the Prime Minister about climate change were ignored – and it earnt them a three-month ban from the premises.
Earlier in the day, Mr Morrison said he would sit down with the school students, a week after he criticised them for skipping school to stage the national strikes.
“I’m always happy to listen. I respect everybody’s views,” he told reporters on Wednesday morning.
“We don’t always have to agree on everything, you know, but we do have to respect each other and we do have to take each other’s views seriously.”
Despite the PM’s words, he’s yet to meet with the 100-strong student group, whose protest was moved to the lawns outside Parliament House by security
Crossbench MP Kerryn Phelps and Greens senator Jordon Steele-John both took time to meet with the students.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale praised the group.
“The reason we had young people in parliament today protesting is because the Liberal and Labor Party are not listening to them,” he told reporters.
It was a sentiment echoed by the students gathered outside, including 14-year-old Tully Bowtell-Young who travelled solo from Townsville to be there – using her own pocket money to help cover costs.
“I think it’s worthwhile because nothing I have now is going to mean anything if I don’t have a future in this world,” she told AAP.
EMISSIONS ARE RISING
The world has already warmed by 1C and global emissions are projected to rise by more than 2 per cent this year due to an increase in the amount of coal being burned and the sustained use of oil and natural gas.
In Australia, the latest government data shows greenhouse emissions are at their highest level since 2011.
The National Greenhouse Gas Inventory figures for the June quarter show total emissions were the equivalent of 533.7 million tonnes, up 5.1 per cent since the carbon price was abolished in June 2014.
Australia had the highest per capita greenhouse gas energy in the world
A leading climate scientist suggests Australia will now have to reduce electricity sector emissions by 60 to 70 per cent in order to meet its Paris Agreement target of reducing carbon emissions by 26 to 28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030.
“It’s clear that nations around the world aren’t doing enough to slow down climate change,” Griffith University emeritus professor Ian Lowe told ABC radio on Thursday.
Some argue that Australia only contributes to about 1.8 per cent of global emissions but Prof Lowe said every nation except the US and China was in the same position – and together these emissions contribute to the majority of emissions.
“It’s all of the one and two per cents from all of the little countries that add up to the other 60 per cent outside the US and China,” he said.
If warming is allowed to reach 2C almost all the world’s coral reefs would die including the Great Barrier Reef. Even if warming reached 1.5C, most would still die. To even save half the world’s reefs, warming should be limited to 1.2C.
GOVERNMENT FAILS TO GET AGREEMENT
Representatives from nearly 200 countries will hold talks at a UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland focusing on the rules for implementing the Paris climate accord.
But federal Environment Minister Melissa Price was unable to get a joint statement on climate change signed off by state environment ministers to take with her to Poland on Saturday.
Ms Price met with her state counterparts in Canberra on Friday and asked them to endorse a statement but they refused because the government has no plan to tackle the problem.
“What I had suggested was that we had an agreed statement that we would all work together to determine an action plan with respect to climate, with respect to things that we can do individually and collectively,” Ms Price told reporters on Friday.
“Sadly that was not agreed. There was not an agreement on the words that I proposed, and no one proposed alternative words.”
The Labor governments of Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT released a joint statement condemning the lack of action.
“The science is frightening, unequivocal and clear – we are running out of time,” the statement said. “Yet the response of successive Liberal prime ministers has been one of delusion and deliberate inaction.
“It is unacceptable that any action on climate change has again been left off the agenda at today’s meeting.”
Attempts to incorporate a key scientific study into global climate talks in Poland have failed.
The IPCC report on the impacts of a temperature rise of 1.5C, had a significant impact when it was launched last October.
Scientists and many delegates in Poland were shocked and disappointed as the US, Saudi Arabia and Russia objected to this meeting “welcoming” the report.
It was the 2015 climate conference that had commissioned the landmark study.
The report said that the world is now completely off track, heading more towards 3C this century rather than 1.5C.
Keeping to the preferred target would need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. If warming was to be kept to 1.5C this century, then emissions of carbon dioxide would have to be reduced by 45% by 2030.
The report, launched in Incheon in South Korea, had an immediate impact winning praise from politicians all over the world.
But negotiators here ran into serious trouble when Saudi Arabia, the US and Russia objected to the conference “welcoming” the document.
Instead they wanted to support a much more lukewarm phrase, that the conference would “take note” of the report.
Saudi Arabia had fought until the last minute in Korea to limit the conclusions of the document. Eventually they gave in. But it now seems that they have brought their objections to Poland.
The dispute dragged on as huddles of negotiators met in corners of the plenary session here, trying to agree a compromise wording.
None was forthcoming.
With no consensus, under UN rules the passage of text had to be dropped.
Many countries expressed frustration and disappointment at the outcome.
Thousands protest in Melbourne Sydney and Cairns
“It’s not about one word or another, it is us being in a position to welcome a report we commissioned in the first place,” said Ruenna Haynes from St Kitts and Nevis.
“If there is anything ludicrous about the discussion its that we can’t welcome the report,” she said to spontaneous applause.
Scientists and campaigners were also extremely disappointed by the outcome.
“We are really angry and find it atrocious that some countries dismiss the messages and the consequences that we are facing, by not accepting what is unequivocal and not acting upon it,” said Yamide Dagnet from the World Resources Institute, and a former climate negotiator for the UK.
Others noted that Saudi Arabia and the US had supported the report when it was launched in October. It appears that the Saudis and the US baulked at the political implications of the UN body putting the IPCC report at its heart.
“Climate science is not a political football,” said Camilla Born, from climate think tank E3G.
“All the worlds governments – Saudi included – agreed the 1.5C report and we deserve the truth. Saudi can’t argue with physics, the climate will keep on changing.”
Many delegates are now hoping that ministers, who arrive on Monday, will try and revive efforts to put this key report at the heart of the conference.
“We hope that the rest of the world will rally and we get a decisive response to the report,” said Yamide Dagnet.
“I sincerely hope that all countries will fight that we don’t leave COP24 having missed a moment of history.”