Australia has a chance to lead the way towards repairing the damage done to our planet through climate change, writes Dr Steven Hail.
A CLIMATE CHANGE emergency is being acknowledged increasingly around the world and for good reason. The evidence is so overwhelming that those who deny, minimise or ignore the problem at this late stage are those who are beyond the reach of rational argument. There is no point in reaching out towards them any longer.
Fortunately, we don’t need to.
All we need to do is to calmly and consistently repeat three facts:
- It is well-established and has been understood for a long time (for more than 150 years) that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere trap heat and are responsible for global warming.
- It is well-established and has been understood for a long time (for over 100 years) that net emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases due to human economic activity have added and are continuing to add to global warming and the changes in climate patterns and increasingly frequent and extreme weather events which are a consequence of that global warming.
- Climate change is both a consequence of and a contributor to an erosion of the natural capital which is essential to the quality of life of our children, grandchildren and all future generations.
There will be a few people, I suppose, who don’t care about the well-being of those who will follow us in the decades and centuries to come, but surely this is a tiny minority. Moreover, we are reaching a point where even they must fear climate change, because its impacts are no longer entirely in the future.
Farmers, bushfire victims and others are suffering today. Michael McCormack might say there have always been droughts and fires in Australia, but the evidence that extreme events are becoming more frequent and more devastating is increasingly clear. Things may be bad this summer, but they will get worse if we do nothing. Far worse. It is time for the National Party to take this seriously if they don’t want to betray those they claim to represent.
There are people who argue that we in Australia contribute so little to the problem that we ought not to be an early mover. Let the USA, Europe and China deal with it. They are the big emitters. What can we do? Why should we put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage? Why should we make out economy sick when doing so won’t make the planet healthy?
Yes, it is true that because there are so few of us, there are other countries whose approach to carbon dioxide emissions matters far more than ours. However, we have the greatest responsibility to take a lead and address the problem. We have the highest emissions per head of any of the countries in the OECD club and are easily the world’s largest exporter of coal and one of the top exporters of natural gas.
What’s more, we are better placed than probably any other country in the world to accelerate the shift towards green, renewable energy. We have immense potential to use solar, wind and hydro power and to create green hydrogen as a storable power source using other renewables. There are plenty of scientists and engineers who will tell you that Australia could rapidly replace coal and gas, not just for domestic energy production, but as a basis for exports.
We can go to 100% renewables, and far beyond. 500% renewables, these people tell us, is a relatively conservative goal. And given the problems in transporting renewable power, Australia may again become the natural place to engage in energy-intensive heavy manufacturing. Industries which have been lost offshore, may naturally move back onshore in this future scenario.
There are others who tell us that it is all too late anyway. To them, we are doomed. More than 99.9% of all the species to have lived on the Earth have gone extinct. Why should we be any different? Why should we escape the sixth great extinction episode in the history of the Earth? Why should we not go the way of the dinosaurs?
The good news for the doomsday merchants is that, while catastrophe is possible, it is not inevitable. We don’t have to be the first species to drive ourselves into extinction. There is still time to limit the concentration of greenhouse gases to a level which may be consistent with not much more than two degrees of warming over pre-industrial levels and later on we should be able to achieve negative net emissions and begin to repair at least some of the damage we have done.
We can do this while still providing plenty of good employment opportunities. We can do it while improving the lifestyles of future generations. We should in time be able to reduce the working week and reduce – not increase – the retirement age. We can do it while reducing inequality and while acting globally to end absolute poverty once and for all.
We just need to get on with it. And we need to engage in this Just Transition or Green New Deal very soon. There is an emergency. It is urgent. We can’t wait for politicians, or for the mythical Overton window. Time is running out.
The School Climate Strikes, Extinction Rebellion and all the other protest groups are helping with this. For my part, I have asked economists, activists, unionists and others with something useful to say about a Green New Deal to come to Adelaide next January to (hopefully) generate some momentum. This includes Stephanie Kelton who works with Bernie Sanders and Andrés Bernal, who is on the team of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
I would love it if you could come and join us next January. Getting to Adelaide will mean adding to emissions, I admit. But we need plenty of people to join in if we are going to have any influence.
Perhaps I will see you there.
The Sustainable Prosperity Conference is held at the University of Adelaide from 10-12 January 2020.
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