As South Asia swelters through a record-breaking heatwave — with reports of hundreds of lives lost in India on top of the hundreds of farmer suicides this year owing to crop failures due to drought — a May 20 Reuters report that Pakistanis were digging mass graves in preparation for heatwave-related deaths brings the grim situation we are in into sharp focus.
Climate change is here, and the people of the underdeveloped nations that are the least responsible for it are among those hardest hit and least able to withstand its impacts.
In August, geologists will decide whether to formally adopt the designation “Anthropocene” to mark the Earth having entered a new geological epoch.
Regardless, it is a term that is in wide use among earth system scientists, owing to the impact human society is having not just on local ecosystems, but on earth systems as a whole — on biodiversity, chemical cycles, freshwater, land use, ocean acidity, climate and more.
As Ian Angus documents in his new book Facing the Anthropocene, humans' impact on earth systems, and in particular, climate, stem from the explosive growth in fossil fuel use driven by the US oil giants, car manufacturers and military; the growth in suburban living, road and shopping mall construction; and changing, fossil-fuel dependent, agricultural practices.
After the Pleistocene epoch with its recurring Ice Ages, in which humans first developed, the warmer Holocene epoch of the past 11,500 years made agriculture, fixed settlement and civilisation possible.
The determinants of global temperature and climate (in particular, greenhouse gas concentrations) have now reached levels beyond those of both the Holocene and Pleistocene. We are on course for a chaotic global climate outside anything we know can support the agriculture on which most of the 7 billion humans now living depend.
Whether it is possible to return to the relatively stable climate of the Holocene will depend on how quickly we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to zero and remove the excess that has built up in the air and oceans.
To stabilise the climate, or failing that, to make the inevitable climate changes slow enough for us to adapt, we need to treat climate change as an emergency and make a rapid transition away from fossil fuel use. Halting deforestation and increasing the amount of land that is covered by forests will be another essential component.
Environment think tank Beyond Zero Emissions produced a report in 2010 showing that using commercially available technology, Australia could transition to meet all our stationary power needs from renewable sources within a 10-year time-frame, for a cost of around $37 billion a year.
Under the plan, 58% of electricity would come from concentrating solar thermal plants that allow the sun's heat to be stored overnight and converted to electricity continuously; 40% from wind generators; and the remaining 2% from rooftop solar, existing hydro and burning crop residues to supply back-up when solar and wind is insufficient.
There is no technical reason to keep using fossil fuels for electricity generation.
More capital is invested in fossil fuel infrastructure than in any other industry. A 2011 United Nations report estimated existing fossil fuel and nuclear power infrastructure at US$15 to 20 trillion. Big oil alone made more than $650 billion in profits between 2001 and 2008.
The bulk of the global economy — from transport and construction to agrochemicals, synthetic textiles and the biggest single greenhouse gas emitter, the military — is dependent on cheap oil for power and on petrochemicals for inputs.
With the fossil fuel industry's economic clout comes political power and, so far, this political power has been used to resist every measure to curb fossil fuel extraction and use.
Rational argument by the world's most informed scientists have not been enough to convince the decision-makers of the coal, oil and gas giants to voluntarily stop holding a blow-torch to the planet; nor to persuade the political leaders of the Coalition, Labor or Greens to go beyond what is palatable.
It will take a groundswell of action by the majority — a mass movement of concerned people prepared to defend current and future generations from the devastation of run-away climate change — to break the power of the fossil fools over our economic and political life, to create a new grassroots democracy and to begin to make the transition to a sustainable economy based on renewable energy.
[Kamala Emanuel is a Socialist Alliance candidate for the Senate in Western Australia. Socialist Alliance's climate change policy can be found here.]