Socialist Alliance National co-convener Peter Boyle spoke alongside NSW Greens MLC John Kaye at the opening session of Green Left Weekly’s Climate Change Social Change conference in Parramatta on June 30. His speech is below.
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I want to dedicate this little presentation to our Pakistani comrade Baba Jan — who has been imprisoned and tortured since August last year for standing up for the rights of his people from the Hunza Valley after their villages and farmlands were flooded in 2010.
Baba Jan and four comrades — all members of the Labour Party Pakistan — imprisoned along with him are among the growing number of those who could be termed “political prisoners of the global climate crisis”.
They were arrested for leading protests of poor villagers who were among the thousands who were displaced or cut off in a valley.
We have been organising a campaign of solidarity here in Australia and we organised for numerous letters of protest and concern to be sent the Pakistani government. Among them were two letters from John Kaye's fellow Greens member of parliament, David Shoebridge. John, please pass on our thanks to David for this.
The good news is that the protests in Pakistan and around the world had an impact. First they helped force the government to allow Baba Jan and his comrades visits and some medical treatment – which they had been previously denied. Then, just a couple of days ago we were overjoyed to hear that they were finally about to be granted bail – nine months after they were arrested!
But alas our celebrations proved premature. Yesterday, when Baba Jan’s lawyer went to the magistrate with the bail application the public prosecutor that the magistrate is not allowed hear this case the police has now inserted new charges under draconian anti-terrorist laws and so now his case can be heard only by a special anti-terrorist court.
In 2010, one fifth of Pakistan was flooded after extremely heavy monsoonal rains. Two thousand people died as a result of this extreme weather event and 20 million people suffered displacement and/or destruction of property, livelihood and infrastructure.
Every monsoon season in Pakistan since then has been exceptionally heavy and has threatened many with disaster on a similar scale.
The case of these five political prisoners of global climate change is just one example of the terrible reality of the global warming crisis, a crisis brought mainly on by the unprecedented and burning of fossil fuels. The greater frequency of extreme weather events and droughts is just one measure of the reality of the global climate crisis.
This horror of this crisis is now — not in the future — for millions of people, especially in the Third World where there is even less capacity to cope with these unnatural disasters.
Politics in Australia this past week has been dominated by a hysterical and hypocritical debate in parliament about refugees. We saw MPs from the major parties shed crocodile tears for the latest boatloads of desperate refugees that drowned trying to get to Australia.
They beat their breasts and cried for the cameras but they are actually united in their support for raising even higher the walls of “Fortress Australia” through their support for mandatory detention of thousands of refugees and their support for so-called “offshore processing” — really nothing more than a way of turning back refugees in contravention of Australia's obligations under international refugee conventions.
The only disagreement is about the detail of how to raise those walls, how to “turn back the boats”.
It is well known that the number of refugees who get to Australia are a tiny fraction of the estimated 800,000 people the United Nations estimates were forced to flee their countries because of war, famine and climate change in the past year. But many more people were internally displaced, like the people Baba Jan was defending. The UN’s latest study said 42.5 million people worldwide are either refugees, internally displaced or in the process of seeking asylum.
Most refugees flee to some of the poorest countries in the world, which makes the hysteria about a few thousand “boat people” morally unjustifiable.
Australian governments, Liberal or Labor, and the powerful corporate interests they serve continue to contribute in a major way to the global refugee crisis by fueling the wars, the global inequality and exploitation and the global climate crisis, which are the drivers of the refugee crisis.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres says: “Climate change is probably the main accelerator, the defining factor of our times. Either because the environment is devastated and there are no conditions for human life to be sustained or because these factors trigger conflict and insecurity and that also makes people flee.”
The politicians of the major parties in Australia are united in their common desire to subvert the obligations under the refugee convention on asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution. But now we face a growing problem of climate change refugees and the convention’s definition of “refugees” is ill-suited to this new situation.
So what confidence can we have that these same parties will react responsibly to the refugees from the climate crisis? Won’t they dismiss, disparage and criminalise them as “economic migrants” and refuse them entry — unless of course they have a lot of money to bring to Australia or special skills that can be exploited?
And meanwhile, what is being done to reduce Australia's carbon emissions? Very little.
Australia's current energy mix is:
Fossil fuels 95%, comprising coal: 39%, gas: 22%, petroleum: 35%. Renewables: a miserable 5%.
According to the Gillard Labor governments own projections, with the carbon tax-emissions trading scheme, by 2035 Australia’s energy mix will be: Fossil fuels: 91%, comprising less coal at 21%, more gas at 35%, petroleum: 36%. Renewables increasing slightly to 9%.
Basically all the carbon tax/emissions trading scheme will do is give the gas mining, refining and distribution companies a leg up.
Domestic carbon emissions are projected to continue to grow for another 15 years to 2027. To cut emissions by 5% by 2020 — in line with Australia's international obligation — will be achieved only by buying overseas carbon credits.
This is a confirmation of a more than the historic “market failure” that is the climate change crisis — it confirms that capitalism — actually existing capitalism (which is monopoly finance capitalism) — also cannot address that historic failure.
Everything from the sorry projections of the Gillard government for the future results from its carbon price-ETS scheme to the criminal “green capitalist” failure of Rio+20 tell us this.
Capitalism will not resolve the climate change crisis. It will not because it cannot. It cannot because of its structured social and ecological irrationality.
The problem, as even Professor Ross Garnaut conceded while he advanced the government's market “solution”, are the “powerful vested interests”.
Every day we see these powerful vested interests at work. Richest Australian Gina Rinehart's attempt to bring her wealth and power to bear on the Fairfax media conglomerate is just part of the story.
However, there are other developments that offer us hope that there is an alternative way forward.
First: Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) is a developing plan for a ten-year transition to 100% renewable energy future. This is both a powerful demonstration that our society has the ability to make a transition like this — which is what is required to seriously address the climate change crisis — as well as a demonstration of the ability of people, with various skills and expertise to come together and draw up a plan that is practical and detailed. And it shows that such an amazing collective effort can be done not for money but out of concern for the future.
In my opinion, BZE’s efforts smash the self-serving myths that powerful corporate interests promote to convince people that they have to remain dependent on fossil fuels.
It also smashes the other myth those same vested interests promote: that society can only do things effectively when people are driven by the profit-motive.
The second hopeful development: the powerful new mass movements that have developed in opposition to coal seam gas (and other unconventional and some conventional gas) mining.
If the people's power so manifest in these movement can also be turned to driving the real emergency transition needed, along the lines of that proposed by BZE then we just may have a chance of winning the dramatic change of course that the climate change crisis demands.
Right now, with the powerful exception of the campaign to replace the ageing coal-fired power stations in Port Augusta with concentrating solar thermal power stations, that movement has yet to go on the offensive for a serious transition to 100% renewable energy.
This need not have been the situation we are in now. A few years ago there was an embryonic nationwide movement that was taking on the need for such a radical transition but this movement was demobilised by being transformed into a cheer squad for the sham that is Labor's carbon-price ETS.
And I have to say quite bluntly here, despite my respect for the good stands and constructive role played by the Greens on many issues, that the Greens share a significant responsibility for the effective demobilisation of this embryonic movement.
But I have no doubt that the sham of Labor's carbon price-ETS is going to become clearer as the urgency of the climate crisis grows.
It is extremely regrettable that the movement has lost precious time. Have no doubt there will be a severe price in human death and misery and lost in species diversity and land degradation that will be paid for every year real social change is delayed.
Perhaps this delay is part of a stage that we had to go through. It reflects the fact that growing public loss of confidence in actually existing capitalism is not matched by public confidence in its own ability to collectively and democratically run society in its common interests.
The 20th century attempts to break from capitalism by and large failed — mostly because these attempts began in the less developed parts of the world.
On the other hand, the labour movements in the most developed countries of the world — countries whose governments used guns, industrially produced goods and money to keep most other countries in subjugation, relative under-development and backwardness — became dominated by political parties that were ready to serve the interests of the capitalists.
The domination of the Australian labour movement by the Labor Party has been a nearly 100-year-long experience of disempowerment. I think our biggest challenge is to re-empower the movement of the majority, of the 99%.
This process of re-empowerment involves a lot more that winning the argument that capitalism will not deliver a solution to climate change. Re-empowerment of the majority is inextricably linked with democratic organisation and mobilisation of the majority.
So if we are agreed that capitalism is not going to resolve the climate crisis, any political plan of action or program to take us forward in this endeavour has to do more that explain that reality. It has to take on the challenge of moving forward the real interlinked process of re-organisation, re-mobilisation and re-empowerment.
Hence it has to take include building the coalitions, alliances, united fronts and, when needed, new political vehicles required to take on this challenge.
This understanding is at the core of the politics of the Socialist Alliance. We acknowledge that this is an inescapable challenge and there is no simple or unchanging formula to address it. It has driven us towards a very specific engagement with the Greens, which involves working together as closely as possible to advance the movement while continuing to make clear our disagreements and criticisms in a frank and constructive manner. We expect the same in return.
As the capitalist system takes the world to the brink with its increasingly combined economic and ecological global crises, there is a heavy responsibility on all who see the need to resist and break from this system’s deadly grip to find the ways to work together and, where possible, unite politically.
We should have no illusion about what we are up against. The powerful vested interests that block society from moving to a socially just, cooperative and ecologically sustainable future have wielded power for a long time. To break their power will require a very strong and united mass political movement. I hope the discussions we have today will contribute in some way towards the building of such a movement.