The climate threat — the people-power solution

September 13, 2008

Ross Garnaut's long-anticipated "Targets and Trajectories" report into Australia's carbon emissions future signals a wholesale surrender to the corporations desperate to change as little as possible and preserve their profits at any cost. It is a refusal to take the steps necessary to avert the very real dangers that climate change poses to life on the planet.

The means to avert climate change do exist and are still in our — the people's — grasp. But we must first reject the dangerous "business as usual" approach that defines environment policy under the Kevin Rudd government.

A government serious about tackling climate change would initiate a capital works program to introduce renewable energy as fast as humanly possible. It would also rapidly expand the public transport system to reduce private vehicle use, dramatically improve energy efficiency and immediately shift resources towards wide-scale sustainable agriculture practices.

The Garnaut report proposes none of these. Even worse, the report's target of an atmospheric carbon concentration of 450 parts per million is not only extremely dangerous, it's not even serious. In essence, Garnaut argues that Australia should aim for 450ppm but prepare for a world with an atmospheric concentration of 550ppm. This is almost double the safe target of 300-325ppm advocated by leading climate scientists.

The Garnaut report was immediately criticised by Australian climate scientists, horrified at the prospect of an official policy that knowingly produces a disastrous outcome. Dr Bill Hare from the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told the September 8 Canberra Times, "Ross Garnaut's report is effectively putting off the cost of climate change to another generation, who will have to deal with a three degree rise in temperature as well as sucking carbon dioxide out of the air".

While Rudd flippantly dismissed this criticism as "argy-bargy", it is widely acknowledged that Garnaut's recommended atmospheric carbon targets will result in a global average temperature increase of 3-4°C above the pre-industrial era. In an August 7 British Guardian article, Mark Lynas, author of the pioneering 2007 book Six Degrees, summarised some the likely impacts of a 4°C average global temperature increase:

"Whole weather systems like the Asian monsoon (which supports 2 billion people) may alter irrevocably. Deserts will have spread into Mediterranean Europe, across most of southern Africa and the western half of the United States. Higher northern latitudes will be plagued with regular flooding.

"Heatwaves of unimaginable ferocity will sear continental landscapes … The planet would be in the throes of a mass extinction of natural life." Furthermore, "four degrees of warming would also cross many of the 'tipping points' which so concern climate scientists: the Amazon rainforest would likely collapse and burn … Most of the Arctic permafrost will lie in the melt zone, and … Greenland will be melting so rapidly that sea level rise by the end of the century will be measured in metres."

The threat humanity faces is very, very real. But given government and big business inaction, what can we do about it?

For a start we can support the public protests and events already being organised, such as the national week of climate emergency actions being held in many Australian cities this month (for details, see the Resistance special insert in this issue), and the "Climate Emergency: No More Business as Usual Conference" in Adelaide on October 10-11. Events like these bring people together to self-organise and convince more people to join the movement for serious action against climate change.

The environment movement is growing rapidly; new activist groups and networks are forming in suburban and country regions. But to succeed we will need to redouble our efforts to create what will have to be the greatest people's movement ever.

Such a movement will be futile unless it links halting climate change with radical social change. And because climate change is a global problem, the movement too will need to reach international dimensions.

The challenge of building such people's movement can seem too daunting, and news about the disasters that further climate change will cause — and about governments' inaction — can be frightening and depressing.

Feeling powerless and helpless, some people will adopt a fatalistic attitude and suggest that we're all already doomed so there's no point in trying. Others will revert to cynicism about the supposedly destructive nature of humankind, rather than focusing on the destructive nature of the profits-driven capitalist system.

In Six Degrees, Lynas likens such responses to a person sitting in their kitchen while a small fire breaks out in their house. Instead of grabbing a hose or even calling the fire brigade, the person just sits there, depressed and sorrowful, watching the flames engulf their home.

We cannot allow our concerns for the future or the enormity of the challenge we face lead to hopelessness and paralysis. As the old adage goes: Don't agonise, organise! There's simply no rational alternative.

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