Conference debates how to restore a safe climate

In some ways, the recent Breakthrough 2014 conference was a step forward for the Australian climate movement.

Breakthrough 2014, National Climate Restoration Forum, held over June 21 to 22 in Melbourne, brought together scientists, economists, engineers, business leaders and climate activists.

In some regards, the forum represented an important step forward for the Australian climate movement. It highlighted the urgent need to respond to the climate crisis and discussed the possibility of restoring a reasonably safe climate in which human civilisation could continue.

This is a significant step for a climate movement that has been thwarted by the ongoing manufactured “debate” by climate deniers. This debate has prevented many people from understanding and facing up to the extreme seriousness of climate change impacts.

On the other hand, many who have digested climate science are almost immobilised in sheer terror and are often in despair. As the Breakthrough program said: "It seems that what is essential to achieve for our planet is impossible ... Clearly a breakthrough is needed."

In the opening plenary, David Spratt, author of Climate Code Red, and Ian Dunlop, who formerly chaired the Australian Coal Association but has since become a climate activist, concluded that we have no non-radical solutions left to deal with climate change. In other words, either we face a radical climate catastrophe or we must radically shift our economy and modes of social organisation away from the current fossil fuel economy.

Dunlop stressed that the current failure to act is “a crime against humanity”.

Presenters said that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are already so high that we are well into uncharted territory. Even if carbon emissions stopped today, we still face dangerous climate change.

How, then, are we to restore a safe climate?

Phillip Sutton, founder of Safe Climate Australia, pointed out that very little mainstream science looks at how we can actually return to a safe climate, as it is seen as politically impossible. This, of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

He argued that much of what is currently reported as "irreversible" may actually be reversible with sufficient commitment to rapidly shifting to a zero carbon economy and the widespread deployment of CO2 drawdown mechanisms. He also raised the potential use of geoengineering through spraying sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere, arguing that this be used to ensure "safe passage through the next 50-100 years while we get back to a safe climate".

However, as Clive Hamilton describes in his book Earthmasters, geoengineering technologies are supported by leading climate denial organisations and by the fossil fuel industry. This is because they seem to offer a way that fossil fuel use can continue unabated.

The side effects of these technologies could be brutal: for example, severe drought in Africa and Asia. Moreover, if spraying was stopped, temperatures would rise rapidly, leading to even more devastating impacts.

Given these concerns over geoengineering, it was alarming to see the rather uncritical stance taken by some presenters at Breakthrough. Rather than facilitating a robust discussion about the pros and cons of geoengineering, some presenters portrayed geoengineering as inevitable. They assumed that geoengineering would be used in combination with a rapid transition to zero carbon emissions.

However, carbon emissions are still rising, and it seems likely that the fossil fuel industry will push geoengineering as a low cost alternative to slashing emissions. Indeed, one of the presenters, who spoke via Skype from Canada, was David Keith, a leading proponent of geoengineering. His company Carbon Engineering receives funding from a major player in the tar sands industry.

When asked whether multinationals would control geoengineering operations, he asserted that governments would not allow corporations to misuse the technology. Given that governments have so far failed to reign in the fossil fuel industry, this appears highly optimistic.

Several presenters used the example of a wartime economy to describe how we could make the rapid transition to sustainability. The main concern seemed to be how to mobilise the private sector in this transition through strong governance and regulatory settings. There was very little discussion of whether and how energy industries would return to public ownership to achieve this transition.

Another dominant theme of the forum was that the climate movement must move beyond left and right, and learn how to engage with elites. John Hewson, former leader of the Liberal Party and now chair of the Asset Owners Disclosure Project, discussed his efforts to pressure investment firms to divest from fossil fuels. Others mentioned that we should not use shame, and that elites should be allowed to save face in the transition to sustainability. Yet a comment from the audience that the elites were actually part of the problem was applauded by the crowd.

The second day of the forum focused on creating the political will for climate restoration. Several presenters advocated mass mobilisation. Jamila Raqib from the Albert Einstein Institute spoke via videolink from the US and noted that all governments rely on obedience and cooperation, and corporations rely on these as well. She argued for non-violent struggle, which needs strategic planning if it is going to succeed.

Janet Cherry, who was an activist in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, described the history of that movement and the lessons for the climate movement.

Cherry highlighted the importance of linking short-term and long-term goals and discussed how specific localised struggles that are linked to the movement’s overall goals can be vital in building the broader movement. She posed the question of how to decide what the climate movement can compromise on and what is non-negotiable.

This was not taken up further, but is something that the climate movement needs to grapple with.

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