Make 2019 the year of action on climate change

Sydney school strike on November 30 to demand real action on climate change. Photo Zebedee Parkes

Australia is sweltering through another summer heatwave, with disastrous consequences for many vulnerable people.

Walgett, in north-western NSW, ran out of water and catastrophic fires are threatening communities in Victoria and Tasmania.

As we make a plan for a new year of activism, we can take some heart from the growing student movement for real climate action. They are responding to the science and showing an awareness of the scale of the pending climate catastrophe. They know what needs to be done and are demonstrating that leadership comes from those who act.

Students 4 Climate Action have already agreed to join students around the world in a global Day of Action on March 15.

The students' nationwide rallies at the end of last year highlighted the need to stop the Adani mega coalmine in Queensland, but were not limited to that. They also talked about the economy, society and the failure of political parties to act.

They electrified an up-until-then sluggish discussion about the danger of allowing the business-as-usual approach to continue.

This shift in attitude has been confirmed by The Australia Institute. Its Climate of the Nation 2018 wrap-up stated that 73% of people are concerned about climate change, up from 66% in 2017; 70% agree the government needs to implement a plan to phase out coal-fired power and replace it with clean energy; and 67% want coal-fired power to completely phased out within the next 20 years (by 2050).

Interestingly, more than half blame privatisation of electricity generation and supply for rising energy prices.

The other side of the coin is that the major parties continue to ignore the science.

At the global COP24 climate change talks in Katowice, Poland, at the end of last year, federal environment minister Melissa Price unapologetically defended the coal industry. No wonder the Climate Change Performance Index, which ranks countries on greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency, clean energy, and climate policy, rated Australia 57th out of 60 countries.

Overall, Australia was among 15 countries that rated “very low” in general, including the United States, which was ranked 56 just ahead of Australia. Only Iran, Republic of Korea and Saudi Arabia performed worse than Australia on overall performance to tackle climate pollution. Even China managed to beat Australia.

Labor has promised the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) that, if it forms government, gas will remain a key part of the energy mix. Labor’s policy would also support “new gas pipelines, upgrades and extensions to unlock new gas supplies and improve transportation to businesses and households”.

If we are going to take up the students' challenge to make this year the year of climate action, we have to break with the profits-at-all-costs system that has generated the climate catastrophe.

A report by Finnish scientists, released last August, which focuses on the economic transition necessary, stated bluntly that the era of cheap fossil fuel energy is over and the climate crisis requires more, not less, government intervention. It recommended more “profound political engagement and proactive governance of economic transition — something akin to a global Marshall Plan”. It said this is essential to counter the “faster-than-expected decline in natural ecosystems” and the need to “take into account the whole range of human induced pressures, not merely climate emissions”.

It said the dominant economic theories and policy-related economic modeling rely on “the presupposition of continued energetic and material growth” anticipating “only incremental changes in the existing economic order” and hence are inadequate to explain the current turmoil.

It said that apart from “rapid climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental hazards, societies are witnessing rising inequality, rising unemployment, slow economic growth [and] rising debt levels.”

Societies need to transform the ways energy, transport, food and housing are produced and consumed, it said, and global net emissions from greenhouse gases need to be at zero by about 2050 — and 2040 in Europe and the US.

It argues that given the scale and urgency, “market-based action will not suffice — even with a high carbon price”. Only a comprehensive and coordinated plan will have a chance of achieving the rapid system-level transformation we need.

Those parties in the pockets of the fossil fuel corporations that are committed to propping up the current failed system say such a radical departure from the current system is pie in the sky. They deride those in the climate movement championing a new approach as unrealistic.

But, if we are to take the science seriously, we have to mount a serious challenge to all those who insist that nothing fundamental can, or has to, change.

It is the unprecedented drive for profit, at all costs, by a tiny rich elite and the giant corporations that now own or control most of the world's wealth that threatens our common future.

Attitudes to socialism among millennials are shifting too, as recent polls have shown, helping to amplify the discussion about the urgent need for system change.

Socialist Alliance urges everyone to take up the students' challenge and make 2019 the year we stop Adani and all the other coal and gas projects, while putting the fossil fools on notice: our planet is worth more than their profits.

[Pip Hinman is a member of Socialist Alliance.]