The fate of advanced human civilisation — and perhaps of our species itself — hangs in the balance. Fuelled by human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, global warming is advancing at a pace inconceivable to scientists just a few years ago.
The complete melting in late summers of Arctic sea ice — something that scientists used to predict for the final decades of this century — is now widely expected by 2013-15. As the highly reflective ice is replaced by dark water, much more of the sun's heat is captured. Mean Arctic temperatures in recent years have been as much as 3°C above their long-term averages.
A band of increased warmth 1500km wide stretches south from the Arctic Ocean to cover the main regions of Arctic permafrost. The permafrost is now melting. As it does so, ever-growing volumes of methane gas are bubbling from lakes and swamps.
Given off when plant matter decays in an oxygen-poor environment, methane has a potent greenhouse effect. Though relatively short-lived in the atmosphere the gas, while present, traps heat at around 72 times the rate of carbon dioxide.
Global warming threatens to become self-accelerating as natural "tipping points" are passed, triggering "positive feedbacks" that pour additional carbon from soils and forests into the atmosphere.
After the sea ice, the next tipping point may lie in the forests of the Amazon. Heating up, drying out and burning, its trees and peatlands threaten to let loose a fresh flood of greenhouse gases.
Scientific advances in the last few years have sharply changed the way researchers perceive the climate danger. Earlier computer models of the Earth's climate suggested that if rises in average global temperature could be kept below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, compared to today's figure of 0.8°C, the worst effects of global warming could be avoided.
But new studies warn that there is no level of additional greenhouse gases that we can "safely" release into the atmosphere. Even present levels of warming are highly dangerous, as the swift decline of Arctic sea ice shows.
Moreover, additional warming of at least 0.5°C, the result of greenhouse gases already emitted, is built into the climate system.
To have any hope of avoiding disaster, human society must allot truly massive resources, immediately, to the task of cutting atmospheric greenhouse gases to a point no more than marginally above pre-industrial levels.
The Socialist Alliance acknowledged at its sixth national conference in December that from its present level of just under 390 parts per million (ppm), atmospheric carbon dioxide needs to fall to 300-325ppm. Targets for future emissions must be set at zero, or even negative. And the time-frame? As soon as humanly possible.
Our new position reads: "Current science indicates that annual emissions reductions of at least 5% will be essential. We propose immediate economy-wide and sector-by-sector planning for all greenhouse gases, to meet these targets on time or before. We must establish mechanisms to review and change these targets as scientific forecasts are updated."
It is true that life on Earth has thrived during long geological ages when temperatures were far above those of the present. But the plants and animals then were very different from today's species, which evolved over millions of years to live on a relatively cool planet. However, the rate at which global temperatures are now rising appears to be without precedent in the geological record.
Could human beings flourish in the radically impoverished, highly unstable biosphere that business-as-usual emissions are likely to create? Small groups probably would, in a few favoured locations. But civilisation as we know it could not survive.
In the boardrooms of huge capitalist corporations, the emerging picture has executives terrified for their profits. Giant polluters like Rio Tinto plead to be exempt from climate change legislation. Big-business media organs conceal the new science, belittle the scientists, and give top billing to ignorant claptrap from denialists and climate sceptics.
And in the government offices, politicians loyal to the corporations frame emissions reduction targets which — like Rudd Labor's 5-15% by 2020 — amount to suicide notes for most of nature and humanity. These miserable targets and Rudd's carbon emissions trading system simply cannot produce the reductions required within 10 years.
Yet the resources needed to avoid climate catastrophe exist — our enormous challenge is to organise a climate action movement strong enough to enforce implementation of a plan for climate sustainability.
Without a plan the movement will be without perspective; without a powerful movement conscious of what it is fighting for, the best climate sustainability plan will never be realised.
This is the understanding with which the Socialist Alliance has produced the second edition of its Climate Change Charter. The full version of the charter is already available online (go to <alliance.org>) and will soon be available in print. It outlines the peril we face, and how ordinary concerned people can force history onto the path of climate sustainability.
It's time to stop looking to official Australia for any serious response to global warming. The only force capable of bringing real change to government policy is the climate change movement itself, organising, protesting, spreading awareness of the drastic seriousness of the crisis and collaborating across the planet.
For the scale and speed of the changes now needed, the best example history offers is the conversion of major economies to wartime production during World War II.
The Socialist Alliance will be doing all it can to help strengthen the movement to make that possible. We offer the following 10-point plan as the minimum needed to meet the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.
Ten-point climate action plan
Bringing greenhouse gas emissions under control will require deep changes and immense effort at every level; international, national and local. The Socialist Alliance says:
1. Implement immediate emission reduction targets with the aim of reducing net emissions to zero as soon as practicable, with a goal of achieving 100% of power from renewable sources by 2020. Introduce annual reduction targets of at least 5% to ensure that these targets are met.
2. Initiate further international treaty negotiations aimed at getting all countries to agree to these targets. Prioritise cutting rich industrial nations' emissions, and supply aid to poorer countries to assist them in harnessing renewable sources of energy for industrial development.
3. Start the transition to a zero-waste economy. End industrial energy waste by legislation. Improve or ban wasteful consumer products. Engage workers in industry, with the appropriate technical experts, to redesign products and jobs sustainably.
4. Require the fitting of all feasible energy efficiency measures to existing houses and subsidise owner-occupiers for the costs. Allow renters to use the same system.
Install photovoltaic solar panels and solar hot water heaters on home roofs, subsidised or owned by the electricity authority. Give commercial buildings a deadline to meet six-star energy standards within two years, and 10-star standards within 10 years.
5. Bring all power industries under public ownership and democratic control. Begin phasing out coalmining and coal-fired power immediately. Provide guaranteed jobs and retraining on full pay for coal mining and power-station communities, with new sustainable industries being built in their areas and paid redundancies offered.
Run the maximum possible base-load power from existing natural gas and/or hydro power stations instead of coal only as an interim measure until renewable energy is available. Coal to be used only for predicted energy peaks in the short term.
6. Bring the whole car industry under public control. Re-tool this industry to manufacture wind turbines, public transport vehicles and infrastructure, solar hot water, solar photovoltaic cells. Subsidise the conversion of private cars to electric power.
7. Accelerate the construction of wind farms in suitable areas. Boost research into all renewable energy sources. Build pilot solar-thermal and geothermal plants now. Create localised power grids.
8. Stop logging old-growth forests and begin an urgent program of reforestation, carbon farming and protection of biodiversity to provide increased carbon sinks.
9. Phase out industrial farming based on fertilisers, pesticides and fuel sourced from petroleum. Work with farmers and their organisations to make food production sustainable and carbon negative.
Restrict farming areas to ensure that riverine, forest and other indigenous ecosystems return to healthy states. Encourage new farming practices including organic and urban farming. This process must allow for security of food supplies, and guarantee full employment and retraining for rural communities.
10. Make all urban and regional public transport free and upgrade services to enable all urban residents to use it for regular commuting. Nationalise and upgrade interstate train and ferry services to provide real alternatives to air travel. Prioritise rail freight.
All rail, light rail and interstate freight to be electrified or to run on biofuels from waste where possible. Encourage bicycle use through more cycleways, and better facilities for cyclists. Implement free or very cheap bicycle rental networks.