More than 300 people took part in three days of invigorating discussion at the Climate Change — Social change conference on April 11-13 hosted by Green Left Weekly.
A range of speakers including John Bellamy Foster, a renowned Marxist ecologist from the US, brought a socialist perspective to the discussion about the need for urgent action on climate change.
Patrick Bond, an activist and academic from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, contributed his observations about how the market cannot be relied upon to fix the problem. Roberto Perez, a Cuban biologist and permaculturalist from the Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation for Nature and Humanity, spoke about how Cuba has transformed itself into a low-energy consuming and radically more sustainable country.
David Spratt, co-author of Climate Code Red: the case for a sustainability emergency, warned at the opening public meeting that significant "climate tipping points" have already been passed.
"It is no longer a case of how much more we can 'safely' emit", he explained, "but whether we can quickly enough stop emissions and produce a cooling before we hit tipping points and positive feedbacks — such as carbon sink failure and permafrost loss — that will take the trajectory of the Earth's climate system beyond any hope of human restoration. Speed is of the essence in constructing a post-carbon economy as quickly as humanly possible.
"These imperatives are incompatible with 'politics as usual' and 'business as usual', which are simply incapable of managing the transition at the necessary speed."
Participants from the green, socialist, libertarian and ecological left discussed whether the market could be used to mitigate climate change, how jobs and the environment could be protected; the impact of climate change on the underdeveloped world and how we can move to low-emission and sustainable agriculture, sustainable cities and much more.
Bellamy Foster, editor of Monthly Review and author of Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature, told the conference that global warming is accelerating, as the National Academy of Sciences' latest research shows. He quoted research indicating that the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is increasing at an accelerating rate.
"From 2000 to 2006, the whole problem has speeded up. The problem is getting worse faster. The emissions rate has increased by 30% compared to the previous decade".
Bellamy Foster noted that finding solutions for climate change means talking about the system that is creating the predicament — capitalism.
Perez's account of how Cuba survived the massive reduction in oil after the USSR collapsed was an inspiring story of hope. He has travelled the length and breadth of Australia speaking to large meetings of permaculturalists and others fascinated by how a small, impoverished country such as Cuba has managed the transformation away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy systems.
Indigenous elders Pat Eatock and Sam Watson, who spoke at the April 11 session at the Redfern Community Centre, recounted how the dispossession of Aboriginal people had contributed to the degradation of the land. Lyall Munro and others spoke of the ongoing hardship faced by workers and communities poisoned by bad agricultural practices and by crops unsuited to Australia's climate.
As Watson put it, "Since day one of the invasion, Aboriginal people have been divested of country. We've been disallowed the capacity and means of carrying out our dreams, ritual and ceremony. Our land has been suffocated by concrete and steel; our land has become a basic commodity.
"In 2008, we are at a crossroads: our people are suffering. Aboriginal spirituality and identity are under enormous threat. We lose the land, we lose the country."
There was discussion about campaigns to protect public infrastructure, such as the NSW energy industry, in order to have input into its transformation away from fossil fuels. These discussions included Unions NSW deputy assistant secretary Matt Thistlethwaite, Greens NSW parliamentarian John Kaye and Dick Nichols from the Socialist Alliance.
Friends of the Earth campaigners Stephanie Long, Jim Green and Cam Walker helped shape the discussions about finding common ground in protecting human rights and achieving climate justice for Indigenous peoples, climate refugees and workers.
The debate over just how much carbon can be taken out of the atmosphere, and how soon, was taken up by Adrian Whitehead from the Zero Emissions Network, Mark Diesendorf from the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of NSW as well as Perez and others.
A consensus statement of approach to the global warming crisis was distributed to all participants to sign onto. "Climate crisis — urgent action needed now" takes a position on the vital question of "Who pays?" without taking a stand on the specific mechanisms — e.g. carbon trading and carbon rationing — through which the necessary payment should be extracted. It can be obtained by emailing <email@example.com> and will be available on the GLW website.
[GLW will be seeking to reprint papers presented at the Climate Change — Social Change conference in the coming weeks, either in hard copy or on its website. Copies of the film in which Roberto Perez features, The power of community: How Cuba survived peak oil, are available from Resistance bookshops around the country. See contact details on page 2.]