Professor Ross Garnaut delivered his final report on impacts of — and responses to — climate change to Australian federal and state governments on September 30.
In the previous week, a series of protest actions was held around the country to highlight the need for emergency action on climate change.
In Sydney, Climate Emergency Service workers pulled together to save polar bears and important local landmarks, including Martin Place and Circular Quay, from flooding due to increased frequency and intensity of cyclones caused by global warming.
In Brisbane, an entire week of action, aimed at demanding an adequate response to climate change — but anticipating the opposite — culminated in a rally of 100 people on September 29.
Dave Riley reported that the march from state parliament to Queens Park incorporated a "tour" of local offices of "climate criminals". Murri activist and Socialist Alliance member Sam Watson told the crowd: "This Earth is the most sacred gift that old people have left us. We need to keep this and restore it to health."
A speech was read on behalf of Wanita Limpus from Kiribati Australia Association, who reminded the crowd that climate change already impacts on the islands of Kiribati in the Central Pacific. There the water table is now only four feet below the ground.
Steve Posselt, a Save the Mary River campaigner, spoke. He was leaving on a kayak journey to Sydney to raise awareness of the Mary River Dam at Traveston — a project that the Queensland state government was pursuing despite community opposition. Posselt told the crowd that this shallow dam would be a major source of methane gases that would contribute to climate change.
Rob McCreath from Friends of Felton, addressed the rally. Felton is a hamlet 30 kilometres south-west of Toowoomba on the Darling Downs. It is an important agricultural area. Felton is also the location for a proposed coal-to-oil project, which would involve an open-cut coal mine generating 12 million tonnes of coal per year and a petrochemical plant to convert the coal into liquid fuel. Friends of Felton was formed by local farmers.
Paul Benedek for the Climate Emergency Network asked the crowd what they thought was negotiable: "Is the Great Barrier Reef negotiable? Are our river systems negotiable? Are the Pacific Islands negotiable? Is our planet negotiable?" After a chorus of "no!", Benedek pointed out that there are millions of people across the globe who are engaged in fighting for the planet.
"We're with them, we're part of that global movement. The Climate Emergency Network has only been going a few weeks here in Brisbane and it is part of that global movement and we invite every one of you to join us. This is very much just the beginning", Benedek said.
While this global movement's demands for urgent, effective action to stop drastic climate change continues to gain momentum, Garnaut's final report is laughable in its utter inadequacy. Laughable, that is, if the implications weren't so frightening.
The report explains that failure to act could be catastrophic — but recommends soft targets.
The carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is 385 parts per million (ppm). Already this has given us global warming of 1.4°C, with an increase in droughts, hurricanes, glacial melting and accelerating Arctic Sea ice melting.
There is mounting evidence that a target of 300-325ppm CO2 is necessary to stabilise Arctic sea ice and the major ice sheets. However Garnaut's final report recommended Australia work towards an international agreement in the range of 450-550ppm CO2-equivalent, with a hope of getting to 400ppm in the longer term.
But failing to make deep cuts now will make even deeper cuts later both necessary and harder to achieve. And it may even mean committing us to pass the point at which human intervention becomes unable to stop runaway warming, with catastrophic impacts for humans and the majority of species with which we share the planet.
The report recognises the importance, to date, of some states taking action on climate change even in the absence of a global agreement — but recommends Australia commit to a breathtakingly minimalist target if there is no global agreement.
If no global agreement can be reached, Garnaut recommends Australia commit to a mere 5% reduction in emissions on 2000 levels by 2020.
The report recognises the potential dislocation to communities as a consequence of phasing out the coal industry. However, it assumes expansion of coal is in the national interest and recommends the establishment of a $1 billion fund to be used primarily for grants to industry for investing in reducing emissions from coal-based power generation.
Only if industry decides carbon capture and storage won't work and stops seeking grants should any remaining funds be devoted to retraining workers and other assistance to coal industry communities.
The report argues that emissions trading should be the centrepiece of Australia's and the global response to climate change. It assumes the market will be superior to regulation as the way to achieve the necessary greenhouse gas reductions and advocates that the mandatory renewable energy targets be scrapped.
But even the best-designed emissions trading scheme, with stringent, enforceable targets, without subsidies to polluters and with socially progressive wealth redistribution won't facilitate the changes needed with the necessary speed.
Greenhouse gas emissions should peak within two years, but the government's emissions trading scheme won't even begin before 2010. Rather than scrapping targets for renewable energy, we should strengthen them, in line at least with Al Gore's challenge of 100% renewables within 10 years.
Some of the other proposals hidden in Garnaut's report include: continuing to export uranium; reconsidering nuclear power if low-emissions fossil-fuel technologies prove disappointing; and removing public ownership of hydroelectric power generators.
More protests, demanding serious, emergency action, took place following Garnaut's disappointing — but not unanticipated — report.
In Sydney on October 2, 100 people gathered outside the offices of NSW's biggest coal exporter, Xstrata, to call for the closing down of coal with a just transition for affected workers and communities. Other demands of the action were for 100% renewables within 10 years; no carbon trading loopholes; and an expansion of public transport.
Speakers included anti-coal activist Bev Smiles from Mudgee, the region of the fastest coal expansion in the state. George Woods, Rising Tide activist and Lee Rhiannon, NSW Greens MLC, and former Hunter Valley coal miner Graham Brown also spoke.
Tim Dobson reports that, despite pouring rain, 50 people rallied in Wollongong on October 4. Speakers included Greens MLC Lee Rhiannon; Rowan Huxtable from Wollongong Climate Action Network; Keely Boom from Transition Towns and Chris Williams from the Socialist Alliance.
"We talk about political will and priorities at a time when the Bush administration has just arranged a $700 billion bailout for the private banks", said Williams. "Imagine if that amount — plus the $700 billion in other corporate bailouts over the last 18 months — was spent on the transition to renewable energy. That's what we should be demanding."
The same point was raised by Melanie Barnes, Hobart protest organiser and Resistance member. Susan Austin reports that 100 people rallied in Franklin Square on October 3. Many protesters dressed in lab coats and stood behind a banner that read "Climate Emergency — Targets based on science, not politics".
The rally, organised by a new group called People for a Safe Climate Tasmania, had four demands: make Tasmania a renewable energy island; develop a world-class public transport system; stop logging Tasmania's native forests to preserve their huge carbon stores and no free permits for polluters under a national carbon trading scheme.
Geoff Law from the Wilderness Society outlined the urgent need to protect mature native forests. Margaret Steadman from Sustainable Living Tasmania issued a challenge for Tasmania to reduce its emissions by 20%, thus avoiding the need to continue importing dirty coal power from Victoria.
Other speakers included Warrick Jordan from Environment Tasmania and Samantha Simonetis, Secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, who highlighted the key role of public transport and called for the reintroduction of a passenger rail service between Hobart and Launceston, designated bus lanes in peak traffic periods, park-and-ride stations and more reliable and frequent bus services.