The challenge of climate change: We need an eco-revolution

April 18, 2009

The April 2 G20 summit brought together the leaders of some of the world's most economically significant countries. They were intent on working out a rescue plan for the capitalist system, the very system that is killing the planet and condemning billions of people to poverty and oppression.

Today's crisis is the most serious since the Great Depression. The situation calls for a clear break with business-as-usual. The G20 failed on all counts.

The G20 declaration was long on rhetoric and short on detail. Tacked on the end was a vague promise about meeting the challenge of preventing global warming.

US$1.1 trillion was pledged to stimulate the world economy. Not one cent was tied to investment in climate-friendly projects.

The economic crisis is just one reason to take urgent action on climate change. It's the perfect time for major public investment in renewables, public transport infrastructure, energy efficiency and sustainable farming.

The best reason for immediate action, however, is this: human-made climate change threatens life on the planet and we are desperately short of time.

Tipping points

Capitalist politicians are adept at inventing new ways to avoid action on climate change. Few feel they can afford to be outright climate change deniers anymore.

The federal Labor government claims to be serious about tackling climate change. But it's only acting to protect Australia's fossil-fuel-intensive industries.

For all the endless phrase-mongering, there is still one phrase PM Kevin Rudd is careful not to utter: climate tipping points. To do so would reveal just how dangerously inadequate Australia's policy on climate change really is.

Key tipping points are being reached now. If these points are crossed, it means the planet will keep getting hotter — regardless of any greenhouse gas cuts.

One of the most important tipping points is the melting of the Arctic icecap. Some scientists say the Arctic could be free of summer ice by 2030; others fear it could happen as early as 2013.

Arctic melt

Temperature rises in the Arctic region are about five times higher than the average for the whole planet. As more ice melts, less of the sun's heat gets reflected back into space. More heat is absorbed, leading to further warming.

As the icecap retreats, another tipping point emerges. The normally frozen soil — permafrost — in places like Siberia starts to thaw. As the permafrost retreats, trapped greenhouse gases escape.

If it thaws completely, twice the equivalent of greenhouse gases pumped into the skies in the past 200 years will be released.

The Arctic melt will also trigger a disruption in weather patterns that could have severe consequences.

The Antarctic is showing worrying signs of warming too. On April 5, satellite images confirmed that a key ice bridge linked to the Wilkins Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula has collapsed.

Oceanographers fear that extra fresh water pouring into the Arctic Ocean from the melting Greenland ice shelf, and from rivers fed by the thawing Siberian permafrost, could interrupt the ocean conveyor current's normal flow.

Rainfall patterns would change considerably. The Asian monsoon may be weakened or could even stop altogether. About a third of the world's population depends on it to grow food.

The great rivers of China, South-East Asia and the Indian subcontinent are fed by annual meltwater from the Himalayan glaciers. The glaciers' size is rapidly reducing, putting an irreplaceable source of water at risk.

Instead of disaster, fossil-fuel companies see business opportunities: companies are paying for geological surveys of ice-free areas, searching for more fossil fuel reserves to exploit.

A time of revolution

In Australia, we have an important role to play in stopping climate change. Per capita, Australia is the world's biggest polluter. We are also the biggest exporter of coal. Burning coal for energy is the single largest contributor to global warming.

The Rudd government plans to double coal exports in the next few years. The pollution generated by Australian coal would cancel out Rudd's pathetic target of a 5% cut in emissions 30 times over.

We can't look to the government for action on climate change. Nor can we hope for a change of heart from the profit-driven business elite. We need to take action ourselves.

Our task is huge: we need to build a movement large enough to take power away from the corporate interests that are destroying the biosphere.

We can draw inspiration from times when people have refused to bow down to the powerful. One example is the US Black nationalist Malcolm X. In 1964, at Oxford University in England, he told the students: "You're living in a time of revolution, a time when there's got to be a change. The people in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change, and a better world has to be built."

We need a system transformation. Not just a transformation of the economy, but a transformation of our political system as well, to ensure the polluters don't take our planet away from us.

The people in power have misused it. Climate change is the greatest evidence of that. The defining task of our generation is to build a much better world. We could be the last generation that has the chance.

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