Youth speaks – and we would be wise to listen

It is utterly futile railing against kids wagging school. They have the moral high ground.

Hobart’s school students marched in their thousands for climate action. PHOTO Mercury

We live in remarkable times. Last Friday young Australians joined 1.3 million schoolchildren in 1769 cities around the world to announce a big fat failure for their elders.

In Australia an estimated 150,000 students, including tens of thousands in each of the bigger state capitals, abandoned their classrooms and took to the streets in an unprecedented show of defiance and anger over multiple governments’ indifference to the climate crisis.

In Hobart and Launceston the young came out in their thousands – according to organisers between 6000 and 8000 in Hobart alone – to vent their frustration.

There were no mass-produced placards as you tend to see at adult demonstrations. Theirs were crafted by hand, illustrated with burning Earths, rising seas and frightened wildlife. Straight from the heart, they expressed the anguish and anxiety being felt by children today.

There were adults sprinkled through the Hobart audience on the lawns of Parliament House – parents and teachers among them – but numbers were overwhelmingly in favour of young people, who organised and led the event.

A poet’s song and mime gave life to her words, speakers expressed passion and conviction, and musical offerings included a primary school band performing its own composition on the world’s parlous state. I have seen many public demonstrations over the years; this was as good as it gets.

Australian children have had a big part in this global movement. Last November they turned a Swedish schoolgirl’s solitary protest into a mass movement by taking to capital city streets in a “School Strike 4 Climate”. Now it is huge, and will only get bigger.

I was a dutiful school student and looked askance at odd fringe individuals who wagged classes (while secretly admiring them for their defiance). But their successors are in another league altogether. Their defiance is entirely justified, and elders’ complaints utterly pointless.

Daisy Cousens seems to have a reputation on Twitter as a defender of the good old days. Last week she started a conversation with the question, “Will some responsible parent/teacher PLEASE step in and punish these children for wagging school??”

If she had wanted attention, she got it. Hundreds of responses argued that education and school are not synonymous, and that informed protest is a valuable learning experience.

November’s demonstrations were hard to take for Scott Morrison, who called for more learning and less activism in schools. The PM might have learned something from the rubbishing he got over that, because he remained mercifully silent about last week’s event.

Others not so. Tasmanian energy minister Guy Barnett thought students should not protest in school hours, as did Labor leader Bill Shorten, while qualifying that this was “in an ideal world”. But as a union man he should have known that strikes are all about withdrawing labour.

Each and every politician who talked down the students’ actions ended up looking like a fading generation. The youth of the world are in this for the long haul. As one of the Hobart speakers said, “We’re 25 per cent of the population, but we’re 100 per cent of the future”.

Elders may lament the loss of the good old days. The problem is, as expressed by that 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, those good times came with “an unthinkable price tag”.

Last week, asked how she felt about her nomination by two Norwegian lawmakers for a Nobel Peace Prize, she fumbled for words, not knowing what to think.

But when it comes to things that really count she is assured and eloquent. At the World Economic Forum in Davos two months ago she admonished the world’s rich and powerful with these words:

“At places like Davos, people like to tell success stories, but their financial success has come with an unthinkable price tag… The bigger your carbon footprint is, the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility.

“Adults keep saying, we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. … I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire. Because it is.”

Leading climate scientist Kevin Anderson, who teaches climate change leadership in the UK and in Thunberg’s Sweden, tweeted this adult’s response to the youth marches:

“Streaked in tears we may look back on this time when our children cried out but we were too arrogant to listen. Or perhaps we’ll look back and smile, we listened, and began to cooperate rather than compete.”

Our children should know this: large numbers of ordinary adults are grateful for their courage in calling out the incompetence and indifference of our leaders. Never give up.

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This is what an emergency looks like

Climate change is the main driver of mass migration of peoples around the world. Our own region is most vulnerable of all.

THIS IS A CLIMATE EMERGENCY: Mikol Antonio Herná​ndez Garcia, a rancher, inspects dry carcasses of cattle that died in the drought in San Francisco Libre, Nicaragua. PHOTO Sean Hawkey/Church Times UK

As Donald Trump says, desperate people seeking to enter the US from Mexico signify an emergency. But it’s an emergency like nothing he’s ever imagined.

People moving northward out of Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador are fleeing gang violence and poverty, but there’s a deeper cause that the president has overlooked or ignored. And in a future not so far away, that deeper cause could see those thousands turn to millions.

People are being driven out of Central America and the Caribbean by natural disaster and food scarcity. Of the 10 nations in the world rated by climate monitoring institute Germanwatch as being most at risk from climate change, half are in this relatively small region.

Last year the world was shocked by an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the impact of 1.5C of warming. But an Australian analysis released last week found that the IPCC underestimated that impact, and that the real story is even more shocking.

Preparing for the Era of Disasters, a special report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute by Robert Glasser, asserts that the IPCC, by treating climate hazards independently of each other rather than as interacting variables, failed to account for compounding and cascading impacts.

A classic instance of cascading effects of climate change is the devastating civil war in Syria, which according to studies cited by Glasser was made several times more likely by climate change.

Massive crop failures on the back of an exceptionally severe four-year drought undermined livelihoods and forced 1.5 million Syrians to leave their land and move into cities, increasing social stresses. Just as happened in Central America leading to the Mexican “caravans”.

But those calamities may be just a curtain-raiser to what is in store in our own back yard. Hundreds of millions of people to our north face an array of daunting prospects.

A vital source of food for more than 130 million people are the fish caught in ocean waters to our north, waters that spawn about 10 per cent of all the world’s fish supply.

At 2C of warming, says Glasser, the death of coral reefs and a collapse in tropical fishery yields will have global consequences for food security. That’s aside from a rising impact across Asia of crop pests, droughts, wildfire, extreme rainfall and storm events, and inundation by rising seas.

An increase in concurrent or cascading extreme weather events will be a feature of the coming “era of disasters”, says the report. Communities may manage the first few events, but in a weakened state are likely to be overwhelmed by those following.

The report emphasised that governments think they have time to spare when they don’t. It called for urgent steps by all levels of government in Australia, starting now, to face these unprecedented challenges and help mitigate the inevitable damage from climate disasters.

Glasser’s analysis, written for an impeccably-credentialled conservative think-tank founded by the Howard government, is reason for every jurisdiction in the world to sit up and take notice.

We are now in a climate emergency, a fact well-founded in science. We can throw up our hands in despair at this prospect, or we can follow the lead of Darebin, a Melbourne suburban council, which in 2017 declared a climate emergency.

The Climate Emergency movement calls on local government entities around the world to do their utmost to mitigate climate change. But its greatest impact may be in putting pressure on higher levels of government to stand up to be counted.

At last count 369 jurisdictions administering over 31 million people across Australia, North America and the United Kingdom, including the City of London, had declared a climate emergency for their municipality. In the past month the movement has penetrated Europe.

In Australia, climate emergency declarations have been made by eight councils and the state municipal associations of Victoria and Western Australia. None has so far taken the plunge in Tasmania, but that is surely just a matter of time, and leadership.

This week, Australia’s lord mayors are meeting in Hobart to discuss matters of importance to our capital cities. The best thing they could do right now is to throw their personal support behind climate emergency declarations for their cities. Nothing on their agenda could be more important.

We know this is not enough. We know that right now, at 1C of warming, the climate is showing signs of instability, and that long-term fossil fuel investment is cementing that danger into place.

We know that to deal with this huge threat, the full panoply of national and international systems of governance must be transformed and engaged. We need those systems to act, just as they need our support to survive and function.

As the threats mount, nations and people within them have begun to put up walls, real or psychological. We keep being told by those in power about the “national interest”, which dictates that we cannot afford to act decisively to cut emissions.

The truth is, we cannot afford not to.

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ScoMo puts his spin on the carbon story

The prime minister’s salesmanship faces its greatest test – climate change

TOP Government data showing a steady rise in overall emissions from late 2014; BOTTOM Data for electricity emissions alone showing a sharp uptick from June 2014. SOURCES Department of the Environment, National Energy Emissions Audit (The Australia Institute)

Scott Morrison has never given much thought to climate change. That was obvious in 2017 when he clowned about with a lump of coal in parliament, mocking his opponents for their attitude to it.

Things were very different last week when the prime minister briskly and emphatically spruiked his party’s newly-packaged climate change policy, letting it be known he now takes this subject seriously. I bet we’ve seen the last of that lump of coal.

We should be pleased about this new-found enthusiasm for climate action, but I found it uncomfortable, to say the least, to sit in record-breaking autumn heat listening to the PM’s new line of argument in media interviews. Take his following responses.

“New Zealand to meet their targets will have to buy foreign carbon credits. Under our plan we don’t have to do that.”

And responding to the question, what would a projected 3C temperature rise by 2100 mean for Australia? – “The question really is, what is Australia’s role in all that? 1.3 per cent is our share of global emissions.”

Let’s unpick this. First off, while Australia exploits to the hilt unreliable, unmeasurable 1997 Kyoto credits to meet future targets, New Zealand’s bipartisan climate plan rejects them. It is absurd and hypocritical to imply our plan is better because we don’t buy overseas credits.

Our 1.3 per cent still puts us in the world’s top 20 emitters, where we rank second in emissions per person, behind only Saudi Arabia and nearly four times the world average. In the scheme of things, Australia is most definitely not one of the minnows.

More morsels from the Morrison spin: “We haven’t just come at this in the last couple of days. We’ve been at this for five and a half years, and we’ve been getting results.”

“These are the results that matter – a 1.1 billion-tonne turnaround in carbon abatement because of the policies we put in place.”

Scott Morrison’s defence of the indefensible knows no limits. As he tells it, Coalition governments have turned around a carbon abatement deficit at the end of Julia Gillard’s term of office and will beat 2020 and 2030 targets by hundreds of millions of tonnes.

That claim is false. The prime minister is using a sleight-of-hand devised and refined by Tony Abbott and his environment minister, Greg Hunt, which exploits a provision of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol allowing carbon credits for reforestation and avoided land clearing.

In 2014 Gillard’s carbon price scheme, which taxed measurable fossil-fuel emissions, was terminated by Abbott with the help of coal-mining MP Clive Palmer. In place of this functioning scheme, Abbott’s government set up the mistitled Emissions Reduction Fund.

Ignoring fossil-fuel emissions, the ERF sought instead to put a price on “imputed” emission reductions by paying people and corporations to do things like plant trees, avoid clearing land and change farming practices.

Under this regime, emissions savings – essentially just tonnages that it is agreed each project will save – are inherently unknowable, and the process opaque. Worse, we have no way of knowing whether the activities undertaken would have been done anyway, at no cost to the public purse.

Morrison says that the ERF and its rebadged, refinanced successor, the Climate Solutions Fund, are turning around a mess inherited by the Coalition. But his own government’s data say the opposite: that the Coalition created the mess by abandoning a scheme that was clearly working.

Quietly released last week, the data show that in the year to September 2018 Australian emissions continued rising as they have done ever since the end of 2014 – the year the Coalition abolished the carbon tax. Data for electricity emissions alone show an even more pronounced shift.

According to emissions-tracker Ndevr Environmental, multi-year data reveal that the government is heading for failure not just on its 2020 target, but also its 2030 Paris commitment, which it is on track to exceed by well over a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Ignoring all this, Morrison sought to focus attention on a decline in September quarter emissions alone. Ironically this was driven by renewable power, much maligned by the government until now, which is steadily replacing a fading coal-power sector. Therein lies another fascinating twist.

The Coalition and its coal-wielding leader have been proposing to finance new coal power schemes, but now the PM is shifting the government’s position. Decisions about coal’s future, he said last week, “will be made within the energy market”. That, at least, is starting to get sensible.

Voters are right to be angry about the Coalition, but they should also treat Labor mitigation plans with caution. Australia must do the right thing by its people and the world and reject the downright fraud allowed by Kyoto credits. A risk-averse Opposition has yet to commit to this.

Faced now with the harsh reality of man-made climate change, the least we should demand from leaders is honesty. But as this sorry saga plays out, I fear we haven’t seen the last of the lies and spin.

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