Standing up for the powerless and the unborn

The Climate Justice Network takes on a brief for future generations

The Extinction Rebellion banner at a Victorian surfing event last April. PHOTO Extinction Rebellion

Last week Hobart put itself in the history books by becoming the first Australian state capital to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency. Take a bow, councillors.

Words are cheap, as critics of the declaration may point out, but these ones come on top of decades of practical effort by the city to reduce its carbon footprint and encourage residents to do likewise. The same cannot be said of administrations further up the chain, in both Hobart and Canberra.

One outcome of the declaration will be letters to prime minister Scott Morrison and premier Will Hodgman asking both governments to make deep emissions cuts their top priority and, crucially, to support vulnerable people and communities in the shift to a low-carbon economy.

Social and economic inequity has given rise to the concept of a “just transition” as the economic cost of climate change and the unequal burden it imposes on communities become ever clearer.

If equality was ever part of our national identity, it isn’t any more. OECD statistics show that in Japan and some Scandinavian countries the richest 20 per cent are less than four times wealthier than the poorest 20 per cent. In Australia the wealth difference is seven times.

UN and World Bank data reveal that three-quarters of the world’s richest people – the 10 per cent holding over half of global wealth – are from North America, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The poorest 50 per cent, sharing just eight per cent of income – live almost exclusively in China, India and less developed countries.

Unequal income distribution between nations is central to the world’s response to climate change, which last year’s UN report on 1.5C of warming said would have its greatest impact among poor and vulnerable people and countries.

That impact is already threatening the viability of communities. In India, record-breaking heat and drought have left many villages and some cities, notably Chennai, desperately short of water. In some states villages have been evacuated and people are attacking others just to get a drink.

Similar desperate scenes are playing out in drought-stricken east Africa, while on Arctic coasts, Asian river deltas and oceanic islands, floodwaters and rising seas are increasingly displacing communities of subsistence farmers and fishers.

But even in rich countries economic protections can vanish overnight. Witness the havoc wreaked by devastating US hurricanes, tornadoes and monstrous floods, or still-uninhabited, burnt-out Paradise, California, or near-waterless outback Australian communities. In all cases the poor, powerless and uninsured carry the heaviest load.

The greatest inequity cuts across all of these, and it is growing wider and deeper with each passing year in which authorities fail to think ahead and plan comprehensively for a climate-disrupted future. This is the generational divide, and bridging it is becoming a matter of urgency.

In a new research paper in the University of Tasmania Law Review, Law School academics Jan Linehan, Peter Lawrence and Nicky Van Dijk write of balancing “the needs and aspirations of those currently alive and those of future generations”.

Legal questions aside, most people would understand what this means. If older generations whose wealth is based on fossil fuel don’t do what’s necessary to live without it, now, later generations may find adaptation impossible. If we do cut emissions we’re taking some sort of responsibility for people yet to be born. That’s intergenerational justice.

This is no esoteric point about a remote future. Today’s young people see all too clearly that the failure of my generation to mitigate carbon pollution threatens their future. With no formal political power, they see no option but to ignore their elders and take direct action.

Movements like School Strike for Climate, Fridays for the Future and Extinction Rebellion are the organised face of anxious, angry youth. Some of them are risking their lives to halt traffic or coal trains or aircraft because they see what so many of us refuse to: that this is truly a life and death issue.

They are not alone. Taking up their cause, the Hobart-based Climate Justice Network is exploring the appointment of a publicly-funded commissioner for future generations for Tasmania, similar to positions currently operating in New Zealand and Wales.

This and other ideas will be discussed on Thursday at two “Voices of the Future” forums at the Hobart Town Hall. At 3.30 pm Van Dijk and fellow law student Salman Shah will lead a discussion for young people seeking substantive, long-term advances that will address their genuine concerns.

The second forum, open to the public, begins at 6.30 pm. Guest speakers include Jonathan Boston, a New Zealand public policy specialist; Peter Davies, a Welsh authority on sustainable development; and Hobart-based scientist and educator Mel Fitzpatrick.

On Friday the UTAS Law School is hosting an expert forum seeking to formulate policies for representing future generations and young people in climate change planning. Further details at https://www.climatejustice.network/event/voices-of-the-future

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Cheer up – things aren’t as bad as they may become

But government recalcitrance is making it tough for the optimists

Damon Gameau’s movie 2040 shows how networked rooftop solar with batteries can power whole cities.

There are a thousand ways to skin a cat, but very few good ones. There are a thousand “solutions” to the climate crisis, yet it remains a crisis. Something’s not working.

Every time someone says they have a solution, a new problem turns up. To take the cat metaphor a step further, it’s like trying to skin the poor animal while it’s still alive.

Tasmania is a case in point. Last month environment minister Elise Archer repeated in state parliament the government’s proud boast that having achieved zero net emissions, Tasmania was a world leader in addressing climate change.

If that claim was ever true, it evaporated within weeks with this month’s release of Australia’s state and territory greenhouse inventories for 2017. Tasmanian carbon emissions in that year rose in every sector. It is no longer a net carbon sink, but a net emitter to the tune of 868,000 tonnes.

Lesson: beware of claiming success on the basis of data you don’t control.

In his 2017 book Drawdown, US environmentalist Paul Hawken painstakingly analysed and costed 100 “dynamic, innovative solutions” to the climate crisis in what he described as “the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming”.

That may well be correct. This encyclopaedic book, looking at both tried and tested ideas and others which have barely made it past the drawing board, is a wonderful compendium of what’s possible if and when we put our minds to it. I dip into it often, if only to cheer myself up.

Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau, of That Sugar Film fame, drew on Hawken’s work for 2040, a new movie about things being done now in transport, electricity, farming and elsewhere which if taken up on a bigger scale could be just the thing for an increasingly feverish planet.

Gameau got started when he pondered the daily barrage of miserable news about the climate. He asked himself, why don’t we share stories of successes, however small, and see where that takes us?

In making the movie he discovered that an awful lot of what’s needed is people and communities working together. We shouldn’t need reminding about the power of collective action, but decades of earbashing about individual rights takes time to overcome.

The result is a strong, cheerful, positive message about what humans are capable of if they direct their energies in the right places. The best part is that we already know these things work because they’ve been done, though not yet on a scale that will make a huge difference.

Both Gameau and Hawken before him seek a positive, motivated world where no challenge – not even so-far unmitigated global warming – is too much for our species. I have a feeling that their ability to find positives where others can’t will have an impact in many unexpected places.

Hawken’s and Gameau’s optimistic view is that local actions by engaged people anywhere can lead to extraordinary outcomes which, when others learn about them, will spread quickly into other, communities, eventually to become a global movement.

I like to think I’m a glass-half-full person, but certainly not compared to Hawken and Gameau. They are surely right to celebrate human ingenuity and drive and never to give up on those endless possibilities. Who can say what good might come of them?

But scale is against them. Human activities are now adding carbon to the atmosphere at a rate and volume that’s unprecedented, not just in human history but throughout our planet’s entire existence.

Turning that around demands action at a level far beyond what any individual, community, corporation or nation can achieve, but the global unity of purpose we will need is nowhere to be seen in today’s fractured political landscape. If saying that makes me a pessimist, so be it.

We are only playing catch-up with land carbon efforts like planting trees and eating less meat if we don’t also stop the activity that created this mess and continues to thwart abatement efforts: digging up fossil carbon and burning it. That’s the real deal, the bottom-line solution.

Having heard a growing public disquiet, some governments are responding. This month two close allies, the UK and New Zealand, have declared new, ambitious emissions goals with targeted support for communities and corporations to abandon fossil fuels.

Australia’s 2019 summer of extremes influenced the UK decision, yet here we don’t talk about such things. While representing ambitious targets and coal sanctions as economic folly, the Morrison government continues to ignores climate danger signs. If that doesn’t change, something will snap.

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This is Angus Taylor’s moment. Is he up to it?

The Coalition is running out of time to get its climate policies in order.

Australian emissions as reported to the UN by the Morrison government in May 2019. The information on Australian governments was added by the author.

Angus Taylor, our newly-minted minister for energy and emissions reduction, is at a crossroads. The path he chooses will have a defining impact on emissions abatement and how this Morrison government will be remembered.

A fortnight ago Australia’s greenhouse gas inventory for 2019 was posted on the website of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Taylor made no mention of this two days later when he took up his new role in charge of emissions reduction; nor did Sussan Ley as the new minister for the environment.

The very first graph in the 1000-page report, depicting Australia’s net greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2018, reveals four distinct trends: a downward trajectory from 1990 to 1995, then an upward one until 2007, then down again until 2014, and upward after that.

Students of political history will note that the four trends coincide quite closely with changes of government, from the Hawke-Keating years to John Howard, back to Labor and finally back to the Coalition. Emissions seem to rise under the Coalition and fall under Labor.

A lot of the trending has little to do with the party in government. An economic recession and less land clearing in the early 1990s brought emissions down before a mining boom pushed them up again. They turned downward again when the global financial crisis hit in 2007-08.

But the present upward trend dates from when Tony Abbott’s government repealed Julia Gillard’s pilloried carbon tax and replaced it with “Direct Action”, a policy that seemed headed for oblivion before it was revived under Scott Morrison.

Under this policy, the government uses public money to buy carbon abatement in various forms, mainly by paying farmers and others to plant trees and avoid land clearing. According to the government’s own data, this has had no impact on emissions.

Australia’s report for the December 2018 quarter, which emerged last week nearly six months after the event, is another sorry story. In 2018 emissions rose 0.7 per cent, or 3.5 million tonnes, with a better performance in electricity and agriculture wiped out by increases everywhere else.

Quizzed about the exceptionally late release of the December data, Taylor said he needed time to settle into his new job. No mention of the possibility that at least some people who returned the Morrison government might have valued that information ahead of voting.

Taylor’s message about the data was that emissions per capita were down (unsurprisingly since Australia’s population is growing strongly), that emissions intensity was down (good, but that doesn’t help our Paris goals), and that by exporting more low-emitting gas we were helping the world lower coal consumption – something we were not being given credit for.

Say that again? The Morrison government is helping the world break away from coal? But hasn’t it been arguing that the world needs our coal? Isn’t that why it won seats in the sunshine state?

We are having two parallel conversations about emissions. Most observers focus on the amount of carbon Australia and the world is sending into the atmosphere, but the government talks only of “saved” emissions, expressing its Paris 2030 target as a plan for 328 megatonnes of abatement.

The government’s emissions reduction plan depends heavily on trees, but new seedlings, if they survive, can only affect emissions many years ahead. Megatonnes of abatement turn out to be a bit like future budget surpluses – easy to talk about but of no value until the time arrives.

Today’s figures say clearly that Tony Abbott’s purchased abatement strategy, overseen by ministers Greg Hunt, Josh Frydenberg and Melissa Price, simply hasn’t worked. Assuming he grasps that awkward truth, Angus Taylor’s main task is to bring something new to the table.

Climate policy has been the victim of party politics ever since Abbott defeated Malcolm Turnbull in a Liberal leadership ballot in 2009 on the basis of his firm opposition to any form of carbon price signal. Even before he entered parliament in 2013, Taylor was on Abbott’s side.

But Turnbull’s National Energy Guarantee, which includes a pricing mechanism, is now the only viable option for Taylor. Somehow, a minister who once campaigned against carbon pricing and renewables must persuade the Coalition to support both, while turning down the volume over coal.

As climate change looms ever-larger as a public issue, time is not on the side of Angus Taylor and Scott Morrison. Errors by Labor, some astute campaigning and a slice of luck have given the Coalition a third chance to get things right. There won’t be a fourth one.

Taylor was all too ready to repeat the spin of his predecessors last week, but staying the course is out of the question. For all our sakes, the government has to make a fresh start, now.

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