Time is ticking away

Making inroads into our rising carbon emissions means real, physical action by government, starting now if not earlier, as part of an over-arching climate policy — something our political leaders don’t appear to understand. [9 October 2007 | Peter Boyer]

Voices from the past
1988    Margaret Thatcher (British Prime Minister): “It is possible that with all these enormous changes (population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels) … we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself”
1992    United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: “Human activities have been substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases… [which] will result [in] warming of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere and may adversely affect natural ecosystems and humankind.”
1997    John Howard (Australian Prime Minister): “The outcome of the Climate Change Conference in Kyoto represents a splendid result… that Australia joins in very enthusiastically. For the first time we have an agreement amongst the developed countries to bring about a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”

More than 30 years ago, a leading American physicist named Amory Lovins wrote in a prestigious US journal that an increasing reliance on coal-burning to produce energy would put the planet in danger “early in the next century”.

Significant rises in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, he wrote in 1976, would lead to the prospect “then or soon thereafter of substantial and perhaps irreversible changes in global climate. Only the exact date of such changes is in question.”

Australia’s coalminers knew there was a problem with coal-burning when, in the lead-up to the 1997 Kyoto climate negotiations, they said that viable technology to produce “clean coal” was ten years away. They’re still saying it.

If you go to the Australian Coal Association’s website you’ll find descriptions of about half a dozen technologies to produce clean coal. Nowhere can we see “breakthrough” technology in operation. Worse – there isn’t even the promise of any such deployment any time soon.

Playing for time, the fossil fuel industry has put only a small proportion of its record profits into research into clean coal technology while gladly accepting significant government support for this research. Who are the suckers?

Unfortunately, the Australian coal industry story of denial, delay and diversion is being repeated everywhere we look.

We were told 20 years ago of mounting evidence that growing energy consumption was putting us in peril. In 1992 the Rio Earth Summit made this a global political issue.

By 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was signed, we were told we had to reduce our emissions significantly by about 2010. A decade on, record-breaking economic growth has seen our emissions increase substantially.

In supporting a growing economy – and population – our governments give no sign that they understand the stark contradiction between their expansionist ideas and a finite planet with a dwindling capacity to support life.

Nor do they seem to appreciate that “now” means now – not some indeterminate future time.

If, like me, you’ve worked in government, you’ve become used to seeing deadlines pass with nary a comment, on the understanding that a promise is a relative thing depending on circumstances – and the pressure applied from other people.

But in tackling climate change, no such luxury is available. It’s not other people that are dictating terms here, but the state of our planet. And as the deadlines pass and the years roll on, the problems keep mounting.

• Southern readers who’d like some local political feedback in this great debate should come to a climate change policy forum in Hobart tomorrow evening. Facilitated by Dr Peter Hay, speakers will include Duncan Kerr MHR, Senator David Bushby and Senator Christine Milne. It’s at 7 pm at the UTAS Centenary Lecture Theatre, Grosvenor Crescent.

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