We should be listening to these people

They’re struggling to be heard, but the “Climate Action” people have things to say that we need to know about. [17 May 2011 | Peter Boyer]

Every second Tuesday, around 20 people get together in a Hobart meeting room, provided free of charge by some sympathetic hosts, and plot to change the world.

STEEPENING CURVE: The atmospheric carbon measure at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, shows CO2 levels are now rising faster than ever.

STEEPENING CURVE: The atmospheric carbon measure at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, shows CO2 levels are now rising faster than ever.

They’re people of all ages, from twenty-something (if that) through to my age (no longer young). The group’s energy level tells me that youth is definitely the dominant age demographic.

No doubt many in the wider world would see their politics as left-wing, but traditional allegiances don’t seem very relevant here. By my reckoning their political backgrounds are very mixed.

I’m one of them. At least, I did attend meetings and help out here and there, but recently my Tuesday afternoons have been taken up with a grandparent’s child-minding duties. Such is life.

I’m not a very public person. I have been in the odd march (I go back to the Vietnam years) but I’ve never done it easily. I’m very self-conscious out in front of the public, and feel uncomfortable if called on to make a noise or carry a banner. A bit of a coward, really.

My journalist’s schooling taught me to strive for objectivity, which means not nailing your colours to the mast, so I thought hard before getting involved with an activist group that seeks to influence government and demonstrate in conspicuous places.

Since doing so I haven’t exactly given it my all. Besides offering a few words and a bit of artwork here and there I’ve not been an active member, which in a group called “Climate Action Hobart” is definitely a shortcoming.

But this group doesn’t bother over-much about who’s contributing what. They just get on with it. Having absorbed what science is saying about excessive carbon in the atmosphere, they feel a pressure to do something about it, and are giving generously to the cause.

Some of them are actively involved in the Transition movement, in which local communities undertake projects to conserve energy and become more sustainable. But their primary focus is developing effective climate policy and lobbying for its acceptance in government.

To this effect, they canvass political candidates, conduct public forums, meet with prominent politicians and engage with ordinary people in conversations about sustainability and the future. I applaud their effort and commitment, and feel privileged to know them.

Last month in Melbourne, 300 of these sorts of people, representing over 100 community groups, got together in a national “Climate Action Summit” to throw their weight behind real, consequential government effort to mitigate carbon emissions.

“Not good enough” is the summit’s verdict on the Gillard government’s emission-reduction measures. It supports a carbon tax but believes that without complementary funding for energy efficiency measures and large-scale renewable power schemes it won’t be enough to avoid “catastrophic irreversible global warming” within a decade.

We’ve become hardened against such “alarmism”. Let’s face it: these activist groups are on the fringe of Australian political life, far removed from inner circles. In a national discourse that focuses on power, money and the stuff you buy with it, they struggle to get a word in edgewise.

But rectitude and virtue are not a function of power. Don’t for a moment assume that being on the margin of politics makes these groups and what they say irrelevant. To the contrary: they have the weight of science firmly on their side.

The physics of greenhouse warming are firmly established. Carbon dioxide is a powerful heating agent, and its level in the atmosphere is an important influence on global climate. Ice cores have revealed that for close to a million years our planet has enjoyed a range of between 180 and 280 parts per million (ppm) by volume.

When geochemist David Keeling began measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide in Hawaii in 1958, he found the level to be about 315 parts per million. By 1970 it had reached 325 ppm, and by the turn of the century it stood at 368 ppm.

Since 2000 it has risen more steeply than ever. It now stands at over 390 ppm — a rise of over 24 per cent in just over half a century and nearly 40 per cent above its highest natural level since humans first walked the Earth. We have massively changed the natural order of things.

None of this is disputed by science. There’s some debate about the impact of the high carbon dioxide levels on our climate, but the basics are agreed — that in the absence of deep emissions cuts we’re on track for a mean temperature rise of around 4C, and that somewhere on this upward path we’ll pass tipping points which will make the warming irreversible.

That’s where the activists are coming from. That’s why I’ve nailed my colours to their mast. Their voice may be muted, but their message needs to be heard.

• Climate Action Hobart meets fortnightly at Sustainable Living Tasmania’s meeting rooms, level 1, 71 Murray Street, Hobart. Their next meeting is tonight at 5.30 pm. Their next public outing is on June 5 at Franklin Square — part of a “National Day of Action” on World Environment Day. Click here to see Climate Action Hobart’s Ten Steps to a Safer Climate.

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