Preparing for a disorderly future

Our world has changed forever, and there’s no going back. Our children understand that. Unfortunately our leaders don’t.

Some time back, as university students, we took to the streets to confront our elders about a war in Asia that was none of Australia’s business. To escape from that mess, all we had to do was get out of the war. Which we did.

The students are in the streets again, but now they’re school-age, something unthinkable in the Vietnam era and hard for many to swallow today. Their mess is no mere war, but a global crisis which left unattended will devastate Earth’s life systems, including ours.

The crisis is so big that most adults ignore it and focus on more immediate things, like staying solvent and putting food on the table. Or if they’re at the top of the human pile, keeping the company profitable, reading the economic tealeaves or winning the next election.

Our children have stepped into the breach, demanding that we stop making loony decisions about our future, like building a new power station to burn more fossil fuel, and start being honest about what we’re now facing.

It is now clear to all who think about it that while some political and business leaders seem to understand that we’re in a crisis, no-one at the top is willing to confront this and make the big decisions needed to turn it around.

The rational approach to the climate crisis is to follow the lead of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the thousands of scientists responsible for its reports. In tones of increasing urgency they all say that the scale of disruption ahead demands a complete end to carbon emissions and truckloads of preparation for an orderly and just transition.

But for decades these calls have landed on deaf ears. Those of us who try to engage with political leaders, including Tasmanian ones, about the fast-disappearing window for effective action know all too well the fossil fuel addiction that continues to drive and shape their world view.

Knowingly or otherwise, decision-makers everywhere are under the malign influence of that old order. Interests with a stake in prolonging the use of fossil fuels keep politicians on a short leash while attacking detractors and sabotaging public discourse with misinformation. 

School strikers see what their elders apparently cannot: that the old scheme of things is collapsing around us. In the face of cascading environmental, social and health crises, the efforts of our leaders to mask reality with daily barrages of the old measures – GDP or budgetary or employment data – seem pointless, even ludicrous.

We have to admit that elected or appointed leaders in government and business are not up to the job. And we have learned from our enduring public health crisis that when old ways of thinking are shown not to work, we must discard them. 

The pandemic should be a wake-up call. We urgently need to apply that elsewhere and be honest with ourselves and others about our present situation, which is nowhere near where science says we need to be if we are to keep climate change within safe bounds.

In fact, the time when individual governments, communities or people could have an impact has already passed us by. The only shot left in the locker is radical action by all developed nations working together, but the chances of that happening are vanishingly small.

Let’s face it: we are not going to get an incremental, orderly transition to a secure future. Hard times will continue, even get harder, as a changing climate makes its presence felt and systems are shaken to their core. The failure of gradualism leaves us facing an unsettling ride into a thoroughly disjointed future.

Yet there is reason for people both older and younger, but especially younger, to take heart. We are entering a time different from everything we know, in which we are all learners. And young people, as we all know, are the best learners. Unlike their elders who know only a fossil-fuelled economy, they are unencumbered by outmoded mindsets and expertise. 

School students are right to be angry, and I hereby offer them a baby-boomer’s apology for the continuing failure of older citizens to address this unfolding calamity. 

But our young soon-to-be citizens should also feel energised by the challenge before them. There is opportunity to be had in the inevitable disruption ahead. Young people will be best placed to cast aside old, failed systems and take charge of building a new, sustainable world.

That transition will be tough, and there will be disheartening setbacks. It will be disorderly, sometimes painful, occasionally shocking. But it definitely won’t be boring. 

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The trouble with gas

The Coalition’s ambitious plans for gas are in direct opposition to a UN report that says we must curtail its extraction and use to avoid dangerous climate change

“I insist on getting things done,” Angus Taylor told an interviewer soon after entering federal parliament in 2013. “I do delivery.”

So we should take the minister for energy and emissions reduction seriously when he talks up the role of natural gas in Australia’s energy future, including spending huge amounts of public money on supporting a gas industry. And we should be very concerned indeed.

Last week’s Budget included nearly $60 million to support “critical” infrastructure projects in Queensland. NSW and Victoria, for general gas planning and investment support, and to “empower gas-reliant businesses to negotiate competitive contract outcomes”.

These sums seem small in this multi-billion-dollar Budget spend, but they are far from the whole story. The government has been promoting gas as being integral to Australia’s energy future since the newly-elected PM promoted Taylor to his present job in 2018.

Both these men have form in this space: Taylor has campaigned against wind power and Scott Morrison is famous for waving a lump of coal in parliament. They no longer behave like this, but can’t bring themselves to abandon fossil fuels. So now it’s gas, as if nothing else matters.

The Coalition’s gas commitments so far add up to something approaching $1 billion. The past three years have seen a steady stream of announcements about support for exploration and extraction – notably in the Northern Territory’s vast Beetaloo Basin, but also in eastern states – and infrastructure for transport and processing. 

Gas was once thought to have a longish future in Australian energy, and globally too, thanks to what was assumed to be a lower level of emissions from extracting, processing and burning it, plus a competitive price. But that bright picture is now dimming, at an accelerating rate.

A shift in the relative economics of gas and renewables over the past five years has seen solar and wind energy costs come down while gas has risen. The Australian Energy Market Operator has repeatedly advised that the role of gas in the Australian market is steadily shrinking, a trend that it envisages will continue indefinitely. 

But the biggest cloud over gas’s future is increasing evidence of the climate risks posed by extracting and using it. It is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas which on release is many times more potent than carbon dioxide. Unlike coal, it can escape into the atmosphere before it is burned. 

About 15 years ago it looked as if global methane emissions might be plateauing, even declining. But since then they have risen at an increasing rate, about 60 per cent from human activity. A large spike over the past year has been driven mainly by fugitive (escaped) emissions from methane extraction by fracking – the rock-fracturing technique now used globally – and its processing and transport.

Neither the PM nor his energy minister are known to take much notice of UN reports, but if they tuned in to this month’s Global Methane Assessment’s, a UN report on current research into methane emissions, they would find it troubling. 

Its implications for the future of natural gas are immense. Bringing together years of work by thousands of scientists across hundreds of institutions, it addresses the crucial question of whether we can hold warming below 2C, or better still, below the much safer level of 1.5C. And would you believe, it concludes that we can.

There is a major caveat. Achieving this near-miracle would require drastic reductions in emissions from agriculture, waste, and fossil fuels, especially natural gas. In short, the UN is saying that to keep warming within safe levels we must curtail the extraction of methane. 

The rapid growth of the gas industry here is the main reason Australia’s national greenhouse gas emissions remain stubbornly high. But if Angus Taylor and his government get their way, what has happened up to now will be insignificant compared to where we’re headed.

If the federal government is serious about cutting carbon emissions, the last thing it should be doing is spruiking a “gas-fired recovery”. But in one more example of the political establishment’s distance from real-world issues, no-one in its ranks seems to have grasped this.

It is, however, well understood by our country’s youth. In 2018 Australia turbo-charged Greta Thunberg’s global “school strike for climate” movement when school students took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands.

This Friday they are doing it again, marching for a better future in cities, towns and villages around the country. The national theme for this event is “Fund our future, not gas”. The Hobart event starts on Parliament Lawns at 12 noon.

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Greta Thunberg and her young warriors

As Greta Thunberg emerges into adulthood, her indelible legacy will be the global “school strike for climate” movement

It was a meeting heavy with meaning: a fresh-faced 17-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, instigator of a global youth climate movement, sitting down with an acclaimed veteran of nature film-making who turned 95 on Saturday.

Early last year, Greta Thunberg met face-to-face with David Attenborough in London. The BBC filmed the meeting, screened in a documentary series on Thunberg which ended on ABC-TV last night (available on iView – Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World).

Attenborough’s modest response didn’t do justice to his 70-year effort to bring the world of nature into the homes of millions – including Thunberg’s. “I’ve been bleating about it [climate change] for a long time,” he said, “but the big changes came when you spoke.” 

But he’s right. Starting three years ago when she was just 15, sitting in silence on that Stockholm pavement with her sign declaring a “school strike for climate”, Thunberg has got people engaged in numbers that ageing climate activists could only dream of. Now she is no longer silent, and her calls for action have caught the rapt attention of millions. 

But this is not a one-way street. Thunberg herself is learning about the world, in particular about the complexities of transitioning to a post-carbon world. The most moving moment of her documentary was a meeting she had with former Polish coal miners in Silesia, where coal has been mined for over 800 years. 

She expected a hostile reception. What she got instead was a warm greeting and a moving recounting of the miners’ feelings of grief and anxiety over their mine’s closure. When they heard it was happening, said one, the men “had tears in their eyes, and fear about how to cope with it all, and what’s going to come next”.

Then the conversation took a surprising turn. “We are open… to the transformation of the mining industry,” said one of the miners, “so long as we are being taken seriously.” One of the older men thanked Thunberg for her speech to the Madrid climate conference a month earlier: “I think it will bring results, and for sure things will change here.”

There was grace on both sides of this exchange. The coal miners harboured no grudges against someone who had advocated against their lifelong vocation. On the other hand, we saw the girl becoming a woman, working her way through the vast implications and complex intricacies of the climate challenge.

Oblivious to decision-makers’ excuses, Thunberg continues to push one simple message: listen to the science. She knows, as do David Attenborough and Poland’s unemployed coal miners, that the carbon juggernaut will only be stopped when governments everywhere heed that advice and act accordingly. 

That is not happening. The International Energy Agency projected last month that, despite the global pandemic, higher coal demand would leave emissions in 2021 at their highest point in over a decade.

That information is the ultimate slap-down of government claims to be making a difference. It is also profoundly depressing. We had reason to hope that the one silver lining of the pandemic might be the beginning of an emissions downturn. No such luck.

Thunberg has shown an astonishing command of language and logic, but her most important attributes in catching the world’s attention were the focus that comes with being autistic and – most important – her youth. As she leaves her childhood behind, she is coming to appreciate better the obstacles that the adult world has put in the way of climate progress.

Australian children have played a big part in the Thunberg youth phenomenon. In an online interview six months ago Thunberg identified a key ingredient in her struggle to win global attention. The impact of nationwide streets protests by Australian school students in November 2018, she said, was “massive”. “It got out in the media, and young people saw that and said I want to do the same thing.”

On Friday week, our students will again take to the streets to denounce government inaction, giving voice to what we have all known in our hearts but been too afraid to utter. Yet again, our children are standing up to be heard, condemning federal and state governments for their continuing refusal to see our future through their eyes.

There are still adults in the room, and they matter as never before. On Friday week, genuine Australian grown-ups, as opposed to the imposters posing as decision-makers, need to stand with our school students and make themselves heard. Then to go on doing it, indefinitely.

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