- Melissa Fyfe
- Sunday Age, December 28, 2008
PATIENCE is a virtue, they say. And when it comes to climate change, voters are inordinately virtuous. Mums and dads, community groups and environmentalists have waited patiently for our modern political processes and leadership to produce some action.
They waited through Kyoto, Bali, Poznan. They waited at polling booths to elect a prime minister who said he would do something. They waited for Ross Garnaut and his several reports. They wrote submissions, went to public meetings. They waited for Treasury modelling and the federal green paper.
Then, two weeks ago, Kevin Rudd blinked. You could hear the anger at his carbon plan crackling over the airwaves. With its low targets, Australia had decided not to lead the way in the hope China and India may follow. The scheme gave cash instead of energy efficiency help for households, huge compensation to polluters and a get-out clause for Australia to buy overseas permits instead of making its own hard cuts. Then, to top it all off, Climate Change Minister Penny Wong said she doubted a strong global agreement would be struck in Copenhagen next year.
In the past fortnight, something has dawned on people who care about climate change: perhaps it is time to acknowledge that too much faith has been put in the political process. If those who fought for the Franklin River acted like such compliant "stakeholders", the river would now be dammed.
Perhaps it is time to realise our democratic system has an entrenched inertia that makes it almost impossible to deal with a long-term crisis like climate change. It is partly a vacuum of leadership: the three-year electoral cycle means leaders have short-term vision. This is not new. But what the white paper process showed was how our system can be so thoroughly corrupted by lobbying — Garnaut described the polluters' efforts as "the most expensive, elaborate and sophisticated lobbying … ever in this country".
In the wake of Rudd's decision, some in the environment movement are talking about a return to people power. They are talking not just about individual action but national campaigns of "direct action": protests, civil disobedience, making life hard for coal-fired power stations. They are talking about moving out of the boardroom and back to front-line action. They know that they will be risking jail. But their patience has run out. "Until now the sentiment was to give Rudd a fair go to deliver. He's now had that time and hasn't delivered," one senior activist said. "I think there will now be a place for radical action, particularly among young people who feel their future is being taken away."
A similar shift is happening globally. As the Crikey website mentioned recently, a man managed to walk into a British coal and oil-fired power station and shut down a whole turbine. "No new coal" was on the note he left.
Much has been written about the groundswell of small, local climate groups. This movement, often led by concerned mothers, shows climate change is moving away from a traditional environmental issue to one that is fundamentally about morality, about not handing a crisis to our children. Rudd ignores this movement at his political peril, although Labor knows the Opposition is unlikely to outgun them on climate. But what should not be underestimated is the anger that will simmer among these groups when they are busting a gut to fight carbon pollution within their communities, only to see this undermined by the Government on the world stage and in cosy deals with industry.
This anger will boil over when the latest science starts to filter down. Garnaut's review, Rudd's decision and the Copenhagen meeting are all based on findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This science is now two years' old. For scientists, the biggest game in town is now the loss of Arctic summer sea ice. The domino effect of this development was described by Britain's Public Interest Research Centre in a report called Climate Safety, endorsed by a former IPCC co-chairman.
Several respected scientists believe the Arctic sea will soon be ice-free in summer. Their guesses range from 2011 to 2015, 80 years ahead of IPCC predictions. This could spark a series of events that end with Greenland's ice melting and many metres of sea level rise.
It is partly because of these "tipping points" that two leading climate thinkers — NASA's James Hansen and Al Gore — say carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere should be stabilised at 350 parts per million. We are now at 385 ppm, so this means not just a zero-emissions economy, but sucking down existing carbon. Right now the world is struggling to agree on 450 ppm. It may be a virtue, but the time for patience has probably run out.
Melissa Fyfe is The Sunday Age's state political reporter.