Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Climate change is still an emergency

The following points are offered as an attempt to summarise where climate activism currently stands: On the one hand, in relation to the science of climate change, and what we need to do to avoid it; and on the other hand, in relation to “official” climate action by government and in politics.

Where other material to back up my assertions is readily accessible I’ve included a link. If you think any of these assertions are inaccurate (or need more referencing), please let me know in a comment below!

What are the key points coming out of climate and energy science?

Over recent years, several key points  have firmed up in climate and energy sciences, listed here in no particular order of importance:
  1. Fossil fuels are all bad. “Low-emissions” gas is a myth. The latest studies on gas show that at all expected rates of leakage, gas has an enormous impact from fugitive emissions which cancels out all or most of the advantages of burning gas instead of coal and oil.
  2. Renewable energy is becoming rapidly cheaper and more effective, but not at a pace fast enough to rapidly replace fossil fuels without pro-active intervention into existing generation capacity/infrastructure.
  3. Emissions targets internationally are inadequate for meeting their own targeted limit to temperature rise, 2°C. In any case, 2°C is far too dangerous because it will cause great hardship and mass extinction of species, in its own right, and it is likely to trigger further feedbacks meaning the temperature will continue rising past 2°. In fact, even 1.5° temperature rise is too dangerous, and that’s more or less locked in as it is with the existing level of greenhouse gases. If we want to avoid disaster, we need to not only cut emissions but draw down some of the CO2 that is already up there.
  4. Emissions budgets for even 2°C will be exhausted within a few years at current rates. It is still possible to act to avoid this scenario, but under business-as-usual politics, we are not taking the action needed. Actual emissions globally are still rising rapidly.
  5. The climate is already becoming unstable as seen in the Arctic sea-ice melt, arctic methane thaw, and increasing incidence of extreme weather events around the world. 

Evaluating official action

So how should we evaluate the Australian government policies that do exist for climate action? We need to note the following key problems.

  1. The emissions reduction targets (5% by 2020) are so small as to be basically meaningless when compared to what is needed.
  2. The emissions reductions targets include international offsets, meaning they are not representative of an actual domestic emissions reduction. At best, this is inequitable internationally, and is deceptive when targets are announced publicly in Australia. 
  3. Renewable energy targets are much lower than the rollout of RE to date would suggest is easily possible. For example if we were to perpetuate the conditions that saw the growth of wind energy in Vic and SA up til about 2009, and the (relatively) large solar PV rollout over recent years. A case could probably be made that the Renewable Energy Target mechanism is holding renewables back more than it is supporting them.
  4. The projected increases in fossil fuel exports (and even existing export quantities) are propping up continued investment in fossil fuel generation internationally: increased supply reduces price.
  5. Infrastructure and government policy and planning all reflect the assumption that there will be continuing strong growth in fossil fuel use (see the recent Energy White Paper for example).
  6. Mythical CCS ‘clean coal’ technology continues to form a key plank of the government’s “commitment” to clean energy
  7. State Liberal/National coalition governments are now implementing a sharp attack on support for renewables (and backing new coal/gas investment and export, just as much as Labor).
  8. Although it hasn’t been openly stated, it appears likely that a future Abbott government could slash what renewables support exists, including the RET; it’s also possible that the Labor government will do so, on the recommendations of the Productivity Commission among others.

Public awareness

We could also point to weaknesses in public awareness and understanding of climate change (as reflected in media coverage, polls, campaigns etc).

  1. Climate change denial has only made modest inroads into public awareness, but it’s inverse (awareness of just how bad it is) has not been growing either. In the middle ground, deniers have confused some people who are now less certain that climate change is a threat.
  2. Climate change science-based reporting has largely disappeared from mainstream media even as the science is becoming more clear and the implications more dire.
  3. Many climate-related campaigns, in some cases due to necessity (but not always), are downplaying or completely avoiding climate change messages. For example, some renewable energy campaigning and Lock The Gate-related anti-gas and coal campaigns.
  4. Official climate politics is dominated by a partisan war (ALP-Greens vs Coalition) which is over secondary issues such as whether compensation will be adequate (and who should be compensated), and the merits of carbon pricing mechanisms, while the big picture – i.e. the scale of the threat – is almost always left out and all public criticism of government policy is from a climate denial/do-nothing perspective.
  5. Environment and climate groups have diverse opinions as to the state of affairs, including some problematic large NGOs in particular that support gas and CCS; those with a clear appraisal of fossil gas risks are still disunited on message and priorities.
  6. There are several, sometimes competing, national NGOs and activist networks/campaigns. At worst, these compete for “market share” in getting publicity for their “brand”. At best, collaboration is haphazard and insufficient.
  7. Genuine concern about hardship is causing some concern about climate action - whether it’s coming from people who really are poor, or from relatively well-off people who may be heavily indebted, for example. This narrative is weakening/distracting from support for climate action.
We also have some good strengths in the public consciousness.
  1. Renewable energy’s popularity shows resilience in the face of sustained attack. People are generally willing to invest in RE – even, or especially, personally – as its benefits are obvious and undeniable.
  2. Coal remains unequivocally unpopular.
  3. Fracking has achieved sufficient notoriety to cause serious problems for the gas industry.
  4. There is a mass movement in rural areas opposing coal and gas expansion, especially in QLD and NSW but spreading to Victoria and potentially to other states.
  5. The coal barons/mining magnates are increasingly coming under public scrutiny and criticism.

Conclusions for activists

I want to propose the following conclusions from the above:
  1. Climate change is indeed an emergency, but no nationally co-ordinated campaign or network is communicating this (in whatever “messaging” terms) to the Australian people. We have to change that.
  2. Practical campaigns (for renewables, against coal, against CSG etc) exist and are popular but under-resourced. The climate movement should make them “ours” even when the climate movement is not “theirs” (as is true for example with Lock The Gate).
  3. There is still broad public sympathy for climate activism which we have not sufficiently connected with or mobilised, and we need to find ways to do that.
  4. Taking the Clean Energy Future package on face value, it is woefully inadequate, whether or not it is a “step forward”.
  5. The government is saying climate action and doing something else (most clearly, on coal exports). This is true whatever you think of the Clean Energy Future package. We need to expose this hypocrisy.
  6. We need to keep social justice as an integral part of our message and make sure that if we advocate changes, we advocate that any sacrifice or hardship is shared equitably and according to the “polluter pays” principle.


  1. One line to perhaps add somewhere is that despite nuclear not being a timely means of addressing the climate emergence (along with other reasons for rejecting it) there is the growing rhetoric in support of nuclear power as an option with the Qld LNP government elevating nuclear energy as a specific policy area in its announcement of new departments.

  2. Ben, agree strongly that 'CLIMATE CHANGE IS STILL AN EMERGENCY'
    However, I see some rosy patches in your assessment:start with 'good strengths in the public consciousness':
    "Renewable energy’s popularity...benefits are obvious and undeniable."
    Popular in what sense?
    Over 50,000 homes have PV? What % is that?
    People vote for it? No, they voted in a Vic. govt. that would not commit to RE. All indications are that if grid RE costs more it's NOT popular.
    "Coal remains unequivocally unpopular."
    Emotionally, maybe - esp. if linked to dirty coalstacks... But there's absolutely no sign of the masses protesting (any way) about increased and projected coal exports, or removal of restrictions on new coal plants. If coal was unequivocally unpopular, you'd expect the major parties to hear the message!
    On your conclusions:
    "Practical campaigns .... are popular but under-resourced."
    Their under-resourcing reveals that they DON'T yet have wide support (this re addressing the key range of issues, from policy options and actionsto personal behaviour and choices).
    "There is still broad public sympathy for climate activism..."
    Nor is this, unfortunately, accurate across Victoria - or Australia. There is, actually, mass indifference! (I'm not exploring 'why' here).
    "The government is saying climate action and doing something else... We need to expose this hypocrisy." Yes. This of course is not confined to climate change responses.
    There IS still an emergency - and it's getting bigger!

  3. Ken, we live in a profoundly disempowered society. People certainly voted for the Coalition in sufficient numbers to elect it; but the Coalition did not campaign on "more coal, less wind power" or anything like it. Where they campaigned around wind (Ararat area) the swing to them was smaller than elsewhere.

    "Popularity" is unfortunately measured in polls and what people say they might like. The gap we need to bridge, which I guess is the point of this article, is getting those people who think renewables are a nice thing, and smokestacks are bad, to do something about it. Then we will have a "popular movement" rather than "popularity"!

    But if I'm wrong, if I'm being too rosy (which may actually be the case) what are your conclusions for what us activists should do?

  4. Ben, my current thinking is rather apocalyptic! Action? Have to think further... Starting to see the soc/pol situ as a widespread pathology, with western democracy as actually a major part of the problem. Don't have a link, but Mark Latham's recent piece in AFR:
    'Climate Change Denial not just for Fools' is most interesting on this. Builds on Robert Manne's blog a few months back about denialism.

  5. I read that piece and it was very interesting. I think outright "denial" is actually a fairly small percentage; the real problem is disempowerment of people who might consider doing something if they thought that it would help. But as you suggest, our political system is not participatory is it.

  6. Really good piece Ben
    I completely agree with all of it. I also very much agree with this comment of yours.

    "Popularity" is unfortunately measured in polls and what people say they might like. The gap we need to bridge, which I guess is the point of this article, is getting those people who think renewables are a nice thing, and smokestacks are bad, to do something about it. Then we will have a "popular movement" rather than "popularity"!

    I think we don't yet have a mass movement because the mass is not yet convinced that they will be substantially affected by what's happening. The return of the drought might just be the trigger. Even though the cooler el niƱo cycle has brought pretty devastating floods for most Australians they are something that happened to someone else somewhere else. Heatwaves and drought affect everyone.

    While I completely agree with David S that we should talk about the dire consequences of climate change and accept the arguments from Daniel V that massaging the message to emphasize the concrete personal implications of climate change I think it won't be the sophistication of the message that brings on the tipping point in public opinion. I reckon that will be brought on by some sort of hot dry climate related disaster.


Type your comment here and choose an ID to "Comment as" - choose "name/URL" or "Anonymous" if you don't want to sign in.