Let’s make this Australia’s climate election

Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’

Martin Luther King Jr.

As Australia, the world’s largest coal exporter, goes to the polls, the window of opportunity for humanity to act on climate change is closing fast.

Anthropogenic global warming is the largest and most pressing threat facing humanity today. There is an extremely urgent need for rapid emissions cuts to mitigate climate change. The extent of climate impacts decades, centuries and millennia from now will be determined by policy decisions taken in the near future. The Climate Commission has identified the 2010s as the “Critical Decade” for climate change mitigation.

There is much evidence that we have already reached a dangerous level of atmospheric CO2 (400 ppm) and global temperature (1°C above preindustrial). Arctic sea ice is already melting faster in the real world than in the projections that will be included in the imminent IPCC report, and the Arctic Ocean could be completely ice-free within a few years. By reversing the surface reflectivity of the northern polar region, the Arctic melt threatens to set off a chain reaction of tipping points, including collapse of the Greenland ice sheet and large-scale release of carbon from melting permafrost.

Closer to home, Australia has just experienced its hottest 12 months and hottest summer on record. The increasing temperature is already increasing the frequency of heatwaves, floods, drought, and bushfires – and there’s much worse in the pipeline due to the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

All this implies there is very little time to avoid large feedbacks that could send climate change spiraling out of control. Geoengineering to remove CO2 from the atmosphere on a large scale and/or directly cool the planet now warrants serious consideration, but only as a last resort. Because a proportion of emitted CO2 will hang around in the atmosphere for millennia (rather like radioactive waste), before attempting to reduce its concentration humanity must first stop emitting.

In practical terms, everybody needs to cut fossil fuel emissions to zero or near-zero as soon as possible. That means a global phaseout of fossil fuels, leaving the vast majority of the Earth’s known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Every year we delay, our emissions continue to accumulate in the atmosphere at an accelerating rate, locking in greater and greater levels of warming.

In addition to this physical lock-in of global warming, there is also the threat of economic, legal, and political lock-in, which makes the next three years even more important for both Australian and global climate policy. If we vote unwisely now, then by the time the next election rolls around our politicians may have locked in climate inaction for who knows how many years to come. Thus when we finally – hopefully soon – wake up and realize we need to urgently phase out fossil fuels, we may find ourselves running into legal barriers.

Economic lock-in of future fossil fuel burning occurs every time a government allows a new fossil fuel mine, port, or power plant to proceed. Both of Australia’s major political parties support the indefinite expansion of fossil fuel mining and exports, with little regard for the climate or environment. Labor’s policies have helped to grow renewable energy and started to threaten coal-fired electricity generation, but the Liberal/National Coalition ignores renewables and promise to restore coal power plants to profitability if they win government.

There are several possible sources of legal lock-in. If the Liberals win, they would not only unwind potentially all of Australia’s climate policies, weak as they are, and replace them with a laughable voluntary incentive scheme which will allow Australia’s emissions to continue rising. They might also sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership and agree to investor-state tribunals in which multinationals can sue governments who try to regulate fossil fuels – erecting an international legal barrier to climate action.

If Labor wins, they would rush to an emissions trading scheme (ETS) which, as currently designed, will lock in a ludicrously weak emissions target with international offsets which will allow Australia’s domestic emissions to continue rising. Such an ETS would grant polluting companies property rights to continue polluting until 2020 or beyond – a legal barrier to ramping up the pace of climate action as urgently required. Worse, Abbott said today that if Labor wins the Liberals will accept their “mandate” to move to an early ETS.

I have concerns about even the Greens’ position. They have consistently championed stronger climate policy at every turn, so I trust them far more than Labor or Liberal. In 2009 they took a strong stand against an ETS that would lock in climate inaction. But as things currently stand, the Greens have maneuvered themselves into a corner where they are defending the existing carbon price legislation which leads to an internationally-linked ETS in 2015. This is despite many unanswered questions about whether and how the flaws in the planned ETS can be fixed. What will the Greens do if the Climate Change Authority recommends only a pathetic 5% or 15% target? Are they at all concerned that an Australian carbon market could be flooded with dodgy permits from the failing EU ETS or due to bad design here? What next if the ETS does fail?

Of course, the Greens also advocate ambitious climate policies such as opposing new fossil fuel projects, taxing coal exports, cutting fossil fuel subsidies, a Renewable Energy Target of 90% by 2030, increasing renewable energy funding, a solar feed-in tariff at an independently-recommended price, connecting renewables to the electricity grid, and beginning construction of a high-speed rail network. However, a badly-designed ETS could work against other climate policies even if the Greens can get them implemented.

Political lock-in results when current policy becomes the default. This is perhaps the most important reason the climate movement’s decision to champion weak policies has been a terrible mistake. We have seen this with Australia’s emissions target – once politicians have set a target, however pointless, they then focus on implementing that target and ignore the need for much more ambitious action.

Whichever party is in government during the next term of Parliament, the world’s governments have agreed to agree in Paris in 2015 a set of ambitious voluntary pledges for 2020 and binding targets for beyond 2020. If the Australian government continues to insist on a weak target for itself, it will contribute to the global institutionalization until 2020 or beyond of inadequate existing pledges, which lead to a catastrophic 4°C global warming by 2100 (plus potentially large feedbacks and post-2100 warming).  That would be a global political decision to delay action until it is too late.

Given the mounting evidence that even 1°C of warming is dangerous, it is extremely reckless to be complacent about the world’s present path to >4°C. Human civilization is unlikely to be able to adapt to anything like that level of global warming. There is no precedent in human history: global temperature has varied by only a few tenths of a degree in the relatively stable climate of the past 10,000 years in which human civilization developed – though even such small global variation sometimes produced local climate changes large enough to cause or contribute to the demise of local civilizations. When the Earth was 5°C cooler 20,000 years ago, northern Europe and Canada were covered by ice sheets. It has not been multiple degrees warmer since before the evolution of the human species.

Please Australia, I’m begging you. This could be the last election at which it’s possible for Australia to make a real difference to climate change, so let’s make it count. Don’t vote for the Liberal/National Coalition. Don’t vote 1 Labor either. My advice is to vote for either the Greens, or one of the few other minor parties with a serious climate policy (Save the Planet, Socialist Alliance, Pirates, Wikileaks, Secular, Democrats, Stop CSG). I’d also advise preferencing the Greens ahead of Labor and Liberal, and Labor ahead of Liberal.

Let’s make this Australia’s climate election.

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