Note: Regular readers may notice this post goes over ground I’ve covered before. It was originally intended to be published elsewhere, but that didn’t pan out so I’m posting it here.
The tragic unseasonal bushfires which ravaged NSW in October are a striking reminder human-caused global warming hasn’t disappeared just because politicians don’t consider it a priority.
To understand how to solve global warming, we must first understand what – or whom – is causing it. There is overwhelming evidence (convincing 97% of climate experts) that the largest and longest-lived cause is CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning. (Other human-caused factors roughly cancel each other out and natural influences like the Sun probably had a net cooling effect in recent decades.)
Fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) formed over millions of years from dead plants, removing carbon from the air and gradually cooling the planet. Yet humans are digging up this carbon which has been out of circulation and burning it in a geological instant. When carbon (C) is burned, it reacts with oxygen (O) to produce carbon dioxide (CO2), a heat-trapping greenhouse gas. CO2 in the atmosphere is like radioactive waste: much of it hangs around for centuries.
The effects are more evident than ever. The atmosphere continues to warm (despite misleading claims of a “pause” based on cherry-picked data). Ocean heating, sea level rise, and ice melt have accelerated, in the latter case faster than any model predicted. At <1°C of global warming, we’re already experiencing impacts costing human lives including worse heatwaves, floods, droughts, and bushfires (floods and droughts because the added energy intensifies the water cycle, and bushfires because of hotter temperatures and drier soils). Worse, CO2 may already be too high to avoid tipping points for amplifying feedbacks that could send climate change spiraling out of control.
Under current policies we’re headed for >4°C warming, a temperature unprecedented for the human species. When the Earth was 5°C cooler 20,000 years ago, northern Europe and Canada were covered by ice. During the past 10,000 years, global temperature has varied <1°C. Human civilization has flourished because this stable climate sustained our societies and economies. 4°C would be an unimaginable catastrophe, probably beyond our capacity to adapt. Thus global warming isn’t just another issue; it’s an urgent threat to humanity. Our complacency is extremely reckless.
Science tells us that to meet even the unsafe target of staying below 2°C, humanity must leave most fossil fuel reserves in the ground. To actually reduce atmospheric CO2, we’d need to rapidly cut global emissions to near-zero. Thus fossil fuel has become a rogue industry whose interests conflict with those of humanity: its very business model threatens our future. To maintain our hospitable climate, we urgently need to phase out fossil fuels. The industry is essentially an enemy of the people. They have denied the facts and sabotaged action for 25 years and privately laugh about it. They are the real villain; Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten are merely their representatives.
By securing government support and contaminating the media, the fossil fuel lobby has conned us all into believing it is central to Australia’s prosperity and climate action is too expensive. Actually, only 0.3% of Australian jobs are in coal mining. The mining boom, far from saving us from recession, has driven up the Australian dollar and helped kill manufacturing jobs. Electricity prices are rising due mainly to over-investment in poles and wires, not climate policies. The carbon tax has not wiped Whyalla off the map. We have the technologies to repower Australia with 100% renewable energy within ten years. Even phasing out coal exports would merely delay the doubling of Australian GDP from 2030 to 2031. All this pales in comparison to the impacts of unmitigated global warming.
Australia’s wealth and high emissions (15th highest in the world) mean we have a responsibility to show leadership. Yet neither of Australia’s major political parties is serious about climate action.
Both parties support expanding fossil fuel exports, Australia’s largest contribution to climate change. The Coalition wants to fast-track coal mines. Despite having said in opposition “if you don’t want something to happen on your land, you ought to have a right to say no”, in government they’ve revealed their real intention is to ensure “every molecule of gas that can come out of the ground does so”.
The bipartisan emissions reduction target of 5%-by-2020 is so weak as to be meaningless. In climate talks, Australia focuses on avoiding obligations by insisting stronger targets are conditional on international action, and looking for loopholes like offsets, surplus permits, and land use creative accounting. And both Labor’s carbon price and the Coalition’s indirect, inactive “Direct Action Plan” are utterly inadequate as responses to global warming.
Although the fixed carbon tax apparently helped slightly reduce emissions, it was designed to soon become an emissions trading scheme (ETS) – a dubious mechanism intended to minimize costs for polluting companies, full of incomprehensibly complex loopholes, which can hide increasing emissions by shuffling carbon permits around. Any less-than-perfect ETS can actively prevent climate action. Labor’s ETS would include offsets from overseas, allowing emissions to go up, not down. The Renewable Energy Target (RET) has grown renewables to the point where they’re starting to threaten coal power plants, but not coal mines because most Australian coal is exported.
The Coalition intends to unwind potentially all of Labor’s weak steps. Their proposed Emissions Reduction Fund, even in the unlikely event it passes the Senate, is laughably toothless. The Fund would pay polluters who supposedly avoid emitting CO2 they otherwise would have. It cannot guarantee results because participation is voluntary. It cannot ensure the supposed actions wouldn’t have happened anyway, because it will cut emissions per economic output instead of total emissions. It would try to cut carbon in the wrong place, focusing largely on impermanent land carbon storage instead of targeting fossil fuel CO2 emissions. It may also convert power plants from coal to gas, which would lock in new fossil fuel infrastructure for decades. And its budget is tightly capped so it will also allow emissions to go up, not down.
Beyond the Fund, the Coalition wants to restore coal power plants to profitability. They may reduce the RET, which would effectively halt the deployment of renewables by 2016. Their goal of 1 million new solar roofs will be achieved by 2017 anyway. Their clean energy policies focus on R&D, but we don’t have time to wait for new technologies that won’t be deployed for decades. And in free trade talks they might agree to create an international tribunal with unlimited powers, unaccountable to sovereign nations, in which multinationals can sue governments who try to regulate fossil fuels.
Instead of greenwash, we need real direct action. The solution is to oppose fossil fuel companies, not pay them or limit their costs. Climate action should be easily understandable; hold corporations accountable to the voting public; not need to be perfect to work; result in transparent, concrete, and systemic outcomes; and prioritize the most important and urgent task: phasing out fossil fuel CO2 emissions. Real action will involve accepting some short-term economic costs to avoid devastating long-term costs from global warming.
The Government should declare an immediate moratorium on new fossil fuel mining projects, draw up a plan to phase out fossil fuel exports, and launch international negotiations on a global phase-out. As Australia is the second largest coal exporter, exiting the fossil fuel trade would substantially reduce global supply, increase global coal prices, and help create a new international norm of leaving fossil fuels in the ground.
Australia should adopt a near-term near-zero emissions target (eg. 80% by 2020), unconditional on other countries’ actions, and make major progress in a single electoral term toward a zero-carbon economy. We should eschew international offsets. In climate talks, we should stop advocating loopholes; prioritize action prior to 2020; lobby others to join us; and provide funding for poor countries.
New coal-fired and gas-fired power plants should be banned, and fossil fuel subsidies transferred to renewables. We must scale up deployment of existing zero-carbon technologies. The RET should be raised to 100%, and the solar roofs target and other renewable energy funding also increased. The mechanism most effective at delivering renewables would be a feed-in tariff. In theory, a real direct action plan could even include a fixed carbon tax (a simpler policy than an ETS).
But Abbott doesn’t want to do these things, because it would mean standing up to the powerful fossil fuel lobby. While the federal government refuses to act, citizens can campaign directly against the industry. Although global warming may seem disconnected from everyday life, the need to phase out fossil fuels globally translates to tangible local actions: stopping specific mines, pipelines, rail lines, ports, and power plants, while deploying renewable energy (although we mustn’t lose sight of the need for renewables to replace fossil fuels, not merely complement them).
The Government has a non-policy on climate. Instead of addressing the human cause of increasingly extreme weather, Abbott intends to sit back and wait for disasters to strike, then pontificate that it’s just something that happens, it has no political implications, and all we can do is fight the symptoms. His policy on fires is “We didn’t start the fire”. His policy on droughts is “I wish it would rain”. And his policy on floods is “Don’t go out in the pouring rain”. The only thing he’ll do to address the causes of global warming is replant the trees that just burned down.
By failing to act, Abbott is helping to create a hotter world for his daughters.