On ABC Brisbane's 'ask the expert' slot a couple of weeks ago, a man phoned in wanting to know how much carbon dioxide there was in the atmosphere. The expert replied, 'About 0.04 per cent'; to which the caller trumped, 'Well, that's not worth worrying about then, is it?' At this point, I banged my head against the kitchen wall in despair. What hope is there for this nation of mega-exploiters of earth's resources; this major-league carbon-footprinter; this reluctant carbon-pricer; this economic-growth obsessive?
The coalition government in the UK has just announced revised, more ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions by 2025. There had been speculation that PM David Cameron would renege on his stated intent to be the greenest government yet; that there was a massive rift in the Cabinet between those afraid that emission targets would harm the economic growth necessary for recovery and those determined to keep their word, as well as set an example to all those dithering nations who cry, 'We won't do it unless you do'.
I have just read Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change by Clive Hamilton, who is an Aussie and Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre of Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the Australian National University in Canberra. For 14 years until 2008 he was the executive director of one of Australia's most progressive think tanks. Why has no one been listening to him? The book should be compulsory reading in educational and governmental establishments across the land.
It makes grim reading. It's not about averting the climate crisis: the starting point is that it is already too late; serious climatic change is inevitable; so why have we let it happen? It analyses the failures of our institutions and our peculiar tendency to bury our collective heads in the sand. It is about 'our strange obsessions, our hubris, and our penchant for avoiding the facts'; 'our greed, materialism and alienation from nature'.
A report* released by Environment Victoria this week showed that in 1960 19 per cent of Australia's electricity was provided by renewable sources of energy. By 2008 this had fallen to just 7 per cent. The group's Campaigns Director summed up Australia's problem, if not the world's: 'For all the hand-wringing about climate change over the past decade we've seen massive growth in emissions from coal generation.' Between 2001 and 2009, there was a 10 per cent increase in coal-fired power generation, which meant 14 million extra tonnes of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere each year.
In 2007, however, there was a marked change in Australia's energy policy. In June the then Prime Minister John Howard announced that an Australian Carbon Trading Scheme would be introduced in 2012. A few months before that, the state governments, with Opposition leader Kevin Rudd coming on board, had commissioned the Garnaut Climate Change Review. Howard lost the election in November and Rudd came to power. The Garnaut report in 2008 recommended an emissions trading scheme (among many other things), and Rudd duly announced such a scheme, to take effect by 2010. This was later put off a couple of times (eventually until 2013) and its postponement and Rudd's seeming lack of resolve was instrumental in him being replaced as leader by Julia Gillard. During the election campaign in August 2010, she promised, 'There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead'. Now, as she plans to implement carbon pricing in July 2012, she explains that back then she had intended to introduce an ETS, but that circumstances have since changed and carbon pricing has become necessary.**
I have never understood why it is completely verboten for a political leader to change tack. It seems to me that a lady who is for turning has an open mind, is flexible and more inclined to reassess challenges, which is crucially important in a global crisis. Of course, she may have just been out to get a few more votes, knowing that the Australians' commitment to environmental issues does not extend to measures that may impact on their pockets. Which is why they don't embrace solar power, even though they live in one of the sunniest places on the planet – except for last year. If you ask an Australian why they don't install solar panels on their roof, they will ask you if it will make their electricity cheaper.
There's a huge to-do in Australia about the proposed carbon pricing. The prospect is deeply unpopular, even though it is a revenue-neutral policy and there will be compensation for both 'Australian working families' and not-so-big business. A combination of scaremongering by the powerful energy and mining companies (they claim there will be many job losses) and the mud-slinging nature of Australian politics (neocon Opposition leader Tony Abbott attended an anti-carbon-tax rally at which protesters held up placards saying 'JuLIAR Bob Browns† bitch') means that rarely are global warming issues debated intelligently and dispassionately.
In the world according to Clive Hamilton, drastic emissions reductions are not a matter for debate. Urgent and considerable action is required by governments immediately; unpopular action that will cost companies and individuals dear. But not as much as if global temperatures rise by four or five degrees. Many millions of people will pay for that consequence with their lives.
Source: Proinso Solar Energy Supplies
* Australia's Electricity Generation Mix 1960-2009, a report by Green Energy Markets for Environment Victoria, May 2011
** an emissions trading scheme means the government sets limits (or caps) on the amount of pollutants that can be emitted. The limits are sold to industries in the form of emissions permits. A business must hold a number of permits that are equivalent to their emissions, which must be within the cap. If a company needs to increase its emissions, it must buy permits from those who require fewer permits. Carbon pricing means that the government fixes a tax that is levied according to the carbon content of fuel.
† Bob Brown is the leader of the Australian Greens