Is it just me being assailed by such an overwhelming sense of deja vu?
Once again the Australian and American political classes are struggling to come to terms with real action on our climate challenge. Action that is commensurate with both the scale and urgency of the threat to human society in the 21st century. In 2007, I'd been optimistic, foolishly as it turns out, that we were moving into a post-climate debate era, that the time for action had arrived. Then the end of 2009 punctured that, and 2010 and 2011 thus far have failed to restore any real semblance of progress.
From an Australian perspective, this is what I was thinking in 2007 in my book The 3rd Degree: Frontline in Australia's Climate War. Tell me, was I just dreaming?
EXTRACT*: The fact is, there are lots of important and sensible things we can do, and the climate-aware know about them. They just can’t agree on which ones, when, and who’ll pay, as incumbents in all camps try to protect their positions. In a democracy, we the people have to prod them into action, deploying our wallets, votes and voices to challenge the old order and outdated thinking. I offer this set of guiding principles from The 3rd Degree war room:
We have to go beyond ideology. Neither capitalism nor socialism nor outright communism or totalitarianism, nor any of the shades in between ever showed any real respect for the environment. Now, in the 21st century, what could be more important than sustainability for people in harmony with the planet and its thin, fragile atmosphere? This is not a new ideology, it’s survival instinct!
Everything has to be on the table. Likening our challenge to a war is very deliberate, and we have to consider all of the weaponry available, while observing the climate equivalent of the Geneva Convention. Our options should include nuclear and coal, along with wind and solar, though all things won’t make sense for every scenario. We need transition options like gas and clean diesel, and some end-game possibilities like hydrogen and fuel cells for a zero-carbon-emission future. We need guerilla tactics on the streets of every nation with mass-distributed small-scale solutions as
well as large-scale centralised ones.
Nothing will be as it was. Accepted wisdom is set to fail. When paradigms are shifting, orthodoxies become irrelevant. If the question is ‘what is required to save human society?’ versus protecting the environment, a new set of answers and price equations will emerge. One piece of accepted wisdom is there’s no ‘silver- bullet’ solution – Al Gore jokes it’s more like ‘silver-buckshot’ – though there actually is one thing worth trying above all others. It’s a carbon market.
Markets work and can help us trade out of trouble. While markets are not perfect, do fail and should never be free from regulation, it’s no mystery that flexible, market-based democracy won the 20th century over undemocratic and command-and-control options. Over time markets are self-correcting, which is what we’re seeing in regard to climate and the environment right now, given the market has failed spectacularly. While many people find trading in pollution counter-intuitive or even fraudulent, it’s been proven to work on problems ranging from acid rain to salinity, and a vast global carbon market trading in emissions worth tril- lions of dollars a year is inevitable and essential.
Markets won’t work automatically for everyone. A strong argument for ethics and equity arises where economic rationalism won’t work, a key case in point being Africa, already the hardest hit of all continents by climate change but responsible across all of its nations for only 3 percent of global greenhouse pollution. Carbon markets won’t direct much investment in pollution reduction to Africa, because it hasn’t got that much to reduce.
Government intervention in the right places. Precisely because markets and commercial rivalry don’t always work in the broader interests of society, govern- ments will need to intervene strategically to foster new industries, not just protect incumbents. Stand-out opportunities for Australia include capturing the carbon from coal and gas energy generation and sequestering it underground in naturally occurring storage formations; large-scale solar thermal plants, both stand-alone and augmenting traditional coal-fired power stations to heat water for the steam to drive turbines; and a massive orchestrated shift of the vehicle fleet to ultra-clean diesel-hybrid technology for both bio and synthetic fuel, produced in coal-to-liquid plants with carbon capture and storage, and via similar processes using metropolitan waste, sewage and other biomass as the feedstock.
Just slowing pollution isn’t enough. We’ll also need to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, and capture it through industrial and natural processes on a massive scale, which means finding somewhere to store it, whether in biomass including trees or new genetically enhanced crops, in the oceans, in the soil, or deep underground. Just not where it can end up in the atmosphere.
Energy security is also vital. With the exception of declining oil stocks, Australia is remarkably immunised from the energy security panic sweeping most of the world. By contrast with the nation’s small population and industrial base, on a per capita basis we are an energy superpower, punching well above our weight with a lot of coal, uranium and natural gas, and huge potential for wind, solar, tidal, geo-thermal and ‘hot- rock’ generation. For most countries – and this will impact on us too – there’s little prospect of solutions to global warming if they are not also solutions for energy security.
What we think and do is only part of the equation. A lot of our climate and energy debate is conducted as though Australia operates in isolation from the world and can do what it likes. Our politicians play shamelessly to a parochial domestic audience, our media often let them do it, and we frequently operate blind to international reality. In truth, we’re a small, trade-dependent economy at the bottom of the world that can’t just give the finger to its far more powerful trading partners in Asia, Europe and the Americas. If the world acts on climate, we won’t be allowed to maintain dirt-cheap electricity prices while we keep on polluting at the same time. The world doesn’t work that way.
*Extract from The 3rd Degree: Frontline in Australia's Climate War, published by Pluto Australia in its NOW Australia series, April 2007. (This book was very 'in the political moment' of 2006-7, so a lot has changed. But it's depressing how much hasn't changed, or has actually regressed. I have a box-full under the house, somewhere, and will happily send a copy gratis if anyone is interested in a little trip down memory lane. Just ask me, that's the least I can do to avoid waste!)