No better time to be a climate activist

November 18, 2011 at 3:44 am Leave a comment

Debate about the Labor-Greens carbon price has dominated Australian politics for the past year. So it is little surprise that the passing of the carbon price laws through parliament on November 8 received widespread media attention.

But the media’s coverage overshadowed two shocking new reports on the climate emergency released in the past week.

The first was from the US Department of Energy, which said on November 4 that greenhouse gas emissions jumped by a record amount in 2010. The 6% rise — an extra 512 million tons of carbon — put global emissions higher than the worst-case scenario mapped out by the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change in 2007.

The UN’s worst-case scenario would mean the planet would be at least 4°C warmer (on average) by 2100. The UN said as little as 2°C of warming is enough to push the climate past a point of no return. Many scientists say a 1.5°C rise is still too high.

The second shock came from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which said on November 9 the world had just five years left to change course on fossil fuels.

IEA chief economist Faith Birol told the British Guardian: “The door is closing. I am very worried — if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.”

Even worse, it’s likely the IEA’s call for action is still too conservative. The agency said governments should aim to keep carbon in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million to stay under 2°C. But the world’s top climate scientists, including NASA’s James Hansen, say we need to get below 350ppm (and it’s more than 390 now).

At least two conclusions can be drawn from these stark warnings. First, there has never been a better time to be a climate activist. Strong grassroots movements for science-based climate action are our best hope.

Second, the Coalition’s hysterical climate denial is suicidal, but the Labor government deserves little praise for its carbon price laws. Labor is still right behind the fossil fuel lobby. It’s still part of the problem.

Several Labor ministers told the November 10 Australian that its Clean Energy Future package is designed to boost the use of gas-fired power, especially coal seam gas.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said of the carbon price scheme: “There will be a diverse range of energy sources. We believe coal seam gas will be part of the energy mix of the future.”

Now the carbon price has passed, there is a new opportunity for the climate movement — which divided over the scheme — to unite around a renewed push for genuine climate action.

This means a rollout of renewable energy (especially large scale solar power) and putting a stop to industry plans for new coal and coal seam gas projects.

We’ll also need a lot more public investment in clean energy, transport, agriculture and manufacturing to bring Australia’s emissions down to a safe level quickly. And the science says we cannot do it slowly.

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