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Issue #1605      August 7, 2013

Planet can’t afford capitalism

A new study has demonstrated that the rapid thawing of permafrost in the East Siberian Ice Shelf has already led to the release of huge volumes of methane – a particularly troublesome greenhouse gas. Warming seas are also giving off the gas from previously frozen reserves estimated to contain 50 million tonnes. The journal Nature used the method deployed in the British Stern review several years ago to calculate that the pivotal temperature rise of 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels will be with us by 2035, not 2040. The damage bill from rising sea levels, storms and heat is estimated to reach $65 trillion or about 80 percent of the entire global economy last year.

(Photo: Dan Crosbie)

The North Pole is now a temporary lake. Temperatures in the region are between one and three degrees above normal this month. Permafrost in areas of Antarctica is melting at ten times the historical average. Given the immensity of these challenges, you would think the corporate media would be talking about little else. Election campaigns should logically be dominated by discussion of programs for how to tackle this threat to the very future of life on Earth. You could think that but you would be wrong.

Federal election

Kevin Rudd gave the first indication of Labor’s post-Gillard trajectory on climate change. The Coalition and the media hounded the former PM about her carbon tax deal with the Greens in the wake of her pre-election pledge not to introduce one. Rudd’s announcement that the tax would be replaced by an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in mid-2014 is not the fulfilment of an ambitious program to tackle emissions. It’s a piece of political opportunism that will appeal to the corporate sector.

Europe’s carbon price – the market to which Australia’s would be linked – is currently about $6 per tonne. Rudd hopes to neutralise criticism that Australia’s carbon price of $24 per tonne is too onerous on local business. The fact that the worst polluters in the country were given exemptions and compensation did not blunt the attacks from big business, determined to squeeze every cent of profit from their Australian operations. They won the “debate” carried on above the heads of the public.

Having tasted blood, corporate interests are keen to press on to further “victories”. Energy Australia and Origin Energy want reductions to the Renewable Energy Target of 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2020. They say the move to the ETS will make investment in wind power, for example, unattractive. Wind power firms smell a rat. Richard Farrell of Infigen was quoted in The Australian Financial Review that profits are behind the latest “concerns” by the traditional energy companies. “The increase of renewable energy with its free fuel drags down the average wholesale cost of energy, and reduces the profits for owners of coal-fired plants and gas turbines,” he said.

The “alternative”

The performance of Australian governments in response to the climate emergency has been woeful. The “alternative” on offer by the Coalition would be worse. Opposition leader Tony Abbott is a climate change denier despite his recent squirming on the matter. He recently referred to Rudd’s ETS as “a so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no one.” The scepticism about market mechanisms to cure problems thrown up by monopoly-dominated markets is warranted but that’s not what he was complaining about. The one-liner contains the disturbingly ignorant thought that “what you can’t see can’t hurt you”.

Abbott’s Direct Action Plan is a return to the largely voluntary gestures trotted out under Howard. None of the authorities on the issue believe it will deliver even the very weak current carbon emissions reduction target of 5 percent of 2000 levels by 2020. He is trying to keep hip-pocket voters onside with promises to maintain the carbon tax compensation established under Gillard while axing the tax and scuttling the ETS. He says he is so committed to this that if the Coalition doesn’t gain control of the Senate and his measures are thwarted in the Upper House, that he will call a double dissolution election on the question. We’ll see, but the determination to fiddle while the environment is burning should be well and truly noted.

Solutions

Solutions are too slow in coming. Heedless, profit-driven capitalism is at the core of the climate change crisis but none of the major parliamentary players are going to address that monster. A strong vote for the Greens at the September 7 poll, particularly in the Senate, could place a bit of a handbrake on the worst of the damaging legislation already being foreshadowed by Labor and the Coalition.

But that’s not enough. Technology is not the problem. It is a problem of political will and leadership. Until a strong alliance of left and progressive forces is built with powerful support in the community, the people of Australia will continue to be bystanders on the issue of climate change and many other questions vital to their present and future well being. We won’t get an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, pro-people government at the federal election but it has got to be our goal.   

Next article – A special tribute

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