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Issue #1713      December 2, 2015

Paris 2015

Climate change moment of truth

The people of the world took to the streets over the weekend to make their demands on climate change clear. Crowds at marches in Australia were large, noisy and colourful. Protesters in Paris defied a lock-down of the city to have their say on the climate emergency, which is the subject of the highest level negotiations in the French capital as the Guardian goes to press. Australia will be represented at the COP21 UN Conference on Climate Change by its plutocrat PM, Malcolm Turnbull. He has a better reputation than his predecessor on the topic. It is unlikely, however, that he will be a force for a much hoped-for breakthrough. It is more likely he will join the line of recalcitrants or outright wreckers to assert the Australian government’s position at such gatherings.

Part of the more than 40,000 crowd in Sydney’s Domain. (Photo: Tom Pearson)

Australia, the highest per capita carbon emitter in the world, is considered a laggard on climate change. Nothing proposed by the federal government at this stage will alter that perception. Visiting German Professor Stefan Rahmstorf, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, was scathing in a piece written for the Sydney Morning Herald recently.

“Now, Australia is nearly the only industrial nation that for Paris has pledged emissions reductions that wouldn’t even bring down its emissions significantly below the 1990 level by 2030. And it does not have the policies in place to deliver even those. Australia thus has much scope to improve – and it has renewable energy resources that make every German envious,” he said.

There is overwhelming good will from the Australian people for bold action on climate change but it is being resisted in the interests of corporate profits. Australians are concerned at the current financial and human cost of climate change. The bill for catastrophes such as storms, droughts and bushfires has almost quadrupled since 1980. The figure now is $6.3 billion a year and it is set to reach $23 billion a year by 2050.

If global warming is held to a 2 degree Celsius rise by strong emissions reduction measures, sea levels are predicted to rise by 4.7 metres. This will inundate areas now home to 668,000 Australians. If temperatures rise by 4 degrees resulting in an 8.9 metres rise in sea levels, about 1.9 million people will be displaced. Globally that figure will be 627 million people.

Anote Tong, president of the pacific island nation of Kiribati, was in Australia recently to plead with the government to commit to appropriate action in Paris. He sees a lot of potential for Australian leadership on the issue.

“Indeed, Australia is one of the leading nations in terms of technological innovation for renewable energy. Furthermore, the growing support for a moratorium on coal by the Australian public and around the world is acknowledging that to ensure the preservation of this planet our one and only home, renewable and clean energy is the only way forward. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, let us do what is right for them,” the president wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Actions speak louder

The Turnbull government appears deaf to such calls. The Prime Minister has mocked Labor’s objectively unambitious target of a 45 percent emissions reduction on 2005 levels by 2030 and to zero net emissions by 2050. He has called the plan “heroic”, i.e. unaffordable and unrealistic. And the government’s actions speak even louder than its words. It has stood by as the Baird government in NSW approved plans to expand the massive Warkworth coal mine near the historic village of Bulga. It is encouraging the Palaszczuk government in Queensland in its efforts to extinguish Native Title over land so that Indian resource giant Adani can start building infrastructure for the projected $16 billion Carmichael coal mine.

The Turnbull government has resisted every international and national call for a moratorium on new coal mines. This includes one from a group of 61 prominent Australians, who placed full page ads carrying an open letter in Fairfax papers recently. It has opposed moves to stop government assistance to coal-fired electricity generation.

The Turnbull government is following in the anti-science footsteps of its predecessor. As Turnbull prepares to take the stage in Paris, CSIRO programs for research into oceans and the atmosphere are under threat from job cuts. Scientists inside and outside the organisation are worried that a new generation of researchers will be lost to the lack of opportunity for their vital work.

Anti-capitalist struggle

The road from the last UN climate conference in Lima, Peru in 2014 to Paris this year has been a rocky one. The “Like-Minded Developing Countries” group has complained, with justification, that discussion and proposals have been skewed in the interests of developed economies. Pressure has been applied to abandon the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” to act on climate change. This concept takes account of the need for developing countries to industrialise and, thus, require relatively more time to rein in carbon emissions. It also commits industrialised countries to assist with finances and technology.

There has been a struggle over the openness of the proceedings and difficulties in agreeing to the text for discussion in Paris. Unlike previous such conferences, the Paris meeting is not setting itself the objective of a binding, global emissions reduction target figure but, rather, a commitment from governments to meeting their own undertakings. The Turnbull government is setting the bar for itself very low. The job of raising those ambitions to realistic levels will fall to the people of Australia with a mighty campaign against the corporate interests that dominate climate policy at the moment. Here and across the planet, this is a struggle for simple survival of the people and the environment versus heedless profit-driven global capitalism.

Next article – Editorial – A proactive plan

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