Opinion

Bill McKibben
Australia must join gobal effort to meet climate budget

What do you call a planet where the temperature sets a new record every month, where the northern ice cap is melting at disastrous pace, where drought and flood have begun to alternate with devastating relentlessness? You call it Earth, in 2016.

Australians have had a front row seat to the carnage. The oceans have warmed so much that only 7 per cent of the coral reefs across the Great Barrier Reef have completely avoided bleaching, and experts are saying the northern hemisphere is set for its worst reef-bleaching events this summer. In Tasmania, bushfires have ravaged more than 1000-year-old forests. In Sydney and the Pacific region, fierce storms have lashed the coast.

The planet is warming fast because we’re pouring carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. That’s physics, obvious to anyone with a thermometer.

The real question is what that physics will mean for our politics. And the battlelines are being drawn hard and fast.

In the United States this November we may actually elect a man who “thinks” that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese to hurt American industry. He would act to tear up decades of hard work to get even baseline climate policies out of the world’s largest carbon polluter.

His competition in the Democratic Party – pushed by the Bernie Sanders movement – is calling for nothing less than a World War II-type national mobilisation to save civilisation from the “catastrophic consequences” of a “global climate disaster”.

If they mean it, that’s a good thing. Because the blatant truth is that time is rapidly running out. The recent Exxon case has shown that since the late 1960s our leaders have known that burning fossil fuels causes the planet to warm. During this time, the world’s largest fossil fuel companies have spent millions in obfuscating the science of climate change. By deliberately scrambling the consensus, they have bought themselves 50 years of inaction.

Over this time, the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere has dramatically increased. Unfortunately, the power of these vested interests has too. Loaded with cash, they have flushed their dirty money through political systems around the world in an attempt to stop genuine climate action. In Australia alone, in the term of the previous parliament, fossil fuel companies donated $3.7 million to both parties in return for more than $7 billion in subsidies.

To some degree it has worked. But what they didn’t count on was how quickly public sentiment would turn against them. In the past decade, in line with the increased frequency of global climate impacts, enormously powerful movements of people have sprung up around the world in opposition to these fossil fuel companies that have for decades played national governments like puppeteers.

The social licence of the fossil fuel industry is all but revoked. The reputation and price of coal has been trashed around the world. Governments are now openly defying the fossil fuel lobby in ways that couldn’t have been imagined even five years ago. This includes China placing a moratorium on new coal, Barack Obama vetoing the Keystone Pipeline, and the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund divested from fossil fuels.

With this as a backdrop, we now know what we need to do to stop catastrophic global warming. It is actually pretty basic maths.

If the world is to have a chance of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius we must stop fossil fuel companies spewing more carbon into the atmosphere. This limit is known as a carbon budget. The bad news is that at our current trajectory, we will overshoot the 1.5 degree carbon budget within four years. From this point, there is no going back. The world will hit 1.5 degrees, even if we stop all carbon emissions.

To keep global warming below 2 degrees requires a huge restructure of the global economy. Currently, the top 20 coal, oil and gas companies have in their reserves more than the entire 2 degrees carbon budget. Think about that: just 20 companies have the future of the world as we know it perched on their books.

These include companies such as Peabody, Exxon and BP, all of which will have to leave their fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we are to avoid further melting the polar ice caps and bleaching the Great Barrier Reef.

Although our elected officials are aware of this fact, the inertia and policy ignorance displayed across the world up until now has made action near impossible. But the winds of change are blowing, and Australia can heed this new breeze.

Australia is uniquely placed in this fight. If coal is the drug, then Australia is the pusher. Indeed, Australia is the world’s second-largest coal exporter, with exports accounting for almost three-quarters of coal production.

As a developed nation, with one of the highest standards of living and a rich and diverse economy, Australia has a responsibility to take the bold action necessary to keep the planet within its carbon budget.

And although the Turnbull government is currently giving out mixed signals, things are looking a bit more hopeful.

On one hand Australia has a new environment and energy minister who once said there was a “strong moral case” for coalmining. On the other, he is now talking about reducing reliance on coal. And despite the new resources minister talking big about developing the Galilee Basin in Queensland – the world’s largest remaining coal reserve – I would be surprised if there was the appetite for it internally. The Turnbull government must know that it cannot be opened up if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Despite these positive signs, what is missing is the sense of urgency and scale necessary to combat this global crisis.

It is now one minute to midnight and we are still acting as though time is on our side. A prime example is Australia’s largest carbon polluter, AGL. It has announced plans to decarbonise by 2050 and adhere to business practices in line with keeping warming below 2 degrees.

While on the surface this sounds like an admirable step, picking apart the spin from the facts tells a very different story. The company’s “plan” means keeping alive some of Australia’s dirtiest coal generators. By sticking with these old clunkers not only will AGL keep pumping more carbon into the atmosphere than the carbon budget allows, but it will also prevent renewables from entering the market.

We simply can’t afford to wait while power companies and governments blame each other for the lack of a transition strategy.

The science doesn’t lie. Carbon won’t stop warming the planet because of the good intentions of conflicted governments who want to act, but have to get the politics “right”. Less than six months ago we passed the point of 400ppm CO2 in the atmosphere, a point where climate scientists acknowledge there is no return.

The fairest estimate of Australia’s portion of the global carbon budget is about 10.1 Gt of CO2. Alone, Australia’s top two coal companies have more than this amount in reserves, waiting to be extracted.

To stay within this budget it means no more fossil fuel expansion, an end to polluting coal-generated energy, and a plan, by our governments and industry leaders, for a smooth transition to 100 per cent renewable energy. It can be done, and now more than ever, developed countries such as Australia, with huge economic, technological and renewable energy advantages, must step up and lead.

Given the urgency, it’s time to run, not crawl, toward the change we need to ensure a liveable planet. With the climate agreement in Paris signed by 193 countries, including Australia, we have clear orders. But the world is, sadly, still waiting to see Australia take up leadership on this issue.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 20, 2016 as "Fix degrees of devastation". Subscribe here.

Bill McKibben
is an author, environmentalist and founder of global climate change movement 350.org.

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