The end of the world as we know it

The Earth seen from Apollo 17
The Earth seen from Apollo 17

Where are we at?

In the 21st century the world has entered a time of great change. Following the industrial revolution, humans learned how to extract and use fossil fuels in great quantities. This led to an era of cheap and apparently abundant energy for keeping warm, artificial light, transport and creating electricity. First world countries in particular availed themselves of pleasures and benefits of using fossil fuels. Whole cities, indeed civilisations, came to depend on the use of fossil fuel for food production and transport

In late 2008 the world’s financial system collapsed. Inventive but dodgy financial products and practices were revealed as unsustainable and basically without value. The rot started in the United States with “sub prime loans” and Collateral Debt Obligations (CDOs), but it soon spread across all countries.

Suddenly, the doctrine of free markets and unfettered capitalism collapsed. Banks, car companies, car dealers and even real estate interests were bailed out across the globe by governments who suddenly regained prominence and power, basically because they alone are able to print money and raise taxes.

In Australia, the government even handed out about $42 billion as an “economic stimulus” to assist the Australian economy through the world wide recession. However, a large proportion of this money – over 75% – was handed out as cash payments (around $900 per person) for them to spend at their own discretion. This was a missed opportunity to invest in the infrastructure and new green jobs we need for a low carbon economy.

The looming climate emergency

As the concentration of carbon dioxide steadily climbs, the effects of resulting climate change are becoming evident. This is resulting in the following changes to the world as we know it:

  • The Arctic sea ice is melting, and could disappear over summer entirely by 2020 or even earlier. This is happening much faster than scientific predictions.
  • The loss of Arctic sea ice over summer will lead to a dramatic warming of Arctic regions where temperatures could rise by over 5C. This will lead to the melting of massive permafrost regions and subsequent rise in methane emissions they currently hold. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 so this will lead to accelerated climate change.
  • Rainfall in many regions of the world is decreasing rapidly, including areas such as California, South East Australia, Southern France and Greece to name a few.
  • Increases in the severity and frequency of hot weather in al of these regions is contributing to the increased incidence of severe wildfires.
  • Sea levels are rising, and could rise by over 2 metres by 2050. Much of the world’s population lives on or near coasts. Huge numbers of people will be displaced and will become “climate change refugees”.
  • Coral reefs around the world are bleaching and dying much faster than scientific predictions.
  • The world’s oceans are becoming more acidic, which is upsetting their entire food chain.
  • Increased temperatures in the Himalayas are causing the rapid melting of glaciers and reducing snow and rain in the region. This could lead to the collapse of the water source for the Ganges, Yangtze and other rivers in the region. This river system provides water for living and agriculture for around 1 billion people.

Where do we need to get to?

It is clear that humans needs to both reduce carbon emissions, and draw down excess carbon already in the atmosphere, to provide the best chance of us regaining a safe climate future. The latest science indicates that climate change tipping points are now upon us, with large scale polar ice cap melting, increased frequency of severe storms, droughts and bushfires now evident.

Reducing the growth in emissions is not enough. Firm targets for emission reductions are required – providing a trajectory for the world to attain zero net emissions.

In a nutshell, the best targets for ensuring a safe climate future are:

  • 100% zero emissions energy by 2020
  • Emission reductions each and every year providing a trajectory to the 2020 target
  • Atmospheric CO2 levels in the range of 300 to 350ppm. The current level is 387ppm.
  • Limit global temperature increase to 1C. The current increase above preindustrial levels is 0.8C
  • Immediate protection of all native forests across the world to keep the carbon they store safe.

Human behaviour and the psychology of change

Knowing about problems and their causes does not mean that people will take action to address them. For example, psychology students who learn about the causes of depression and suicide have comparatively high suicide rates within their student demographic.

Human responses to change caused by external forces vary. Some people like change and embrace it, while others may resist the change and even enter a state of denial regarding the change.

As the effects of climate change are increasingly manifest both these types of responses are evident. People who have feel that western first world lifestyles are excessive welcome the impetus to consume less and embrace clean energy.

Some others have been accustomed to using very large amounts of energy for heating, cooling and transport and react angrily to the prospect of adjusting their lifestyle to lower carbon emissions.

Some believe that climate change and global warming is a conspiracy to engender change in the world based on nefarious motives. They deny that climate change is happening, or that it is caused by human activity such as burning fossil fuel. They insist that the vast majority of climate scientists research and opinions across the world who state that climate changes is the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced are lying or have somehow got it wrong.

Responses the catastrophic Victorian bushfires in Australia in 2009 highlight different responses to climate change. Many attributed the bushfires and the hottest weather on record to climate change, while others claimed this was not the case and blamed “greenies” and a lack of fuel reduction burning as causes for the fires.

Our societies often rely on political leadership during times of crisis, but conflicting beliefs within the political arena can further polarise responses to climate change when unity and a common sense of purpose is needed.

Democracy and the failure of representation

We vote for candidates who are supposed to represent us in parliaments. For example, they might say they are committed to taking action on climate change and feel very strongly about the issue.

After an election, a government is formed in Australia by the party (or coalition) with the majority of lower house seats in bicameral parliaments.

Once elected, your local member will accept your correspondence and even meet with you to hear your views. They will not however stray from their “party line”, which clearly takes precedence to any local issues.

So we are not truly represented. Most of our letters and emails are discarded without ceremony.

I have written to local members of parliament and asked them to represent my views (as one of their constituents) in parliament. The response is quite often a party political position (sometimes in the form of a media release), rather than an acknowledgement of my view, or any commitment to convey it to their party of the parliament.

Party politics

Political parties often started with their identity and policies associated with a cause or vision. However, they have now evolved into political machines which have the primary goal of forming government either in their own right or in a coalition. These political machines spend a lot of time and effort in contesting and winning elections. The consolation prize is opposition.

Conservative parties (“the right”) such as the Liberal Party in Australia and the Republican Party in the United States believe that individual choice is a paramount concern. They surmise that the sum total of individual choices, perhaps in a “free market” (whatever that is) will yield the best outcomes for society and the country. They think that if many people get rich, some of their wealth will “trickle down” to lower echelons of society so everyone will benefit.

This theory is easily disproved when you observe that boom time economies such as the United States in the 1980s still include large socio-economics groups that do not participate or share the benefits. For example, unemployment among the black population of New York remained in double digit figures during this period.

Parties that are labelled as “left” or “progressive” on the political spectrum often purport to represent “workers”, “working families” or even the “grass roots” general public. Some will have links with union movement too. Examples of such parties are the Australian Labor Party and the Democrats in the United States.

In the late 20th and 21st centuries these differences largely disappeared. The Keating Labor government implemented workplace and economic reforms that exceeded those a Liberal government could have achieved.

Political parties often have comparatively small memberships, but they do expend some effort maintaining their “brand” and traditional support base.

Industry is one of the major influences on government. They buy influence through political donations. Even banks donate to major political parties. Industry also has the money and resources to both lobby government directly and run media campaigns that can win or lose marginal seats, and thereby influence which party forms government.

The source of party policies

The actual source of party policies is often not clear to the average voter and the general public. There is no consistent model for how parties generate policies. Some will be based on external sources such as think tanks or lobby groups. Others may be written from individuals or working groups within a party and pass through a degree of scrutiny and/or input by party members.

Some policies may be based on examples of similar policies that have been adopted in other countries. Emissions trading schemes are an example of this. An ETS was pioneered and implemented in Europe as a measure to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. Such schemes are popular with economists and politicians, as they can claim that “the market will sort out the price for carbon” and it fits with current economic theory regarding the function of markets. As a result, countries such as Australia and the United States are following the European lead and attempting to implement their own emissions trading schemes.

However, while a policy to introduce an emissions trading scheme may appear to be a good thing, once it has been modified by the political process the outcome can be greatly compromised. More on this later.

Policies are also usually viewed through a lens of “how will these help us get elected” and modified to “sanitize” them. Often details will be deliberately omitted, particularly if they could become contentious or a liability during an election campaign.

The vagaries of pre-selection and factions

Candidates of political parties have been through a preselection process, during which factional deals inside the party may have been done. Some parties tolerate (even condone) practices such as branch stacking by people to get themselves preselected. Parties that conduct a transparent ballot of members have the best process, but the general public of course does not participate in this.

A recent example of a long preselection campaign is that of Josh Frydenberg for the House of Representatives seat of Kooyong in Victoria, Australia. His campaign has run for several years and was characterised by media leaks and factional battles within the Liberal Party. On finally winning preselection, there is no comment from Mr Frydenberg on what he will do for the residents of Kooyong. It is regarded as safe Liberal seat, so most of the commentary was concerned with matters such him doing more fundraising and possibly becoming a minister in a future government.

Elections – substance or sideshow?

So what are elections for? The end game is to get enough party members elected to form a government. During the lead up period to an election, the mechanics of the election campaign is planned and crafted, including:

  • the theme of the campaign
  • deciding which issues will be the focus and the “vote winners”
  • identify issues which will be “liabilities” for a party and how they can be “neutralised”.
  • fund raising
  • generating and distributing materials
  • running the media, including strategic events such as rallies, campaign and candidate launches and policy releases.
  • organising people (volunteers and paid employees) and rosters for handing out how-to-vote cards at polling booths – which can be a huge logistical exercise
  • organising preference deals with other parties

The key point is that election campaigns are focussed on winning the election. There is virtually no attempt by most political parties to engage in a genuine discourse with other parties or the general public on matters of policy, strategy, vision or outcomes. In general, the bigger and wealthier the political party, the more machine like the campaign. They are often run with military precision and discipline – in line with the saying “loose lips sink ships”.

The reality is that most election campaigns are more sideshow and theatre than substance.

Obama’s campaign in 2008 was an exception to this. His campaign was organised and funded from a grass roots movement and captivated a large proportion of Americans and international observers. He made genuine and successful attempts to articulate a clear vision for the future and to engage with large numbers of the American public. However, the campaign was still run using the formidable campaign and political apparatus of the Democratic party.

The party line in parliaments

Having formed government and sitting regularly in the parliament, what does your local member do? If you are very lucky and you communicate with them about a specific issue or policy, they may mention it in the parliament when making a speech or asking a question. The will often do this if there is a positive political benefit to them, such as appealing to a large constituency within their electorate.

However, when it comes to a vote, your viewpoint is forgotten. The only thing that matters is the party line – the party position – on the matter. This creates the curious spectacle of politicians often making passionate speeches against a piece of legislation so that they can appear to oppose it and have their comments on the parliamentary record (e.g. Hansard), but then they vote for it.

Recent examples of this include the Northern Territory intervention that the Howard government rammed through as an election-motivated stunt in the lead up the 2007 Australian Federal election. Supposedly progressive members such as Labor’s Peter Garrett spoke at length about the problems with the legislation, but the Labor party voted as block to support the legislation. They appeared to have based their decision to support the legislation – which could only be implemented with a suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act – to prevent them becoming politically “wedged” on the issue.

Labor Party members are expelled from the party if they “cross the floor” and go against the party line to vote with other parties.

Liberal Party members are not automatically expelled, but there is usually a lot of repercussions for MPs who do cross the floor, so it is not a common occurrence.

On very odd occasions under special circumstances, a “conscience vote” can be allowed on a particular issue. This frees MPs from being bound to vote on the party line. It is interesting to watch the increased level of political discourse and public engagement that ensues. MPs positions are suddenly much more transparent and they are more accountable to their constituents on the issue in question. A healthy political system and parliament would make every vote a conscience vote, free from the shackles of party political positions.

The blame game and adversarial contests

The Westminster system of government combined with political parties has resulted in a situation where a party (or a coalition of parties) with a majority of seats in the parliament unite to form the government. Other parties, large or small, are by default in “opposition”.

In countries such as the United States and Australia, two major parties have by far the highest numbers of seats. In the United States the contest is between the Democrats and the Republicans. Often one party controls the “lower house” such as the United States House of Representatives, while the other controls the “upper house” such as the United States Senate.

Politics often descends into the “blame game” syndrome, where politicians spend a lot of their time and effort blaming the “opposite” party for perceived faults with legislation, the economy, the health system, the education system and so on.

It is common after a change of government for the victorious party to indulge in blaming their predecessors for the “sins of the past” for several years after they have been elected. It is often thought to be more effective and easier to attack your political opponents, thereby discrediting them in the minds of the public, than attempting to convey positive messages about your own policies and achievements. This behavior reaches a climax during election campaigns when it common for strategically timed “attack ads” to appear which often target the personal attributes of politicians or highlight in a dramatic way supposed weaknesses in their policies.

Unfortunately this type of adversarial contest does not build consensus on matters of import. Usually it has the opposite effect and polarises public opinion. It is difficult to enact significant policy changes – such as those required to move to a low carbon economy – when they are constantly criticised, undermined or even blocked by political parties in opposition.

There is of course often a need for vigorous public and political debate on important matters, and amending legislation is an important role of parliaments. However, it is a major problem when the motives for blocking legislation are centered on political advancement rather than providing leadership to or meeting the needs of the public.

Attack-style politics indicates a lack of morals and “the end justifies the means” mentality, which many people out of political circles find innappropriate and distasteful.

President Obama in the United States, a Democrat, has recently broken down one of the traditional political barriers by appointing a Republican, Robert Michael Gates, as the United States Secretary of Defense. Gates is the fourteenth Cabinet member in history to serve under two Presidents of different parties[1]

The tendency toward incrementalism and compromise

The structure of our lives and our political and social systems has evolved gradually over time. The industrial revolution saw the bulk of first world populations move from distributed rural employment to urban based industrial employment.

We have traded a working day based on the hours of daylight for a 8 hour day based on conventions. Our society now includes people working in shifts across the 24 hours of every day in a variety of specialised roles.

Making changes to the complex and intricate workings of our economy, including employment, manufacturing, transport and services is often difficult. There is a certain entropy associated with “business as usual” which is often summarised by the saying “if its not broken, don’t fix it?”.

Change in our society and systems of government, when it occurs, is often incremental, and frequently involves compromises.

For example, the French decided to move from a 40 hour week to a 38 hour week to improve their work life balance. Other countries in the European Union have not yet followed suit. Many criticised the French for reducing their productivity, thereby weakening the overall competitiveness of the EU.

The general thrust of election campaigns is to make policy announcements across predictable areas such as health, education and defence funding. Appeals are usually made to the voter’s “hip pocket nerve” in the form of tax cuts or even cash handouts, such as the “baby bonus” and “stimulus payments” in Australia.

It is rare for any sweeping changes to be made by politicians. In Australia, some significant reforms over the last two decades have included bring in a new tax (the GST) and the privatisation of state-owned assets such as power generation, water infrastructure and the operation of public transport systems.

While the global economic crisis of 2008 and 2009 has seen governments suddenly regain prominence, and indeed bail out many giant corporations and business including banks and car manufacturers, it seems there is a very low appetite for making rapid and radical changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a low carbon zero emissions economy and lifestyle.

Case studies in perverse outcomes

The activities of many sectors of our economy and the companies that operate within them often produces perverse outcomes if the all factors are not taken into account. The following sections provide some case studies on this.

Water resource management and supplies

Water resource management systems in countries like Australia have evolved over two centuries and a based on assumptions that historical rainfall patterns will continue.

However, climate change is manifested in many areas of the globe in the form of reduced rainfall, which is putting pressure on water supplies for large cities and even entire populations.

For example, rainfall reductions in Victoria, Australia have exceeded worst-case scientific predictions by the CSIRO, resulting in more than 50% reduction in water storage.

The Thompson Dam was built to “drought proof” the city of Melbourne, yet Melbourne’s entire water storages are now well below 30% capacity in winter when they should be rapidly filling.

The Victorian government had developed and enacted a strategy of conserving water and recycling more waste water until just after the Victorian state election of 2006. After the election, the Victorian government reveresed its position on desalination plants and announced they would build the largest desalination plant in the world. The plant, planned for Wonthaggi, is estimated to produce 150 gigalitres of water per year to Melbourne, and will cost $3billion to build. It will essentially be privatised under a “Public Private Partership”.

However, the desalination plant will also required over 90mW of electricity to operate, and more power to pump the water to Melbourne. So the operation of the plant will actually contribute to and accelerate the effects of climate change.

Lower carbon emission options such domestic water tanks, capturing stormwater and recycling waste water are avoided by the government without adequate explanations.

It is interesting to note that the Labor government strongly opposed a desalination plant during the 2006 Victorian state election, repeatedly claiming at the time that it was not required and would be too expensive. Politics and government links to industry seem to combine to overwhelm sensible outcomes and basic facts.

Power generation and usage

Over 70% of electricity used in Australia is generated by coal-fired power stations. Burning coal produces very large quantities of carbon dioxide. There has been no price on these greenhouse gas emissions.

The most obvious ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with power generation are to use less power through improved energy efficiency measures and to use zero-emissions technologies such as wind or solar for generating power.

However, energy generation companies and energy retailers both make more money out of selling more power, and both spend large sums of money both lobbying government and making donations to some political parties. There is therefore no significant or particularly effective government action on improving energy efficiency to reduce emissions.

The option of cutting back coal consumption and exports is also deftly avoided by politicians and governments. Once again, the profit motive wins out. Instead of developing strategies and plans to transition off fossil fuel use, the Australian Federal government is spending over $2 billion on research and development for technologies they hope will reduce emissions from burning coal.

The terms “carbon capture and sequestration” and the oxymoron “clean coal” are labels used by politicians to promote supposed “solutions for reducing emissions”.

Unfortunately, the basic laws of physics and thermodynamics indicate that attempts to capture carbon dioxide from the chimneys of power stations will be very difficult and expensive. Once captured, very large quantities of carbon dioxide must then be liquefied and stored somewhere. Up to 30% more coal would have to burnt to generate the power for all these processes.

This technology, if it can be made to work, will take years to develop and is very likely to cost more than renewable energy options such as wind and solar that are available today.

Renewable energy options are often dismissed by some governments and sections of industry and as “too expensive” or “not capable of producing baseload power”. The first claim, that renewable energy is too expensive, does not take into account the unpaid environmental price of carbon pollution, and ignores the reality that large scale carbon capture and storage projects or nuclear power would have total costs as much or more than genuine clean energy options.

The baseload argument is equally specious. Baseload is a term that applies to the minimum amount of energy produced by fossil fuel power stations that cannot be easily turned off or even turned down, particularly coal fired power stations. The logic applied is “the electricity is there so it should be used”. In reality, the only concern that needs to be addressed with energy production and consumption is the match demand with supply.

There are solutions for storing renewable energy from wind and solar, but there is little investment in these technologies while fossil fuel usage continues unchecked.

The logging and woodchip industries

Logging native forests across the world has been occurring for thousands of years. However, industrial logging of forests in the 20th and 21st centuries has proceeded at a much higher rate due to extensive use of mechanical equipment.

Forest capture and store carbon. They are one of natures best carbon sinks. Fossil fuels such as coal are the remnants of ancient forests that were eventually buried under the earth’s surface. Oil and natural gas are deposits formed from organic matter, mainly algae, that sank to the floor of oceans aeons ago and were eventually covered by sediment.

Logging and burning native forests releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This carbon dioxide is not measured or paid for during logging activities. Recent scientific research in Australia has shown that the forests of South East Australia are capable of storing in excess of 1200 tonnes per hectare in trees, the soil and other biomass of the forest.

The logging and woodchip industries churn out media releases that state their activities are “carbon neutral” and that they are “part of the solution for tackling climate change”. Such statements are the result of either ignorance or are deliberate falsification. They typically never have evidence to support their claims.

Once again though, large global companies make a lot of money out of logging native forests for woodchips, so governments are extremely reluctant to moderate or stop their activities.

During the consultation period for the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in Australia, the industry groups such as the National Association of Forest Industries (NAFI) claim on the one hand they are “carbon neutral” or even “carbon positive”, yet they have also claimed compensation for being a Trade Exposed Emissions Intensive Industry (TEEI). Clearly, they cannot have it both ways.

It is clear that stopping logging in native forests and water catchments is a sensible course of action and in the public best interest, yet it is not on the current political agenda.

Transport – excessive carbon emissions

Much of the world’s current transport is powered by energy derived from fossil fuels such as oil, gas, coal and kerosene. Burning these fossil fuels for transport produces a significant proportion of human generated greenhouse gas emissions.

The world’s oil reserves are running out. For example, Australia has become a net importer of oil during the 90s. Accurate estimates on the amount of oil reserves remaining are difficult to source. However, it seems clear that the bulk of oil and gas reserves will be depleted by 2030 or earlier. Coal reserves are estimated to last longer – until 2100 or later depending on the rate of mining and usage.

Prior to the industrial revolution transport modes were much slower and involved much less carbon emissions. Road travel was the province of horses and carts while much of the world’s international trade was conducted using sailing ships.

During the late 20th century and extending into the 21st century the private motor car came to be regarded as a desirable transport mode. People like driving their cars and the freedom they offer. Governments obliged by building road then “freeway” networks, while much of the world’s railway networks were dismantled or not expanded.

However, extensive use of motor cars for private transport and trucks for goods and freight transport generates huge quantities of greenhouse gases. Also, as road system usage increases the efficiency drops markedly due to traffic congestion.

In the early 21st century, with no price on carbon emissions, countries such as Australia are still investing heavily in building more freeways and roads, apparently oblivious to the looming shortage of oil an inevitable price hikes of fuel – a phenomenon referred to as “peak oil”.

It is clear that major investments in rail transport, cycling infrastructure and electric cars can all contribute to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions associated with transport, yet many countries around the world are not prepared to do this yet. Old habits die hard. Perhaps a real and significant price on carbon price will drive this investment. Or perhaps governments should just do it anyway, and break the shackles they have with the roads lobby and car industries.

Housing and buildings – energy efficiency is still seen as optional and costly

In Europe buildings are built to a mandatory 7 star energy efficiency rating, which means they use a lot less energy than less efficient buildings.

In Australia, there is no national standard for building energy efficiency. Every state has their own standards, which are not consistent or even equivalent. In Victoria, the five star energy rating for buildings excludes the energy efficiency of heating, cooling and electrical appliances used. It also allows poor solar orientation and little or no passive solar design features.

The Housing Industry Association relentlessly lobbies the government to prevent strengthening the housing building ratings. They claim it will add too much to the cost of the building and discourage purchasers. However, the money saved by purchases on the initial price of the building will be lost over the life of the building due to increased energy bills for heating and cooling.

This is despite many people wanting improved energy efficiency standards to reduce their personal “carbon footprint”.

The Australian government allocated $2 billion to fitting insulation in the roofs of Australian homes as part of the $42 billion financial stimulus package. This is a welcome initiative, but it is far too little. All building stock in Australia could be retrofitted with energy saving features paid for out of a federal fund, and the money recouped by the government from savings from energy bills.

However, increased energy efficiency equates to less energy sales, so undoubtedly such a program would be opposed by fossil fuel industries.

The car industry

The rise of the car industry and the availability of private motor cars are intrinsically linked to many first world lifestyles. The motor car offers fast and convenient travel, but not when roads too busy and grind to a halt.

Motor car journeys generate a lot of carbon emissions through the burning of fossil fuels such as petrol and gas.

The motor car industry has become synonymous with many first world economies. Car manufacturing has played a large role in the economic growth of countries across the world including the United States, Korea, Australia, South Africa, Germany, Italy, France, Japan and most recently China.

In the United States, the car industry behaved like a juggernaut – building huge cars with very high fuel consumption. Even when Japanese imports that were smaller and more fuel efficient took market share from Detroit, General Motors and Ford kept building leviathans.

Following the 2008 global financial crisis, General Motors eventually declared bankruptcy. Many modern American and Australian cities have been built to accommodate cars as a primary means of transport. Some regions of these modern cities are difficult to travel through without a car as they often don’t have fast or frequent public transport.

Small electric cars would suffice for the majority of city trips, and generate around half the carbon emissions of fossil fuel powered cars. Yet in 2009 very few electric cars are manufactured. Most major car makers are promising to have models available by late 2009 or 2010.

Some Japanese manufacturers have hybrid cars available, and most European manufactures now make much more efficient small cars. It has taken a very long time for the harsh reality of sky rocketing petrol prices to sink in.

Emissions trading schemes fail to reduce emissions

With the link between climate change and human-created greenhouse gas emissions now clear, there is an obvious imperative to reduce such emissions. However, many industries that have high emissions – such as power generation, aluminium smelter, petroleum and natural gas production – also generate huge profits. Many such industries are not willing to forgo their profits and spend considerable time and money lobbying government and even making donations to political parties to protect their interests.

Modern growth economics – where anything less than 2% growth in Gross Domestic Product is regarded as a problem – is now intrinsically linked to free market ideologies that are embraced by most modern “conservative” and “progressive” political parties. A “market-based approach” to establishing a price on carbon, along with a cap on total emissions and auctioning of “emission permits” has become a favoured political solution to the dilemma of reducing carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions.

An Emissions Trading Scheme has been operating in Europe, and they are now proposed for the United States (the American Clean Energy and Security Act, also know as the Waxman-Markey Bill) and for Australia (the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme).

However, relying on the vagaries of markets to reduce carbon emissions does not provide any guarantee that emissions will decrease, as has been the experience in Europe. Such schemes are corrupted by the introduction of measures such as capped carbon prices and the granting of free emissions permits to the worst polluters, who lobby aggressively for them behind the scenes. In the Australian example, the cap on emissions is set too high to drive emission reductions, and over $18 billion of taxpayers money will be gifted to the worst polluters. The cap on emissions also effectively becomes a floor, which results in individual emission reductions being reallocated to others in the form of freed-up permits for them to pollute. These schemes also typically allow emission permits to be bought and sold internationally, so rich countries can avoid making emission reductions and simply buy permits from poorer countries. This is really just sleight of hand.

Politicians craft these types of schemes with assistance from bureaucrats then approve them without considering public feedback on them. There are no public referendums planned on such schemes in either the United States or Australia.

Political donations buy influence

Many political parties – particularly large ones – accept donations from a variety of sources. Large amounts of money are required to run expensive election campaigns, including running media advertising, attack ads, producing leaflets and how to vote cards, and on a variety of other tasks.

Many large companies make large political donations to political parties. While some companies claim that this is “healthy for democracy”, they tend to favour parties that deliver the outcomes that are in their best interests. Many find claims by donating companies and the representatives of political parties that such donations do not buy influence difficult to believe. Fund raising dinners are sometime held where companies buy seats and tables for large sums of money, and pay more to sit at the table of a minister or leader. Some retired politicians become political lobbyists and are paid “success fees” if they succeed in obtaining an outcome for a company tendering for or securing by other means government contracts.

Such corrupt practices are clearly at odds with the principle of representative democracy. They open the very real possibility the Government policies and legislation can be bought rather than crafted in response to community input and feedback.

Ex politicians and staffers join the ranks of lobbyists

Many retired politicians and political staffers are employed by companies to directly lobby current Governments for outcomes. Their knowledge of the political system, the internal workings of political parties, and their personal relationships are all valuable for persuading governments to adopt policies favourable to their masters.

For example, in Australia ex politicians from both major parties are employed as lobbyists by energy and fossil fuel companies. Some of these people are Alexander Downer (Liberal), Nick Bolkus (Labor), David White (Labor). The list of ex staffers and advisors is considerable longer[2].

Copenhagen climate change negotiations

The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009 is currently underway. The goal of the conference is to come up with a global agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions in line with what scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst climate change projections: melting ice sheets, rising sea levels, expanding desertification, widespread drought, famine and species extinction.

However, governments of first world countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia wish to continue their high energy use and/or export of fossil fuels and do not seem willing or capable of undertaking structural and economic reforms to move to low carbon economies. These countries also want the ability to “offset” some of their emissions by “purchasing credits” from developing nations. This is an exercise of smoke and mirrors, as carbon offsets in reality mean no a country can avoid emission reductions.

Developing nations such as China and India wish to continue their growth in use of carbon dioxide emitting fossil fuels as their economies and lifestyles grow and change towards the levels of first world countries.

Small and poor nations, many of which are bearing the immediate brunt of climate change – such as many Pacific Island nations and African nations – want immediate significant emission reductions by first world counties and also money from them to improve their economies and living standards.

Given these tensions, it seems unlikely that the Copenhagen negotiations will yield a binding treaty that will move us collectively towards a safe climate future – one where global temperature increases are kept below 1.5C and atmospheric CO2 is below 350ppm.

The Resource Super Profits Tax in Australia

The Resource Super Profits Tax (RSPT) was proposed in Australia by the Henry review into taxation. It was announced as a policy in May 2010 by the Treasurer Wayne Swan and then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and was proposed to be introduced by 1 July 2012. The tax was proposed to be levied on 40% of the “super profits” from the mining industry in Australia.

There was a furious reaction from large mining corporations and the Minerals Council of Australia lobby group, which commenced a series of television ads targeted at Labor marginal seats with a budget of $100m. The Rudd government countered this with its own advertising campaign in favour of the tax.

However, many Labor MPs in marginal seats became increasingly worried about how this issue was playing out in their electorates.[3] The large mining corporations were winning the PR war, and the worry spread throughout the ranks and factions of the Labor Party.

Eventually, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was deposed by his own party in a rapid and effective manner and replaced by Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. The first thing Gillard took on was neutralising the RSPT issue politically. She declared a truce with the large mining companies and ceased government advertising. Within two weeks, she negotiated to reduce the “super profits” levy to 30% and for it to be restricted to the mining of iron ore and coal in Australia.

There was no consultation process with the Australian people, or even smaller mining companies that were adversely affected by the changes to the tax structure. A threatened spend of $100m by a few large mining corporations saw a rapid reversal of policy, the sacking of a previously popular prime minister, and several billion dollars of benefit to the industries that took on the government.

Introduction of a carbon price in Australia

An Australian Carbon Price Agreement was announced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Sunday 10 July 2011. The agreement sets a carbon price of $25 per tonne for 500 companies in Australia with the largest carbon emissions. The Carbon Price is designed to work on the simple basis that pricing carbon pollution will encourage large carbon emitters to become more efficient and reduce their emissions.

Following the announcement, the federal opposition leader Tony Abbott embarked on an aggressive campaign to discredit the carbon price policy and repeal it if he gains government.

Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating observed that:

“I mean, the idea here that we turn our back on the new country, on the new transforming Australian economy, by not letting carbon be priced and therefore capital allocated properly is nonsense. I mean, the Abbott argument that you don’t tax the polluters, you give them money, you give the polluters money to change their bad habits, is tripe.”

“You know this – you know what Tony Abbott’s policy is? “If you don’t give me the job, I’ll wreck the place. If you don’t give me the job, I’ll wreck the place.” And we’re supposed to, “Well, Tony, you better have it, you know, otherwise you might destroy it on us.” I mean, Tony’s got to have the political judo chop. That’s what Tony has to have.”[4]

The Coalition’s alternative “Direct Action” policy has been criticised for handing out billions to large polluters with no firm commitment to reduce carbon emissions.

“Meanwhile, Tony Abbott has added chemistry to his areas of expertise — hitherto confined to climate science and economics — courtesy of his description of carbon dioxide as “invisible, odourless, weightless, tasteless”, a strange description of something he proposes to spend billions of taxpayer dollars buying by the tonne.

“So, for the sake of clarity, the Coalition climate change policy appears thus to be to buy tonnes of something that has no weight, with no one to check whether anything has been purchased at all, and the ACCC is not to prevent businesses from falsely claiming it has increased their prices, using powers the Coalition happily voted for.[5]

Sections of the Australian media, most notably Murdoch-owned newspapers such as The Australian and The Daily Mail, along with some “shock jock” radio presenters such as Alan Jones, also embarked on a vitriolic and one-sided attack on the carbon price. One possible motive for this is their connections to big business, and their stated desire to install an “industry friendly” Liberal/National coalition government led by Tony Abbott. This type of one-sided and biased media driven campaign does not sit well in a democracy where people need to be informed of facts, rather than being subjected to relentless spin and misinformation.

However, a suite of Clean Energy Bills, including establishing a price on carbon pollution and funds for investment in clean energy, were passed in the Australian Federal Parliament on 12 October 2011, but only by two votes (74 for, 72 against).[6]

Durban Climate Change Conference 2011 COP17

After three decades of scientific evidence – and warnings – that we are now experiencing dangerous climate change, many hoped that the Durban Climate Change Conference (COP17) would at result in some real global action to tackle carbon emissions – and endorse forest protection. Unfortunately, this did not happen. After several days of fraught “negotiations” the outcome (curiously described by some as a “breakthrough”) was

“a commitment to develop a agreement between all countries by 2015, that will take effect in 2020”

This translates to no real action on reducing carbon emissions, protecting forests, or addressing the chronic imbalance between First World and Third World economies. Global emissions are still rising and no date has yet been set for emissions to go down and atmospheric CO2 be stabilised or decline.

Stakeholders and their interests

The Legislature

The Parliament is responsible for enacting new laws, amending existing laws and sometimes abolishing existing laws. The general public usually have little or no participation in these processes.

In Australia the parliamentary system requires that:

  • legislation be drafted in a specific format
  • the legislation be tabled in parliament and debated up to three times.
  • amendments be debated
  • amendments (if any) and the legislation itself be voted on
  • when a majority votes to accept the final legislation it can then be enacted as law

As previously noted, the nature of the debate and the negotiation to reach acceptable amendments is often influenced by key stakeholders such as industry, the unions and to lesser extent NGOs. There is little or no involvement of the general public, unless a politician is prepared to take on board a consideration raised directly with them.

The Executive (government departments)

The Executive is government departments, also referred to and the public service, that formulates strategies, plans and actions on their portfolio, in accordance with relevant legislation. A government minister is appointed as the effective head of a government department and/or groups of them.

This means that the actions of the Executive is subject to approval by and direction from Ministers who are also politicians. This acts to break the doctrine of the separation of powers – as their is clear overlap between the Parliament and the Executive.

Governments also choose and appoint heads of departments, and often do so in favour of people who are in line with their political persuasion and beliefs.

The Judiciary

The Judiciary – otherwise know and the legal system – interprets and enforces the current laws. This process is often slow, expensive and cumbersome. It is difficult to implement changes given the modern legal system has developed over hundreds of years.

In some cases, the legal system is used to silence and attack people who have protested against corporate activities such as the destruction of native forests for woodchips. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) are lodged by some companies against protesters which often has the effect of shutting down their protest activities and forcing them into protracted and expensive court battles.

The advantage in such battles lies with the corporations, who have the money and resources to hire expensive legal assistance such as barristers and solicitors to work up their case.

Fossil fuel and carbon intensive industries

Huge investments in industries based on fossil fuel consumption and production have been made since the industrial resolution and into the 21st century. Examples of these industries include:

  • Electricity generation for coal,
  • The sale of petrol and diesel for transport,
  • Aluminium smelting,
  • Steel smelting from iron ore burning coal as the energy input.
  • Coal and Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) exports.
  • Natural gas extraction and processing for heating, transport, electricity generation and other industrial processes.

All these industries have grown and flourished in an economy where their massive greenhouse gas emissions have had no price attached to them. This pollution has been emitted as a waste product for free, with the environment and now the world’s climate paying the price.

Many of the companies associated with these industries generate massive wealth and are not currently prepared to change their ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They spend large sums of money employing lobbyists to persuade governments to exempt them from measures designed to establish a price (or a tax) on the carbon they emit. Some have even secured cash payments from governments as compensation for the impact on their revenues.

Many of these companies seem intent on maintain their profits and the status quo on energy use and carbon emissions. Some even fund media campaigns and “think tanks” to spread misinformation and confusion on the topic of climate change, much as the tobacco industry did when it fought to protect its market.


Other Industry

Some industries recognise the need to move towards sustainable practices and even zero net emissions. Some have announced and enacted strategies to achieve this.

There are enormous business opportunities in re-skilling and re-fitting for a zero emission economy. Some sacrifices may need to be made (such as less airline travel), but some significant advantages will result too, such as improved public health and more liveable cities.

Sustainable public transport and efficient cycling infrastructure will facilitate many people getting more exercise in a less polluted environment, and the cost and trauma associated with road accidents would decrease and traffic densities and crashes reduce.

There are also sunrise industries associated with zero emissions – such as producing renewable energy from solar sources and windpower, refitting housing stock with improved insulation and energy efficient appliances, electric cars and other transport to name a few.

Many of these new industries require investment and a financial environment where they can be profitable. Subsidies for fossil fuel-based industries need to be removed help facilitate this.

The media

The media have a key positive role in feretting out and disseminating information to better inform the public debate about and awareness of important issues such as climate change. Skilful reporters and penetrate the haze of spin and misinformation that sometimes conceals the rationale for government policy and decisions.

The media can have a key negative role when they are co-opted (and/or owned) by influential stakeholders and used to push out biased coverage of a topic. In Australia for example, some Murdoch owned newspapers such as The Australian are well known for having several columnists with a right wing bias.

This bias is often not so evident between elections, but during elections newspapers are often used to launch carefully planned attack articles against a party or parties with the express purpose of decreasing public support (and hence votes) for them.

In 2011, it was revealed that Murdoch-owned newspapers in Great Britain were engaging in illegal phone-hacking to get material for their stories. Their victims included members of the royal family, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, many celebrities, and even a murdered schoolgirl. Rupert and James Murdoch denied any knowledge of the phone hacking taking place, a claim that has been contradicted by some senior management within their newspapers. Several high profile Murdoch executives resigned as a result.[7]. Close links between some senior police, politicians and the Murdoch media were also highlighted during coverage of this issue.


Non-Government Organisatons (NGOs) vary in their missions, styles and focus. However, many are involved in lobby government and advocating for outcomes associated with their cause and/or mission. When NGOs enter the lobbying process they become part of the political game. Deals are done between politicians and NGOs around policy outcomes in return for favourable comments and support.

These deals often occur with little or no direct involvement of either the grass roots membership of the NGOs or even their internal governing bodies. In the cut and thrust of politics and the daily media cycle there is often little time to consider and consult. In addition, governments can apply considerable pressure on NGOs by threatening either adverse policy outcomes or to “freeze them out” of dialogue with government.

The wheeling and dealing between NGOs and government can deliver favourable outcomes within a range that is often “framed” by politicians based on political considerations. Scientific evidence and recommendations are often subjected to a “political filter” which can remove options considered unpalatable to industry interests.

The challenge of climate change is that new immutable parameters are coming in to play – parameters such as sea level rise, global temperature increases, severe bushfires and reductions in rainfall patterns.

If NGOs don’t recognise these new parameters they risk playing the old political game and not securing paradigm shifts required to ensure a safe climate future.

For example, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) recently endorsed the Rudd government’s statements that they would increase the “range of targets for negotiations for Copenhagen” from 5% – 15% to 5% to 25%. Unfortunately, the 25% is not a target yet, it is merely a negotiation option that is highly unlikely to be delivered. In addition, the Bali convention on climate change endorsed a range of targets for emission reductions from 25% t 40%, and scientists are now recommending that 40% emission reductions by 2020 are required at a minimum.

The ACF appears to have dealt itself out of the game, even though its internal policy statements are much more stringent than what the Rudd government has announced so far.


Scientists have been reporting for decades measurements and studies that indicate global atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing dramatically and the world’s climate is changing as a result. For example, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientific process resulted in consensus reports that indicate:

  • global temperatures will rise between 2 to 6 degrees over the next two centuries
  • CO2 levels in the atmosphere could increase from 380ppm (current level) to 550ppm or more. Pre-industrial levels were 280ppm
  • Dramatic change in climate will produce more droughts, floods, and bushfires in different regions
  • Polar ice caps are shrinking. The North Pole ice cap could disappear completely over summer within 20 years.
  • Coral reefs are bleaching and will die as sea temperatures increase. This could lead to the loss of the entire Great Barrier Reef.

Despite their often dire predictions and warnings, scientists have been largely unable to influence governments and politicians to take appropriate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and manage the risks associated with climate change.


The union movement is wide and varied. Some, such as the Electical Trade Union in Australia, see clean energy as an opportunity for creating jobs for the future and tackling climate change.

Others, such as the CFMEU, have policy documents that acknowledge the seriousness of climate change, yet they oppose the loss of any jobs in the coal mining sector, and their forestry division continues to lobby government to allow the continued destruction of old growth forests in Australia.


Nearly all religions predate the impacts of anthropocentric climate change, so they are mostly silent on the topic. Some religious leaders such as Cardinal George Pell in Sydney Australia have disputed that human-induced climate change is real.[8]

Climate Action Groups

Climate Action Groups began forming within local communities across Australia from around the year 2000. These groups have been formed by people who are intent on driving for more action on tackling climate change. The focus between groups often varies. Some focus on lobby governments and influencing energy policy, while others focus on increasing the awareness of climate change issues within local communities, and options individuals and families can take to move to a lower-carbon economy. Many existing environment groups have also incorporated the impacts of climate change into their campaigns.

The public (you and I)

The first world is struggling to take effective action on reducing carbon emissions. First world lifestyles are mostly structured around profligate use of fossil fuels, which are used to grow and transport food, provide transport and provide heating, cooling and electricity.

We all make choices in how we live and what we consume. We can direct these choices towards sustainable lifestyles and low carbon emissions. Some examples of direct personal action include walking and cycling for transport, growing food locally, taking public transport, buying lower power appliances and lighting, and building sustainably with good design so that the air conditioning and even heating can be eliminated.

We can also bring political pressure to bear by ensuring local Councillors and state and federal Members of Parliament know our views. Meeting with them personally, writing letters and emails to them are all good methods of communications. Organising and attending protest rallies can also convey strong messages and indications of public support for taking action to ensure a safe climate future.

The Internet has also opened up opportunities to share information and collaborate on solutions using technologies such as wikis (like Greenlivingpedia and Appropedia) and blogs. Letters written to politicians and newspapers, along with submissions to inquiries and public consultation processes, can also be easily published on the Internet.

In conclusion

Political parties and Westminster governments are 19th and 20th century institutions. Their structure and conduct is not optimum for dealing with the major challenges presented by global carbon emissions.

Climate change is a challenge that theatens all human kind and the biosphere. We need new processes and mechanisms for leading and driving paradigm shifts in the global use of resources, to transition off fossil fuel use, and embrace sustainable living. This includes equity of resource usage and wealth distribution across the world. The First World is responsible for generating a huge increase in carbon emissions. Now the Third World is emulating this as they develop their economies following a similar pattern. The Second World (the old Soviet bloc countries) is following suit too.

We need to formulate our strategies, goals, actions and responses to climate change based on scientific consensus free from political interference and the constraints of the status quo.

We need community empowerment and participation so that “everybody makes these changes” rather than “these changes being forced on everybody“.

One of the dictionary definitions of “politics” is “the organisation of people”. We need to restore this meaning, and negate the puerile and opportuntistic game playing that modern politics has become.

See also


  1. Wikipedia:Robert Gates
  2. The climate change lobbying register, Sydney Morning Herald (PDF)
  3. Rudd revolt denied, The Age, June 19, 2010
  4. Keating blasts Abbotts carbon tripe, Lateline, 14 July 2011
  5. Carbon price: carbon cops and weightless CO2 show effect of spin, Bernard Keane, Crikey
  6. Carbon Tax Bill Passes House Of Representatives, The Age
  7. Rupert Murdoch’s phone-hacking humble pie, The Guardian
  8. George Pell row with climate scientist heats up, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 March 2011