Climate Emergency: A Crisis of Democracy

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The government, which is more interested in commerce than humanity, is protecting big polluters instead of people.

By Clive Hamilton
From Crikey, February 4, 2009

(Clive Hamilton is Professor of Public Ethics at the Australian National University. He is the author of Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change, a book that blows the whistle on the politics of global warming in Australia,” published in 2007 by Black Inc.)

When the authorities put the figures together, the death rates in Melbourne and Adelaide will show a spike in response to the record temperatures over Eastern Australia last week.

As in the European heat wave of August 2003, when 35,000 people died, the elderly are most vulnerable as the heat overwhelms the body’s natural cooling mechanism and organs fail. Swamped by the disaster, undertakers in France were obliged to take over a refrigerated warehouse on the outskirts of Paris.

Across central France the temperature reached 40°C, and in Britain 38.5°C, or 100 degrees under the old scale, an all-time record.

In Melbourne and Adelaide last week temperatures of 44 and 45°C were recorded. Forty is the new thirty. One night in Adelaide the minimum temperature was 34°C, perhaps the first time the city has experienced a nocturnal scorcher.

In Melbourne the wail of ambulance sirens was heard up and down every high street. Brush-tailed possums expired and fell out of the trees.

Australians are already dying from climate change. As Professor David Karoly, one of our most respected climate scientists, said: “The system can’t cope now, and it is just going to get much worse.”

Anyone who is not very scared about global warming is not listening to what the scientists are telling us. It is not enough to be vaguely worried.

The scientists are telling us we have only a few years left for global emissions to peak, then decline sharply, if we are to avoid catastrophe. But now the widely agreed “safe” level of warming, 2°C above pre-industrial levels, has been challenged because even that amount won’t prevent summer sea-ice in the Arctic from melting, with knock-on effects in Greenland and the Siberian permafrost.

If he serves two or three terms, by the end of Mr Rudd’s time in office it will be too late to get serious about warming. His Clayton’s emissions trading system, which rewards big polluters for polluting, is nowhere near what the science demands and is better rejected outright.

When the world’s scientists concluded before the Bali conference that rich countries must cut their emissions by 25-40 per cent by 2020 if we are to have a good chance of stabilising at 2°C of warming, they were not putting in an ambit claim.

Yet when the Prime Minister says, as he has more than once, that his task is to “balance” the claims of industry and the sceptics against those of the scientists and environmentalists he is saying that the scientists are political actors and the facts of climate science are up for negotiation. Echoing the post-modern approach to truth, Mr Rudd seems to believe that the science is not objective but relative and contestable.

The election of Labor at the end of 2007 seemed like a breakthrough; after all, climate change was one of the three big points of difference between Labor and the conservatives.

For years I have written about the extraordinary power of the self-described greenhouse mafia in Canberra, yet even I believed that its influence was on the wane because it had over-played its hand under Howard. How wrong I was.

It was apparent early in 2008 that behind the scenes the fossil fuel lobby was organising. They martialled their troops and rearmed themselves with arguments, fighting funds, lobbyists and dodgy economic studies.

They rebuilt their networks in government and the public service, insinuated themselves into policy processes, schmoozed back-benchers and dined privately with ministers and their staff. They whispered about how important the old energy industries are to the economy, how Labor voters value their jobs, and how they will take their business offshore. And always hanging in the air was the unspoken threat that if the Government went too far they would unleash the most virulent campaign to punish it.

So 2008 saw the new government run from its commitment to be a bold leader on climate. Contrary to Kevin Rudd’s declaration to the world at Bali, in 2009 Australia does not stand ready to assume its responsibility and his Government is not prepared to take on the challenge and deliver a sustainable future.

It turns out that Peter Garrett’s indiscrete prediction before the election that “once we get in we’ll just change it all” has come to pass, except that instead of pursuing a bold secret agenda the Rudd Government has reneged on its promises. Instead of going too far, as the conservatives feared, it has not gone far enough.

The climate emergency has turned into a crisis of democracy. The government is meant to protect the interests of the people, but it has instead protected the interests of the big polluters. The Government is in the thrall of a powerful group of energy companies and it is apparent even to the most dim-witted observer that these corporations are, as Thoreau wrote, “more interested in commerce than humanity.”

The scientists are beginning to understand that human-induced climate change has disturbed a sleeping giant. Mr Rudd’s belief that he, along with other leaders, can legislate to tame it is reminiscent of a syndrome Marx called “parliamentary cretinism.”

Paraphrasing Engels, parliamentary cretinism is an aliment whose unfortunate victims are permeated by the lofty conviction that the future of the world is determined by a majority of votes of the institution that has the honour of having them as members.

The announcement of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was a king hit on the mainstream environment groups that had invested so much in working on the inside of the parliamentary process. Seduced into believing they can influence the Government, in truth they were crushed by the greenhouse mafia. Fossil fuel delegations could get an hour of quality time with the minister, while environment groups felt lucky to have 15 minutes with a bored staffer.

This failure underlines the importance of the “new environment movement,” a surprisingly large network of community-based activist groups that came together in Canberra last weekend for the Climate Action Summit.

Led by a new generation of young people whose politics have not been shaped by the old movement, they represent a return to radical activism. They are determined, angry, savvy and brave.

They believe that baby boomers are bequeathing to them a world much worse than the one the boomers inherited. Their objective was perfectly captured in the words on a T-shirt worn by one of them: “Unf-ck the world.”