May 9, 2016

The other budget

By Michael Lucy
The other budget


Climate change is a serious problem, and we have a deeply unserious government

Greenland is melting. The Barrier Reef is turning white from the heat. Ecosystems across Australia are collapsing as the climate changes. An area of Canada bigger than Singapore is being consumed by wildfires. Dams in India have armed guards as a fierce drought makes people desperate for water. March and April were the hottest months ever recorded across the planet. Melting polar ice has literally knocked the Earth off its axis. We have caused this by burning fossil fuels, and all available evidence suggests that it’s only going to get worse from here.

Last week Scott Morrison delivered a budget that appeared to relate to life on some other planet, one where none of this is happening or important. His speech to parliament was big on jobs, growth and the future but somehow made no mention of climate or environment.

Labor’s reply was a little better: Bill Shorten talked about climate change, at least, and committed to generating 50% of Australia’s energy from renewable sources by 2030. The Greens went further again, with a promise of 90% renewable energy by 2030 and plans to wind down the coal industry.

None of these is really enough to address the problem. In 2016 drastic emissions reduction in Australia and worldwide needs to be a primary goal of any budget, any government plan, any thought about the future.

(It’s very easy to start sounding like a zealot when you talk about climate change. That’s because it is a problem way outside the scope of our normal political discourse and any solution will necessarily involve radical change. But radical change is inevitable: we can either do it now and hope to control it, or have it forced upon us by a changing world. It’s hard even to contemplate, because the likely future of the planet and you and everyone you love is a nauseating abyss, and you don’t want to gaze into for too long. There’s a reason that more and more climatologists struggle with profound despair.)

All the economic activity that budgets are about, and that the election campaign will be about – all the jobs and growth, all the abstracted flows of value, all the layers of financialisation and social agreement that make superannuation, for example, a concrete enough concept to be worth reforming – all of that is built on the foundation of a planet that can support life, agriculture, and civilization as we know it. It’s easy enough to forget this, especially when you live in the elaborate technological bubble that a modern city provides. It’s worth remembering that practically all of recorded human history has happened since the last Ice Age, in a rare plateau of climatic stability that has lasted only a cosmic eyeblink.

A budget that was at all serious about jobs and growth – let alone the hazy future beyond the forward estimates – would take climate change as a fundamental and serious threat. Politicians who were serious about a future beyond the next election would also acknowledge that our existing commitments are inadequate (as is the Paris Agreement) if we want to keep climate change within tolerable limits. Taking jobs and growth seriously might mean viewing climate change as an existential threat – a threat on the scale of the World Wars, say. In 1942–43 we spent 34% of GDP on defence. What would it look like if we spent even a tenth of that on getting off fossil fuels?

This is not hyperbole, by the way. Climate change, according to some American and Australian strategists, presents us with something more like a hundred-year war. The Middle East and North Africa might well be uninhabitable in a few decades. (Our militarised border security actually makes more sense if you assume that our governments are preparing for a future of hundreds of millions of climate refugees.)

To be fair to the Coalition, by the time they got around to launching the campaign proper, they had remembered at least to pay lip service to climate concerns. You might argue that the budget’s not the place for climate strategy. You’d be wrong: our politics is structured around economic arguments – whether clearly stated or buried to some degree – and the election will be fought on them. Until emission reductions are viewed as a primary economic goal, there will be no real change.

Our economy runs on fossil fuels and the waste they send into the air. Our society is built on them. For the last 200 years we’ve grown rich by moving carbon from the ground to the sky and skimming off some excess heat on the way past.

And for a long time we thought that the energy from coal and oil and gas was free, more or less; it is only recently we have realized that we didn’t read the fine print. Every kilojoule we extracted for heat and light and work had its cost marked in an unseen column of the ledger, where the amount of carbon in the atmosphere was slowly adding up over the years and the decades.

That carbon is what we need to be keeping an eye on, first and foremost; the carbon budget is the one that matters most. By some estimates, for a business-as-usual planet we need the concentration of carbon dioxide to be at around 350 part per million. At present it’s around 407 ppm and rising. As Scott Morrison likes to say, we must live within our means. We can’t afford to go on like this, and we can’t afford to keep pretending.

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.


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