Australian politics, society & culture


The environmentalists have lost

 If the civil rights movement had been as ineffective as the environmental movement, Rosa Parks’ granddaughter would still be sitting in the back of a segregated bus.

She might be secure in the knowledge that a global consensus had formed against racial discrimination, but she would still be sitting there. 

Like the civil rights movement, environmentalism has changed the way we think. It has engendered a new respect for the natural world, an understanding of the delicate balance of life in our biosphere, and mass engagement on the most important issue of all, climate change.

Yet it has failed in a profound way.

As a movement ushering in solutions to halt or slow the physical reality of climate change, it has been catastrophically ineffective.

Worst of all, it appears it’s now too late for what environmentalists are fighting for anyway.

The problem is simple: it’s hard to see how we will reduce carbon emissions at a rate fast enough to prevent runaway climate change.

Global emissions are rising (they were up 3% in 2011), and will likely continue to do so. They need to be falling precipitously. India and China are growing economies thanks mostly to fossil fuels, as are much of the rest of Asia, South America, Africa and the Middle East. Few if any of these countries will commit to substantial emissions cuts, and most developed nations in Europe, as well as the US, Canada and New Zealand, are now reticent about the targets required of them.

As reported by The Age on Monday, the world is on track to see an ‘unrecognisable planet’ that is between 4 and 6 degrees hotter by the end of this century. And the latest forecast doesn’t even include the effects of thawing permafrost, a feedback loop whose magnitude we’re only just starting to understand.

Trying to reduce emissions is not pointless; any reductions will help to some extent, and should be pursued. But reductions on a scale that’s now required? Almost no chance.

Environmental orthodoxy says that the world needs to lower emissions both by reducing consumption and by changing the energy mix. These need to be done simultaneously and immediately, via a global, government-led, coordinated system. This basic stance hasn’t shifted at all in the past two decades. Through summit after failed summit, target after missed target, year upon year of emissions growth instead of reduction, the lack of success has produced a sort of grim, if understandable, stubbornness.

Environmentalism is not in any way responsible for climate change, any more than feminism is responsible for inequities that women still face. Climate change is a widely if unevenly shared disaster. But at some point, environmentalists might stop describing every horrific new piece of data that comes out as a wake-up call for the world, and instead take the inaction as a cue to rethink their approach.

Consider this: of all the coal, gas and oil fields that the world’s corporations and nations have quantified and have the legal right to exploit, eighty percent now needs to stay in the ground if temperature rises are to be kept within two degrees celsius.

But getting corporations to keep these resources in the ground for the greater good – pretty unlikely – is only one part of the task. We also need to build a new renewable energy infrastructure, more or less from scratch, even though this would be much more expensive than keeping the current one.

Australia’s major political parties say they are planning to reduce our emissions by 5% by 2020, with bigger cuts to follow. Actually, on government forecasts, our emissions will rise by 12% (above 2000 levels) by 2020, even with a carbon price. We will only achieve our 5% ‘cut’ by purchasing emissions reductions from other countries.

And perhaps worse than this, our coal exports are exacerbating other countries’ carbon addiction.

In developing economies around the world, burgeoning middle classes are buying televisions, computers, mobile phones, air-conditioners and cars in unprecedented numbers. Hundreds of millions of people will be connecting to grid power for the first time in their lives.

There’s no chance they’re going to consume less power in coming years. And we in the developed world have no moral basis to expect this – not while our own emissions are sky-high.

To compound all of these issues, the world’s population is set to grow by around 2 billion by mid-century.

The environmental movement clings to its orthodox approach out of habit, out of psychological comfort, perhaps also out of naivety. But it has become an obstacle – its own form of denialism. A range of responses now needs to be considered, including some radical ones.

Until recently, geo-engineering – intentional, large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s climate – was taboo. Environmentalists have long opposed it, and for understandable reasons. It was a way of distracting attention from the need to cut emissions. Most scientists are also wary. Geo-engineering is absurdly risky, like playing God with a system we don’t fully understand. But we need to start investigating it. This will include both experimenting with carbon dioxide removal methods and looking at adaptation measures. It’s a bit late now for the argument that humans shouldn’t take it upon themselves to upset the natural environment.

We need to ask why a political and social movement has failed to convert scientific consensus into action.



About the author Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of the Monthly.