A week ago, 40 hours into extra time, the delegates meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for COP 27 finally managed to hammer out their compromise communique, setting out agreements and achievements the nations of the world are prepared to make in order to curb climate change. They needn't have bothered. Their empty words are nothing but piffle.
The world is headed irreversibly for two degrees of warming and the only plausible reason to suggest we won't reach three degrees is that war and pestilence will destroy civilisation before we get there. Pusillanimous exculpations and vacant phrases such as "these are thorny issues" or "the parties are edging forward" fail to encapsulate just how disastrous the non-achievement of COP 27 actually was. Any hope countries might focus and act on the underlying causes of our current problems vanished.
Climate change may not be the direct cause of the floods in Australia, the dry gripping California, the escape of COVID, or the instability in the Middle East - but it's not irrelevant to these disasters, either. Floods and fires are successively consuming countries around the world. Food shortages follow, prices rise, people eat animals they should avoid, exotic diseases spread, conflict becomes violent (although sparked by ideologies such as religion or nationalism).
Changing climate is the underlying reason for so much war and violence, both international and domestic. In the US, 240 people died in mass shootings in 2014. That figure climbed in a straight line, through pandemic and heat until it reached 601 dead so far this year (with another 2524 wounded), and yet that statistic is already out of date. What else, aside from broader pressures exacerbated by climate change, can explain why such violence is escalating now?
Yet governments across the globe are so busy focusing on the present they are unable to engage with the underlying cause of these problems. That's why we witnessed last week's farce at Sharm el-Sheikh, with diplomats and bureaucrats wrestling so earnestly over a piece of paper, a debate that ended with a final text permitting an expansion of gas consumption and merely called for a "phasing down" of coal use. No date, ever, for its cessation.
And our government? A true champion of climate action? Well, why would you be if you're determined to sell 'clean' coal because it has (slightly) fewer emissions than that of other producers? This government doesn't want to worry about alternative energy (wind and solar) until tomorrow, when it's mined all our coal and burned it off. Chris Bowen isn't called Climate Change and Energy Minister for nothing. He's got exactly the right title for someone busily at work, stoking the fires.
The other news last week was a Bloomberg report, exploding bogus claims of carbon neutrality. It pointed out so many carbon credit claims were simply unverifiable and so, the news outlet claimed, nothing more than junk. Telstra, which has claimed to offset all its emissions since 2020, appeared high on this list.
But this is the problem. The only way to genuinely reduce emissions requires doing things differently, because offsets don't work. This, however, flies in the face of our current economic and political models. Construction activities are currently responsible for close to one-third of Australia's emissions but after two years of reduced immigration the number of people settling here could become the greatest intake ever. When we don't even have enough homes for our current population, where will these extra families find their housing? Of course our emissions will rise as a result of all that extra building - we just can't plant enough trees.
Similarly, Canberra is building light rail, a form of transport that is necessarily emission-intensive. It encourages higher-density living along the line, and this will require new flats and apartments to create the better, vibrant cityscape we all desire. That's great, but don't pretend it isn't emissions-intensive or you're a government moving speedily towards carbon-neutrality.
In so many ways, the Victorian election over the weekend represented a replay of the usual two-party, Labor versus Coalition battles our electoral contests become reduced to. The huge profile of Premier Daniel Andrews as the state was ravaged by COVID also acted to focus the campaign until it became a referendum on his suitability to continue as Premier. Nonetheless, it demonstrated voters aren't stupid - they know government across the country isn't acting on climate.
In all the hoopla surrounding Andrews' win it was easy to miss the shallow foundations on which his supposedly triumphant victory was built. Close contests and the Liberal decision to preference Greens might eventually give the environmentalists six seats, including three seized in the inner city from Labor. Although other independents (not necessarily climate activists) have probably lost at least three regional electorates, the backlash against them had a great deal to do with COVID lockdowns. In the city, however, the teal brand is continuing to shine with independents currently poised to win up to three seats.
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The electorate wants a plan for the future and promises to raise dam walls and export cleaner coal just don't cut it any more. Neither do attendances at grand talkfests such as COP. The climate is changing now. Promises for 2030 or, even more ridiculously, 2050 are irrelevant fluff.
There is only one story worth writing about today. Whether your primary driver is economic or social; military or technical, a single underlying driver now controls the parameters of our future. Any plan that fails to recognise the world's climate is changing - not at some arbitrary point in the future but now, today, at this very moment - can be dismissed as piffle.
Our government hasn't yet understood that recognising reality is the best politics. Just as every speech now begins with a recognition of the original custodians of country, so every policy should start with an explanation - or confession - about how it will act to create a better future.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
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