A few friends sat around a table in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, and started to get to grips with the oncoming whirlwind. “I’ll be frank,” moaned the climate change correspondent, rattling a bunch of academic papers, “we’re fucked.” Most agreed. As the world is hell-bent on building fossil-fueled power stations over the next five years, it will be impossible to hold global warming to safe levels. The last chance of combating dangerous climate will be “lost forever.” End of story. Well, not quite.
A handful of geo-engineers, including the 2007 Australian of the Year Tim Flannery, suggest sulphur could be inserted into the atmosphere to block the sun’s rays and slow global warming. It sounds like futile wizardry, but Flannery maintains it’s “the last resort we have – cutting emissions is not enough.” The sulphur would change the color of the sky.
It seems the possibility of outwitting climate change is slipping through our fingers. Yesterday’s big ideas made sense: tax the polluters, reduce human-generated gas emissions and keep the global average temperature below two degrees Celsius. Now scientists, scholars and environmental activists openly discuss the urgent need to prepare for the dramas ahead – wars, food shortages and the likely displacement of millions of humans as sea levels soar.
Every nation has its dark and dangerous secrets, and Australia is no exception. It is a more confident and transparent country now than it was at the dawn of the sixties, when Baby Boomers took to the streets and rattled the establishment, chanting praise for Ho Chi Min. Remember him? I didn’t think so. Half a century later, millions of Aussies seem quite pleased with themselves. We’ve got laptops, Pirate Bay, The Opera House, iPhones, non-stop TV, brilliant beaches, writers’ festivals, gay parades and food, fabulous food, choking up garbage bins, accelerating obesity. But who are we really? Something doesn’t sit right. There’s too much we don’t know, and our minds drift to sport, booze and having fun. Why not?
Half the Great Barrier Reef’s coral has disappeared in the past 27 years and less than a quarter could be left within a decade unless action is taken. Our huge mining industry exerts its power over Australia’s environmental policy, and their sweeping plans are rarely refused. UNESCO has advised that the Great Barrier Reef could be listed as endangered if current extraction projects proceed. Our mineral barons praise the work ethic of African laborers who toil the land for two dollars per day. They dream of a trickle-down utopia where the rich who inherit their wealth do as they please and the poor get what they deserve.
Because of our extensive use of fossil fuels, Australia has been the highest per capita emitter in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for most of the two decades since the first UN Earth Summit at Rio. We talked the talk, drank the wine and signed the bullshit. Now we are heading the wrong way on virtually all indicators. Since then the number of listed threatened fauna has risen by 249 and the number of threatened plants by 417, leading to a total of almost 1700. A host of other species is in steep decline.
Many things about the future and the natural world that we’ve been rambling on about since my student days are coming to pass. Lean across a dinner table to nab a cutlet, and someone says that an iceberg the size of Manhattan has dropped into the sea. Inevitably, the imminence of a food famine is raised. Then someone cracks a joke about Earth burning up like the sun. We seem to be approaching that terrible point where climate change skeptics have ceased being skeptical. Huge ethical dilemmas face every continent and some academics in the fields of climate science and futurism are whispering hints of an apocalypse.
Back home on an Australian mountain range, I can see the distant city of Sydney right on the horizon, the size of a toy town. Dark thoughts. What hope is there? And then a sense of relief … Hey – the next generation … let them worry about this. Time for me to slow down and learn how to compost and shut up with the ranting. Let the young ones knock sense into the corporate elite, the bankers, the masters of war and the planet fuckers. The catastrophe is a long time coming. Fifty years ago the Situationists suggested the project of capitalism was the annihilation of nature, but no one believed them.
No one in Australian politics is up for the challenge, apart from the Greens, who are outnumbered. Australian scholar Richard A. Slaughter rightly says we’re facing “the biggest wake up call in history,” though many of us are focused on Facebook, YouTube and Doggie Diets. In its plodding way the Julia Gillard government makes a stab at reducing emissions, while being hounded by the mining magnates, and blow-torched by Rupert Murdoch’s media.
Among high-profile eco warriors, as Jorgen Randers and Paul Gilding describe, two conversations often take place simultaneously. The public position is: “we face serious risks, potentially catastrophic, if we don’t act urgently and strongly.” In private, often late at night, as they wonder if the battle is lost, they discuss “geopolitical breakdown, mass starvation and what Earth would be like with a few hundred million people.” On an unconscious level, this double talk may also apply to younger Australians, who want to have fun, get pissed, travel and chill out. Come midnight among friends and similar truth telling emerges. “We’re fucked.” Many Australians can sense a planetary emergency, but they also want nights off.
Over a billion people in 100 countries face a bleak future. In the nations most vulnerable to climate change, resilience is already eroded by entrenched poverty and degraded environments. Frequent natural disasters will tip communities over the edge into chronic famine and forced migration. Yet these are the counties that have contributed least to climate change. If the Greenland ice cap melts, most of Bangladesh disappears.
Australian politicians on both sides of the House are likely in for a shock, judging from grim reports raining down from climate change experts. We could be headed for irreversible climate change in just five years, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which warns, “It will be impossible to hold global warming to safe levels.” Carbon emissions have risen a record amount, despite the worst recession for 80 years. The IEA’s data is widely regarded by many as the “gold standard in emissions and energy.” Five years! Are we learning to live with an unimaginable absurdity?
Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, said the latest evidence shows that models have underestimated the speed at which the Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheets will start to shrink. It had been expected that island nations would have several decades to adapt to rising sea levels, but evacuation may now be their only option. The Pacific islands, which are only 4.6 meters above sea level at their highest point, are facing the imminent prospect of flooding, with saltwater infusion destroying water supplies. “Thousands of years of culture are at risk of disappearing as the populations of vulnerable island states have no place to go.” Well they do, actually, so long as rich nations lend a helping hand. Will Australia rise to the task?
In August 2001, the Howard government of Australia refused permission for a Norwegian freighter carrying 438 rescued refugees from a distressed fishing vessel in international waters to enter the country. During the dispute, Australian Special Forces boarded the ship. The government of Norway accused Australia of failing to meet obligations to distressed mariners under international law.
Later, another maritime controversy arose in the lead up to the federal elections, in which Howard’s ministers claimed that seafaring asylum seekers had thrown children overboard in a presumed ploy to secure rescue and passage to Australia. Stricter border protections were authorized and the Prime Minister was re-elected. Surprise, surprise: it turned out that not a single child had been thrown overboard.
Try to imagine yourself fleeing from your cultural roots, your sinking island, and forced to cross international borders, where you are classified stateless, dumped in a facility – perhaps an offshore island that isn’t yet sinking – where you have to start again from scratch. And why? Because the major players on the planet, the corporations, the climate deniers, the politicians, the bankers and most of all the VOTERS had turned a blind eye to repeated warnings of imminent tragedy.
What’s needed now are battalions of eco warriors with science degrees, gardening skills and the capacity to create zones of survival. We need to move beyond the world of the possible, and the maybe, and prepare for what may soon be urgent and imminent. Are we preparing “safe passage” documents for climate change refugees? Are the tents being tested and the food kitchens assembled? If not, why? From where will food and freedom come?