If you have even vaguely tuned into the latest IPCC report on climate change, you may be feeling a sense of despair, or just looking for a way to make sense of it all. Reading this might help, or at least give some sense of hope that there is something that can be done. Because like me, you may be wondering how fathom the surreal response from the LNP Australian government; how to make sense of the proclamation by Environment Minster Melissa Price (whose electorate includes the Ningaloo Reef) that the scientists are wrong; or how to understand that particular brand of blind-faith denialism that can only come from a true evangelical such as our current Prime Minister.
For the rest of us who don’t choose to live within a comfortable cocoon of denial, I think it is important to start by make a genuine attempt to engage with what is being suggested by the science. If you already consider yourself to be well informed about this stuff, then skip the next couple of paragraphs to the good bit or even the ‘what to do next’ bit. For others who may have been avoiding reading all those awful sounding articles to protect your mental health – yes there is certainly a lot to be concerned about.
The scary bit
The fact that we are headed for around 4 degrees of warming on current trajectory, and that 2 degrees warming is already enough to wipe out the world’s entire coral reefs is alarming enough. Even in the unlikely-to-be-attainable 1.5 degree warming scenario, the report says that the majority of the world’s reefs will be gone.
One of the ways we can make sense of the predicted impacts is by considering what it will mean for places and communities we know best. For me that is Western Australia. Here, our tall timber forests in the deep South - the Karri and Tingle giants that I grew up in awe of - need over 1m of annual rainfall to survive. the average is already dipping below that and we have barely hit half a degree of warming. The loss of reefs will profoundly affect our sense of place as a coastal people, not to mention our tourism industry and fisheries, as reefs are the basis for so much marine productivity. Our most valuable fishery the western rock lobster is closely linked to the Leeuwin current, and was already close to collapse a few years ago due to a marine heatwave. Regular fish kills in the Swan River and the Cockburn Sound from heat and oxygen loss are already occurring at present temperatures. Thousands of marron crawled out of the Collie River to their death during a recent summer, trying to escape being cooked alive in water temperatures that have not been recorded before. To the North, large areas including some of the last remaining areas where the world’s most ancient culture continues to be practiced, will become uninhabitable for humans and unable to sustain the current large herds of grazing cattle. Deaths due to heat waves (which already exceed fatalities from all other extreme weather events combined) will significantly increase and it will not be possible to spend time outside during the day in our capital city for days or weeks at a time during summer months. There are many, many other examples of the profound changes that will occur, but those are a few that stand out for me.
Many scientists are saying that the reality is actually much worse – if that can even be contemplated. They say that the official IPCC report is the watered down version, subject to tortuous consensus and agreement from a range of political influences seeking to downplay the results. They say that the report does not acknowledge the high potential for ‘tipping points’ to be reached and exceeded, where runaway climate change cannot be avoided due to self-reinforcing feedback loops in the climate system. Such changes include the melting of vast areas of permafrost leading to the release of unprecedented amounts of methane, itself a potent greenhouse gas. Or the breakdown of global ocean currents that operate as cooling mechanisms making climates like ours in WA habitable.
In the face of all of this is difficult to be optimistic. However I believe that we must maintain a as much informed optimism as we can. The alternative is to become paralysed or worse - for the human brain cannot sustain extended or permanent periods of high stress without affecting our ability to function, and hence collectively solve what is perhaps the greatest problem that humanity has ever faced.
The good bit
So where can we draw optimism from, when our ‘leaders’ are in total denial? Well for a start, and for all its flaws, we do live in a democracy, and that means it is possible for us not only to change our leaders, but to work together to force them to stop trading away our future in exchange for donations from the coal and gas industry. We can do that, but it will require us to work together in ways that we have not done before as a community. It will require us to put aside our differences and unite behind a common cause. Admittedly this is something which our political system mitigates against, but something which we are capable of doing. And the reality is that we don’t even need everyone. There have been great changes from the abolition of slavery to marriage equality achieved without complete consensus. So let’s not focus on the temporarily powerful deniers – lets ignore them and instead focus on winning the real game. One of the outcomes that seems inevitable out of this situation is that the conservative side of Australian politics will find itself losing the confidence and support of the electorate in a way that will be so profound that it will define Australian politics for decades to come. For the past five decades, in the eyes of the Australian electorate, the conservatives have always held the upper hand on the most important issue – managing the economy. But if the Australian Labor Party, and progressive parties in general play their cards right, they will have the upper hand for the next five decades on the climate issue, which will increasingly be understood as the defining issue of Australian politics rather than the economy. This is not only because Australians will increasingly realise that without a stable climate the economy does not matter, but because the cost of climate change will begin threaten the economy itself, and action on climate change will increasingly be seen as an economic driver. Poling shows that climate action is already considered good for jobs and the economy, and there is an emerging realisation that a transition to renewable energy and other sustainable industries will actually power the next significant wave of growth and employment, not just in this country but globally.
And that brings me to my next reason to be optimistic. While I deeply abhor many of the fundamental design elements of capitalism, I have to admire its ability to innovate and channel capital into endeavors that are capable of yielding returns. And it is increasingly obvious that the pace and direction of technological change is accelerating in the clean energy and sustainability area in ways we could never have imagined even five years ago. Just as the climate is approaching tipping points, so is renewable energy and clean technology, including public awareness and engagement with the opportunities around this transition. It is already cheaper to generate energy from renewable sources than coal and gas. The vast swamp of capital that supports the fossil fuel industry is already beginning to drain. And not soon enough for the climate and for those communities across the state and the nation who are battling to protect their health, environments and livelihoods from the impacts of fossil fuel extraction such as coal mining and gas fracking. Even if our current political leaders don’t yet see it yet, working with such communities fills me with optimism.
What to do next?
So what do we have to do now, here, in WA to play our critical part in what is a global problem?
1)Understand that we collectively own, and are morally responsible for a giant climate bomb in the form of one of the world’s largest untapped fossil fuel reserves. We must work right now with as much urgency as we can muster to secure a political decision to place a permanent, statewide ban on gas fracking. Contact your MP right now about this issue. The McGowan government is about to make a decision and it will be a critical test of our government and our community. Take whatever action you can and/or donate to an anti-fracking campaign if you can’t do anything else yourself.
2) Join the Clean State campaign. If we succeed, we will turn our largest sources of pollution into a powerful driver for a more sustainable, renewable energy economy. https://www.cleanstate.org.au/
3) Educate yourself about what else is going on with fossil fuel expansion and extraction in WA. Huge expansions of the already massively polluting offshore gas industry is being planned by captains of government and industry. We need to get ready as a community to resist, delay and prevent what is considered a given by our political leaders.
4) Join a local group like Transition Towns or similar, and do what you can to reduce your own personal carbon footprint (but not at the expense of the collective political action suggested above).
5) Remember that there are communities all over the world, just like ours working as hard as they can to tackle the problem - in their own place, in their own way. We are united together by a collective unspoken hope that we will succeed, and by the unspoken knowledge that our success and our future relies on every community succeeding. We can’t let each other down.