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A call for citizen climate action

By Mark Diesendorf - posted Friday, 18 September 2009


Global climate change is accelerating. By failing to implement effective policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions, federal and state governments of both major parties have abrogated their responsibilities to the Australian people. This article makes the case for citizen climate action. It also discusses the potential strategies and tactics of the climate action movement.

During the reign of the previous Coalition federal government, whistleblowers such as Guy Pearse revealed how greenhouse and energy policies were actually written by the big greenhouse polluters, the so-called “Greenhouse Mafia”. That government actually helped these vested interests to spread the myths and fallacies used to undermine effective action.

Under Rudd Labor, the symbolism improved, with the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, and the rhetoric changed to one of apparent concern. But the outcomes remain much the same as under Howard. After 21 months in office, almost all of Labor’s 2007 election promises to expand renewable energy are still awaiting implementation. Promises delayed are promises betrayed. Two of these promises - the $8,000 rebate for residential solar electricity and maintenance of the Remote Renewable Power Generation Program - have been broken outright.

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The long-awaited expansion of the Renewable Energy Target finally reached Parliament in August 2009, although it could have been introduced in early 2008, given the political will. As it is currently designed, almost all the benefit will be taken by solar hot water and by phantom renewable energy certificates for residential solar electricity that do not represent actual renewable energy. It is unlikely that large-scale renewable electricity from wind, solar thermal or biomass will benefit significantly from the target. The promised 20 per cent of electricity from renewable energy by 2020 cannot be achieved under this poorly designed scheme.

The promised research funding for the Solar Institute finally opened for applications after 18 months of delays. Promised funding for large demonstration solar power stations, originally announced prior to the 2007 federal election, has been increased in magnitude to $1.5 billion, but delivery has been delayed to commence in 2012! The federal funding promised for the large solar PV power station to be built near Mildura was never paid.

Labor’s misnamed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) appears to be designed to lock in and expand greenhouse pollution from coal, oil, aluminium, steel, cement and forestry. Instead of making the polluters pay, it would make households and small businesses pay for billions of dollars worth of free emission permits for the biggest polluters. Meanwhile, medium-scale polluters would be able to offset their emissions by purchasing cheap credits of dubious greenhouse credentials overseas. There is no guarantee that CPRS would reduce Australia’s emissions by a single megatonne.

Indeed, the scheme is designed to give a perverse incentive for continuous expansion of the Emissions Intensive Trade Exposed Industries up to 2020. Therefore, it is almost certain that Australia’s emissions will increase, as found by Treasury modelling. Truly CPRS should be renamed the Carbon Pollution Reinforcement Scheme.

While billions of dollars are poured into carbon capture and sequestration, which will take at least 15-20 years to become commercial, several states are planning to build new dirty coal-fired power stations and coal-mines.

The principal hope for stopping this lemming-like rush to the cliff are the hundreds of community groups springing up around the country and pushing for climate action. They are a diverse bunch of bright flowers in the desert of dull government inaction and spin: grassroots local groups dedicated entirely to local action; the climate divisions of large environmental and social justice NGOs; and professional, business, trade union, service and faith groups.

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They point out that we already have most of the necessary technologies and proposed strategies for making a just transition to a greenhouse-friendly economy. We just have to act.

The climate action movement is developing, testing and beginning to implement a wide range of nonviolent tactics that go far beyond street marches. These span educational activities, media, lobbying, building coalitions and alliances, legal actions, building alternative energy systems, sit-ins, and pickets. Additional possible actions include boycotts, reverse boycotts, naming and shaming, shareholder actions and co-ordinated withdrawals of deposits from financial institutions that are funding greenhouse-intensive developments.

The movement is challenging a very wealthy and politically powerful force that has most federal and state governments and even a few journalists in its pocket. The Greenhouse Mafia make large political donations to both major parties and threaten governments with blackouts and the transfer of major projects to overseas locations. At first sight it might appear that the citizens of Australia are facing a hopeless challenge.

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About the Author

Dr Mark Diesendorf is Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies, UNSW. Previously, at various times, he was a Principal Research Scientist in CSIRO, Professor of Environmental Science at UTS and Director of Sustainability Centre Pty Ltd. He is author of about 80 scholarly papers and the book Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy. His latest book is Climate Action: A campaign manual for greenhouse solutions (UNSW Press, 2009).

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