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Acceleration addiction has led to a climate emergency

Addressing our climate problems might subvert the quest for endless growth, writes Mark Hearn.

According to the scientists, we now stand on the threshold of a climate "emergency".

In February 2016 the global temperature spiked at 1.35 degrees celsius over the long-term average – we're entering the climate danger zone. Last month was the hottest on record since 1880. Scientists warn we are rapidly approaching the point where the climate confronts us with an existential threat.

Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel has wrung his hands over our response to accelerated climate change.
Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel has wrung his hands over our response to accelerated climate change.  Photo: Rohan Thomson

A dire yet difficult emergency to grasp, given the strangely subdued tone of the media response: news of the February spike tended to languish as a middle-order bulletin point, or was even left unreported. There's been precious little analysis of what this emergency means for our society, or our lives. Low publicity means low political pressure. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has not appeared in Parliament to solemnly outline the government's response to this emergency. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has not pledged that Labor will soon announce its own comprehensive climate emergency plan.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, there is little explanation of how we got ourselves into this crisis.

Climate scientists discussed the February spike in the careful, at times cryptic terms of meteorological precision. Occasionally they could not restrain their own nervous language spike: "terrifying" or simply an awestruck "wow".

We have been accelerating into this climate emergency since the industrial revolution began, churning fossil fuels into atmospheric greenhouse energy to serve the needs of production. Periodically, we've cranked up the rate of acceleration. We've recently made exponential leaps in the intensification of global warming. The graph line of climate change rises at an ever sharper and taller angle.

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We really are A-grade accelerators, aren't we?

Why? What is it about us that craves acceleration? Our reluctance to face this crisis and move more decisively towards a solution is based in an unwillingness to accept its origins in our choices.

The intensification of work and production are historically shaped pressures we impose upon ourselves. And we've dragged everything else into that insatiable quest, including the planet.

We have mastered the ability to transform energy in service to acceleration, but perhaps only in a World War I kind of way. We've produced an intractable climate stalemate, stuck in a warming loop that's exacting a grimly attritional toll on crops, wildlife and even human lives – lost in fire or stricken by drought. We seem to lack the technological skill, and perhaps the behavioural instinct, for a truly transformational breakthrough.

Even Australia's Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, is unsure what to do, figuratively wringing his hands on ABC TV's Q&A on March 14 as he lamented the February spike and observed that "what we are doing with solar, wind, changing practices, behavioural practices and things like that, we're not winning the battle".

We can't seem to win the battle against climate change. Perhaps that's because the pursuit of economic growth accelerates at all costs.

Our politicians act like nothing's happening. According to Environment Minister Greg Hunt there's little to worry about: he claims that Australia's carbon emissions spiked in 2005, and have been falling ever since.

Climate experts beg to differ, arguing that Australia's emissions continue to rise. There's no peak in sight, just a relentlessly climbing graph line.

Perhaps Minister Hunt's "move along, nothing to see here" message is driven by a desire to avoid questioning our acceleration addiction. Addressing it might subvert the quest for endless growth.

It's a pity that Michel Foucault died in 1984. The French philosopher with a fey eye on history had a habit of addressing awkward why questions: he might have suggested that climate change is fundamentally a problem of governing not the environment, but ourselves. Managing populations to productive outcomes has shaped the planet, society and our very sense of self without sufficient care of the consequences.

We have done so by embedding the mantra of progress in our minds. We have transferred our identities into technology. We can monitor our productivity in devices carried in our pockets or bound around our wrists. It's normal to accelerate, we tell ourselves. Why isn't everything happening faster?

Foucault observed that the care of the self means accepting responsibility for our actions.

Our responsibility for restraining climate change must be more powerfully enacted in the public sphere, and called to attention as the top story, the first demand put to our leaders, stirring the debate from which political action proceeds. We're certainly going to need a plan – and fast. Overheated with acceleration, our agitated climate may soon confront us with a communal emergency.

Dr Mark Hearn is a lecturer in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University.