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Green movement has been an abject failure


Nick Feik

It is now almost impossible to reduce emissions on a scale required to prevent runaway climate change.

<i>Illustration: Andrew Dyson</i>

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

IF THE civil rights movement were as unsuccessful as the environmental movement has been, Rosa Parks' granddaughter would still be sitting in the back of a segregated bus.

She might be secure in the knowledge that a global consensus had formed against racial discrimination, but she would still be sitting there.

Like the civil rights movement, environmentalism has changed the way we think. It has engendered a new respect for the natural world, an understanding of the delicate balance of life in our biosphere and mass engagement on the most important issue of all, climate change.

Yet it has failed in a profound way.

As a movement ushering in solutions to halt or slow climate change, it has been catastrophically ineffective.

Worst of all, it appears it's now too late for environmentalists to win the fight.

The problem is simple: it's hard to see how we will reduce emissions at a rate fast enough to prevent runaway climate change.

Global emissions are rising (they were up 3 per cent in 2011), and will likely continue to do so. They need to be falling precipitously. India and China are growing their economies thanks mostly to fossil fuels, as are the economies of much of the rest of Asia, South America, Africa and the Middle East.

Few if any of these countries will commit to substantial total emissions cuts, and most developed nations in Europe, as well as the US, Canada and New Zealand, are now reticent about the emissions targets required.

As reported by The Age on Monday, the world is on track to see an ''unrecognisable planet'' that is between 4 and 6 degrees hotter by the end of this century. And the latest forecast doesn't include the effects of thawing permafrost, a feedback loop the magnitude of which we're only just starting to understand.

Trying to reduce emissions is not pointless; any reductions will help to some extent, and should be pursued. But reductions on a scale that's now required? Almost no chance.

Environmental orthodoxy says that the world needs to lower emissions both by reducing consumption and by changing the energy mix. These need to be done simultaneously and immediately, via a global, government-led, co-ordinated system. This basic stance hasn't shifted at all in the past two decades. Through summit after failed summit, target after missed target, year upon year of emissions growth instead of reduction, the lack of success has produced a sort of grim, if understandable, stubbornness.

Environmentalism is not in any way responsible for climate change, any more than feminism is responsible for inequities that women still face. Climate change is a widely if unevenly shared disaster. But at some point, environmentalists might stop describing every horrific new piece of data that comes out as a wake-up call for the world, and instead take the inaction as a cue to rethink their approach.

Consider this: of all the coal, gas and oil fields that the world's corporations and nations have already quantified and have the legal right to exploit, 80 per cent now needs to stay in the ground if temperature rises are to be kept within 2 degrees.

But getting corporations to keep these resources in the ground for the greater good - pretty unlikely - is only one part of the task. We also need to build a whole new renewable energy infrastructure, more or less from scratch, even though this would be much more expensive than keeping the current one.

Australia's major political parties say they are planning to reduce our emissions by 5 per cent by 2020, with bigger cuts to follow. Actually, on government forecasts, our emissions will rise by 12 per cent (above 2000 levels) by 2020, even with a carbon price. We will only achieve our 5 per cent ''cut'' by purchasing emissions reductions from other countries.

And, perhaps worse, our coal exports are exacerbating other countries' emissions addiction.

In developing economies around the world, burgeoning middle classes are buying televisions, computers, mobile phones, airconditioners and cars in unprecedented numbers. Hundreds of millions of people will be connecting to grid power for the first time in their lives.

There's no chance they're going to consume less power in coming years. And we in the developed world have no moral basis to expect this - not while our own emissions are sky-high.

The world's fossil-fuel companies (including our coal companies) are working furiously to provide developing economies with more power, and are infinitely better-placed than renewable energy outfits to do this, whether we like it or not.

To compound all of these issues, the world's population is set to grow by about 2 billion by mid-century.

The environmental movement clings to its orthodox approach out of habit, out of psychological comfort, perhaps also out of naivety. But it has become an obstacle - its own form of denialism. Unfortunately, a range of responses now needs to be considered, including some radical ones.

Until recently, geo-engineering - intentional, large-scale manipulation of the Earth's climate - was taboo. Environmentalists have long fought it, and for understandable reasons. It was being used as a distraction from the fight against rising emissions. Most scientists are also wary. Geo-engineering is absurdly risky, like playing God with a system we don't fully understand. But we need to start investigating it. This will include experimenting with carbon dioxide removal methods, and also looking at adaptation measures. The argument that humans shouldn't take it upon themselves to upset the natural environment is, plainly, now redundant.

We need to ask why a political and social movement has failed to convert scientific consensus into action.

Nick Feik is online editor of The Monthly.

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  • Yes of course environmentalism has failed and not our corrupt governments and the big polluting businesses controlling them. What a ridiculous article to be shooting the messengers.

    I do agree the only hope id radical geo-engineering type approaches however. Out gutless governments and out own breeder mentality causing massive overpopulation, will ensure we can never reduce or emissions enough.

    Date and time
    December 05, 2012, 8:59AM
    • Daffy it's got nothing to do with "our" government, until there is a world wide target or collaborative effort to develop technology that allows for energy without the pollution it's just a pebble in a pond.

      Businesses are in business to provide people with a service, people buy those services so business really can't be blamed either otherwise they wouldn't be operating. I will also point out that Australia has a relatively small people to land mass ratio, however nobody is willing to stray far from the coastline.

      El Seano
      Date and time
      December 05, 2012, 9:55AM
    • Over population has to be the biggest threat, and one that the environment movement
      has generally failed to engage with, one only has to observe the ridiculously feeble
      response to our own out of control population expansion.

      Date and time
      December 05, 2012, 9:56AM
    • The evidence suggests the awards should be shared equally.

      The honeypot that Global Warming (oops massaged data doesn't work), climate change etc has become has seen the bureaucracies around the world procreate more rapidly than the red blooms off Sydney recently.

      Every UK Council has had a "Climate Change" (or similar title) officer for many years now. Grand conferences are held with such frequency in exotic locations that are must-participate events for all the hangers on.

      There have been several alarming articles (backed up with an audit trail) where scientists applied for funding only to be rejected. Following sage advice from "those in the know" they then reapplied adding the crucial phrase "Examining the adverse impact of climate change on {fill in research topic here}.

      The Developing countries are doing just that - developing. Mortality rates due to poor or lack of sanitation, electricity (to run fridges to keep medicines viable in clinics for example) is lacking yet the West expects them to only build Solar Power stations, dams are not allowed as they adversely impact on the environment.

      In Australia the number of dams, that could have been generating 'clean' hydro-electric power, that have been blocked by the same "environmental warriors" as are calling for the effective de-industrialisation of the world - seems a non-sequitur.

      By all means eliminate waste - that goes without saying yet is not done? Why not? How many Govt buildings (Fed, State, & Local) do you see still lit up at night floor by floor? For that matter the private sector is not much different.

      If Australia cannot build a car (without the majors using transfer payments to shift the profits offshore) then pouring good money after bad (more waste) is not the solution. Cost vs Benefit should not just mean votes gained.

      Disillusioned by "Animal Farm" snouts in trough
      Date and time
      December 05, 2012, 10:19AM
    • The reason environmentalism has failed (where say the rights movement has succeeded) is simple enough. In every case where large change occurs, it is because there is some disaffected group that is suffering under the current system. That's not the case for environmentalism. In fact we're being told we have to change to a system where we suffer from the one we have now.
      Populations can't make that choice. In the face of imminent 'real' danger the world could remake itself in under a decade. But faced with vague threats of slight temperature rises 50 years from now, people won't act and so the politician's that serve them can't either.
      I'm sad to say that yes we have failed the planet and ourselves. By time the issue becomes obvious it will be much too late to change the outcome.

      Date and time
      December 05, 2012, 10:35AM
    • Always get amused at these leftie greenies blaming big business and government for CO2 emission.
      Lets not consider the FACT that the emissions are caused by everyones modern day lifestyle. yes thats right families with 3 cars, every school child with a laptop at school, everyone's airconditioner, all those trinkets that we must have. ( business would not make them if you did not buy them ! )
      So let's stop blaming business and the government and start blaming ourselves. Funny to think that Bob Brown is in the top 5% of CO2 emitters in the world. THINK ABOUT THAT !

      Date and time
      December 05, 2012, 10:48AM
    • By 'letting' the blacks, hispanics and coloured people of the globe have equal rights it actually increased corporate profit and increased the target demographic. Making the same people (corporates) cut their emissions and potential profit is not going to have quite the same support.
      This is not a racist rant just telling it how it is

      Date and time
      December 05, 2012, 10:49AM
    • Would someone think of no children!!

      Date and time
      December 05, 2012, 10:53AM
    • So if alleged over-population is the cause of our alleged problems, which one of you geniuses that are always banging on about it is going to be the first to volunteer to save the planet by leaving it? Please.

      Date and time
      December 05, 2012, 11:31AM
    • baldrik thats what wars were for.

      population is only 1/2 the probelem. the fact that the developed world is leading such a wasteful lifestyle is the other half.

      Date and time
      December 05, 2012, 11:49AM

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