Update on Climate Change
The bad news and the good news
If you have been following the news about climate change, the issue can be quite depressing. Add to the mix the weakened commitment of the Australian public to climate action and the strong temptation is to either despair or denial. As Christians we place our trust in God and this is right, but there is also a massive movement for change afoot and it’s time Christians as a whole joined in more wholeheartedly.
In this article I hope to sketch out the developments regarding climate change over the past three years: the scientific developments, the legislation, action here and internationally and the possibilities for Christian engagement. As you will see, there’s reason for optimism too.
First, the bad news. From the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments report (1990) to the fourth (2007), scientists have shown increasing certainty about the IPCC’s climate modeling and their conclusions that climate change is largely human induced. The fifth assessment report is due in 2014.
In the meantime, dozens of scientific reports have shown worrying global trends. By late 2012, reports by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the World Meteorological Association, Global Carbon Project, Potsdam Institute and World Bank, among others, concurred that it is becoming increasingly unlikely that we will be able to keep temperature rises under 2 degrees. Indeed, the world is on track for 4 to 6 degrees warming over pre-industrial times by the end of this century.
Those of us who value social justice are particularly concerned for the fate of people in the developing world. In the words of the World Bank report: ‘It is likely that the poor will suffer most and the global community could become more fractured and unequal than today.’
More locally, the Climate Commission released a report in January called Off the Charts: Extreme Australian Summer Heat. The report says that the number of record heat days across Australia has doubled since 1960, and much greater increases in extremes can be expected in the next 30 to 50 years.
Since the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, negotiations at the annual UN Conference of Parties have produced only modest results. Most NGO observers, scientists and representatives of developing countries are exceedingly frustrated by the slow pace of progress. There has been no increased ambition from the major emitters to strengthen emissions reduction targets since Copenhagen. Also, there remains no practical, detailed pathway towards achieving the goal of a $100 billion a year Green Climate Fund for financing the adaptation needs of developing countries.
The best that can be said is that the Doha Climate Summit in 2012 concluded with an agreement to streamline negotiations towards a new legally binding agreement by 2015 that covers all major emitters, including the USA and China.
The take-home message is that the governments, business sector and civil societies of each country need to scale up their own efforts to reduce carbon emissions, regardless of what happens at international negotiations.
Climate skepticism in Australia
While the scientists have become more and more certain of the difficulty we are facing, Lowy Institute polling shows Australian opinion has become less and less convinced about the need to act. The proportion of people acknowledging that global warming is a pressing problem requiring action that may involve significant costs has declined from 68% in 2006 to 36% in 2012.
There are a few reasons for this: (1) Vested interests have supported a small minority of vocal opponents to the scientific consensus. The intention is to create enough doubt to prevent people from actively seeking solutions. (2) The relentless campaign waged by the Opposition against the Clean Energy Future legislation, or carbon price. (3) The willingness of the Rudd Government to walk away from political confrontation over what it earlier described as ‘the greatest moral challenge of our generation’. (4) The failure of international climate talks to secure an equitable and binding agreement on emissions reductions.
Here’s where the good news begins. The Australian political scene has changed dramatically since the days of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Strategy (CPRS) of the Rudd Government. At that time Labor was resistant to any input from the Greens, despite strong opposition to the CPRS from climate activists. After Julia Gillard became Prime Minister, she changed this situation by inviting input from the Greens, the Independents and the Coalition into the design of new legislation. The Coalition, by then under the leadership of Tony Abbott, refused to participate.
As a result of this broader participation in its design, the Clean Energy Future legislation (or carbon price) was a significant improvement over the original CPRS. It received broad support from the climate movement, which organized the ‘Say YES’ campaign, despite some environmental organisations remaining critical . Among its advantages over the original scheme are its limit on the use of international offsets to 50%; allowing voluntary actions to be additional to actions required to meet the 20% renewable energy target; that free permits to industry are guaranteed only for five years instead of ten.
The legislated measures are enough to ensure no new coal-fired power stations will be built. According to Tony Mohr of the Australian Conservation Foundation, in the six months from mid-2012 when the carbon price was introduced, 3,000 MW worth of generators have been retired. This is the equivalent of three coal-fired power stations or like taking 5.8 million cars off the road. No new coal-fired power stations are being planned.
Australia and Kyoto
It is encouraging that Australia has joined those few countries who have signed up to the Kyoto second commitment period. According to The Climate Institute, this locks both major parties into their promises of up to 25% emission reductions on 2000 levels by 2020. Also, by the end of 2013, Australia will need to show the world it has a clear plan to increase its contribution to the Green Climate Fund.
The Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) advocates for an emissions reduction target for Australia of at least 40% on 1990 levels by 2020. This is in line with the science and within our technological and economic capacity. We also advocate that Australia scales up its adaptation financing from the $600 million it has committed so far, to a figure closer to $2 - $4 billion annually. We have the moral responsibility and we have the capacity to do it.
International action outside of UN Climate Talks
Internationally there are some large well-resourced NGOs working tirelessly on climate change. Examples are Greenpeace International, ClimateWorks Network, 350.org and Friends of the Earth International. Large faith-based NGOs include Interfaith Power and Light in the USA and Operation Noah in the UK. There are also hundreds of thousands of smaller grassroots organisations and groups mobilised.
ClimateWorks is particularly impressive. Their 2011 Annual Report documents international progress: ‘In 2011 the deforestation rate in Brazil was down by 75 % from its peak in 2004; in Europe more than 70 % of new power plant capacity added in 2011 was from renewable resources. As next-generation power plants increasingly become low- or zero-carbon emitters, retirements of high-emitting power plants are accelerating.’
The Climate Institute notes that national carbon pricing schemes are now in place in 34 countries, with schemes also in place in certain States in the US and Provinces in Canada. China is piloting schemes in six provinces and cities. Professor Peter Newman, at last year’s Climate Summit, told us that car use is declining globally and metros are being built in 82 cities in China and 42 cities in India.
China, as the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy, is largely responsible for the rapid drop in the price of solar panels in recent years, and solar technology is becoming ever more sophisticated. The global market for clean energy has grown by 70% and is now worth about $260 billion annually. Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported that more money was invested in renewable energy in 2011 than fossil fuel power sources, such as coal and gas.
Scope for action
The call to action is both personal and structural. Ultimately we need to move away from the blind pursuit of economic ‘growth’ and replace it with the pursuit of human and ecological well-being. We need to re-imagine human prosperity and transition to an economy that encourages lifestyles that reflect ecological sustainability and justice. Such a transition is entirely consistent with all the religious traditions which advocate that human flourishing derives from our relationship with God, each other and the Earth, from justice and service to those in need and from contentment with simple living.
For us as Christians, in day-to-day terms this could translate into making lifestyle changes that will reduce our impact on the environment. These are changes such as using public transport more, insulating our homes, cutting unnecessary plane travel, moderating our use of air conditioning, eating less red meat, buying more locally, composting and using more renewable energy. Switching to 100% GreenPower or installing rooftop solar systems are among the most effective measures people can take. There are now 1.5 million Australian rooftops with either solar hot water or solar panels.
Such actions are a matter of personal integrity even if their global impact is obviously small. How can we, especially those of us who are Christians, allow a gap between our claims to care about creation and our actual consumption practices? Moreover, these are the only actions over which we have full control.
Our individual efforts are multiplied if we can bring our communities on board. A whole community can raise awareness among its members, make the community’s operations more sustainable and integrate caring for creation into their liturgical services. The Australian Religious Response to Climate Change has an excellent online up-to-date Christian Climate Action Kit now available to help make this more possible (see box). Other kits are being created in the Islamic, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist traditions.
To make the most far-reaching difference, however, structures that drive high fossil fuel consumption need to be changed. Hence, the major campaigns in Australia advocate for:
- Halting the expansion of coal mining and export
- Moratorium on coal seam gas mining and exploration
- Closure of coal-fired power stations
- Increasing the renewable energy target and the use of renewable energy
- Protecting Australia’s biodiversity and the Great Barrier Reef
- Building local resilience against extreme weather events
The election will be a major focus this year, with many NGOs advocating for strong action on climate change while remaining non-partisan. A common approach to this challenge is to develop an environmental scorecard for each of the parties, although it’s ultimately difficult to avoid the appearance of support for certain political parties.
Beacons of Christian hope
Already there are dozens of Christian parishes, networks, schools and organisations around Australia that have responded to the call to take action. These communities are beacons of hope for other Christians who understand the importance of responding to the ‘signs of the times’ (Matthew 16:4). Some of the organisations are the Pacific Calling Partnership, TEAR Australia and Caritas Australia, and some of the parishes are Templestowe Uniting Church, Victoria, and Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Tilba Tilba, ACT.
They have had to overcome the barriers we all face in attempting to address this issue – preoccupation with more immediate demands, human denial, concerns about costs, the risk of getting people off side and the temptation to believe that our own efforts will make no difference. Caring communities such as these demonstrate that the barriers are not insurmountable.
In the past, Christians have been leaders in various movements for social change. Once again it is time for Christians to be active agents for change in response to this arguably most urgent moral challenge of our time.
Thea Ormerod is the President of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC), a multi-faith member-based organisation.^ back to top