Sidestepping the Apocalypse – Address to the Carbon Market Institute

May 13, 2019 | News

A hell summer in Oz, super storms smashing people world wide, a million species on the chopping block. The incoming national govt must take emergency steps now. My address to Carbon Market Institute:


Sidestepping the Apocalypse

I want to thank the Carbon Market Institute and CEO Peter Castellas, for the invitation to deliver this keynote address.

This year’s summit is titled ‘Future proofing the Australian Economy’. I’ve been in the field of climate politics for a while now, and given the task facing all of us is much greater than this measured conference title implies, I’ve decided to title my address ‘Sidestepping the Apocalypse’.

I came of age in a time of optimism mixed with fear. On the plus side; the moon landing, no major wars or economic depressions, at least in Australia.

On the negative side; the build up of nuclear weapons, a cold war with the potential to go hot, emerging environmental degradation and widespread poverty in many developing countries.

Some of these issues have been partly or fully resolved, a number are still works in progress. But now catastrophic climate chaos is propelling the foundations of our existence into a tailspin, making it even harder for us to prevail over multiple global and local challenges.

I have experienced a lot of confronting things over a lifetime fixed on music and political activism. You may not be surprised to know that I also had some bring-you-up-short moments during my decade in the federal parliament, firstly serving as a Labor shadow minister with responsibility for climate change, then spending six years in cabinet as environment and then education minister.

However, the most confronting event I experienced in that period actually had nothing to do with federal politics.

As it happened, I was one of the first politicians to visit the towns of Kinglake and Marysville, just an hour’s drive north of here, after the monster Black Saturday bushfires of 2009.

Nothing prepared me for the staggering scale of destruction so close at hand.

Some 173 people perished, many more were injured – a loss that to this day still ripples out through families and the community. The razed bush was then eerily silent, with hundreds of tens of thousands of native species gone. The hills were a moonscape, where battalions of bare, blackened sticks stood forlornly in a huge sea of ash that stretched as far as the eye could see.

As I stood looking out I was confronted by what I’d seen, but also by a thought that must have occurred to others … “this is just a taste of things to come”.

Bushfires are a part of Australian life, to be sure, but it was obvious how vulnerable many communities were as days grew hotter and summers longer. Of course this was a part of the Labor government’s rationale for acting to

curb greenhouse gas emissions. These events would happen with greater ferocity, and unless we pressed the start button and began to reduce carbon, we would be consigning future generations to a dangerous life in the land of the blazing inferno.

This was the great moral challenge of our time. That’s what I thought then. I believe it even more strongly today.

Fast-forward ten years and the Great Barrier Reef; the greatest natural wonder in the world, generator of masses of income and many thousands of jobs, is being scalded beyond recognition. As is another World Heritage area that we are duty bound to conserve, the Tropical Rainforests of North Queensland, with ever warming conditions the main culprit.

We have emerged from another record breaking hotter than hell summer, where our single most important major river system has been brought to its knees, stopped flowing altogether, and bushfire activity is again off the scale.

The fire chief of the central Queensland region – below the site of the proposed giant Adani coal mine – was moved to observe that he’d never seen anything like such intense early season wildfires, again with warmer weather the culprit. To the north emergency services were stretched to breaking point by cyclones and floods that followed the fires.

As temperatures keep inexorably rising, coupled with yet another drought elsewhere in the land, it was inevitable that water shortages weren’t far away. Sure enough Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne are now preparing for water rationing. Inland NSW towns are desperately low, some have run out of water, and you.can’ Even Darwin in monsoon land will have to restrict water use for the first time ever.

So I find myself, amidst the talk of Kyoto, Paris, RETs, NEGs, carbon markets, costs and opportunities, percentage reductions, and parts per million, laboring the point, restating what has been bleeding obvious for some time. We are turning the world upside down and inside out, boiling it almost over.

“Climate change” is not remotely adequate to describe what we are seeing all around us. The term I choose to use is “climate chaos” as it’s simply a more accurate description of what is happening all around the globe.

Much of the media and mainstream culture are still actively or passively in denial, although it will grow ever harder to tackle climate chaos with each passing month of ignorance, be it willful or blind.

Despite – or maybe even because of this – I retain the hope that we can get on top of this raging, runaway monster. But to do so we will need to squarely face the reality of what the science is telling us.

I retain hope because through the smoky haze of history, and presently visible in schools and boardrooms, on farms and in families, a growing human resolve to respond to this crisis can be discerned. People can and will organise, galvanize others and bring forward planet saving solutions.

And contrary to the accepted wisdom repeated ad nauseum that Australia has experienced a decade of woeful climate politics and inaction, I contend the truth is a little different.

After a rocky start, marked by obstructive politics from the Coalition and the Green Party, accompanied by a loss of nerve by the then Labor leadership when the initial carbon pollution reduction scheme foundered, Australia did start to get on top of dangerous climate chaos. With good policy in place, we soon had the highest per capita installation of Solar PV on households in the world.

The eventual introduction of a price on carbon in 2011 saw actual emissions reductions – the holy grail of climate policy – and notwithstanding the warnings of various Chicken Littles the sky didn’t fall in. It was a brief but successful interregnum, despite it’s limited ambition.

The market mechanism was working until wrecker in chief Tony Abbott reemerged and the climate wars resumed. But given the right leadership and sufficient will, we can do it again.

We know there are powerful voices which still argue against change.

Some recalcitrants – nations states, corporations and individuals – have a threatened business model.

Some deny the facts and choose fanciful conspiracy theories to justify their superstition, even whilst occupying the Treasury benches.

Some persist in thinking a magic technology pill will emerge that can instantly cure the ‘warmer planet’ disease. Or get excited about people, maybe America’s rich listers, settling on Mars, where conditions are so conducive to fertility, growing your own vegies will be a doddle.

Others seem plain afraid of humanity coming together. Perhaps their deepest fear, as Nelson Mandela once observed, is being ‘powerful beyond measure’, and actually taking a giant collective step.

So it’s worth recapping what we know.

There’s too much CO2 in the system already, and concentrations are increasing. We passed 415ppm – an unthinkable statistic when we were first alerted to global warming – on Hawaii only two days ago.

The current economic model is literally unsustainable. Business as usual expectations, such as ramped up activity across a range of sectors like air travel or forecast GDP growth increases, make a mockery of current policies and targets. That is unless drastic steps are taken to reach the mandatory goal of zero net emissions by 2050.

The extent and effect of cumulative and non-linear climate chaos impacts is just beginning to emerge, whether by mega droughts and super storms affecting agricultural productivity and risking food crises, or sea level incursion spreading disease and sparking social unrest.

The nearly 8 billion people on earth – mainly in the major emitting nations – poured around 37 billion tonnes of CO 2 into the atmosphere last year, the highest amount ever.

Now there are those who say. ‘Well I accept that we can’t go on pumping out vast quantities of greenhouse gases. I agree we have to do something’. This usually means a so called orderly transition to a low carbon economy; harnessing the market; creating new value, utilizing innovation, advancing renewable technologies and the like.

I agree market forces with redirected capital investment and expanded trading opportunities can accelerate emission reductions. In fact they are essential. But an approach fixated on risk management, existing market processes and incremental steps will not by itself be enough.

That was an option in 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was agreed. It is not an option today. The ambitious transformations now required will not be without pain and not without large losses for some sectors and their investors. It should be noted they were duly warned and informed. They chose to deny and delay rather than act, so they will soon have to reap their own bitter harvest.

As you would be aware the major recent scientific study by the IPCC, has worked through the data challenging previous assumptions about the speed and scale of global warming.

The tipping point cautious scientists refer to when positing when we lose control of earth’s climate is closer than most people think.

We must halve CO2 emissions by 2030, and reach net zero emissions by 205 to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, past which point we experience a runaway climate.

Whilst the human race won’t be extinct in eleven years, that is the logical endgame of climate chaos – rising seas, spreading deserts, economic collapse, nations warring over scarce resources, ecosystem breakdown – in a longer timeframe, if we don’t take decisive action now.

Given this scenario it is a relief that there are positive signs of a reinvigorated thirst for change. The community is starting to rise up.

The polls show that climate/environment has moved higher as an issue of concern for voters in the upcoming election. Young people, who will bear the greatest burden of a failure to act, are on the streets.

Civil disobedience – the type of activism that defined my early days as a campaigner against nuclear weapons – has emerged courtesy of the Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes for climate. This is to be applauded.

There is a growing momentum within the business community, as evidenced here tonight. Internationally there is much activity aimed at transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables, with many European nations on the front foot and China and India out of the blocks as well.

There are a growing number of examples.

The UK government has announced an early phase out of coal-fired power. And the recent parliamentary declaration of a climate emergency driven by the Labor opposition is a sign of things to come. The election commitment by Federal Labor to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030 is a positive start.

On this issue alone the Coalition have forfeited any right to be taken seriously for reasons too obvious and depressing to rehash tonight. Just think lumps of coal brought into Parliament by the current Prime Minister, arguably the most misplaced talisman in recent memory.

If we fail to act on climate chaos at this point in our history then Australians will be hostage to external and increasingly unpredictable events of an order of magnitude and seriousness of threat most reasonably compared to war.

I’m not comfortable with the military analogy but it is applicable for the simple fact that it is the closest example we have for an incoming government to reference.

Climate chaos washes across borders, it is on a world scale. Our national interest is at stake, as is our relations with other nation states.

So let me sketch out what satisfactorily coming to grips with this crisis might entail. An approach if we took the science at face value and responded – as we do on matters of national defence and security – to logically address major and existential risks that threaten our peace and stability.

Firstly the incoming government must follow suit and declare runaway climate change a bona fide national emergency.

Next, if a Labor government is elected it should call for a bipartisan approach, supported by Liberal and minor party MP’s who understand the issue and are willing to cross the floor, along with any elected Independents, most who have already shown themselves to be so minded. This is how nations behave when they are threatened as ours now is.

Parliament should – as soon as possible – pass into law Labor’s existing climate policy commitments including on emission reduction targets, and stronger environment laws. Whilst leaving open the capacity to ramp up those measures once diligent consideration has been given to how best to manage the climate chaos emergency.

The government should also convene climate emergency national summit (one is already planned with unions) with stakeholders of goodwill. Drawing on existing expertise from BOM, CSIRO, The Climate Council, The Chief Scientist, Universities, security agencies, relevant departments, unions, churches and civil society, to better delineate the scope of climate chaos impacts across all sectors, and plot the transition path to zero carbon.

Businesses that are genuinely engaged and want to be part of this great economic transformation should be welcomed. Their energy, excitement and expertise is needed to open up the possibilities ahead.

Many of them will profit hugely from the myopic leadership of the old fashioned businesses they replace. We should celebrate that success as these true leaders help to build more sustainable businesses for the benefit of all.

Then there are those that resist and delay change – and seek to socialize their losses. To put it mildly, they should not be welcomed. Their resistance helped get us into deep trouble and the market should be left to deal with them through the consequential loss of value. As I say, they were duly warned and chose to ignore those warnings.

Returning to the idea of a national emergency government.

Our national interest also requires a reconfiguration of COAG so as to better direct planning and infrastructure decisions aimed at managing climate chaos. It is untenable for local government, territories and small state governments to be expected to bear the brunt of those costs when an integrated national approach is clearly essential.

There are a raft of to do’s needing urgent attention including; Lifting commercial and residential building energy efficiency ratings and vehicle emissions standards; substantially improving water efficiency infrastructure to better handle longer, hotter periods including droughts; containing coastal development, especially that vulnerable to sea level rise and storm incursion; ensuring grid improvements, accelerated adoption of electric vehicles.

How about a massive public works scheme to make the country more resilient to extreme climate, including the provision of large scale carbon sinks to drawdown carbon – also a way to engage our farmers and regional communities – and rehabilitation of degraded waterways and landscapes, with substantial participation by First Nation’s peoples?

How about a speedy and rapid transition out of coal, with an immediate moratorium on future coal, oil and gas developments, whilst increasing the target for renewables and then let the market continue to get on with the job? This is where all the jobs growth will be.

How about the provision of regular and clear information on the progress of climate change via weather reports, a state of the carbon budget report, a natural set of accounts alongside the current budget?

The government should issue long-term climate bonds to boost available finance, and enact sensible tax reform measures targeted at unsustainable activities and free riders.

So as I say, there’s a lot to do and we need to act now otherwise the challenge gets harder and the ‘to do’ lists grow longer.

Of course many of these proposals have already been canvassed, some have been in place and had success. Others are self evidently needed. What is required to drive the change is this sense of urgency.

Ladies and Gentlemen this is about much more than “future proofing the economy” this is about ensuring that the economy – and the people who it notionally serves – actually get to have a future.

Internationally Australia needs to return to the table with a pro-active and constructive stance to advancing global action.

It is nothing short of scandalous that as a first world nation with high per capita emissions, exporting coal at the volumes we do, we have been a laggard and spoiler in international climate negotiations whenever the Coalition has been in office. History will judge our role in this period harshly.

We should strengthen our relationships across the Pacific and South East Asian sphere with co-operative policies and action on climate as the primary driver. This approach has the added benefit of lessening our vassal state status, providing ballast in the region against the expansionist tendencies of China, and the quixotic nature of current US foreign policy.

A super department aligned to Treasury, similar to the Department of Post War Reconstruction headed up by Nugget Coombes in 1946, with the specific task of implementing the transition should be established, as should a stand- alone ‘War’ Cabinet committee, charged with the responsibility of overseeing the new initiatives, and ensuring Australia meets it’s emission reduction goals.

We should breathe life back into our democracy by establishing and empowering climate panels, with representatives from local government, civil society institutions and community groups to feedback on the progress and details of implementation to their community, local MP’s and to the Parliament. There are many lessons from WWII of the power and benefit of such an approach during a national crisis.

Globally we will see shifts driven by the end of fossil fuels, with many countries that are rich and powerful today facing massive economic hardships and resulting societal blowback occasioned by their loss of oil income.

Regionally, we could see food and climate crises driving climate refugees our way on a scale beyond anything we have ever faced. This isn’t so implausible, for even with the best-case global emergency response to climate, as past emissions will continue to lead to climate chaos and worsening impacts for decades after the carbon curve finally gets bent downwards.

This climate emergency approach needs to be central to future security and defence planning as well defining a strong and positive engagement with our neighbours – in our national interest and in theirs.

Without sounding alarmist I believe the Australian Defence Forces and the Reserve need to be geared up and ready to play a greater role given climate chaos will put significant pressure on domestic infrastructure and emergency services, and the unpredictable ways it could reshape geopolitics in our region.

This is just a sketch of what we must consider. It is not farfetched or utopian. It is what any rational response to the climate science tell us we must do if we are to manage the difficult new world of climate chaos.

There is another component of sidestepping apocalypse that needs hard thinking, and that is how we humans act.

Most of what I’ve suggested can only be undertaken by a strong national government, deploying the full arsenal of the modern state to meet a clear and present danger. It is fanciful to think it can happen any other way.

But politics is on the nose at present, with fractured party loyalties and extreme on line gatherings stirring the possum. Governments and their bureaucracies, panels, committees, companies and communities are only as capable and responsible as the people that make them up, and, as the people who vote for them and must hold them to account. Now our values must be strengthened to meet this desperate time as well.

We have to reprioritize doing no harm, and try and peel away the cynical, greedy parts of our nature (note to self) that is so subject to manipulation by the marketing and advertising industry.

We must nurture our capacity for empathy, and love for others, and the living planet that sustains us.

We have to truly embody the principle of intergenerational equity; in our actions and those of the institutions we are a part of, not in empty proclamations and facile PR, but in real action.

We have to think clearly about the interconnected nature of the natural world, one where a million species are now threatened with extinction, in part by climate dysfunction. No one will escape from global warming in a gated housing complex.

Water and soil and atmosphere, oceans and forests, already in a parlous state, must be made healthy again. Ecosystems cannot continually be depleted, especially when under such pressures as extreme weather, till a wasteland is the final framed photograph of our era. And all we have left is a snapshot memory of missed opportunities, life dimming at the end of a waste ridden, rutted road.

To be blunt, the collective ‘we’, have to stop indulging in fantasy and denial and get on with the job at hand.

Now I happen to believe we can succeed. After all, what is the alternative? And there are many reasons to think we can.

Firstly while the task can seem overwhelming it’s not that difficult. We have the technologies and more are on the way. We have an economy that can respond very quickly to new inputs and constraints, new opportunities, a zero carbon model to aim for, exciting innovation to drive the system, multiple job creation, and little socialising of loss, providing government institutes the right settings – this world is an exciting place to be.

Secondly Australians have a good chance of managing the transformation required. We are good at consensus. We have experienced overall improvements in living conditions, with notable exceptions, and our knowledge base is broad. Our relative peace and stability are incredible domestic assets in this time of turmoil we are now entering.

Thirdly, this is the spirit of the age. Climate chaos is the meta issue above all others, not in importance, but in urgency and irreversibility, and to be a part of waging the good fight to bring the mother ship back into balance can bring meaning and purpose to each and every person in this age.

Now tonight I’ve deliberately avoided using the term “Climate Change” but in closing I’ll use that term just once … I actually believe we urgently need a ‘climate change’ if we are to deal with deadly climate chaos. Governments, corporations, NGO’s, Unions, Individuals. We all need to change and lift our approach to climate. To quote a rock’n’roll band I know and love “it happens to be an emergency, some things aren’t meant to be”.

So let’s get on with sidestepping the apocalypse, and start making the world a safer, saner place in which everyone can survive, prosper and grow.

– Peter Garrett, Melbourne 2019