Thursday, November 28, 2013

Personal and political: why cycling and recycling are insufficient

What can I do in response to climate change? As I talk to people about climate and ecology, I get asked this with great frequency, and this is not surprising. Previously, I've tried to put together a bit of a list of suggestions. Yet in replying to such a question, I often point out that "what can I do?" is a secondary question. More important than what I can do is what we can do.

Now of course there are indeed all kinds of things I can do to reduce my contributions to climate-altering emissions: buying less stuff, ditching the car, cutting flying, purchasing renewable energy, eating less meat and dairy and so on (note that recycling or changing lightbulbs, which are the usual answers people want to hear are way down this list, since they are relatively minor compared to some of the things here).

Personal footprint reductions are good, being: (a) simply the right thing to do in a world throwing away its habitable climate; (b) culture-shaping (normalising solar-installation, for instance); (c) economic communication to corporations (though this influence is plutocratic in effect, since it is one dollar one vote); (d) a talking point for persuasion (people ask questions); (e) an actual (albeit tiny) contribution to global emissions reduction; and (f) important for avoiding the all-too-easy charge of hypocrisy (this is one of the most common lazy defeater arguments people use to keep these issues at bay and it's powerful to be able to show how you're shifting your lifestyle).

But personal footprint reductions are secondary. On the timescales we have and with the structure of the problem locating particular power in massive fossil fuel interests to block progress (through corruption/regulative capture of the political authorities), it is critical that responsible action focus on cultural and political action. If we had a century in which to reduce emissions then personal lifestyle changes and a bottom-up cultural change would undoubtedly be the way to go. If we were not facing one of the richest and most powerful industries in history with a track record of shaping the political landscape to suit its agenda, then building a new and better alternative would be relatively straightforward.

Unfortunately, we don't have decades to start reducing emissions. A significant fraction of our emissions today will still be altering the climate in tens of thousands of years and we're already at the point where the observed changes (let alone those in the pipeline due to the temporal lag between emissions and warming) are becoming increasingly dangerous to human and natural systems. Two degrees warming is flirting with disaster; four degrees is a recipe for catastrophe. Our current trajectory is heading for four degrees or more. Every year we delay, the price tag of the necessary emissions reductions jumps by something like US$500 billion.

We're well past the stage where quietly changing a few lightbulbs is going to cut it.

This is one of the reasons why I am excited about the campaign to get individuals and institutions with a social conscience (churches, universities, city governments) to divest from fossil fuels. Divestment is not primarily an economic strategy, since my few dollars will always be dwarfed by the massive sums and inertia associated with business as usual. Divestment is a cultural and political strategy, changing the nature of what is normal and thinkable (i.e. culture) by putting fossil fuels into the same category as other "unthinkable" ways of making money (e.g. asbestos, tobacco, weapons, gambling, etc.), and in doing so, also changing the way that the political winds are blowing, repositioning the fossil fuel lobby to be as politically toxic (or more) than, say, the tobacco lobby. When politicians are embarrassed to be seen publicly with the fossil fuel lobby, we're winning; when they know they have to stop receiving all donations from them due to the political costs involved, then we've won.

At least round one.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Good planets are hard to come by

Speech delivered at the Sydney rally for the National Day of Climate Action on 17th November 2013 at Prince Alfred Park.
Good planets are hard to come by.

And, thank God, haven't we've scored a beauty with ours? Abundant, diverse, complex and full of wonders. So what on earth are we doing to Earth?

I've spent years reading climate science, and the big picture is crystal clear. The planet is warming rapidly; we are the primary cause; a fossil-fuelled future is a recipe for catastrophe; but another future is still possible, if we change course now. That's why we're here today. We want to see and take part in ambitious responsible sane effective climate action.

We're here from all kinds of backgrounds: various ages, colours, different faiths or no faith, differing political persuasions. What unites us is a shared concern for our future on the only planet we've got. We want to be able to pass on to our children, like my son Marlowe here, a world that is as good or better than the one we received from our parents.

(We're here because we cannot keep silent any longer. Australia contributes far more than our fair share to the climate problem. With just 0.3% of the world's population, we dig up almost 5% of the world's fossil fuels each year. Wouldn't you love to be part of a country doing more than the minimum, a country taking the lead in implementing real solutions?)

I've been asked to share what motivates me as a Christian who is passionate about climate. There are all kinds of reasons, but one that has got under my skin is that Jesus invites me to love my neighbour. Not just the neighbours on my street. Nor just our neighbours in the Blue Mountains who lost homes to the fires, but our global neighbours in China choking on our coal smoke, our Pacific Islander neighbours facing rising sea levels, our African farmer neighbours losing crops to drought.

Jesus invites us to love our neighbours. Will we love our neighbours in future generations who will inherit our mess? And not just Marlowe's generation; our emissions today will still be affecting the climate many thousands of years into the future.

Jesus invites us to love our neighbours. And don't forget our non-human neighbours in the millions of other species with whom we share the gift of life and this marvellous home.

All these neighbours – the global poor, future generations and other species – have done little or nothing to contribute to this problem, but are facing the worst consequences of our recklessness. I want a better future for Marlowe. But I also want a better future for all of us.

And the good news is that another way is possible. Jesus said that our life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions. We don't need to spend our lives accumulating as many toys as possible, expending as much energy as possible, hoarding as much wealth as possible. We don't need to use the dirtiest forms of energy just because they seem marginally cheaper in the short term. We can live more simply, and leave space for others to simply live.

And when you meet people who disagree, vested interests who want to keep profiting from pollution, politicians who drag their feet and propose too little, too late, then ask them, "with all due respect, which planet are you on?"
Despite heavy rain the rally in Sydney still numbered in the many thousands, as can be seen in this picture from the stage just before I started speaking. Unfortunately, there were some serious technical issues with the sound system during the first half of the rally, so I think only a fraction of the crowd could hear anything. Also, the heaviest rain of the morning commenced as I was introduced, which further reduced the acoustics for a crowd standing under umbrellas.

The references to Marlowe (my one year old son) were included in the script as I intended to have him on my shoulders as I spoke but were modified in delivery because he was too freaked out by the cheers of the crowd and so we decided to leave him with his mother. The paragraph in parenthesis was to be dropped if time was short.

The top image is a banner my wife, mother-in-law, sister and some friends made yesterday. It got a lot of attention (and featured on SBS news) and people kept asking if we had a website. It's coming!

There was another rally in Sydney today against climate action held at the same time in a different corner of the same park. Total numbers? I counted about five or six people carrying signs and shouting, plus about twenty police since the five or six were being particularly obnoxious (rude, angry, malicious) and clearly the police weren't particularly needed for the big rally, which was peaceful, family-friendly and very well attended for a soggy day.

My friend Mick Pope spoke at the Melbourne rally, which had something like 30,000 people (and fine weather!). You can read his speech here.