Climate Emergency: Radical and urgent action needed
to avert ecological, social, and economic catastrophe
Humanity faces an existential challenge: to preserve the ecosystems of Planet Earth against the catastrophic threats of climate change. Our ecosystems and the civilisations that depend on them face catastrophic collapse unless we make radical change to our economic and social relations – there will be no civilisation on a dead planet.
Dealing with climate change is a social and economic justice issue. The harshest impacts of climate change fall on those least responsible for carbon emissions, but who are most vulnerable due to living in precarious environments, poverty and political marginalisation. These communities include First Nations, Pacific Islanders, and low-income communities. Climate change threatens mass displacement of people within and between countries.
Australia’s catastrophic 2019-20 fire season, this year’s disastrous East Coast floods, more frequent and severe heat waves, and loss of biodiversity and ecosystem health, prove that climate change is a current emergency, no longer ‘an issue for the future’. The costs of not acting are now a stark reality for Australians.
Globally, the March 2022 report of the IPCC expert panel called ‘code red’:
The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.
Yet governments are still slow to act. Despite significant gains at last year’s COP26, the policy responses do not yet meet the ever-more-pressing need to avoid irreversible damage from climate change. Australia has the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions from coal power in the world according to data from COP.
A recent estimate put the total losses to Australia of unmitigated climate change as nearly $2.7 trillion. Against this, the cost of meeting the Paris Target is $122 billion, ‘a more than a 20 to 1 ratio of the damages from climate change to the costs of emissions reduction’.
Blocking the way to the urgently needed radical social change is a powerful alliance of fossil-fuel interests that have stalled and sabotaged actions to avoid dangerous climate change. As a result, actions in Australia and globally have fallen well short of what is required to avert catastrophe. This country is a global outlier and laggard on climate action.
The challenge is to achieve a rapid and just social and economic transition to a zero-carbon economy while protecting the legitimate interests of workers, communities and businesses whose wellbeing and livelihoods suffer from unavoidable changes. A ‘just transition’ to a carbon-neutral economy, advocated by unions, environment and community groups, and progressive businesses and governments, is critical. So is building energy democracy through public and community control over energy systems, and energy security with particular support for low-income households and families.
The interests and power of people and Nature must be asserted over those who wish to exploit fossil fuels and carbon-intensive industrial production for profit and wealth.
The 2014 Paris Conference, while a significant breakthrough in global climate policymaking, nonetheless tabulated reduction targets that, in total, would result in 2.7°C of global heating. The Glasgow Climate Pact of 2021 registered stronger commitments to emissions reductions and increased pressure on laggard nations like Australia, but key points were watered down to appease fossil-fuel interests.
The Climate Targets Panel (CTP), independent Australian climate scientists and policymakers who aim for targets informed by sound science, has found that for Australia to contribute fairly to keeping global heating below 1.5°C, it needs targets of 74% below 2005 levels by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2035.
The next Federal government must adopt these targets as the basis of Australia’s climate policies, and to implement economic, energy and employment policies consistent with achieving them. Even more stringent targets to limit global heating may be necessary.
Policies to achieve net zero emissions by 2035 or sooner will centre on science-based targets, strong regulations, incentives for investments in renewable-energy technologies, technology transfer, and energy markets that put a price on pollution with no exemptions for polluting industries, and no use of offsets that will only result in ‘on paper’ reductions. Appropriate support, including compensation, should be provided to vulnerable groups affected by the changes.
Australia will also need policies including:
- Interventionist industry policies to accelerate a just, secure-job transition to a zero-carbon economy, and harness the potential for new jobs, including research, training, and investment in renewable-energy technologies, energy efficiency technologies, green metals processing, sustainable transport options and water systems, biomaterials, green buildings, waste minimisation and recycling systems.
- Reformed and democratic urban and regional planning to achieve sustainable human settlements, supported by massive expansion of public transport
- Reform of urban and rural land use, including stronger restrictions on land clearing and an end to ineffective and frequently corrupt ‘offset’ schemes.
- No new fossil-fuel extraction and production projects.
- An end to all forms of subsidy, both overt and hidden, to fossil-fuel-based industries.
- Investment in climate adaptation and resilience to vulnerable communities, including protection of ecosystems, affordable climate-safe housing, water and energy security, and support to people displaced by climate impacts on their homes.
While radical reforms towards a just transition are essential right now, such reforms can also help build both the basis of and broad support for more far-reaching changes towards a democratic, ecological, socialist society based on the needs of people and nature, not on profit and wealth.