thomas m wilson

Australia: 2050

November 4th, 2007

A modified excerpt of the following article was published last weekend in The Perth Voice and will also be published this weekend in Fremantle’s local paper, The Herald.

Australia has warmed 0.9 Celcius since 1950, with most of that taking place in the last twenty years. This is because our species has used the atmosphere as a sewer for CO2.


What’s coming?

First let’s remind ourselves that life could be pretty great in 2050. If there is major action from governments in the next five years around the globe we will be fine. In fact there will be even cleaner air to breath than we have now. Joseph Romm in his book Hell and Highwater (2006) says the world needs to do a few things, including: starting to build 1 million large wind turbines, making buildings much more energy efficient, increasing the efficiency of power generation, building 700 large nuclear power plants (and no, he doesn’t say that Australia needs to build any nuclear plants), making the world’s cars much more energy efficient, and stopping all tropical deforestation. WWF suggests we have five years from now to act. Romm thinks we have ten years. James Hansen of NASA also says we have ten years to get it right.

There are and will be plenty of government initiatives around the globe to tackle climate change, of this I have no doubt. But considering that a rise in over two degrees will flip the earth into a (self-generated) hotter and hotter state, tackling climate change becomes an either/or question. Either we stop the earth getting over two degrees hotter, or we don’t. So the question becomes, will we get the aggressive government-led regulations and frameworks that are required to do the job?

In Australia the Labour government that is (probably) in power for the next three years, starting in a few weeks time, isn’t looking flash. Currently they have an aspirational target of 60 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050, but not enough policies on the table to get us on the track to reach that point. Going into the 2007 federal election in Australia on 24 November the Greens have a target of 80 per cent reductions by 2050, as well as a comprehensive set of policies to get us there, starting immediately.

But with all this talk of climate change, let’s be honest about what will happen if we don’t act.

If we don’t act, the world will continue to get hotter, probably getting 2 degrees warmer in Perth by roughly 2050. This is a conservative IPCC derived figure – it could be higher. In the south-west of Australia rainfall has already declined by 25 per cent since the mid 1970s. This decline is the most drastic in all of Australia. It will continue to be the most drastic. Already the crowns of Wandoo trees in the south-west are turning brown here and there because of water stress. Perth has built one desalination plant, and another one is planned (both getting their energy from wind turbines). But nobody is going to build a desalination plant for nature. There will be no efficient reticulation installed along the floors of the majestic karri forests. By 2050 the plants and trees, along with the animals that use them as habitat, will be dying everywhere in the south-west. I will be an old man in 2050, and soon to die myself. The land high up in the Stirling Ranges, a living museum of strange and beautiful endemic plant species, will be a mausoleum. Max Dupain’s ‘The Sunbaker’, that iconic black and white photograph of the bronzed man with his head on his arms lying on the sand, along with the beach itself that he lay on and that is such a part of Australia’s sense of itself as a nation, will soon be gone with rising sea levels. There will be no wheat production from the ‘wheat belt’. The WA Wheat Belt will be called the WA Dust Bowl. Because Australia is rich, people will not starve to death in Perth (like they will be starving in their millions in other less developed parts of the world), but food will be many times more expensive. An increasing number of people will die each year from heat stroke, their internal body temperature going over 41 degrees on frighteningly hot days in February, and putting them into a coma. Figures like John Howard will be considered, looking back on history, like Chamberlain, someone who delayed an inevitable confrontation and lost us time. I won’t hear much birdsong anymore.


Get it? No water.

I’m not sure I want to have children now, as they will be around in the 2070s, when the rise of three degrees celcius has triggered positive feedback systems in the global biosphere, and the earth is moving, decade by decade, into an unpleasant and largely uninhabitable state. In my darker moments I’m not even sure I want to stay living in Perth in the next few years because of the grief I’ll have to go through seeing the death of nature in the south-west through permanent water-scarcity and consequently rampant and fierce wild fires while I’m in the last years of my life.

If you open the pages of the newsletter of the Australian Greenhouse Office, the government publication that tells us what our leaders are doing about the problem, you’ll see large colour photographs of the minister for the environment smiling warmly. In his smiling face you can see no hint that he has bad dreams at night.

But then we might expect that from a government that for the past 11 years has been blatantly corrupted by the involvement of members of the fossil fuel industry in the writing of cabinet submissions and ministerial briefings (see Clive Hamilton, Scorcher, 2007 and Guy Pearse, High and Dry: John Howard, climate change and the selling of Australia’s future, 2007).

More importantly, do most university educated Australians know that we have five to ten years to stave off the slide towards the end of our country as we know it, a slide that will happen in a handful of decades? The answer is no. If you pick up a newspaper anywhere in Australia tomorrow morning, will the front page treat our predicament as tantamount to how America saw the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December of 1941? Have a look. You can get back to me. The earth goes into glacial periods every few thousand years and is quite a bit colder than it is now. We are in a warmer, inter-glacial period. It is sad that the species Homo sapiens is going to probably make its cradle and its only home, already pretty warm, just too hot to live in. Can we at least get the word out that this is starting to happen right now? Surely we can at least go some way to remedy this colossal ignorance, an ignorance still widely encountered among even educated, well-meaning, left-wing people?

You might ask why I don’t get apathetic? I’ve had a good think about this. As I write this in 2007, there will still be nature around for the rest of our life times, here and elsewhere. If we fail to convince governments to govern on climate change, and this struggle isn’t yet lost, then, even then, it isn’t all over. Although they will be diminished in their extent and diversity as the decades go on, there will still be forests and ecosystems there to inspire and invigorate us. Nature, in some form, will be there to give us solace for the rest of our lives. This is undeniable. What is more, it will always be part of the meaningful human life to engage in ethical action. It will always be part of the well lived life to engage in the defense of nature. To really understand this I encourage you to read How Should We Live? by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer.

In the last 11 years of the Howard government’s rule, there have been plenty of ministers and lobbyists who, as we’ve now found out through leaked minutes or insider reports, have been scared of the effects green lobbying can have on public opinion. Which brings me to another great reason to raise your voice against government inaction on preventing global heating. Against the background of the corrupt ties between the Australian mining lobby and the Australian federal government over the last decade I would say:

‘You know you’re not wasting your time when your activities are clearly making corrupt politicians uneasy’.

We should all contact our elected representative at a state and federal level and ask them what they are doing to make sure our country reduces its emissions by 80 per cent (compared to 1990 levels) by 2050, as it must to avoid run-away climate heating globally. The technology is there to make that change, from energy efficiency improvements, to wind farms, to halting the destruction of forests. California has taken the first step down this visionary path.

I used to think that letter writing to politicians was a waste of time. However I recently talked to a friend who has worked with members of parliament in Canberra. According to this person, when individually written, polite yet forceful letters start to arrive in their hundreds or thousands, politicians can get scared and then start to listen. I’m going to write one of these letters to Jim McGinty, my state representative for Fremantle, and Melissa Parks, the soon to be federal Labour representative for Fremantle. I am going to tell my local member that I will not vote for a government that allows Australian greenhouse gas pollution to keep rising. It is admirable and important that we all reduce our carbon footprint. However, it seems that at this late hour in world history writing this kind of letter is more important than reducing your personal carbon emissions.

The future has not arrived. We can help to make the future. But we need to understand the obstacles to change. George Marshall has said that “Climate change lends itself to a psychological phenomenon called the bystander effect… By and large people are conformist- they look to the wider values to set their own moral compass. People take the general lack of response to climate change as the norm and the basis for their own position. The individual bystander sees a lack of action by the other bystanders and feels that their own decision not to become involved has become validated. And so we all sit around and wait.”

But what if the individual bystander looked around and saw me or you contacting their elected representative to call for fast and deep cuts in overall greenhouse gas emissions?

What if they saw you or me at a protest rally?

Rapid and positive social change is not an impossibility. The drum beat of public outcry is building. It is getting louder and louder. Let’s start demanding real action from government.

I’ll be on the Esplanade of Fremantle at 1pm on 11 November, along with thousands of other Australians, at the ‘Walk against Warming‘.

In the words of the reggae band Fat Freddy’s Drop:

‘Hope for a generation. Just beyond my reach. Not beyond my sight.’