I’m going to Antarctica with the 2041 Antarctica Youth Ambassadors Program at the end of February next year. I’m going, because I believe that climate change is the greatest humanitarian issue we have ever faced, and we are horrifyingly slow at taking strong, decisive action to protect our people, our animals and our environment from its catastrophic effects.
I attended a lecture by Dale Jamieson (Director of Environmental Studies, New York University) a few weeks ago during which he mapped the history of climate change and our response to it (scientifically, politically and socially) and his hypothesis about how we will respond in the future. He said that the ultimate challenge we will face is not the number of parts per million of carbon dioxide there are in the atmosphere, but rather how we coexist sustainably with the changing systems of the planet. He characterized this as a “new challenge, because humanity is now a bigger planetary force than has ever existed in the past”.
The degree to which we are indeed a planetary force was highlighted in yesterday’s announcement that the rate of melting in the Arctic is 50% higher than previously estimated. This means that within four years the Artic might be ice-free in summer months. We need our ice capped poles to reflect much of the sun’s heat; regulating Earth’s temperature and allowing us to inhabit vast areas of its surface. Both the Arctic and Antarctica’s role in temperature regulation allow us to live in coastal areas that may soon be under threat from soil erosion due to rising sea levels. The layer of ice that is Antarctica may trap a reservoir of methane – a greenhouse gas with 21 times the warming capacity of carbon dioxide – which could be released if our icy poles keep melting at predicted rates because of climate change.
These are enormous changes to planetary forces that are, to our knowledge, unprecedented.
Climate change has been on the scientific agenda from the early 50s. It has been the subject of diplomatic negotiations from the late 50s but was brought to the forefront of global consciousness in 1979 with the world’s first Climate Conference held in Geneva. In 2009 many of us perhaps naively believed some sort of global consensus on strong action could be reached amidst the expectations and sense of urgency that imbued the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen.
During this time we have built Australia has exported over 270 million tonnes of coal annually. That comes to over 730 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. We watched Tuvalu run out of water last year and we have watched more frequent and extreme natural disasters wreak havoc globally. Still, the question remains unanswered – how much damage needs to occur before combatting climate change transitions from cheap rhetoric to urgent action?
There have been developments in the last year that are admirable. The price on pollution is a first step to cutting our carbon dioxide emissions. However, just under two weeks ago the Government announced that it will not be offering financial assistance to close high-emission power stations under the Contract for Closure program. Our Renewable Energy Target is under threat by energy heavy weights and last month the Government approved one of Australia’s biggest ever coal mines to be built in Queensland.
Which again leaves us asking – how much damage needs to be done before we feel compelled to take action? Action, I might add, that’s in all of our interest.
There are really only two possible scenarios. Taking action on climate change and dealing with the challenges of transitioning our economy, infrastructure and jobs towards sustainable, renewable energy. Or not taking action on climate change, and dealing with the challenges of increased extreme weather events, rising sea levels, inhabitability of coastal regions, biodiversity deficit and environmental refugees.
I know which one I’d choose.
The melting of the Arctic ice caps is a warning. How many more do we need before we make the choice to live in a safer, more sustainable way that safeguards not just the immediate economic interests; but protects the environment for the future.