Is the Environmental Movement past its use-by date? A response.

Recently, Nick Feik wrote an article for SMH condemning the environment movement as ineffective. Not just ineffective, but so ineffective that if the civil rights had had a comparable impact, segregation would persist. His article is a kick in the guts to the delegates and civil society currently at the United Nations Climate Talks in Doha, Qatar trying desperately to reach an agreement on the incredibly complicated issue of climate change.

Fiek’s article underestimates the fierce opposition to action on climate change, fails to appreciate the evolution of the environment movement and wrongly allocate responsibility. That is not to say that the environment movement does not have work to do. To the contrary, as long as emissions are rising and not falling the environment movement has work to do. But this latest attack on the environment movements is not only unfair, it is counter productive.

First, is the issue of opposition and the usefulness of historical comparisons. Feik compares the environment movement to the civil rights movement. Whilst climate change may be comparable to the American civil rights movement in its duration; the comparison ignores over a hundred years of struggle around the world fighting for racial equality and the end of slavery. Not to mention even in the American context alone, the economic, social and political factors at play are vastly different. The civil rights movement involved the very visible, day to day oppression of a huge section of society based on the colour of their skin.

Climate change, however, does not manifest in the day to day visibility of being denied access to certain building, public spaces or jobs. It is not perpetuated by obvious villains like men in white Klu Klux Klan pointed hats who can be discredited and exposed as irrational and replaced with a more inspiring moral narrative. Climate change manifests in changing weather patterns that seem so gradual they go unnoted. Climate change manifests in increased extreme weather events that despite the devastation they reap still occur infrequently enough that, for those of us not inhabiting low island nation states, we can dismiss them as tragic aberrations.

Notably, the American civil rights movement involved mobilising a nation. In our increasingly interconnected world; climate change requires a global response. The hurdle here is that national reform is often contingent upon other countries acting first. This makes climate change a unique and entirely unprecedented global challenge in both scale and potential impact.

Moreover, unlike the civil rights movement where racial equality required sacrificing the racist views of some, for social cohesion and economic prosperity. Climate change requires the destruction of some incredibly powerful and wealthy industries which in turn employ millions of people worldwide. Climate change requires the upheaval of our fossil fuel dependent world and the building of a low-carbon energy system. This gives the environment movement a large number of enemies. Not just your obvious oil barons and coal cronies, but also your miners and their families who have spent generations living in the same coal towns. Not just countries like Australia whose prosperity is largely built upon its export industry, but also countries like India and China who rely on fossil fuels to build their emerging industries and support their growing populations. Climate change poses enormous equity issues which adds to the difficult task the environmental movement, governments and policy makers face when working towards a low carbon future whilst maintaining economic stability and equal opportunities for developing countries.

Having said that, I come to Feik’s underlying message, which is essentially defeat. Well, defeat or untried, untested geo-engineering. The pros and cons of this untapped silver bullet solution are best discussed elsewhere; but Feik’s premise that this is the only option is wrong.

We are on the path to irreversibly change our world for the worst. A +4 degree world will have enormous consequences for the habitability of low lying islands, food and water security, agriculture, health and the increased frequency of natural disasters. Progress is slow, and the science tells us that time is rapidly running out. However, we have not failed yet.

Last year, global investment in renewable energy sky-rocketed, reaching a record high of US$257 billion. Countries like Germany and Denmarks are beacons of possibility. Both are on track to meet very ambitious emission reduction targets and both support the collective ownership of renewable energy. Communities all chip in to buy a stake in their energy generation which makes start up finance more manageable and breaks the energy monopoly that allowed fossil fuels to maintain such a stronghold on the world. Germany is the world’s largest PV market, and its collectivisation initiatives are driving the cost of PV down for everyone.

Australia’s energy White Paper is another source of promise. Whilst the emphasis on natural gas warrants enormous criticism, it also features an unprecedented renewable energy target of  40% of Australia’s renewable energy by 2035 and 85% by 2050.This year at the United Nations Climate Talks, Doha, there has been much talk about international cooperative initiatives to increase renewable energy production, and eliminate hydrofluorocarbons prior to the much anticipated 2015 global deal. These regional partnerships are demonstrations of the way in which the environmental movement can help create political space for innovative ways to address the incredibly complex problem of climate change.

There is no doubt that we are running out of time to solve the problem of climate change. There is also no doubt, that in the face of enormous challenges, progress is being made – albeit not fast enough. What is needed is not stone throwing at the environment movement; but an acceptance of collective responsibility. Applying principles of corporate responsibility, economic risk aversion and sustainable growth will create space for our governments to do more both in terms of national policy and international agreements.

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