Monday, September 29, 2014

The Melbourne Writers Festival: A Climate of Extinction.

At the recent Melbourne Writers Festival I attended two sessions with climate change and the future of the planet at their centre. One of the sessions was called The Science of Survival, a discussion of the book The Sixth Extinction, written by journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. The book’s main contention is that the Earth is currently experiencing a sixth period of mass extinction. The other session was The Politics of Climate Change, academic Phillip Chubb’s account of the failure of the climate change debate in Australia. 

The Science of Survival.

Elizabeth Kolbert  is an American journalist and author on the environment for The New Yorker magazine and National Geographic. She discussed her new book, The Sixth Extinction, with Australian agricultural scientist, Dr John Williams. The moderator for the session was Australian malaria scientist Dr Krystal Evans. 

The Sixth Extinction says there have been five comparable periods of mass extinction to what is currently occurring. Kolbert said that the current extinction rate of flora and fauna could be as high as that of the last mass extinction, 66 million years ago. A meteor caused that mass extinction, humans are causing the current mass extinction. 

She said one of the main reasons for this mass extinction period is ocean acidification caused by too much carbon dioxide entering the oceans. She said the Great Barrier Reef will cease to exist by the middle of this century.

Another reason for the decimation of flora and fauna is the introduction of new species by humans, such as those flushed into foreign waters from the ballast of ships. Humans are great at introducing pests into new areas.

Williams said humans had transformed 40% of the Earth’s land, and there wasn’t a river that had not been altered by humans.

Kolbert warned that the dominant creatures did not survive in each of the last mass extinctions. So will humans survive this one? 

The Politics of Climate Change.

Phillip Chubb is a Walkley Award winner who was the editor for the National Times and an investigative journalist for The Age. He was also executive producer of the 7.30 Report. He is currently Head of Journalism in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University.

He said Kevin Rudd was the major reason for the failure of Australian politicians to tackle climate change.

Chubb said that before the 2007 election John Howard’s emissions trading scheme was not dissimilar to Kevin Rudd’s scheme. There was consensus between the political parties to implement a scheme. But after the election Rudd used climate change to undermine the then leader of the opposition Brendan Nelson and then Malcolm Turnbull. So we ended up with Tony Abbott and consensus on climate change was lost. Chubb thought that If Rudd had not played politics with his emissions trading scheme it probably would have been introduced.

Chubb said Rudd went to the Copenhagen climate change conference thinking Australia would get the world to do something about climate change. But the conference failed to do anything. Chubb said Rudd then had an emotional breakdown.

The Senate voted on Rudd’s emissions trading scheme in 2009. Two liberals crossed the floor to vote for the scheme. If the Greens had voted for it, it would have passed. Chubb said the primary reasons the Greens voted against the scheme were the high level of compensation proposed for brown coal users and the low 5% reduction in emissions target. But both of these were in Gillard’s carbon tax legislation which the Greens voted for.

When the Greens blocked Rudd’s emissions trading scheme, Chubb said Rudd should have gone to a double dissolution election. Everyone in Labor wanted a double dissolution in early 2010, but they decided not to call one because they thought Rudd was emotionally incapable of running an election campaign.

Rudd shelved this scheme and then there was a devastating leak about that shelving, to which Rudd reacted appallingly.

Rudd, Wayne Swan and Penny Wong had been the driving forces behind climate policy. Gillard had not had much to do with climate policy before she became leader. She had been busy working on other issues.

When Gillard became Prime Minister she made mistakes by coming up with a scheme to have 150 people chosen from the election roll to help decide the government’s carbon policy. And, of course, she said there would no carbon tax under her government. 

One effective thing Gillard did was the creation of a multi-party committee on climate change that included the Greens and the independents. She was much more consultative than Rudd. This enabled her to get the carbon tax legislation passed in 2011.  

Chubb said non-government organisations failed to push the cause of an emissions trading scheme or carbon tax during the last six years. He mentioned the Say Yes campaign that involved Kate Blanchett. He thought the negative publicity that Blanchett received scared off many NGOs.

I had read and heard in The Age and on the ABC much of the politics around climate change that Chubb mentioned during the session, but I had failed to join all the dots, so it was worth having it all laid out for me. No doubt others, especially Greens and Rudd supporters, will strongly disagree with Chubb’s view of the why the CPRS and carbon tax failed. And of course there are those ignorant and selfish fools who think we should do nothing about climate change.

After reflecting about the sessions, it seems that if we are going through a sixth extinction it looks like Australia will do absolutely nothing about it.


Beach Bum said...

After reflecting about the sessions, it seems that if we are going through a sixth extinction it looks like Australia will do absolutely nothing about it.

Well, the good old United States ain't doing much either. Aside from some state and local efforts anytime Obama mentions climate change the idiots, morons, fools, and those in the oil industry go into fits.

I actually have some long-term hope for us Homo sapiens, despite ample evidence to the contrary we are a decent and moderately intelligent species. Though, in the short and medium term things are going to get real bad.

Graham Clements said...

At least the US seems to be moving forward with their approach to doing something about climate change, with Obama's laws to cut greenhouse gasses from electricity production. Unlike Australia and Canada and Japan, and it looks like Russia, who all seem to be giving up the fight. China seems to be moving forward too. I wish I could be as positive about the future as you are Beach Bum.