The big environmental news, the only show in town, is the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, from this December 7 to 18. If the Kyoto Protocols helped get the world on the same page, and Bali two years ago focused us towards the rewrite, the Copenhagen United Nations conference is the world's best chance to create an operating manual for future change: meaningful action to do something about rising global temperatures.
Something needs to be done. The alternative ending to this story is climate disaster from warming: more droughts, more flooding, less ice and snow, shrinking glaciers, more extreme weather events, and rising sea levels. Any one of these scenarios is serious: combined, and we're looking at economic losses, famine, damage to infrastructure, drying river flows to major population centres, inundation of coastal cities, relocation of whole countries like Bangladesh and the Maldives, and civil war and wars competing for limited resources like water and oil.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's first official action after being elected was to bring Australia into the Kyoto Protocols, but subsequent decision making, including the 5% "targets", and infrastructure funding supporting the coal industry, has thrown doubt onto our own national commitment. It was a masterstroke, then, for the Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen to invite our former diplomat PM to join the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, and the Mexican President, Felipe Calderon, to become one of the three lead negotiators to pressure other world leaders to commit to action. Australia now can make a lasting difference.
The whole point is to arrest rising world temperatures. The key is lowering concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air. At the time of Captain Cook, our atmosphere had 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Now it is about 380 parts per million. We can't predict the tipping point, but 450-480 parts per million seems precarious.
So how do we turn all this around? By stepping outside the carbon economy, based on oil and coal fossil fuels, into a new way of doing business: powered by wind and solar energy, developing biomimicry to replace energy-intensive processes like smelting, by collecting water locally and not wasting it massively, by insulating, by being creative and thinking well. And undoubtedly shopping, travelling and consuming differently. So much!
To start making a difference, any climate change treaty is going to cost us initially, and repay us later. But not doing something will cost us, much more, big time and for a long time to come. Yes, we will see a decline in the coal industry (forget "clean" coal, except as a PR stunt to garner research funds), but right now in Africa nomads are killing their animals because of drought.
After that, what will they eat? What will the women serve up to their children? Holding on to the old order is akin to those who once defended slavery in the British Empire or in the Deep South. It is time to lose our energy slavery, our being chained to the carbon economy that holds us back from an energy revolution that will transform the economies of the world into clean and green production. If our own King Island in Bass Strait can go 100% renewable, why do we need to settle for anything less?
While some Western commentators will still want to complain about India and China for their prodigious carbon emissions, one cannot help but think that these complaints are but a way of hiding their own self interest in the guise of some moral claim, a feint for governments and corporations to do nothing.
Even superficial analysis shows it is the richest nations that have benefited most since the Industrial Revolution from filling the atmosphere with heating carbon dioxide and methane. It is also the richest countries that are benefiting most from cheap goods from China. It is the richest countries that have the greatest capacity to pay, for what has to be done.
Through financial contributions, we can find ways to fund the world inventing and re-engineering infrastructure for a post-industrial planet. Do nothing, and instead we can find ways to fund 30 million environmental refugees who will be turning up on everyone's doorsteps as island nation after island nation gets knee deep in king tides and dykes fail to hold back storm surges.
But while Australia tucks into our beloved end of year parties, think of what is going down in wonderful Copenhagen. Treaty events are entrails of words, long days of sitting, sub-committee lunches working over a single clause, caffeinated conversations interrupted by sudden surprises, inanities, darkening of despair, guffaws of relief and factional hopes for breakthrough moments that humanity will be grateful for, for centuries to come. Or not. Arduous does not do justice to what the world is about to put itself through. And around the diplomats, and world leaders, and celebrities, and buskers and causes, will be doomsayers and makers of the tangent, corporations lobbying for special protection, and the carnivalists, and webjammers. This is the only show in town, in the world village, and don't expect to get much sleep. No one else will.
For any conference to be more than talk, some real decisions have to be made. What exactly is going to be promised; by when it will be undertaken; how we will know we've got there; and who's going to fund it? So you can appreciate, us being humans, it's not an easy thing we're attempting.
Negotiators start with a "when" of 2020 - we need fast action; but there's also talk about making targets for 2050 as well. Developing countries will need money to cope with the changes, and technology transfer that could transform their nations. Donors will want guarantees that the money and technology will be well used. Out of all this, we might predict a comprehensive agreement, or a broad brush deal, or an adjournment until later in the year. Other alternatives are not worth contemplating.
For we cannot afford indecision. We cannot pay the price of clever words that promise nothing. It is past the time to think it doesn't matter. We have a clear choice ahead of us: to develop a collective will for meaningful, productive, planet-friendly approaches and plans - or go the old way of sleepwalking into a world that has too many challenges.
There is reason to hope. In fact, hope is essential. Al Gore got to be not president and, as a result and better still, helped alert the world to the inconvenient truth of climate warming. In his new book, Our Choice: a plan to solve the climate crisis, Gore writes: "There is an old African proverb that says, 'If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.' We have to go far, quickly."
This is the new challenge - to do both, together and individually. Gore continues his introduction: "We can solve the climate crisis. It will be hard, to be sure, but if we can make the choice to solve it, I have no doubt whatsoever that we can and will succeed."
If we are to go far, quickly, it won't be only because of what happens in Copenhagen this month. We will go far, quickly, because you and I make good, splendid, inspiring choices today, this month, and in the years to come.