01.07.2007

The Earth Century

We can save our planet, or we can destroy it. In either scenario, this century is it, says Adrian Glamorgan

We can save our planet, or wecan destroy it. In either scenario, this century isit, says Adrian Glamorgan

Youcan google Earth now. Depending on where you live, youcan vicariously swoop down from geostationary orbitto your backyard and almost see the shadow of your hillshoist. Once you've got over the pleasure of your ownbackyard from space, there's a whole planet to explore.Mouse-clickers are scanning the Earth, rediscoveringthe innocent pleasures of geography, identifying howclose and far away we are all are from each other, andgetting into 3D thrills and interpretive overlays. Pointand zoom. Now you can see where Ancient Rome once stood,and its famous sites. Switch overlay. Trace with highresolution satellite imagery the genocidal destructionof 1,000 villages in the Darfur region, western Sudan.Click on placemarks, and trail detailed stories aboutthe villages that have been destroyed while the worldlooks on. One world. There is no escape from the truth,unless you're really, really trying.

That is the wonder of technology: it is bringing ustogether. It also threatens our survival. With overlaysoftware on Google Earth, you can animate climate change.Using the time slider, you can see whether your houseor suburb will be submerged as the planet's oceans rise,a handy gadget if you're living in Frankston, Victoria;Caboolture, Queensland; Dee Why, Sydney; Kingston, Tasmaniaor Fremantle WA. If you're feet are still dry, applythe software to half a dozen South Pacific countries,or perhaps try Bangladesh. Do the maths on our detentionprisons in Christmas Island and Villawood. We mightdeter the first few thousand environmental refugees,but all up we are about 60 million prison cells short.There is no Pacific solution. We are one world. We escapefrom this climate change future together only if weare really, really trying. Together.

You know the world's changing in an amazing way, notonly because the Dalai Lama can appear at major conventioncentre venues in a number of Australian cities and drawappreciative crowds, but also because he can be precededat the podium by the CEO of Virgin Blue with a parallelmessage about global sustainability. In Perth, CEO BrettGodfrey urged us to think and act sustainably, and he'sabout walking - or is that flying? - his own talk. Theairline he leads is carbon neutral, and if his greenhousepolluting industry can take action, then by implication,so might many others.

Welcome to the 21st century: the defining moment forour planet, with a new kind of leadership meeting anunprecedented problem. It's a time when spiritual leadersand CEOs, young activists and suburban mums and dads,scorched land farmers and triple bottom line multinationals,get to play a pivotal part in our survival.

A drift towards global consciousness has been comingalmost offhandedly in the last few decades. It's notjust Australians travelling around the world, or watchingthe news on telly, or even that much of the world isonline. Our greater awareness had a picture of itselfwhen Apollo 8 sent pictures back of our blue planet.Alone. Alive. Since then it's been a matter of becominghabituated to the realities of globalisation, more recentlyrecognising the riches and environmental perils thatcome with the China boom, then there's Tim Flannery'sbook The Weathermakers, and then, last and powerfully,Al Gore's award-winning documentary making climate changeour daily fare.

If none of this has touched you, (and on island Australiawe can often ignore a lot), along comes a once in athousand year drought, and the Darling River's hardlyflowing, the locusts on the paddock make the annualshow impossible, our metropolitan dams are so empty,and the price of petrol is rising. All of a sudden,a future based on global warming, water shortages, andpeaked oil can't be shrugged off quite so easily. Earth,you have our attention.

Well, many more of us. While the American and Australiannational governments have played down global concernsfor more than a decade, often in the name of protectingbusiness, many multinational corporations, with theirfingers on the planetary pulse, are taking global warming,and its threat to profits, very seriously. Rupert Posneris the Australian representative of The Climate Group,an independent "leadership coalition" dedicatedto advancing business and government leadership on climatechange, with offices in London, New York, and Melbourne,with new chambers just opened in China and California.The Climate Group website boasts participating companiessuch as JP Morgan Chase, Johnson & Johnson, Allianz,BP, British Telecom, Barclays, Alcan and News Corporation.The Group works with these companies and also joinswith cities, provinces and states such as New York City,Ontario, our own state of Victoria and the state ofCalifornia. The Climate Group looks at the businesscase for taking early and strong action to effect practicalchange.

Posner, a onetime Greenpeace activist, explains: "InUK, in particular, the national government is takinga very strong leadership role and working with businesswhereas in Australia and the US, the national governmentshaven't, up until now, been taking very much of a leadershiprole at all. What we've found is that state governmentsin the absence of national leadership have been takingstrong action, and that's the area we have been working."A recent initiative involved bringing Victorian PremierSteve Bracks and Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzeneggertogether. Posner says these are "two states verycommitted to taking action on climate change, and wethought by bringing them together they could share information,work together and take more action to address the issue."

He speaks as an inherent optimist, but a determinedone, not unaware of the risks. "I've been workingon climate change heavily since I was at Greenpeaceback in the 1990s,"he says, but it sounds as ifthe sensitivities began long before that. "Fromwhen I was a kid, looking at Harry Butler's books, I'vebeen interested in the natural environment."

The Climate Group provides an online weekly greenhousecalculator for Victoria. Look at the weekly numbers,and you can see why Earth has got a problem. For example,for the first week in June 2007, the net greenhousegases emitted by the Garden State included 2,104 milliontonnes of carbon dioxide. The bulk of Victoria's electricityproduction came from coal (55 per cent) and petroleum(25 per cent). That particular week's indicator was36.8 per cent above the 1990 weekly average for energy,well above Kyoto's envisioned and generous provisionsfor Australia. Sobering stuff.

The news from The Climate Group is mostly upbeat, though.The New York City Mayor wants to turn the city green,providing a park within a 10 minute walk for all residents,and a million new trees to shade streets and filterout CO2, with new subways and buses; Japan promises$100 million for the Asian Development Bank to takeon global warming; Bangkok turned off the lights for15 minutes to raise awareness about saving energy. Evenif the oil president George W won't sign Kyoto, 31 statesled by California and New England, representing morethan 70 per cent of the American population, have signedup to jointly tracking greenhouse gas emissions by majorindustries. The United Nations Secretary-General BanKi-moon is giving global warming top priority, holdinga high level UN meeting on climate change in September.Australia might officially complain that greenhousegas reduction targets will only hurt jobs, but CalifornianGovernor Arnold Schwarzenegger, leader of the world's19th largest economy, wants to terminate CO2 and stimulatejobs through targets and regulating standards. The Governorhas acclaimed a study showing that petrol prices canbe reduced, and the economy stimulated, by regulatinggreenhouse gas emissions in fuels, confirming Britishfindings in last year's Stern economics report thatearly action will have a beneficial economic effect;inaction: disastrous consequences.

There's a British "solutions" program, entitled"We're in this together," supported by corporatepartners working with The Climate Group, offering everydayproducts and services to combat climate change. Thiswill be starting up in Australia in a little while,but for the moment, there's British supermarket Tescooffering cheaper energy saving light bulbs, there'sdetails of discounts for green cars, and some encouragementnot to upgrade to the latest handset, thereby avoidingthe environmental cost of every new mobile. I supposeit's Cool Britannia, literally, with the Mayor of Londonoffering a free climate change toolkit for Londoners,and Marks and Sparks encouraging its customers to lowertheir washing temperature to 30degreesC to save around40 per cent energy per wash. Is that greenwash in thewashing powder? Are corporates like Barclaycard andBritish Gas joining together to sound trendy? Greenconsumers might be wary, but that's the point.

One of the eight corporate partners in "We'rein this together" is BSkyB, headed by James Murdoch(yes, that James Murdoch). In a website interview, heresponds to doubts by saying, "Being in tune withcustomer choice is critical. The Co-Operative Bank'sEthical Consumerism Report, which tracks the rise ofconsumer consciousness, found that one third of UK consumersboycotted at least one product last year for ethicalreasons. That should be enough to concentrate the mindof any chief executive who thinks they need not botherwith their company's strategy around climate change."A click away and there's an interview with Roberta Myers,editor-in-chief of Elle, fresh from having producedher first ever "green" issue. Was it pressurefrom readers? No, she writes, "I would call itenthusiasm." In fact, she expects major consumerbrands to drive action on climate change. Business issecond-guessing consumer distaste for waste, and pre-emptinga boycott by leading the way.

To avoid greenwash, Posner says: "Senior membersof companies and governments really need to believein the issue, they have to have a good understandingof the science and the consequences of us not takingaction. Once they've done that, most understand thenthey have a responsibility to do something about it.We've got some really great leaders out there takinga leadership role....Rupert Murdoch...Richard Branson,... other business people respect these guys, and wantto understand why they're doing it."

What about nuclear? "I think nuclear is unlikelyto be the solution, certainly in Australia, becausethe costs mean it doesn't stack up. There are otherissues to do with safety, there's also public acceptance,and also the issue that nuclear isn't emissions-free,there are a significant number of emissions that areinvolved in the whole process. ...The idea of providinghuge government subsidies for nuclear really doesn'tmake sense. If nuclear really was emission- free, ifit were safe and the public accepted it, it would befine, but the reality is that it doesn't tick thoseboxes, the community isn't happy with it, there area whole lot of environmental concerns, and even thingslike getting insurance are impossible for a companythat wants to build a nuclear power station.

"So I think it's unlikely to be part of Australia'senergy mix in the future, and it certainly doesn't needto be because there's a whole range of other alternativesthat are cost effective, proven and safe and availablenow." Leadership is happening, sometimes in surprisingplaces. But then, our beautiful planet keeps turninground that gorgeous sun. We're getting hotter. The EarthCentury might be remembered for what was achieved, orwhat was not done. Together.

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