We can’t afford to wait for the Federal Government on climate change. The politicians in the end only overcome their adversarial politics when the public is so insistent that they cannot do other than act. Climate-change politics has arrived and no politician can now afford to be a sceptic. Al Gore, the IPCC and the Stern report mean that the combination of popular culture, science and treasury is an unstoppable force. However, those who frame policy responses have done little more than suggest a carbon-trading scheme will sort it all out.
I don’t believe that we should accept that a global or Australian trading scheme for carbon will ensure anything much other than one set of big companies doing better than another set. The belief that a market will somehow guide us all to end the use of fossil fuels seems to have become a universally accepted policy agenda. It will help but I feel that the universal acceptance has come mostly because it is the easiest ideological position to find agreement on these days.
It has failed dismally in Europe as they gave away too many permits to the polluters on political grounds. This is likely to occur in Australia as well — the coal lobby is sitting back as though they have already been reassured they will not have to change as long as they take another huge subsidy to research ‘clean coal’.
The insistent force for more fundamental change in Australia is much more local. Cities have been working away on the changes needed for sometime through the ICLEI Cities for Climate Campaign. They may not have done much but they are ready with all kinds of local ideas. Now households are craving help to change their lifestyles and technologies. After Al Gore’s trip there were self-organising groups set up everywhere eg 70 Climate Action Groups have been established in Melbourne. The Al Gore-trained speakers have fanned out across the country and each do around 20 talks a month on the practical steps towards change.
That is what has happened in the US, too. At last count, 522 cities signed up for Kyoto (representing more than 80% of the population). The governor in California (the biggest state) and the mayor of New York (the biggest city) have signed up for significant change — would this have happened without grass roots political support? Both have recognised the need for regulation and funding to guide the changes required.
Local economies will drive the needed changes as they respond to the demands of local households. The new economy of the Fifth Cycle is combining environmental technology for energy, water, waste, with clever IT systems to enable local solutions to combine into grids. In Germany, in the last year, they installed 750 MW of renewable power through 100,000 separate units (400 MW was from photovoltaic panels); this is the opposite to the big company, big utility approach which tries to centralise and monopolise everything — and which carbon trading just continues.
That gigantism is over. We can expect that a million flowers can flourish to bring about the changes we need. The small scale of communities and households who are driving the change can also fit the scale of the technology required.
Governments need to see this and provide facilitative policies. In Germany the driver of change was a policy that enabled communities and households to install renewables because they had a buy-back policy that was required of the utilities. A new market was created for renewables through a new regulation — not through carbon trading.
The incandescent light bulb regulation from Malcolm Turnbull is another example of what can be done. Households, communities, cities have been pushing for the new bulbs for years. The minister banned them knowing that it was already a workable technology though the old technology hung on through habit. Within weeks after the announcement, Canada had followed suit, then Europe, then California (with their ‘How many legislators does it take to change a light bulb’ Act), then India and finally the biggest of them all — Wal Mart. Such changes, when added up by Lester Brown, were equal to 270 coal-fired power stations.
With similar regulations such projects will bloom everywhere, and they are spawned in our households and our communities. The most significant thing that state and federal politicians can do is provide a framework for households to work out how they can adapt.
Household sustainability programs through community-based social marketing (eg TravelSmart) and not media campaigns can provide the basis for how we can respond. The Eco House Challenge on SBS, where two Perth families battled through the issues of saving energy, water, waste and travel are the agenda for us all. As we do this we get ideas about how governments can help, how regulations and technology subsidies can create a whole new world of markets for responding to climate change.
This is the source of hope for me, not some universal market for carbon being swapped between the big companies at the blessing of politicians who are happy to see as little change as possible.