By Melanie Emr
The most prominent and divisive debate concerning climate change internationally has been the respective responsibilities of nations in reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases. Australia is the highest per-capita emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the developed world, contributing to biogeochemical imbalances on the earth’s surface (Fletcher 92). In an attempt to combat the environmental injustice occurring under the dynamic of extractive capitalism, Australia is currently promoting a sustainable capitalist methodology that aims to mitigate the effects of climate change on urban cities and to enable the progression of urban development.
Since the early 2000s, the country has experienced increasing desertification across the continent from intensive drought, a byproduct of a warming earth. The continent is increasingly vulnerable to devastating wildfires that are directly impacting the agricultural economy, destroying human livelihoods and disrupting biodiversity. The country is currently undergoing a record heat wave, escalating to an unprecedented 104.35 degrees (AFP 1), the most significant heat wave in Australian history according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
By 2008, half of Australia was in drought, leading to increased brush fires and thousands of casualties in 2009. The same pattern is currently reemerging as over a million acres of land were burned in 2012, rendering thousands of townspeople homeless and killing hundreds (AFP 1).
Meanwhile, the Australian economy is under threat from increased desertification and drought. The agricultural industry has been impacted severely by the drought and this poses new challenges to food production. Thus, higher temperatures, regional reductions in rainfall, decreased relative humidity and higher fuel availability are all likely to increase the intensity and frequency of future wildfires (Australian Commonwealth 78-90).
Another key issue in regards to spreading wildfires is the threat to biodiversity and ecosystem services. Ecosystem services represent the benefits human populations derive, directly or indirectly from ecosystem functions.Living organisms contribute to the life support system that humans depend on both for economic development and survival and represent a part of the economic value of the planet. Australia is an ecological ‘hotspot’ of biodiversity—it is one of 17 megadiverse countries, which is defined as a group of countries that harbor more than 70% of the Earth’s species. The specie extinction rate will increase as the global average temperature rises by just 1 or 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and are likely to accelerate as temperature rises beyond 2 degrees Celsius. As the flames increasingly infringe on vegetation and rainforest, the services of carbon sequestration that protect against climate change are hindered due to excess CO2 from urban emissions pouring more easily into the atmosphere without natural storage centers (Commonwealth Australia 40-57).
The impact of climate change on cities will be more devastating and costly to national development in the long-term, meaning that countries must be responsible for all emissions produced in its own territory in order to reduce the global risks of climate change (UN Habitat 2009). Australia’s net energy emissions increased by 44% between 1990 and 2010 with the energy industries sector consisting of transportation, electricity generation and manufacturing accounting for 78% of emissions in 2010. Road transport in 2010 accounted for 86% of these 78% percent of emissions. Agriculture in rural zones contributed only 14% of net emissions (Department Climate Change Volume I), indicating that the atmosphere will absorb excess CO2 only if cities lower emissions (Mckibben 16).
As climate change spreads wildfire across the continent, urban centers are increasingly at risk being in nature’s line of “retaliatory” fire. Nearly all major Australian cities are experiencing the effects of reductions in rainfall from drought. More than 80 percent of the Australian population lives within 50 km of the coastline, which are high-risk zones for floods, water level rise and storms as nature “retaliates” against urban construction (IPCC 122-137).
The current Australian government was elected on the promise of fighting global warming, but the economic slowdown “cooled its ardor,” delaying plans for carbon emission reduction. With that being said, contemporary Australia is finally implementing methods of environmental justice and alternative development to reduce its urban carbon footprint. The Australian government has promulgated an economic sustainability discourse. The short-term costs to industry in adopting alternative development will eventually lead to long-term benefits, not only for the regeneration of land’s biodiversity and ecosystem services, but for the economic benefit of the capitalist and the laborer as well.
The politics of climate change have emerged within Australia through the construction and contestation of concepts of obligation and responsibility (Bulkeley 1). In response to the UN recognizing Australia as a large emitter of greenhouse gases, Prime Minister Howard said in 1997 that the Australian Federal government, “has an obligation to defend and protect Australian interests, Australian jobs, Australian industry and to future generations of Australians to play an effective role in the global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions” (Bulkeley 436).
The responsibilities for climate risk are entrenched in the economically efficient actions of governments and industries. Australia introduced a price on carbon in July 2012 that requires businesses emitting over 25,000 tons of CO2 to buy emissions permits (Clean Energy 2). Implementation of such measures requires heated negotiations between the federal government and the capitalists because partnership and cooperation is imperative to implementing policy for climate change regulation. The carbon price is essential to transforming the Australian economy, enabling the nation to produce industries and jobs with less pollution.
An incentive for financial investment in climate change technologies is rooted on the basis that action on climate change will produce business opportunities, as new markets are made in low-carbon energy technologies and other low-carbon goods and services. Such markets could be worth hundreds of billions of dollars each year, and employment in these sectors will expand accordingly (Fletcher 92-99).
Businesses, however, have reacted negatively to the carbon tax. The Australian Industry Group (AI Group) survey shows company power price rose due to the carbon tax by 14.5 percent. This is well above the 10 percent increases the federal government has so far been prepared to concede. This has posed limitations on industrial development and, resultantly, on the price allocated to workers’ salaries. The opposition party says the additional cost is an example of how the carbon tax is worsening job uncertainty and elevating the cost of living (AAP 1).
Tony Abbot, leader of the conservative coalition seeks to repeal the tax in the 2013 elections if his coalition wins the lower house. However, voters, including both those invested in industry and the laborers themselves, are losing confidence in the promises of the carbon tax under the pressures of rising energy costs and the federal government’s inability to maintain costs below the 10 percent threshold (AAP 1).
In order to produce voter optimism over the carbon tax, representatives need to frame the issue as a progressive tool of investment that will ensure a more secure and productive future through producing new jobs and sustaining ecosystem services for development purposes. ‘Sustainability science’ discourse must be politicized as it is introduced into society, changing human behavior from the local to the global level through newfound incentives to adopting new Green technologies (Reid 918). The government must be willing to readjust its public spending to fund and engage a new generation of researchers in the social, economic, natural, health and engineering sciences in the needed research (Reid 917).
The Australian Climate Change Science Program (ACCSP) aims to improve public understanding regarding the causes, nature, timing and consequences of climate change so that government, industry and the community are better informed on how to reduce the carbon footprint. The emergence of the ACCSP comes at an opportune moment along with the introduction of the carbon tax, which symbolizes the tentative introduction of sustainable capitalism in Australian society. The program addresses six themes: understanding the key influences on climate change in Australia, improving the modeling of the climate system and of climate change assessments of climate variability and extreme events, regional climate change projections, international research collaboration, and coordination and communication. Thus, the ACCSP is aimed at integrating the human economy with ecology so that the business sector is made aware of the impacts of their anthropocentric industries.
By fostering active communication with the international community into their scientific developments, the ACCSP is able to integrate local scientific experience with international knowledge. The ACCSP makes local and regional communities aware of how the effects of their unsustainable activities contribute to a more universal impact of global climate change. In assessing and politicizing how the root causal factors of global climate change are derived even at the local level, it is integrating the local with the global in the quest towards sustainable development.
Sustainability science has provided scientifically compelling evidence that every individual contributes his or her individual carbon footprint to the global footprint, and reducing the latter requires changing individual human behavior. The ACCSP is an institution that will foster motivation for businesses to firmly adhere to the carbon tax.
‘Sustainability science’ discourse is promoting the firm implementation of the carbon tax by spreading scientific knowledge and awareness of the devastating effects of climate change in every arena of Australian society. An informed and educated society can effectively mobilize and produce convincing arguments as to why businesses should adhere to the carbon tax. Thus, sustainability science creates a motivating force of political pressure from the bottom to reach the top levels of government and large industries.
Limiting climate change risks requires that cooperation be fostered from the local to the global levels of society, in order to blur the lines between the ecology and the economy. Such diversity of cooperation enables an integrative and symbiotic relationship to develop between man and nature.
In the current global trend, international global integration is prioritized over urban-ecological interdependencies (Grimm 1). As our economic development has “broken” the environment, nature is retaliating through climate change. We must develop economically in order to meet the needs of growing consumption. However, the quest for sustainable development to combat climate change entails that human and nature, the economy and ecology, the local and the global, become integrated into a symbiotic relationship. Man must learn to meet the economic needs of the present while living within the regenerative capacity of the biosphere. Australia is a model nation that is boldly instituting policy into its capitalist system, promoting a need for all levels of society to participate financially in combatting environmental injustice. However, Australia is a developed nation with the financial resources and democratically stable institutions that foster both coalescence and compromise. The international community, namely the UN, has the responsibility to apply the arena of climate change as a site that instills proper governance in developing nations before policy can be implemented that radically transforms their modern capitalist industries.
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Image by Sherk Graham
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