Environment & energy, Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The World

21 February 2020

The Australian bushfires show the need for urgent change, and the costs of failing to make it happen, Sharon Friel writes.

In the face of political and policy paralysis around climate change mitigation, the world’s largest fund manager, BlackRock, announced that it is dumping more than half a billion dollars in thermal coal shares from all of its actively managed portfolios. This, it says, is part of its more active global stance on climate change.

This is an interesting development. Last year’s exposé by The Guardian showed how BlackRock, along with Vanguard and State Street, the world’s three largest money managers, have built a combined $300 billion fossil fuel investment portfolio using money from people’s private savings and pension contributions.

The potential carbon emissions from their investments increased from 10.6 gigatons to 14.3 gigatons since the Paris agreement, equivalent to 38 per cent of global fossil fuel emissions in 2018. Between 2015 and 2019 BlackRock and Vanguard opposed or abstained on more than 80 per cent of climate-related motions at fossil fuel companies that would have forced directors to take more action on climate change.

More on this: Podcast: Beyond declaring a climate emergency

Fossil fuel companies themselves have been ramping up promotional campaigns that tout their dedication to clean energy – corporate image is a valuable asset in managing risk, controlling negative media attention, and overcoming resistance from antagonistic civil society groups.

Their main focus, however, is pushing natural gas and carbon capture technology that actually helps them extract more oil. The industry has also borrowed from the tobacco industry playbook, using misinformation tactics to spread climate denial, manipulating science in order to shape the opinions of the public and policymakers and delay major government action. This is relevant to Australia especially.

There is a major opportunity and ethical responsibility to show political and public policy leadership in the face of the bushfire disaster.

The commitment of two billion dollars to establish a National Bushfire Recovery centre that focuses on rebuilding infrastructure, mental health support, attracting tourists back to affected areas, and helping restore the local environment and impacted wildlife is an essential response, but it is not enough. In Australia, as elsewhere, we have long needed policy designed to help the nation adapt to damage already done and avoid making climate change, and the disasters that come from it, worse.

We know that long term investment in front line community services is key to ensuring resilient communities. We also know that resilient communities require material resources and a sense of control over their lives.

More on this: Tackling climate change in a ‘post-truth’ world

So why, previously, introduce austerity measures and policies that widen inequities and undermine peoples’ capacity to adapt? There are lessons from the Great Recession. Iceland’s total debt stood at more than 800 per cent of GDP. What did the government do? It spent money to support communities e.g. it increased social support and healthcare for the poor. Wellbeing measures increased and the economic growth rate recovered by 12 per cent.

As we attempt to recover from the devastating bushfires, it would be easy to focus on the immediate repair to the exclusion of long-term prevention, but we must address the underlying causes of this climate crisis, otherwise we are simply rearranging the deck chairs. The evidence shows that human activity and associated greenhouse gas emissions is the primary cause of climate change.

Australia needs action that disrupts the system of institutions, policies, values, and behaviours that encourage and incentivise the exploitation of natural resources, excess production, and hyper consumerism. Such disruption requires Australia and the rest of the world to stop extracting, burning and investing in oil, coal, gas, and other fossil fuels.

Providing a progressive policy framework to enable this will confront stubborn resistance and challenge the power of dominant vested interests, but the Blackrock announcement is an opportunity to harness sympathetic sentiment within the investment community.

Public-interest coalitions can help through their harnessing of political consciousness, organised strategies and accountability monitoring. The Youth Climate movement, for instance, has hit a public and political nerve and shows the power of bringing together disparate groups of people to advance a cause.

It is easy to be overwhelmed with despair given the bushfires in Australia, and environmental destruction elsewhere in the world. These tragedies provide a heart-breaking lesson on the need to imagine and fight for a different society.

We have seen many beacons of hope and resistance at the local level, with many communities and local governments acting as vanguards in responding to climate change. But they cannot, and nor should they, do this alone, especially when the major drivers of climate change sit within the fossil fuel industry.

It is there that significant change must happen. This requires courageous political leadership, progressive and coherent public policy, and serious social action. It must happen immediately.

…We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late… We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilisation are written the words, ‘Too late.’” –  Martin Luther King, Jr.

This article references an article in The Lancet. ‘Climate change and the people’s health: the need to exit the consumptagenic system.’ Published online 19 February, 2020. You can access it here.

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