Last week, two teams of scientists reported their findings on the West Antarctic ice sheet. Climate change has now melted this sector of Antarctica — comprising a tenth of the Antarctic ice mass — so far that it appears the melting has become irreversible. When fully melted — whether in the next century, or a few more — global sea level will rise over 3 metres, redrawing the coastline of the entire earth.
Over the previous few months, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released the various volumes of its Fifth Assessment Report. Its findings were equally alarming, covering every aspect of the climate, its expected trajectory, impacts, and what can be done to avert the crisis.
We cannot now avert the crisis; permanent environmental and ecological crisis is our new status quo. This is not even to mention economic, psychological or moral crises.
Rational presentation of the alarming facts has so far failed; political solutions through regular channels have failed; diplomatic negotiation of an international agreement has failed. None of these approaches show any signs of ceasing to fail in the near future.
Our collective failure so far is world-historic and monumental.
The mad rush of industrialisation, driven by the engine of capitalism, has dug up the fossilised and liquefied remains of animals and plants long past. We have feasted upon the fires of three thousand million years of our own evolutionary heritage, burning their remains to power our own development — and ending in a treadmill of acquisition, consumption, inequality, and futility. We have burned so much of this thousands-millions-years heritage that these paleontological remains now float in the atmosphere, tipping its composition so far as to affect the whole planet’s energy balance.
It is a sacrifice of such epic tragedy as the ancients could never have dreamed; we offer these charred remains on an intercontinental, world-destroying scale to placate the monstrous appetite of capitalism. This brutal monster knows only how to run faster and bigger and it is gobbling up the entire world. If it so much as slows, we call it recession, and it sends us wholesale to poverty. Our ancestors offered irrational sacrifices to placate forces they did not understand. We fully understand the irrationality, but offer the sacrifice of all our ancestors anyway, vaporised and liquefied — and fully aware that their vaporised remains carry an infrared absorption spectrum which will choke us.
The earth has shifted its average temperature by a few degrees, and will shift for a few more. How many more is in the balance. But the climate system itself has a great deal of inertia: what has already been done will affect us for generations to come.
The sins of the father shall be visited upon the son is not just brimstone fear-theology: it is also a statement about the inertia of the climate, a corollary of theorems on differential equations. The sins of the fathers, the climate forcings of all previous generations, will be visited upon the sons, and on down to the third and fourth generation; so says the book of functional analysis.
Some things cannot be changed by human will: the laws of chemistry, blackbody radiation, and photon scattering, to name a few. But some things can be changed by human will: foremost among these, our own human activities. There is no doubt that humanity, in its present state of knowledge and technology, has the technical capacity to stop burning carbon, and switch to renewable energy sources, in a sufficient time frame to avert disaster.
Australia is an island continent occupying a small corner of this troubled planet. It is geographically large, demographically small, highly educated, relatively socially progressive, bathed in sunlight, hot, dry, and one of the wealthiest places ever to have existed. If ever there were a place with the means, motive and opportunity to take the actions necessary to stop burning carbon, it is Australia in 2014.
This week, the government of this island continent laid down its plans and priorities for the future. Its announcements were not mere rhetoric. A budget is not aspirational: it concretely apportions money and resources, materially allocates resources, appropriates public funds for its projects. There is a mythology that it expresses the collective will of the population.
Amidst irreversibly melting ice sheets, tumbling heat records, and ever-more-frequent extreme weather, the government of this wide brown sunburnt land, rich beyond the imagination of any previous society, chose to —
— repeal a very modest tax on carbon emissions, and disestablish the agency devoted to renewable energy.
Nothing more need be said.
But more should be said, and the litany is extensive.
One could — and should — go on at length about the cuts to universities, fee deregulation, and the end to the progressive principle of the HECS/HELP student loan scheme.
One could — and should — go on at length about the end to universal health care. About how a visit to the doctor, previously technically free, is now no longer, violating a fundamental social moral principle and deterring the poor from obtaining healthcare.
One could — and should — go on at length about the cuts to pensions, meaning further deprivation for some of the most vulnerable inhabitants of this land.
One could — and should — go on at length about the cuts to unemployment benefits, meaning further deprivation for another group of the most vulnerable inhabitants of this land.
One could — and should — go on at length about the cuts to legal aid, a nasty measure that makes a miniscule difference to the budget yet ensures that the most vulnerable suffer maximally.
One could — and should — go on about the removal of funding for indigenous affairs, an equally petty yet even nastier measure, an exquisite further humiliation after centuries of dispossession and violence aimed at the rightful owners of this land.
One could go on at length about these or many other outrages in this budget.
But in order to see the complete category error of this budget — the radical mismatch between physical reality and action taken — it is sufficient to consider the impending climate catastrophe, and the response to it: not a reluctance to act, not even total inaction, but a deliberate and systematic attack upon the tepid actions previously taken. It is full throttle in reverse; a categorical nihilism as to the future.
Moreover, unlike various other budget measures, this did not entail any broken promise or lie. The budget’s radical climate nihilism was one that was entirely premeditated and honest.
Having seen the watered-down carbon tax enacted by the Labor party, and its rapid destruction by the Liberal party, the possibilities for the necessary climate action to occur through mainstream electoral politics are exhausted — and there are many for whom it never seemed a viable option in the first place.
There remains one social variable providing us with a chance: resistance. The variable of political resistance is the crucial independent varaible — and it is the one over which people can have the greatest effect. Without the means, the capacity, and the will to resist the radical disconnect between our permanent climate crisis, and ongoing economic and governmental activity, we accelerate towards collapse. And so we must resist. We must restore sanity.
There was a hashtag on twitter lampooning the budget with Abbott-style three word slogans, #ThreeWordBudget. But this budget commits us to non-renewable energy, fossil fuels, and an acceleration of climate disasters.
At this rate we will need at least two more planets. This is a Three World Budget.
But we only have one.
So resist and fight for it!