The leaders of internationally-renowned brands Virgin and Apple recently made it clear they would no longer accommodate the views of climate-change deniers in their midst. Virgin chief executive Richard Branson and Apple chief executive Tim Cook told their shareholders in no uncertain terms the climate-change sceptics among them should sell their stocks and “get out of the way”, as Branson put it.
These comments symbolise how climate change has come to be embedded in public consciousness. And rightly so. They also indicate business leaders are reacting against the lack of action on climate change – including by our own government. The message from Branson and Cook was loud and clear, they accept scientific evidence fully that climate change is caused by human activity. They are also committed to reducing their environmental footprints, or, as Cook said, “to leave the world in a better way than we found it.” Such comments echo strong scientific agreement about the cause of climate change. A recent survey of thousands of peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals conducted in May last year found that 97.1% agreed that climate change is caused by human activity.
The comments also reflect widespread community sentiment that companies and governments need to do more to invest in renewable energy and sustainable practices. The Climate Institute’s Climate of the Nation 2013 report on Australian attitudes to climate change found two-thirds of Australians continued to believe climate change is occurring, and 87% of those believed humans were at least partly responsible. The same number placed solar energy in their top three choices for energy sources.
In Australia, growing demands for action have come in the light of extreme weather events, including bushfires and record-breaking temperatures during summer. A Climate Council report found more than 150 weather records were broken in the summer of 2013-2014. Adelaide had 11 days above 42 degrees and its hottest-ever day at 44.7 degrees, Sydney had its driest summer in 28 years and bushfires burnt 280,000 hectares of land in Victoria. The report’s authors included Professor Tim Flannery and cited climate change as the reason behind extreme weather patterns and called on the government to address it as an issue.
In Australia, the major political parties now agree carbon emissions need to be reduced to 5% below 2000 levels by 2020, but disagree on the mechanism. On 20 March 2014, the Labor Party and the Greens in the Senate blocked the Coalition Government’s first attempt to remove the carbon tax. The Coalition will have to wait three months before it is brought to Parliament again. Labor Party environment spokesman Mark Butler said his party would agree to repeal the carbon tax, provided there was a credible plan to address climate change, and criticised the direct action policy held by the government. The Opposition party policy is now for an emissions trading scheme to replace the largely unpopular carbon tax it introduced while in government in 2011.
As well as repealing the carbon tax, the Coalition Government’s direct action plan includes the introduction of an emissions reduction fund at a cost of $3 billion across four years, whereby businesses will be subject to a tender process and be paid to carry out emission projects. There will also be a so-called ‘Green Army’, made up of 15,000 17-to-24-year-olds, who will be paid an allowance to work on green projects at a cost of $300 million in a four-year period.
The policy has received much criticism. The Australian Conservation Foundation says the plan to cut carbon emissions without a carbon price is insufficient. Recently, International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde was in the country, and urged Australia to continue being a ‘pioneer’ in the ongoing climate-change debate. The decade from 2011 to 2020 has been identified as the critical decade for preventing further damage to the planet.
The US, Canada, and Japan all have a target of 17% set against a 2005 base year. The Climate Change Authority is on record as saying Australia’s target, which uses 2000 as a base year and has a policy of 5% cuts below 2000 levels by 2050 was weaker than that of many other countries.
Overseas extreme weather events, such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and severe flooding in the UK at Christmas time, have raised public awareness of the connection between extreme weather events and climate change. The superstorm ‘Sandy’ that hit New York was found to have led to a rise in the number of Americans, especially Republicans, who accept climate change is happening and thinking humans are partly to blame for it.
A report entitled The Critical Decade 2013: Climate Change Science, Risks & Responses, released in June 2013 by the former government-appointed board Climate Commission, warns the burning of fossil fuels is the most significant contributor to climate change.
In addition to the several weather events, the global average sea level is now rising at a rate of 3cm per decade, and the global temperature rise is approaching one degree Celsius. The Climate Commission advised the best chance for staying below the two degrees Celsius limit, which most nations including Australia believe is a limit that poses unacceptably high risks, emissions need to be reduced to nearly zero by 2050. The Commission continues to advocate for reduced emissions following its axing when the new Coalition Government came to power in September 2013.
Colleen O’Sullivan works in the not-for-profit sector, and is interested in social issues and politics.