We Need an Ecological Civilization Before It’s Too Late

12 10 2018

Jeremy LentJeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. For more information visit jeremylent.com.

 

In the face of climate breakdown and ecological overshoot, alluring promises of “green growth” are no more than magical thinking. We need to restructure the fundamentals of our global cultural/economic system to cultivate an “ecological civilization”: one that prioritizes the health of living systems over short-term wealth production. 

We’ve now been warned by the world’s leading climate scientists that we have just twelve years to limit climate catastrophe. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has put the world on notice that going from a 1.5° to 2.0° C rise in temperature above preindustrial levels would have disastrous consequences across the board, with unprecedented flooding, drought, ocean devastation, and famine.

Oxfam_East_Africa_-_A_mass_grave_for_children_in_Dadaab
A global crisis of famine and mass starvation looms unless we can turn around the trajectory of our civilization

Meanwhile, the world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization. We need, according to the IPCC, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” But what exactly does that mean?

Last month, at the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) in San Francisco, luminaries such as Governor Jerry Brown, Michael Bloomberg, and Al Gore gave their version of what’s needed with an ambitious report entitled “Unlocking the Inclusive Growth Story of the 21st Century by the New Climate Economy.” It trumpets a New Growth Agenda: through enlightened strategic initiatives, they claim, it’s possible to transition to a low-carbon economy that could generate millions more jobs, raise trillions of dollars for green investment, and lead to higher global GDP growth.

But these buoyant projections by mainstream leaders, while overwhelmingly preferable to the Republican Party’s malfeasance, are utterly insufficient to respond to the crisis facing our civilization. In promising that the current system can fix itself with a few adjustments, they are turning a blind eye to the fundamental drivers propelling civilization toward collapse. By offering false hope, they deflect attention from the profound structural changes that our global economic system must make if we hope to bequeath a flourishing society to future generations.

Ecological overshoot

That’s because even the climate emergency is merely a harbinger of other existential threats looming over humanity as a result of ecological overshoot—the fact that we’re depleting the earth’s natural resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished. As long as government policies emphasize growing GDP as a national priority, and as long as transnational corporations relentlessly pursue greater shareholder returns by ransacking the earth, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe.

Currently, our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s forestsanimalsinsectsfishfreshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed three of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and yet global GDP is expected to more than doubleby mid-century, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences. By 2050, it’s estimated, there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish. Last year, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued an ominous warning to humanity that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late,” they wrote, “to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”

plastic in the ocean
By 2050, there is projected to be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

Techno-optimists, including many of the GCAS dignitaries, like to dismiss these warnings with talk of “green growth”—essentially decoupling GDP growth from increased use of resources. While that would be a laudable goal, a number of studies have shown that it’s simply not feasible. Even the most wildly aggressive assumptions for greater efficiency would still result in consuming global resources at double the sustainable capacity by mid-century.

A desperate situation indeed, but one that need not lead to despair. In fact, there is a scenario where we can turn around this rush to the precipice and redirect humanity to a thriving future on a regenerated earth. It would, however, require us to rethink some of the sacrosanct beliefs of our modern world, beginning with the unquestioning reliance on perpetual economic growth within a global capitalist system directed by transnational corporations driven exclusively by the need to increase shareholder value for their investors.

In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth production to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization.

An ecological civilization

The crucial idea behind an ecological civilization is that our society needs to change at a level far deeper than most people realize. It’s not just a matter of investing in renewables, eating less meat, and driving an electric car. The intrinsic framework of our global social and economic organization needs to be transformed. And this will only happen when enough people recognize the destructive nature of our current mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming—embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services.

A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have been only two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.

An ecological civilization would be based on the core principles that sustain living systems coexisting stably in natural ecologies. Insights into how ecologies self-organize offer a model for how we could organize human society in ways that could permit sustainable abundance. Organisms prosper when they develop multiple symbiotic relationships, wherein each party to a relationship both takes and gives reciprocally. In an ecology, energy flows are balanced and one species’ waste matter becomes nourishment for another. Entities within an ecology scale fractally, with microsystems existing as integral parts of larger systems to form a coherent whole. In a well-functioning ecosystem, each organism thrives by optimizing for its own existence within a network of relationships that enhances the common good. The inherent resilience caused by these dynamics means that—without human disruption—ecosystems can maintain their integrity for many thousands, and sometimes millions, of years.

nature-beautiful-view-in-china
An ecological civilization would be based on the principles that sustain all living systems

In practice, transitioning to an ecological civilization would mean restructuring some of the fundamental institutions driving our current civilization to destruction. In place of an economy based on perpetual growth in GDP, it would institute one that emphasized quality of life, using alternative measures such as a Genuine Progress Indicator to gauge success. Economic systems would be based on respect for individual dignity and fairly rewarding each person’s contribution to the greater good, while ensuring that nutritional, housing, healthcare, and educational needs were fully met for everyone. Transnational corporations would be fundamentally reorganized and made accountable to the communities they purportedly serve, to optimize human and environmental wellbeing rather than shareholder profits. Locally owned cooperatives would become the default organizational structure. Food systems would be designed to emphasize local production using state-of-the-art agroecologypractices in place of fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, while manufacturing would prioritize circular flows where efficient re-use of waste products is built into the process from the outset.

In an ecological civilization, the local community would be the basic building block of society. Face-to-face interaction would regain ascendance as a crucial part of human flourishing, and each community’s relationship with others would be based on principles of mutual respect, learning, and reciprocity. Technological innovation would still be encouraged, but would be prized for its effectiveness in enhancing the vitality of living systems rather than minting billionaires. The driving principle of enterprise would be that we are all interconnected in the web of life—and long-term human prosperity is therefore founded on a healthy Earth.

Cultivating a flourishing future

While this vision may seem a distant dream to those who are transfixed by the daily frenzy of current events, innumerable pioneering organizations around the world are already planting the seeds for this cultural metamorphosis.

In China, President Xi Jinping has declared an ecological civilization to be a central part of his long-term vision for the country. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the related values of buen vivir and sumak kawsay (“good living’) are written into the constitution, and in Africa the concept of ubuntu (“I am because we are”) is a widely-discussed principle of human relations. In Europe, hundreds of scientists, politicians, and policy-makers recently co-authored a call for the EU to plan for a sustainable future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritized over GDP.

Examples of large-scale thriving cooperatives, such as Mondragon in Spain, demonstrate that it’s possible for companies to provide effectively for human needs without utilizing a shareholder-based profit model. Think tanks such as The Next System ProjectThe Global Citizens Initiative, and the P2P Foundation are laying down parameters for the political, economic, and social organization of an ecological civilization. Meanwhile, visionary authors such as Kate Raworth and David Korten have written extensively on how to reframe the way we think about our economic and political path forward.

As the mainstream juggernaut drives our current civilization inexorably toward breaking point, it’s easy to dismiss these steps toward a new form of civilization as too insignificant to make a difference. However, as the current system begins to break down in the coming years, increasing numbers of people around the world will come to realize that a fundamentally different alternative is needed. Whether they turn to movements based on prejudice and fear or join in a vision for a better future for humanity depends, to a large extent, on the ideas available to them.

One way or another, humanity is headed for the third great transformation in its history: either in the form of global collapse or a metamorphosis to a new foundation for sustainable flourishing. An ecological civilization offers a path forward that may be the only true hope for our descendants to thrive on Earth into the distant future.





French nuclear financial crisis deepens

9 12 2016

French taxpayers face huge nuclear bill as EDF financial crisis deepens

Originally published on the Ecologist’s website…..

I alluded to this in response to some of Eclipse’s comments on some of my earlier posts. I’m of the opinion the entire global nuclear energy sector is about to go tits up….

Paul Brown

8th December 2016

Nuclear giant EDF could be heading towards bankruptcy, writes Paul Brown, as it faces a perfect storm of under-estimated costs for decommissioning, waste disposal and Hinkley C. Meanwhile income from power sales is lagging behind costs, and 17 of its reactors are off-line for safety tests. Yet French and UK governments are turning a blind eye to the looming financial crisis.

EDF’s biggest problem is the cost of producing power from these ageing power stations is greater than the wholesale price, so everything they sell is at a loss. It is impossible to see how they can ever make a profit. Then they still have to decommission.

The liabilities of Électricité de France (EDF) – the biggest electricity supplier in Europe, with 39 million customers – are increasing so fast that they will soon exceed its assets, according a report by an independent equity research company,

nuclear_power_432Bankruptcy for EDF seems inevitable – and if such a vast empire in any other line of business seemed to be in such serious financial trouble, there would be near-panic in the workforce and in governments at the subsequent political fall-out.

But it seems that the nuclear-dominated EDF group is considered too big to be allowed to fail. So, to keep the lights on in western Europe, the company will have to be bailed out by the taxpayers of France and the UK.

The French government, facing elections next spring, and the British, struggling with the implications of the Brexit vote to leave the European Union, are currently turning a blind eye to the report by AlphaValue that EDF has badly under-reported its potential liabilities.

Ageing nuclear reactors

While EDF is threatening to sue people who say it is technically bankrupt, the evidence is that the cost of producing electricity from its ageing nuclear reactors is greater than the market price.

Coupled with the impossibility of EDF paying the full decommissioning costs of its reactors, it is inevitable that it is the taxpayers in France and the UK who will eventually pick up the bill. However this will not be easy due to the EU’s ‘state aid’ rules, which limit governments’ ability to support ailing companies.

There is also the ongoing thorny problem of disposing of the nuclear waste and spent fuel rods, which are building up in cooling ponds and stores on both sides of the Channel, with no disposal route yet in sight.

A looming problem for EDF, which already admits is has €37 billion of debt, is that 17 of its ageing fleet of nuclear reactors, which provide 70% of France’s electricity, are being retired.

According to AlphaValue, EDF has underestimated the liabilities for decommissioning these reactors by €20 billion. Another €33.5 billion should be added to cost of handling nuclear waste, the report says. Juan Camilo Rodriguez, an equity analyst who is the author of the report, says that a correct adjustment of nuclear provisions would lead to the technical bankruptcy of the company.

In a statement, EDF said it “strongly contests the alleged accounting and financial analyses by the firm AlphaValue carried out at the request of Greenpeace and relating to the situation of EDF”.

It says that its accounts are audited and certified by its statutory auditors, and that the dismantling costs of EDF’s existing nuclear power fleet have also been subject to an audit mandated by the French Ministry of the Environment, Energy and the Sea.

Even with its huge debts, EDF’s problems could be surmounted if the company was making big profits on its electricity sales, but the cost of producing power from its nuclear fleet is frequently greater than the wholesale price.

That creates a second problem – that unless the wholesale price of electricity rises and stays high, the company will make a loss on every kilowatt of electricity it sells. The new rightwing French presidential candidate, François Fillon, promises not to retire French reactors and to keep them going for 60 years. But this cannot be done without more cost.

This is the third problem: vast sums of capital are needed to refurbish EDF’s old nuclear fleet for safety reasons following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

New nuclear stations

Even more money is required to finish new nuclear stations EDF is already committed to building. The first, Flamanville in northern France, is five years late and billions over budget. Questions over the quality of the steel in its reactor are still not resolved, and it may never be fully operational.

Add to that the need for €12 billion (or potentially considerably more) capital to complete the two nuclear stations EDF is committed to building at Hinkley Point in southwest England, and it is hard to see where all the money will come from.

To help the cash-strapped company, its ultimate owner, the French state, has already provided €3 billion in extra capital this year, and decided to forego its shareholder dividend. But that is a drop in the ocean.

Mycle Schneider, a Paris-based independent international consultant on energy and nuclear policy, says: “The French company overvalues its nuclear assets, and underestimates how much it will cost to decommission them.

“However, EDF’s biggest problem is the cost of producing power from these ageing power stations. The cost is greater than the wholesale price, so everything they sell is at a loss. It is impossible to see how they can ever make a profit.”

He says that is not the company’s only problem: France has not dealt with the problem of nuclear waste, and has badly underestimated the cost of doing so: “With German electricity prices going down and production increasing in order to export cheap electricity to France, it is impossible to see how EDF can ever compete. It is really staggering that no one is paying any attention to this.”

Even former EDF director Gérard Magnin agrees. He resigned from the board in July as he thought the Hinkley Point project too risky for the company because of its already stretched finances. Now he says that, with the reactors closed for safety checks, the French nuclear industry faces “its worst situation ever”.

The company’s troubles do not stop in France, as EDF also owns the UK nuclear industry. Ironically, it took over 15 reactors in the UK after British Energy went bankrupt in 2002 because the cost of producing the electricity was greater than the wholesale price – exactly the situation being repeated now in France.

Repeated life extensions

Since the sale of UK nuclear plants to EDF in 2008 at a cost £12.5 billion, the company has continued to operate them, and has repeatedly got life extensions to keep them running.

But this cannot go on forever, and they are expected to start closing in the next ten years. Once this happens, the asset value of each station would become a liability, and EDF’s mountain of debt would get bigger.

So far, the French and UK governments, and the company itself, seem to be in denial about this situation. Currently 17 French reactors are shut down for safety checks, following the discovery of faulty safety-critical compenents including large, difficult to replace steel forgings like steam generators.

The company has issued reassuring statements that they will be back to full power after Christmas, however in so doing EDF is assuming that the safety checks will give the reactors a clean bill of health. In fact, there are three other possible outcomes:

  • additional potentially time-consuming tests are needed that will create further months of downtime.
  • remedial engineering works are required to make the reactors safe. These would probably be costly and time-consuming.
  • key components at the heart of the reactors, for example steam generators, need to be replaced altogether. However this would be so costly that, for a nuclear plant already reaching the end of its lifetime, premature closure would be the only viable option.

Perhaps the most likely outcome is that some of the 17 reactors will fall into each of these four categories, creating as yet unquantifiable unbudgeted costs for the company.

Meanwhile, to make up the shortfall from the closed reactors, electricity is being bought from neighbouring countries, including the UK, to keep the lights on in France. The power shortage is temporarily causing an increase in wholesale prices – but one that EDF is unable to fully exploit because so many of its reactors are not generating.

The future remains unpredictable – but as long as there are no actual power cuts, no action is expected from governments. Despite official denials, however, the calculations of many outside the industry suggest that it is only a matter of time before disaster strikes.

The cost of producing electricity from renewables is still falling, while nuclear gets ever more expensive, and massive liabilities loom. Ultimately, the bill will have to be passed on to the taxpayers.

 





Why is emergency-scale climate action necessary?

24 09 2016

From climatecodered.org

The world now faces a climate emergency. Our scientists tell us. We know it. Slowly the political elite are realising that the current international climate policy-making paradigm is dying of failure. Recognition of the climate emergency is now written into the platform for the Democratic Party for the 2016 US presidential election.

So how does our scientific understanding guide as to constructing a new way of looking at the challenge, as to what is happening, what is safe, and how we should respond? The Victorian Climate Action Network held a workshop on these questions on 11 September 2016. The slides below were the contribution by David Spratt to the first session, which asked the question ‘Why is emergency-scale action necessary?’

Slides





February’s global temperature spike is a wake-up call

17 03 2016

Steve Sherwood, UNSW Australia and Stefan Rahmstorf, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

Global temperatures for February showed a disturbing and unprecedented upward spike. It was 1.35℃ warmer than the average February during the usual baseline period of 1951-1980, according to NASA data.

This is the largest warm anomaly of any month since records began in 1880. It far exceeds the records set in 2014 and again in 2015 (the first year when the 1℃ mark was breached).

In the same month, Arctic sea ice cover reached its lowest February value ever recorded. And last year carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere increased by more than 3 parts per million, another record.

What is going on? Are we facing a climate emergency?

February temperatures from 1880 to 2016 from NASA GISS data. Values are deviations from the base period of 1951-1980.
Stefan Rahmstorf

El Niño plus climate change

Two things are combining to produce the record warmth: the well-known global warming trend caused by our greenhouse gas emissions, and an El Niño in the tropical Pacific.

The record shows that global surface warming has always been overlaid by natural climate variability. The biggest single cause of this variability is the natural cycle between El Niño and La Niña conditions. The El Niño in 1998 was a record-breaker, but now we have one that looks even bigger by some measures.

The pattern of warmth in February shows typical signatures of both long-term global warming and El Niño. The latter is very evident in the tropics.

Further north, the pattern looks similar to other Februaries since the year 2000: particularly strong warming in the Arctic, Alaska, Canada and the northern Eurasian continent. Another notable feature is a cold blob in the northern Atlantic, which has been attributed to a slowdown in the Gulf Stream.

The February warming spike brought us at least 1.6℃ above pre-industrial global average temperatures. This means that, for the first time, we have passed the 1.5℃ international aspirational goal agreed in December in Paris. We are coming uncomfortably close to 2℃.

Fortunately, this is temporary: the El Niño is beginning to subside.

Emissions still increasing

Unfortunately, we have done little about the underlying warming. If unchecked, this will cause these breaches to happen more and more often, with a greater than 2℃ breach perhaps only a couple of decades away.

The greenhouse gases slowly heating the Earth are still increasing in concentration. The 12-month average surpassed 400 parts per million roughly a year ago – the highest level for at least a million years. The average rose even faster in 2015 than previous years (probably also due to the El Niño, as this tends to bring drought to many parts of the globe, meaning less carbon is stored in plant growth).

A glimmer of hope is that our carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels have, for the first time in decades, stopped increasing. This trend has been evident over the past couple of years, mainly due to a decline of coal use in China, which recently announced the closure of around 1,000 coal mines.

Have we underestimated global warming?

Does the “spike” change our understanding of global warming? In thinking about climate change, it is important to take the long view. A predominant La Niña-like situation over recent years did not mean global warming had “stopped” as a few public figures were (and probably still are) claiming.

Likewise, a hot spike due to a major El Niño event – even though it is surprisingly hot – doesn’t mean global warming was underestimated. In the longer run the global warming trend agrees very well with longstanding predictions. But these predictions nevertheless paint a picture of a very warm future if emissions are not brought down soon.

The situation is similar to that of a serious illness like cancer: the patient usually does not get slightly worse each day, but has weeks when the family thinks he may be recovering, followed by terrible days of relapse. The doctors do not change their diagnosis each time this happens, because they know this is all a part of the disease.

Although the current El-Niño-driven spike is temporary, it will last long enough to have some severe consequences. For example, a massive coral bleaching event now appears likely on the Great Barrier Reef.

Here in Australia we have been breaking heat records in the past few months, including 39 straight days in Sydney above 26℃ (double the previous record). News reports seem to be focusing on the role of El Niño, but El Niño does not explain why oceans to the south of Australia, and in the Arctic, are at record high temperatures.

The other half of the story is global warming. This is boosting each successive El Niño, along with all its other effects on ice sheets and sea level, the global ecosystem and extreme weather events.

This is the true climate emergency: it is getting more difficult with each passing year for humanity to prevent temperatures from rising above 2℃. February should remind us how pressing the situation is.

The Conversation

Steve Sherwood, Director and ARC Laureate Fellow, Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW Australia and Stefan Rahmstorf, Professor of Physics of the Oceans, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.





Crash on Demand

6 01 2014

As 2014 opens the window to our uncertain future, David Holmgren, with whom I had the great pleasure of having dinner in Richard Heinberg’s company in 2006 when they toured Australia together, has published a new essay (a 24 page pdf download), which is an update of his Future Scenarios, and which continues to build on “Money Vs. Fossil Fuels”, and expands on money and the economy.  This essay titled “Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future” is a must read piece……..

energy_descent_scenarios-300x207

Holmgren is seeing the Brown Tech scenario as the one currently in play from the four outlined in Future Scenarios, where the decline of fossil fuels unfolds slowly; “but the severity of global warming symptoms is at the extreme end of current mainstream scientific predictions” says David….  The political system is Corporatist, and emphasis is placed on replacing declining conventional fossil fuels with lower grade fossil fuels, which are both more expensive and also release more GGE (Greenhouse Gas Emissions), exacerbating Climate Change even further.  David’s argument is essentially that radical, but achievable, behaviour change from dependent consumers to responsible self-reliant producers (by some relatively small minority of the global middle class) has a chance of stopping the juggernaut of consumer capitalism from driving the world over the climate change cliff.  It maybe a slim chance, but a better bet than current herculean efforts to get the elites to pull the right policy levers; whether by sweet promises of green tech profits or alternatively threats from mass movements shouting for less consumption.

browntech_logosmlw_bt

In the extensive discussions about money and economy, the influence of systems analyst Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh -The Automatic Earth) and economist Steve Keen (Debt Deflation) are strong and freely acknowledged.  David believes that deflationary economics is the most powerful factor shaping our immediate future.

The basic recommendation (as noted in the quote above) is not much different from what David Holmgren and I have been recommending for 20 years or more…: to engage in a shift away from the Matrix, and toward being a responsible self-reliant producer for your household and community, to shift a significant portion of assets out of the Matrix economy, and move them into building household and community resilience. Such actions not only put you in a more secure position, they also, if engaged by perhaps 10% of the population of affluent countries, might be just what’s needed to shift our economies away from the perpetual growth paradigm we’ve been suffering since at least the end of WWII , and is now only hanging on via an unsustainable debt bubble…….  The collapse of the current bubble economy will be ugly.  However, given that current growth is no longer fuelled by oil but only being made possible by rising debt, we are not doing ourselves (or anybody else) any favours by perpetuating it.  As David has previously pointed out in Future Scenarios:

…without radical behavioural and organizational change that would threaten the foundations of our growth economy, greenhouse gas emissions along with other environmental impacts will not decline. Economic recession is the only proven mechanism for a rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and may now be the only real hope for maintaining the earth in a habitable state.

David makes the case that even though it might be too late for the Green Tech scenario to materialise, it may, just

David Holmgren

David Holmgren

may, still be possible to avoid the worst effects of the Brown Tech scenario (a 4 to 6 degree “Climate Cooker” Lifeboats scenario).

A severe global economic collapse might switch off enough GGE to begin reversing climate change, so that the Earth Steward scenario of bioregional economies based on frugal rural agrarian living, assisted by resources salvaged from the collapsed global economy and the defunct national governments, could possibly emerge in the long term future……..

It’s not a rose coloured future, I grant you…..  The last 10 pages or so, however, I found to be quite invigorating (even in the current heat wave), and opened up some possibilities for positive engagement….  Topics discussed are ‘Nested Scenarios’ (different scenarios co-existing at different scales); Investment and Divestment; Formal and Informal Economies; Alternative and Non-monetary Economies; Labour and Skill Vs Fossil Fuel and Technology; Brown Tech Possibilities; Actors at the Fringe; and Not Financial Terrorists (but Terra-ists with hands in the soil).  There are also tons of great footnotes/links worth following up on……

David is one of the few people around with his head screwed on properly, and like much of the rest of his writings, this is essential reading for those of us trying to make sense of whatever long term future we may have to face, or how we can best make a positive difference.

Today though, I learned a new word….:  exhaustipated.  Too tired to give a shit!  Maybe tomorrow when it’s supposed to cool down and rain……  Enjoy the read, I did….





What firefighters say about climate change

24 10 2013

The Conversation

Author

Michael Howes

Senior Lecturer in Sustainability and Environmental Policy at Griffith University

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/what-firefighters-say-about-climate-change-19381

You do not find many climate change sceptics on the end of [fire] hoses anymore… They are dealing with increasing numbers of fires, increasing rainfall events, increasing storm events. – A senior Victorian fire officer, interviewed in 2012 for a recent National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility report.

There have been fierce arguments this week about whether it’s opportunistic to discuss climate change in connection to the devastating New South Wales fires. Amid all the bluster, it’s surprising that we’ve heard so little from one group of experts: frontline emergency service workers, including the firefighters risking their lives for the rest of us.

Yet if you do ask for their opinion – as we did for a study released in June this year – many, like the senior fire officer quoted above, are not reluctant to talk about climate change. In fact, quite a few of the emergency workers and planners we interviewed said we should be talking about it more, if our communities are to be better prepared for disasters like the one unfolding in NSW right now.

Prepare for the worst, hope for the best

In 2012-13, I led a joint research team from Griffith and RMIT to prepare a report for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) on disaster risk management and climate change.

To do so, we compared the emergency responses to Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, the 2011 Perth hills bushfires, and the 2011 Brisbane floods.

We started by comparing the official inquiry reports into these events to the relevant research on disaster risk management. This was followed up by interviews with 22 experts from Perth, Melbourne and Brisbane, including nine fire officers, five emergency services workers, and eight assorted planners or policy officers. The proposals that emerged were then reviewed at a set of workshops.

One of the most interesting things we found in talking to the emergency service workers was an overwhelming acceptance and concern that climate change was already affecting Australia, based on their personal experiences with disasters.

As a Western Australian fire officer told our research team, we need to “get the scientists, who have a lot to share about climate change and climate change adaptation, talking to the operational people” – a suggestion backed by many of our interviewees.

Preventing future emergencies

Our report was not the first time that firefighters and other emergency workers have spoken out about climate change.

For instance, earlier this year it was reported that the United Firefighters Union released research by the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research that found almost 2 million Australians were relying largely on volunteer fire brigades to protect them and A$500 billion in assets.

The same article referred to research from the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, a collaboration between the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, on how the fire season across much of south-eastern Australia appeared to be going on for longer.

In November 2009, 25 firefighters, paramedics, police, military and emergency services workers spent nearly a month running 6000 kilometres from Cooktown in Queensland to Adelaide and back to Melbourne, speaking to communities along the way about their concerns about climate change. Many of them had worked in the Black Saturday firestorm, in which 173 people died, as well as the record-breaking heatwave beforehand that health experts estimated killed more than twice as many people as the fires.

In the same year, the United Firefighters Union’s national secretary wrote to then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd:

On behalf of more than 13,000 firefighters and support staff in Australia, I write this open letter to request a review of Australia’s fire risk… As we battle blazes here in Victoria, firefighters are busy rescuing people from floods in Queensland. Without a massive turnaround in policies, aside from the tragic loss of life and property, we will be asking firefighters to put themselves at an unacceptable risk.

Firefighters know that it is better to prevent an emergency than to have to rescue people from it, and we urge state and federal governments to follow scientific advice and keep firefighters and the community safe by halving the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Lessons to be learnt

So what can we learn from listening to firefighters and other emergency services workers about how to be better prepared for future disasters?

Our study’s main aim was to come up with a set of practical changes based on those expert views on how to better integrate climate change adaptation into disaster management programs.

One suggestion was to set up a permanent fund, based on the success of Landcare. Anyone from government or the community might form a group and bid for money to tackle a particular issue, such as replanting local wetlands to reduce the impacts of flooding.

Another proposal was to set aside some local government funding to set up community resilience grants. Residents would be able to apply to their local council to fund projects, such as creating a network of people ready to assist elderly neighbours in times of bushfires or floods. Locals could even vote in town hall meetings on which proposals their council should fund.

Whatever we do, if we want to handle disasters better in the future, our frontline emergency workers have plenty of ideas to offer – if we’re ready to listen to what they say.