Climate conversion on the Camino road

'We are called to exercise responsible stewardship of creation, to use resources in such a way that every individual and community can live with dignity, and to develop 'that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God.'

Truck in Spain In my parish pew-sheet at Mass the other day, I found this succinct excerpt from the Pope's recent message to delegates, including Kevin Rudd, who attended the United Nations Heads of Government summit in New York.

In what follows, I presume the truth of the latest mainstream climate science: that the world now faces between 2 and 4 degrees rise in global average temperature by 2100 or earlier; that this will have early and dire consequences in terms of sea level rises, desertification, lowland inundations and sharply reduced food-growing potential for the world's burgeoning population; that this global warming is predominantly man-made; and that urgent efforts to curtail fossil fuel combustion in the way humanity runs its electricity and transport systems are vital, if we hope to mitigate and adapt to these global climate disruptions.

To those Australians who reject any of the above presumptions, (and there seems to be a growing number of them), this essay will have limited interest. But many of these people profess Christianity. They might temporarily suspend their disbelief in climate science, to engage with the Pope's words. He clearly sees his obligation to consider the moral consequences of climate science's messages:

'The economic and social costs of using up shared resources must be recognised with transparency and borne by those who incur them, and not by other peoples or future generations. The protection of the environment, and the safeguarding of resources and of the climate, oblige all leaders to act jointly, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the world. Together we can build an integral human development beneficial for all peoples, present and future, a development inspired by the values of charity in truth'. [My italics] .

Australians as a people of Christian heritage know the parable of the Good Samaritan, who put compassion for another human being in distress ahead of his own present comfort and security. The Pope's strong words about leaders' obligations to those who come after us, those who still depend on us as children, and to those who are yet unborn, remind us that the parable has an inter-generational as well as an inter-personal meaning. His words remind us of our obligation to protect the climate security of our children, even at some present-day cost to ourselves.

The cheapest energy solution – continuing to burn coal - is not a moral solution if it steals our children's climate security from them. Especially when Australia has affordable and technically feasible alternatives to coal.

The Pope's words also cast a different light on those who see the forthcoming Copenhagen meeting as a test whether the world can strike a 'grand global bargain' for sharing and trading the costs of global climate change mitigation and adaptation. Most commentators now correctly forecast that such a bargain is beyond the reach of the Copenhagen negotiators. Some are preparing to pronounce Copenhagen a diplomatic failure, and to go back to business and politics as usual.

But I do not see such an outcome as failure. I see good prospects that Copenhagen will produce a series of loosely linked national commitments to pursue scientifically meaningful national carbon emissions reduction strategies, expressed quantitatively by measuring rods of nations' own choosing, but in ways that will collectively add up to a serious global effort to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions. This may be packaged as a 'global bargain', but in truth it will be more than this.

By abandoning the present market-rationalist preoccupation with striving for international deals in which one nation is not cheated by others into paying more than its 'fair share', the world's leaders may bring other shared values into play: altruism, compassion, and constructive emulation. One sees this already in the different – but mutually supportive – pre-Copenhagen emissions reduction commitments now being announced by the United States, China, India, Japan, Korea, and the EU.

Kevin Rudd's policy framework still strikes discordant notes in this increasing harmony of voices (I think of it as polyphony, rather than a unison choir) now emerging as the likely Copenhagen outcome. Rudd is still locked into increasingly meaningless market trading solutions to carbon emissions (the low-target and heavily compromised ETS, the toothless 20% renewable energy target); a reliance on zero-sum-game rationalist international diplomacy; and recourse to the false dream of coal carbon capture and storage. He clings to this in order to evade the unanswerable moral case for ending burning coal for electricity. Ian McFarlane has now usefully challenged this myth.

In 2010, I hope Kevin Rudd will draw the right moral lessons from the anticipated 'failure' of Copenhagen. I hope that, inspired by the Pope's message, he will get serious about a focussed national emergency strategy to decarbonise Australia's energy systems in the shortest time frame our citizens can afford, and having in mind our paramount moral obligation to try to defend our children's climate security; that he will not seek to export Australia's decarbonisation obligations by buying emission rights from poor and badly governed countries, whose people can least afford to sell them (akin to buying transplant kidneys from living, desperately poor people); that his population and national infrastructure policies will begin to prepare for the certainty of very large numbers of climate change refugees within the next 50 years, whom we will be unable (and morally should not try) to turn away by military deterrence.

In my warm personal response to the Pope's message, I see now that I wrote my latest book on global warming, Crunch Time, though its language is secular, with the same intention of evoking feelings of Christian altruism, emulation and stewardship in which I wrote my two earlier books on SIEV X and walking the Camino. Indeed, Chapter 10 of Walking the Camino describes my moment of recognition of the global climate and resources crisis, while walking along a busy interstate highway in Spain, crowded with trucks that were passing me every second, blowing me off my feet and filling my lungs with their exhaust gases. I knew then that we cannot go on like this; that we must find radically better ways to safeguard our children.
Tony KevinTony Kevin is author of Crunch Time: using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era (Scribe 2009).

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, camino, copenhagen, climate change, carbon emissions



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Existing comments

A good article John. This is an interesting daily journal, free of charge

ALEXANDER PALMER | 16 November 2009  

For me too, walking 850 kms of the Camino del Norte across the northern coastline of Spain last year was an eye opening experience. One of the main lessons of the Camino for me was that we need to stay connected to the earth. I noticed in particular, the hospitality in the towns and villages where the old people still carefully cultivated every strip of land (sweet corn growing on a traffic island!), where water was available from the fountains and where the hedgerows where heavy with blackberries, wild mint, coriander and columbines - and the contrast with areas where row on row of McMansion chalets are being thrown up - no gardens, high walls, no public drinking water and no sense of community. Walking across the country, I was very conscious of something precious that is being lost for ever.

Helena Sweeney | 16 November 2009  

Thank you Tony for being a voice of hope for Copenhagen - I have not heard, nor read too many lately.

Andrew | 16 November 2009  

My conversion approaching Melbourne on the western highway some 20 years ago when it suddenly dawned on me that in about half an hours time I would be inhaling filthy smog rather than fresh air. 20 years on, it seems that there is lots of talk, much of it obstructive, and no action.

David | 17 November 2009  

My sincere thanks for an evocative, thought provoking and deeply caring article.

The theme for me, was that of service to our global village.

If we are unwilling to put ourselves last,
( the Good Samaritan),this 'village' may be on a perilous journey.

Bernie Introna | 18 November 2009  

I also found Tony's comments on climate change generally positive, but they suffer the same problem as the Pope's message and climate change commentary from the Greens.

That problem is over-emphasis on the desired ideal without any apparent recognition that a certain amount of realpolitik compromise is required to set the scene for radical change.

To disparage as 'toothless' the 20% renewable energy target ignores the motivational value of setting an achievable quantitative target that provides some economic credibility to the alternative energy industries. Manufacturers of alternative energy hardware need economic credibility if they are to finance the construction, supply and installation of systems to provide and deliver alternative energy.

'A series of loosely linked national commitments to pursue scientifically meaningful national carbon emissions reduction strategies' would be nice to have, and an internationally accredited ETS with significant (at least 20% by 2020) reduction targets would force the financing of reduction technologies.

And while I share Tony's wish for rapid decarbonisation of Australia and the world, it can only be achieved when an alternative technology can take its place.

The only alternative energy source quantitatively able to replace coal in the short term is nuclear. But do we want it?

Ian Fraser | 23 November 2009  

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