I am sitting down, alone, and thinking about climate change. Really thinking about it. Try it for yourself. Stop reading for a moment and just think about what you have to think about climate change, and where it ranks in your personal priority system.
Power Shift, we find out early on Saturday morning, is not a conference. It’s a Phenomenon. I’m a little hazy on the finer distinctions, but if postcolonial studies has taught me anything, it’s that we ought to respect the owners’ name for their own Thing – although this particular Thing isn’t exactly as big as Uluru. Blackwood Hall at Monash Clayton might be two-thirds full by the time Tim Flannery is warning us in that gentle way of his about the potential extinction of more than half of all species of life on Earth if we don’t stop fouling our living space soon. The good news, he tells us, is that 2012 was that first year Australia’s carbon emissions have ever dropped compared to the previous year. A drop of 0.2%, that is – not enough to stop us from being once again the world’s worst per capita polluters, but reason for cautious optimism.
From the promotional and introductory material emailed to me by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition – the event organisers – I didn’t really know what would actually be happening at Power Shift, so I’ll assume you don’t either. It turns out to be two days of individual speakers promoting community activism to change current environmental policy; expert panels discussing climate change science, politics and social justice; and ‘masterclasses’ in everything from community organising to interacting with the media to election campaign strategy, mostly based around Blackwood Hall and the Menzies Building, with a third day at Melbourne Town Hall.
Aside from the over-enthusiastic and underwhelming MC in the morning, the whole Phenomenon is actually pretty impressive. Tickets weren’t cheap, but consensus at the evening social event is that a hundred bucks for three days’ education of this quality is good value. The only problem is not being able to get to everything you want to go to. It’s sort of like at Big Day Out when all your favourite bands are playing at the same time, except that nobody’s pinging at three in the afternoon. There’s no real need to be. You can’t help making friends with strangers, and the general mood is bright and buoyant, despite the Clayton Climate putting on a midwinter special, and the fact that we’re all here to try to stop The End of the World.
Depending on who you listen to, that might not be an overstatement. Snap trivia: what size human population do you think a planet four to six degrees warmer could support? Current guesses are as low as half a billion. But if you think we’ll shrink from seven billion now to one-fourteenth that size in a hundred years without someone’s thumb twitching on the trigger of a nuclear warhead then you are an astounding optimist. Remember at the top when I asked you to stop for a moment and just think about how much climate change matters?
If that feeling of looking at the issues head-on like that is unfamiliar, you are not alone. The programme for the weekend’s activities included a plan for a ‘massive and impactful media stunt’ in the city on the final day, as well as time set aside to practice it beforehand. Unable to attend in person, and curious about what this mysterious ‘stunt’ might involve, I kept a close eye out for it in the media. None of The Age, the Herald Sun, The Australian, or the ABC covered any part of Power Shift to my knowledge. Not a word. Climate change has become a matter of tax policy in Australia, but everyone has forgotten what the tax might be for.
One last point. Some may feel that I have proceeded on the uncritical assumption that what climate scientists say is correct. This is not true. I have proceeded on the critical assumption that they are correct. I am not a scientist. I am an Arts student. My job is not to analyse the science and come to independent conclusions: it is to analyse the discourse around that science and come to entirely dependent conclusions. If you are a scientist and you don’t accept the mainstream view for scientific reasons then you are welcome to argue your case. If you are Clive Palmer or Andrew Bolt, and you don’t accept the orthodox science because you just don’t want to, you are welcome to shut up and let the grown-ups talk.
Because climate change is very much a grown-up problem, and it’s not a problem that’s getting any less grown-up by our ignorance of it. And I’m not just talking about Big Miners and Big Mouths now. I’m talking about people who think they care about the habitability of Earth, but somehow manage to forget that in their day-to-day lives. I’m talking about people like me. You may well be a person like me.