Moving to a zero carbon economy: a conversation with Professor John Wiseman on social justice and the environment

green buildingProfessor John Wiseman is the Deputy Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne. His current research focus is the social, economic and political transformations needed to reduce the risks of runaway climate change and achieve a just and sustainable post carbon future.

He kindly agreed to an interview with me to discuss his work and some of the implications for the human services sector.

Q: You started off as a social worker; tell me how you got to working in climate change and sustainable post-carbon futures?

A: Yes, sure. Like a lot of people I was interested in social work from the beginning, due most of all to a passion about social justice but always with an awareness that there was a link between social justice, environmental issues and ecological sustainability. That has always been in the background of the work I’ve done along with a strong interest in linking critique and action. That perhaps helps explain why I’ve spent a fair bit of my life working across university, public sector and NGO’s.

That link between social justice and environmental issues I’ve always felt was important and clear, but really it has been in the last five or six years that the climate change issues have become quite sharp; particularly for me when I was working as director of a research centre called the McCaughey Centre in the School of Population & Health at Melbourne University. That was a Centre that focused on high level drivers of population health – issues of poverty, racism and violence and so on. But increasingly over that period the evidence that just kept coming into my inbox, that the accelerating risks of climate change were going to be one of, if not the most important health risks, particularly for vulnerable people; to such an extent that the Lancet now quite clearly argues that climate change is really the biggest health risk of the 21st Century.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in reading a lot of the material that has come through on climate change over the last 6 to 7 years and its link to social justice and health within and beyond Australia. From that I made a call about two or three years ago to leave the position as Director of the McCaughey Centre and move to the Sustainable Society Institute at Melbourne University to convene the climate research cluster. We continue to work on climate health and social impacts but I’ve also switched increasingly to the solutions side, and on how might we drive a fast shift to a low emissions, low carbon economy. So that’s a way of summarising the journey I’ve been on.

Q:   So what’s the worst case climate scenario for Australia?

A: The place I’d always start on that is Australia being part of the world, the worst case for the world is global warming beyond 4 degrees, and that’s exactly the track we’re on. There are many ways in which these statistics can sound a bit dry but I’ve always been struck by the comments of one of the world’s most eminent climate scientists, Professor Joachim Schellnhuber who advises the German government. He makes the sobering comment that a world in which there is 4 degrees of warming or more is probably not fundamentally compatible with human civilisation along the lines that we currently understand it. To put it another way, it’s probably going to lead to a global population of something around a billion people and if you just stop and think what that might mean, it is very chilling.

Now if we turn to the worst case scenario for Australia – Australia’s climate and its environment on the one hand makes this country particularly vulnerable to climate change, and on the other hand we remain relatively wealthy as a country, so maybe we’ve got better capacity to adapt than less affluent societies in Africa or South-East Asia or the Pacific Islands. Those countries are where the consequences are going to be harshest and fastest. But having said that, there are plenty of people in Australia, low-income people and people in rural and Aboriginal Australia, who are already feeling the sharp end of what climate change means in terms of fires and floods and droughts. So like most things it is the most vulnerable people who are worst affected. The worst case climate scenario for Australia, as in the rest of the world, is extremely serious. Even five years ago when I first started thinking about these issues, like a lot of people I thought, “Oh yes, this is some way away, this is something we might have to think about in the future”. But now we’re all increasingly aware that the impacts and the implications are upon us and so these matters are for urgent decision and action now, as well as in the future.

Q: So how much time do we have left to complete a transition to zero carbon emission?

A: Some people have talked about this as the critical decade between roughly 2010 and 2020 and I believe that’s a good way to think about it. It gives some sense of the urgency. If you see 2 degrees of global warming as the minimum guardrail, then you would want to see a global transition to a zero carbon economy by about 2040, and you would need to keep drawing down carbon after that. But given that countries like India and China are still in a different league in relation to issues of poverty, developed economies like Australia and the US would need to move much sooner to a zero carbon economy and really, ideally, within the next 5-10 years, but certainly as quickly as possible. So yes, the answer is “extremely fast”.

Q:   Yes, that sounds incredibly urgent.

A: Some people would use the word “emergency”. The real issue is that the longer you leave the turnaround the harder it gets. So the sooner we start the less difficult the task is, and if you leave it too long it really becomes enormously difficult to get emissions down at a reasonable rate. So the sooner the better.

Q: Your group has done some work on what the ingredients are, the essential components of a rapid transition. What does that look like?

A: A number of colleagues at Melbourne University – we’re involved in a two part project called “Post Carbon Pathways”. We had a close look at the best large-scale low carbon transition plans around the world and then we spoke to their lead authors and the people putting them into practice. The first thing it tells you is that a zero carbon economy is possible. There are things that need doing very fast, but from a technological point of view this is doable. The big barriers are political. The key ingredients are remarkably agreed and there are three or four that are fundamental; firstly replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, in other words, phasing out coal and replacing it with solar, wind, other forms of renewables. Secondly, improving energy efficiency – there are huge gains to be made in more efficient houses, more efficient uses of energy and more efficient transport, and of course many of those gains are of particular value to low income people, to vulnerable communities. And thirdly, reducing emissions from forestry and agriculture. Low carbon land use has important implications for farming and for the rural sector, and we need to think too about how forestry and agricultural land use can help us drawn down carbon. The last point I would always add to that list, a central ingredient is making sure that the most vulnerable people are supported in that transition process.

Q: And the cost to the economy of putting all these measures in place quickly?

A: Well, in general, in every study that has been done around the world comes to remarkably similar sorts of figures of 2 to 3 per cent of GDP perhaps. So that’s a really significant amount of money – but not impossible. I think there are a couple of important points when we talk about costs though. Firstly there are very real economic as well as social costs in not reducing emissions rapidly. There will be economic costs and you can see that if you talk to the insurance companies around Australia. They are very acutely aware of the rising impact of extreme weather events on their bottom line; so there are many ways in which there are economic costs in not acting. Secondly, there are really big potential employment and economic opportunities in acting; there are big opportunities in renewable energy and energy efficiency and in different sorts of land use. That’s why many people would say Australia – the current government at least – are lagging behind not just in acting on climate change but we’re also in danger of missing out on a whole lot of economic opportunities.

Q:   The general public however could be forgiven for thinking that the message out there is (a) it’s too expensive and (b) it’s actually unrealistic to replace fossil fuel use very quickly with alternatives that people talk about, you know, base load power as being something that can’t quickly be transitioned.

A: It’s striking that many Australian households – not necessarily just inner city greenies; they’re making their own conclusions about this. Look at the speed with which lots of Australian households are deciding to put solar PV on their roofs. I think there are a lot of people who are taking a view that says in addition to it being a good environmental decision, there might actually be smart financial reasons for making that switch as well. Yes, as with any large scale change there are some costs but there are also important opportunities and there are countries like Germany or other European countries who don’t seem to be doing too badly and are making a much faster switch to a new low carbon economy than we are.

Q: Given what has happened over the past few weeks with petrol prices dropping, I actually wondered whether the fossil fuel industry will start dumping product on the basis that it will be worthless soon, and actually that would be a very perverse outcome.

A: Yes. I think there must be a lot of people in fossil fuel industries looking nervously at their bottom line just at the moment in terms of what their profitability is going to be like, so the finances, the costs and benefits of, say, renewables compared to fossil fuels are changing incredibly fast, much faster than many people, either consumers or more people in the industry would’ve thought. But the lowest hanging fruit and the quickest way for a lot of people to save money is just reducing energy consumption. Energy efficiency is a great way for everybody to reduce costs, so that just makes good sense all around.

Q: Well, given that we have such little time left to avoid a greater than 2 degree rise in temperature, the actual price of carbon ought to be very, very expensive right now.

A: Yes, I heard an interesting talk late last year by a guy called Peter Bakker who is head of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. He used to run the biggest transport company in Holland and he made it very clear he was no extreme environmentalist, and that he was arguing from a strong business position. He represents lots of big companies like Siemens and Apple and he said, “Look, in my view we certainly have a strong, robust, lasting carbon price and” – in his view – “it is time to stop mucking about, it needs to be about $100 a tonne”. Now in the Australian context where we used to have a carbon price of a bit over $23, that sounds like a lot, but I think when you start hearing people in those sorts of positions saying that’s what is needed, certainly a strong, clear message about a carbon price is a pretty good way of getting people to make a very rapid change.

Q: It seems to me that in any great upheaval, whether technological or climatic, the way that politics is organised, it is usually the poor and vulnerable that get shafted. How will it be different this time?

A: Well, unless we do something about it, unless we take action, it certainly won’t be different. The poor and vulnerable globally are already on the receiving end. If we think of recent events over the past few years in the Philippines or in Bangladesh or Pakistan and we think of the floods and events, we can see it happening. And we can see in Australia too that the people who are worst affected by extreme weather events are the poorest. The people who are worst affected by heatwaves are the oldest and the most unwell. So it highlights the importance of making sure that the most vulnerable are most protected; for ethical reasons and also for strategic reasons. Internationally if you look at the most recent negotiations in Lima and in the run-up to Paris later this year, the biggest debates will be about, fairness, about who pays, who carries the burden for this change. With countries like India or South Africa saying, “Well, you guys in America or Australia have been having something of a party for quite a while and have been doing rather better than us and have been emitting more carbon”. There is a discussion about fairness and I think it’s true in Australia as well. If you’re going to convince the Australian people that a solid carbon price is necessary, that large scale change is necessary, then you also have to convince them that it’s going to be done fairly, the changes will be fair and that workers who lose jobs in the coal industry are supported. People who are affected by rising heating or energy bills, need proper procedures in place to make sure they aren’t unfairly affected.

Q: Well, given it is in our own interest to make this transition as soon as possible, why isn’t it happening?

A: Well, it’s true that it’s in most people’s interest. I think some people continue to do quite well out of the current system in the short-term, and in a way that’s true of all of us at least in the developed world. Even for those of us who say, yes, we recognise there is a real issue here, it is tempting to think short-term and focus on our current lifestyle. There is a range of ways in which all of us tend to focus on the short-term and so as a general comment I think the human capacity to think short-term rather than long-term is a major problem.

But in the Post Carbon Pathways Report I mentioned, we also asked key climate policymakers and activists around the world exactly this question. What are the biggest roadblocks, the biggest barriers? There are about half a dozen points that people continually make. One is denial; either denial that climate change is happening or perhaps more commonly and more worryingly, denial that we should do anything about it, that it’s too difficult or too expensive or somebody else should do it. There are all sorts of rationales that people come up with.

I think the second point that many people would make would be vested interests, in other words people who stand to benefit at least in the short-term from current fossil fuel investments and production. Just as the tobacco industry was pretty good at protecting itself against criticism about health outcomes, the fossil fuel industry is also pretty good at protecting its interests and its investments.

The third roadblock is what some people call path dependencies or lock-ins, meaning that if you’re on a certain track it’s often hard to move off that track. A good example of that will be cars. Even if you know that it would be a good idea to shift from petrol‑based cars to electric cars, when we stop to think about how we replace all our petrol stations with charging stations and so on, it’s a path that is hard to change. So that needs leadership and a visionary kind of action.

The next roadblock is unfairness, and inequality – that gets well and truly in the way of concerted action. Then there is unconstrained consumption; there’s the power of our culture and of the advertising industry to keep us buying stuff, lots and lots of stuff. And then lastly there is practical decision‑making governance coupled with financial constraints. We have to find different ways of channelling finance into renewables rather than fossil fuels, we have to find different ways of managing energy so there are a number of roadblocks and we have to learn to be smart about dismantling those quickly.

Q: Normally you would expect the more progressive political party, the Labor Party, to be taking a bit more of a lead in undoing some of these roadblocks, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

A: I think that’s probably true around the world. Labor, social democratic and progressive parties around the world have been caught in this tension between doing the right thing on environmental issues and also trying to meet the shorter term political demands of constituencies to keep taxes down and keep prices down. Those are the sorts of drivers that are affecting them. It seems to me that the onus is on all political parties to provide a leadership in showing that this is a change that is coming, it’s a change that is necessary, a change to a low carbon, a low emissions future. It is a change in which it is crucial to act quickly but it is also smart to act quickly if you want to be on the right side of history.

Q:   Doing it fairly seems to me to involve a lot of redistribution from richer people to poorer people and there’s a lot of resistance to that idea at the moment. One of the attractions of a price on carbon is it’s a market mechanism and there is a conviction these days that markets are the best way to get things happening but there are lots of things that you’ve flagged that simply involve a redistribution from the well off to the less well off.

A: Yes, I think even in the last few days we’ve seen figures that show that we’re close to having 1% of the world’s population owning over 50% of the wealth, so we’re heading into a world that is increasingly unequal.

Q:   Referring to the Oxfam report?

A: Yes, exactly. I mean, there’s simply no way of driving a transition to a fair zero carbon economy while those sorts of inequalities keep accelerating. That is not going to work.

Q: There seems to be inbuilt driver or inbuilt accelerator with capital accumulation if you believe Thomas Piketty’s critique. He’s saying basically that capital accumulation is on a fast track now.

A: Sure. I think Piketty has provided a bit of a wake-up call to lots of people around how that works, and so I agree with you that simply setting a price on carbon, while I do believe that’s really important, is by no means the only thing that needs to happen. There will need to be strong action on progressive taxation and then the channelling of taxation resources partly into investment in a low carbon economy and partly in the actions needed to make sure that that change happens fairly.

Q: It seems to me that there’s going to be a real problem for those changes to happen fairly if we leave things in the realm of the market and when I look at the way economists and politicians discuss these things, there seems to be an underlying assumption when you look at all the political conversation in Australia and the rest of the western world that market fundamentalism is just good and it will get things right and we should just let it rip. But whenever we see it rip, it really smashes the vulnerable and the poor and creates a greater gap between rich and poor -so the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality. Market fundamentalism seems to be the new religion in some ways.

A: And has been for some time. Yes, just as I can’t see how you can have the transition to a fair zero carbon economy with current inequalities of wealth, I can’t see how you can do that with current inequalities of power. An unfettered and unregulated free market as you said is one in which inequalities not only of money but of power will tend to accelerate. So yes, there will need to be a shift in power. In particular I suppose one good example of that will be the power of some of the biggest vested interests -the giant coal and oil companies – and we need to find ways of challenging that power.

Now, some of that has to come from the grassroots and from social movements; the large demonstrations that we saw late last year in places like New York at the United Nations and elsewhere around the world, Lock the Gate and other processes against coal seam gas and all of those things are important examples of grassroots movements challenging that kind of power. But I think we’ll also need to see some role for government and perhaps also some role for different approaches to how businesses are run. I think there are promising signs in some of the alternative thinking about not for profit businesses and social enterprises and so on. So all of those are about questioning the dominance of an unregulated free market system.

Q: Market fundamentalism does seem a very radical religion, for want of a better word, because it does tear things down very quickly and create a lot of disruption. I wonder what has happened to a conservative view of the world, -let’s just take it slowly and see what these changes might mean before we hop into them.

Q: Yes, words like “conservative” and “radical” have become perhaps confusing. There’s nothing conservative about an extreme set of free market policies that mean increasing inequality for the vast majority of people.

Q: A lot of resistance around the world to coal seam gas exploitation is really those communities being very conservative about their lifestyle, their local economy and their opportunities for enjoying what they’ve got.

A: Conserving what they’ve got.

Q:   Exactly, conserving what they’ve got. But few people name this radical force of market fundamentalism for what it is – Naomi Klein talks about it sweeping across the planet and tearing it up.

A: Naomi Klein, as you said, does say it very well and her book brings a lot of these arguments together very effectively. There are others perhaps less well known in this country. Rebecca Solnit is another American environmentalist author who makes some similar points very well. There are clearly parts of the environment movement – comes to mind – who have clearly identified the need to challenge the power of the fossil fuel industry through strategies like divestment. While that might not use quite the same language as the critique of market fundamentalism it is certainly identifying inequalities in power and control over resources as really important to those debates. If you look at some of the ideas being discussed around the demonstrations in the US and elsewhere on climate change last year, issues of climate justice are starting to become more visible and that’s a good thing -but there’s a way to go.

Q: There seem to be twin arguments around divestment and one is the ethics; we shouldn’t invest because it’s bad, you know, like tobacco. And an argument which says actually all the stuff in the ground – the coal, gas, petroleum – we can’t actually use it because if we do we kill the planet so therefore it’s actually not worth anything near what it’s valuation currently is; they are essentially dead assets -so any smart capitalist is going to get out of a dead asset.

A: Yes, if we had said even two or three or four years ago that divestment would have moved so fast as an important part of the strategic discussion on climate change, I think many people would have been surprised by that. I do think it’s important and it’s important for a couple of reasons; not just because of the amount of money being moved out of fossil fuels and into other purposes like renewables although that is important, but certainly in Australia that is still a relatively modest amount of money. I think what it has done more importantly is to start a public debate about investment priorities, and more fundamentally about what some people call the social licence of large fossil fuel companies. Just as the debates about divestment from big tobacco fuelled a public discussion about was it ethically right to make money out of tobacco, so too the divestment issue tends to fuel a discussion around people’s kitchen tables about whether or not it is right to make money out of fossil fuels particularly when we know that to have any real chance of avoiding extreme climate change, most of the current known reserves of coal and oil and so on will need to stay in the ground. So yes, there are good economic reasons for being aware of that but there are also good ethical and political reasons.

Q: Yes, I think if you’re coming from an ethical point of view there is a stronger argument for reinvestment in a sensible means of—

A: Oh, completely, yes, and so at the same time as we need a divestment movement we also do need a reinvestment movement. It remains quite hard in Australia really to identify ways if people want to put their personal investments or their superannuation into more environmentally sustainable purposes it is still quite hard to find ways to do that.

Q: One of the biggest class of investors is actually people in super funds. We’re talking about millions of Australians. Has any economist done any work on how much the super funds actually have in fossil fuels and what might be the impact of getting out of that and getting into something more sensible?

A: Yes is the answer and there are a number of organisations – in Australia again would be a good place to start, but there are others who have began to do those figures. I think it is a really important set of questions for people to ask, to write to their superannuation companies or indeed their banks and say, “Hey, I’d like to know how you’re investing my money” and indeed, more strongly, that they would like to look at options for switching.

Q:   I noticed the other day that the Australian Quakers are actually getting out of the Big Four banks for that reason.

A: That’s right and quite a lot of other churches either have or are looking at that. There is discussion of the Catholic Church more broadly posing questions about where its funds are invested, and yes, it cuts both ways. It opens up issues on the negative side of divestment but it also opens up positive questions about how people would like to invest their money.

Q:   But we aren’t just talking about big organisations, there are also an many employees in our sector, and NGOs, trade unions, professional associations who are running super schemes for instance, so I guess I’m a little surprised that more work hasn’t been done amongst those organisations. I’m surprised there hasn’t been some kind of rainbow coalition formed to share information about that, to spread ideas about what ethical investments might look like in terms of contributing to a rapid transition.

A: I think that there is huge potential for the community sector, the health sector, for workers individually, co-actively, to raise these questions, to talk with either the organisations they work with or superannuation funds directly. Clearly a major part of the health and community sector works on issues of ageing, of disability, and of social insurance more broadly. So people in the community sector, are well positioned to raise lots of those issues either as employees or as consumers or as members of superannuation funds. All of those are important ways of acting and I think sometimes when people talk about climate change there is that sense of “Yeah, but what can I can do?” or “What can I do other than switch off my lights and those sorts of personal things?”, and there is nothing wrong with that but it is important I believe to think about ways of acting more collectively as well.

Q: Yes, well, talking to your bank and your super fund and so on I guess are potentially very powerful and quite obvious -but doing it collectively you have even greater power.

A: Yes, quite. I agree.

Q: John, I really appreciate your time. I think my readers will be very interested. Are there any further comments that you want to make about this whole area?

A: Well, only to go back to what you asked me to begin with, “how does somebody who starts off as a social worker end up talking about climate change?” As I said at the beginning, it seems to me there is a key link between social justice, health and wellbeing and the environment – it’s not new but the link is becoming closer and closer and more and more important. I believe that most people are increasingly aware of that, particularly young people, and so yes, it makes lots of sense to me that these issues are seen as very closely connected. It strikes me as interesting how strongly many health workers have become involved in climate change issues. I know lots of friends who are doctors, nurses, health workers and people in the health sector and there is a very good website, The Climate & Health Alliance, which brings together a lot of that work. Perhaps there is an opportunity for a greater involvement by community sector workers collectively or working with the health sector to go the next step in this discussion.

Q: Yes, the issue is more coordination and leadership because there are a lot of good ideas out there. It certainly struck me when you said that the Lancet had rated this as the number one health risk for the future. Thanks again.

This interview with Professor Wiseman has prompted me to fire off letters to my bank (ANZ) , my trade union (HSU) and my professional association (AASW) to find out what their investment policies are in relation to fossil fuels, as well as their approach to the super funds of their employees. Will keep you posted.

It is heartening to note that the AASW is a member of the Climate and Health Alliance.

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