The ABC Revisits Denialism, Part 2


One of the underlying political messages of Martin Durkin’s  documentary, The Great Climate Change Swindle to be broadcast on ABC TV this week is that First World countries placing limits on CO2 emissions will disproportionately harm the Third World.

This spurious claim is repeated by many other denialists take, for example, a recent editorial in The Australian.  

Certainly, the US has exploited its economic power in many ways, but the ‘inconvenient truth’ for Durkin’s argument is that the US Government’s position has been one of denial and non co-operation with the rest of the world in addressing ‘dangerous’ climate change.

To analyse Durkin’s claim, we need to separate the relative burdens between First (rich) and Third (developing) Worlds with respect to who bears the costs of abating CO2 emissions; who bears the costs of damage from climate change; the relative capacity to protect against and adapt to such climate change; and strong and early mitigation as preferable to bearing the damage and adaptation costs.

The Kyoto Protocol already embodies the principle that initial mitigation costs should fall on wealthier nations on the grounds that they have the highest capacity to pay; have been overwhelmingly responsible for existing levels of human-caused greenhouse gases; and remain the highest emitters, especially in per capita terms.

Key challenges now are how to get the US commit to a sufficient and fair contribution to the global mitigation effort, and how to include the two most populous developing countries China and India in an abatement effort consistent with their development aspirations.

It is important to engage these two developing countries because the growth of China’s economy is such that it will soon be the largest emitter of CO2 in absolute terms (although still only 20 per cent of the US in per capita terms), and if China’s growth were to continue as projected under a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario, its per capita CO2 emissions would double to reach 40 per cent of the US by 2030.

The Chinese Government released an important statement in the run-up to the G8 meeting last month, stating its grave concerns about climate change but also about its growth imperative. From Beijing’s perspective, China needs growth to promote political stability and to fund infrastructure responses to its environmental crisis. The statement rejects the high private energy-consumption model represented by the US and calls for the US and other nations to take up more of the emission abatement task. Not surprisingly, it indicates no preparedness to accept emission targets while the US does not.

There is evidence that China’s reasonable economic development aspirations need not be threatened by substantially reducing its emissions relative to GDP or a business-as-usual scenario.

There are a number of reasons for optimism. First, China has a range of technical options to reduce its CO2 emissions including gas-fired power stations (CCGTs), various renewables and coal CO2 capture, but especially more efficient end-use. Second, considerable potential exists from First World technological co-operation. Third, China’s emissions target in the international emissions system is a matter for negotiation and any target would have to reflect its legitimate developmental needs.

Fourth, China could choose to exceed this target by purchasing tradable permits, and with continued economic growth will have this capability. Fifth, addressing China’s disastrous air quality (800,000 lives lost annually) brings a double dividend, in that reducing growth of coal use in electricity generation and oil in metropolitan transport are also the main mechanisms to reduce CO2 emissions.

Sixth, because of the dire effects of ‘dangerous’ climate change on the sustainable development of China itself, it has every incentive to promote the international abatement effort. China thus has a strong incentive to do what it can to ensure that First World economies, especially the US, also bear their fair share of the costs. China’s taking up a reasonable target itself is the clearest way to send such a signal.

Evidence exists of Bush Administration officials seeking to wreck the progress of Kyoto by discouraging  China and India from serious participation. Such game-playing is the opposite of the Administration’s public stance when it cited China’s non-participation in its own refusal to ratify Kyoto in 2001.

The extent of damage due to climate change depends on the level of mitigation, with the maximum occurring under the zero abatement or ‘business-as-usual’ scenario. According to the doyen of game theorists, Thomas Schelling, developing countries, including India and China, will suffer most from global warming.

Environmental effects of ‘dangerous’ climate change are likely to impact on goods most necessary for human survival, for example: crops or farm animals adversely affected by drought; increased incidence of infectious disease; loss of arable land due to sea-level rise; or the destabilisation of major river systems due to melting of mountain glaciers.

When considering the costs of adaptation to climate change ‘adaptation’ refers to actions taken by governments or the private sector to reduce the impact of ‘dangerous’ climate change this could be either preventive or remedial. For example: constructing sea-walls, changing infrastructure and land-uses, measures necessary for coping with spread of exotic diseases. But it could also involve far more unpleasant actions if sufficient mitigation does not occur.

Effectively, denialists hold to what might be described as an ‘adaptation only’ position. Such a position is far from cost-effective, as confirmed by the Stern Review which stated:

If we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5 per cent of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20 per cent of GDP or more.

In contrast, the costs of action reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change can be limited to around 1 per cent of global GDP each year.

Under ‘adaptation only,’ the rich (as classes or nations) withdraw into the dubious security of enclaves or gated communities, exemplifying Garrett Hardin’s  ‘lifeboat ethics’: batten down the hatches and prepare to repel the environmental refugees, whether from another country (Bangladesh, Tuvalu) or your own (New Orleans). That these victims are not responsible for the environmental problem does not change the fact that they are most affected by it.

There can be no ethical justification for ‘adaptation only.’ After the SIEV X and Tampa affairs, these ethical and national security arguments for climate change mitigation should have some resonance in Australia. But only strong mitigation, allowing environmentally sustainable growth globally, will preclude future generations from having to face such demoralising scenarios.

It is clear that developing countries would be the ones to suffer most under the ‘adaptation only’ approach favoured by denialists and others.

At least two other important influences will interact with climate change factors: the rising real costs of energy as fossil fuels become scarcer; and the redistributive effect of national taxation systems.

Climate change mitigation is but one factor in the increase of the retail price of electricity and oil-based transport fuels. Strategies to protect low income groups from sharp rises in energy costs and disconnection are already in place and must remain under review in the context of mitigation policies.

In other cases, coalitions of the affluent West with authoritarian leaders of developing countries could result in major burdens on the poor for their food security could be jeopardised if these countries were turned into plantations for the supply of biofuels for the West, or if the global price of grains were bid up as a result of this same process. As journalist Dan Welch has noted, ‘The corn required to fill an SUV tank with bioethanol just once could feed one person for an entire year.’

Some Key Links:

Barry Naughten’s ‘The ABC Revisits Denialism , Part 1′

George Monbiot on the Durkin documentary.

Monbiot’s debate with CounterPunch denialist Alexander Cockburn.

Especially recommended: New Scientist (15 May) on the topic of ‘myths and half-truths’ on climate change.

On the climate science, the central reference is the IPCC 4th Assessment Report: Summary for Policymakers, published in February 2007 and the Stern Report Part II.

A recent Royal Society paper (by James Hansen et al) reassesses some of Stern’s findings.

Monbiot’s comment on this paper.

Another entry point is Clive Hamilton’s review of Monbiot’s book Heat, with Monbiot’s response. Both of these contributions are on the New Left Review website.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.