If the Federal elections of 1983 and 1996 are any guide to the
longevity of Australian national leaders elected from Opposition, then in April
2016, Kevin Rudd will be enjoying his one hundredth month as the Prime Minister
According to the most recent estimates,
that is approximately the period of time in which the world community must have
taken the steps necessary to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, failing which
expert consensus tells us that the
very survival of humanity
may be imperiled.
Climate change is
a global predicament, but it is also a national crisis: Australia
faces immense environmental changes that present bleak social, economic and
security consequences. Rudd has attained the prime ministership at the moment
of arguably the greatest existential threat to Australia since Federation. The
only serious challenge comes from the grim days of 1942 when invasion by the
then rampantly victorious military forces of Imperial Japan appeared only a matter
World War II comparisons linger around climate change; a
parallel made most explicit in Al Gore’s An
Inconvenient Truth and echoed again
by the former Vice President in his recent speech in Bali.
In an Australian context, the analogue sees Rudd standing in
the long shadow of John Curtin, with the vanquished Howard Administration playing
the part of the Menzies Government that collapsed in 1941. Howard, like Menzies
before him, simply failed to properly respond to the scale and nature of the
national danger. Both men enjoyed long terms in office fanned by economic good
fortune, but in the hours of real gravity, neither was apprehended as being of sufficient
mettle to meet their country’s need for decisive leadership.
World War II is an attractive parallel for global warming
because of the scale of what was required to win the conflict, the moral
clarity that is commonly attached to the defeat of the Axis, and the ultimately
successful outcome. Yet the comparison, easily made, may invite some discomfort
on closer inspection.
The struggle against European Fascism and Japanese
Imperialism required an immense effort on the part of the Allies. World War II
was not won through Neville Chamberlain’s "business as usual", but the "blood,
toil, tears and sweat" evoked by Gore’s role model and Howard’s namesake,
Winston Churchill. Likewise, an effective response to climate change will require
more than just the casual interest of nations and individuals.
The climate crisis is often represented in scientific or
moral terms, or as being fundamentally a problem of international relations, although
the Stern Review
did much to reframe global warming as an economic debate. For individual
nations, responding to climate change is fundamentally a question of political
economy, as governments ponder what mechanisms are best suited for swiftly
achieving the transition to a lower carbon society.
Neo-liberalism, currently the world’s dominant political and
economic belief system, entails the view that the market is the most efficient
mechanism for delivering solutions. The uncomfortable question that is now
before us is whether the ideology of free market fundamentalism can provide us
with the tools that are necessary to surmount the climate crisis.
If World War II is any guide, a solution to global warming
will require State intervention of the kind abhorred by strict neo-liberals. As
Kevin Smith wrote
in newmatilda.com in November:
"There is an urgent need
to recognise that the market’s fixation on short-term profit maximisation is
not an appropriate instrument to induce the large-scale and costly
infrastructural changes that need to take place in all countries in the
transition to low-carbon economies."
That’s not to say that free enterprise should be abandoned,
but it is important to recognise that there are profound limits to what the
market can deliver.
There is a great deal for the new Rudd Government to do in
responding to global warming, although the new PM made a terrific start in Bali.
The long years of Howard’s complacency have left Australia
in a precarious position, with a bad name internationally and little done
domestically. Despite the progress made in Bali, it would be incautious for Canberra to simply wait on
the international system. Discretion dictates that the Commonwealth should
simultaneously pursue two apparently contradictory imperatives.
First, assuming that an effective successor to Kyoto is negotiated, it is the responsibility of the Rudd
Government, in leading the world’s 14th largest economy, to make the best
possible effort to proceed in good and charitable faith in the hope that other
nations (including the US)
will do likewise.
However, prudence suggests that even while committing
wholeheartedly to international negotiations, the second thing Rudd must do is
prepare for the possibility of their failure, and invest in strategies for
mitigating, as best as we can, what climate change might bring.
In this kind of planning, the unrestrained market is not of much
help. As Naomi Klein has amply demonstrated in her most recent book,
if there is one thing that should not be trusted to neo-liberal remedies, it is
planning for and responding to disasters.
The immense public emergency of climate change requires a proportionate
response of State. The political solution to global warming does not lie with
the pinched ideology of neo-liberalism, but in the nobler ideals of social
We must all be in this together.
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