The Perils of Playing Nice


Global warming is an emergency, and "for emergency situations we need emergency action," UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon told the world in November 2007.

Why, then, has climate policy moved in such a painfully slow manner? How can the impasse be resolved between what needs doing quickly, based on the science, and what seems a "reasonable" thing to do in the current political environment?

It seems as if there are two great tectonic plates – scientific necessity and political pragmatism – that meet very uneasily at a fault line.

For example, in 2007, under Kevin Rudd, the Australian Labor Party’s pre-election climate policy statement effectively supported a policy of allowing global warming to run as high as a 3-degree increase on pre-industrial temperatures, despite data quoted in the statement itself that unequivocally demanded a much lower target.

A number of other examples illustrate the tensions and compromises that result from trying to balance the scientific and political factors.

The British Government’s Stern Review identified a need, based on its reading of the science, for a 2-degree cap, but then said that this would be too difficult to achieve and advocated a 3-degree cap instead.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has not called for climate modelling for stabilisation of temperatures at less than 2 degrees, despite the evidence that the climate safe zone is much lower. Although the IPCC says its role is to simply represent the science, not to advocate policy, this seems to be a case of the IPCC allowing political norms to limit the scope of the research that it encourages or reports.

Many climate and policy researchers, while privately expressing the view that the 2-degree cap is too high for a safe-climate world, have nevertheless publicly advocated less effective goals, because they perceive those to be more acceptable. Their argument is that they "wouldn’t be listened to" if they said what they really thought.

As well, some environment group advocates speak of the need to occupy the "middle ground", or to be at least "heading in the right direction", because "it is always possible to go further later on". This stance turns risk aversion on its head by failing to consider worst possible outcomes. At the same time, it is politically advantageous because it obviates the need to talk about preventative actions that are currently perceived to be "extreme". As a result, advocacy is often for a direction-setting minimum, rather than demanding a clear statement of what is required.

During 2007 the position of the Australian Conservation Foundation was that emissions should be cut "60 to 90 per cent" by 2050 (a 60 per cent cut would leave emissions in 2050 at four times the level required of a 90 per cent reduction). Yet in his preliminary report economist Ross Garnaut told the Rudd government that a 90 per cent cut may be necessary and 60 per cent was far from enough.

In all these examples, we see reluctance on the part of organisations and people to go beyond the bounds of perceived acceptability. This results in the advocacy of solutions that, even if fully implemented, would not actually solve the problem. There is a sense that many of the climate policy professionals – in government, research, community organisations and advocacy – have established boundaries around their public discourse that are guided by a primary concern for "reasonableness", rather than by a concern for achieving environmental and social sustainability.

Many people whose work centres on climate change have been struggling for so long to gain recognition for the issue – having had to cope with a lack of awareness, conservatism and climate deniers – that they now have deeply ingrained habits of self-censorship. They are concerned to avoid being dismissed and marginalised as "alarmist" and "crazy". Now that the science is showing the situation to be far worse than most scientists expected only a short while ago, this ingrained reticence is adding to the problem.

A pragmatic interdependency links many of these players in a cycle of low expectations and poor outcomes. Here is an outline of the concerns of some of these key players, based on actual conversations and correspondence. The cycle is a merry-go-round, so it matters little where it starts.

Under pressure to stick to the science and avoid opinion, a climate scientist may take the view that society needs to make the judgement about what it determines to be dangerous climate change: "It’s not for me, as a scientist, to tell you what’s dangerous or what the political target ought to be. I try to inform the debate by explaining what the risks actually are at these various levels, and by offering policy options that society could consider."

Community-based climate action groups, often lacking detailed technical knowledge, will respond by saying that they are not about to doubt the views put forward by the science professionals, which they hear from the media and from the IPCC: "We have to trust in their abilities to lead us. They are the ones who know – we can’t say things that they haven’t, and we can’t speculate on what a few scientists might be saying, if it isn’t in the IPCC reports."

Large climate-group and environment managers often join the conversation, suggesting that they agree with strong goals and urgent action, but that they are worried that if they promote them, their lobbying wouldn’t be taken seriously: "It is more important to agree and campaign on targets that are heading in the right direction, than that we have discussions about what the targets should be. It is always possible to go further, or call for more, later on."

The consequence is that even those politicians who are climate friendly feel constrained: "I can’t go further than the environment movement. I’d look extreme if I did." And: "I know our party’s position will have to be strengthened because the science has changed, but that can’t happen until after the next election. Our policy is now set. I wish we could go further, but some people are worried that I will look too extreme in the electorate."

Deep inside public administration, where climate policy is processed, there is an avoidance of the political: "Although our climate-science manager agrees with your targets … she has to stick to using scientists, not lobbyists, and science, not policy. She needs to be persuaded that setting targets and trajectories is fundamentally a climate-science issue, not a political one. If, on the other hand, we can find a scientist to make the case for real targets that you have made, this would help a lot, but the scientists say that target-setting is political, and outside their terrain."

Businesses, meanwhile, remain constrained by their commercial interests: "You might well be right that 60 per cent by 2050 is not enough, but the people I talk to wouldn’t believe anything tougher. Our business is one of the good ones – we know that this is a big problem, but if we are going to engage the wider business community, we can only go so far."

It seems that everyone is waiting for someone else to break the cycle; but how can this be done? Part of the problem seems to be fear: those who are the first to move to a tougher position are worried about becoming isolated or losing credibility.

Reticence on the part of advocates to push for serious action also stems from the pervasive view in politics that everything is subject to compromise, and that trade-offs are the norm: argue less for what you really want than for what seems "reasonable" in the give-and-take of normal political society. And when some brash advocates do argue for what really needs to be done, it is simply assumed they are making an ambit claim: an initial demand put forward in the expectation that the negotiations will prompt a lesser counter-offer and end in compromise.

While this mindset is widespread, there are domains from which it has been banished. When it comes to public safety, society knows that compromise and negotiable trade-offs cannot apply. Bridges, buildings, planes, large machines and the like must be built to risk-averse, high standards, which are applied rigorously. When standards are not met and structures fail, corporations, governments and regulatory bodies are held to account. We have learned from trial and error that a "no major trade-off" policy in public safety is necessary to avoid the killing and maiming of citizens.

With global warming, however, we do not have the luxury of learning by trial and error. We have left the climate problem unattended for so long that we now have just one chance to get things right by applying a "no major trade-off" approach without a trial run. It will be a particular challenge for decision-makers, who have grown up in a political culture of compromise.

Past government inaction has also habituated an acceptance of lowered expectations, which has continued to hinder serious climate action. A non-government organisation staff member, reflecting on her experiences, said that it has become increasingly clear to her how constrained the environmental organisations are: "It’s a legacy of 11 years of [the]Howard [government]– they’ve all come to expect so little environmental responsibility from government, so they don’t ask for much in the hope of a small gain. [It’s] a very unfortunate situation."

Generally, timidity, constraint and incrementalism have characterised recent national and state government approaches to environment issues, and the consequence is that low expectations have become embedded in the relationship between lobbyists and government. When opportunity knocks, or changing evidence demands urgent and new responses, imaginative and bold leadership does not always emerge with solutions that fully face up to the challenge. When, in late 2007, evidence emerged of accelerated climate change, it appeared to have little impact on the climate targets advocated by most of the peak green organisations, which said that their position was "locked in" until after the election.

Ken Ward, an environmental and communications strategist and former deputy executive director of Greenpeace in the USA, believes that the people who lead environmental foundations and organisations play a critical part in reconstructing the issue as a climate and sustainability emergency – one that takes us beyond the politics of failure-inducing compromise.

With the rapid loss of the Arctic summer ice cover, Ward says that the opportunity for these leaders to adjust their position is narrow, and this is due, in some part, to the deliberate decision, a decade ago, by environment organisations to downplay climate change risk.

He says: "[They did so] in the interests of presenting a sober, optimistic image to potential donors, maintaining access to decision-makers, and operating within the constraints of private foundations, which has blown back on us. By emphasising specific solutions and avoiding definitions that might appear alarmist, we inadvertently fed a dumbed-down, Readers Digest version of climate change to our staff and environmentalist core. Now, as we scramble to keep up with climate scientists, we discover that we have paid a hefty price."

For those who have, in the past, downplayed the risks, changing position is now a matter of urgency, because what now needs to be done is not incrementally reasonable. The desperate measures required to advance a functional climate-change solution at this late date, says Ward, "can only be conceived and advanced by individuals who accept climate change realities and [who]take the less than 10-year timeframe seriously".

He believes that we will need to actually confront the terror of the situation before we can come to a real solution.

"We are not acting like people and organisations who genuinely believe that the world is at risk. Therefore, we cannot take the measures required, nor can we be effective leaders."

This is an edited extract from Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action, published by Scribe.

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