The Climate Change Slap


For weeks my daughter’s class has been rehearsing its lines for a play in which they are performing the ethics of environmentalism.

As far as I can tell (they haven’t performed it yet) the play is replete with all the reassuring slogans we like to hear kids repeating about not polluting the land and oceans, not using too much electricity because of the associated carbon emissions, preserving the forests and not spraying aerosols to save the ozone layer (OK, this last one is a little anachronistic given that CFCs have been phased out, but the spirit is there).

Her teacher tells me that it’s getting to the stage where the kids are forming into a band of environmental activists who are chiding kids from other classes for even daring to pick leaves from trees. While they’re perhaps a little over-enthusiastic (they are six-year-olds after all) most of us would probably agree that these are exactly the kinds of values we should be instilling in them.

Yesterday afternoon a link to Clive Hamilton’s recent lecture "Is It Too Late to Prevent Catastrophic Climate Change?" popped up on my twitter feed. The lecture’s title asks what has pretty much become a rhetorical question of late, and it doesn’t take long for Hamilton to announce that:

"It seems almost certain that, if it has not occurred already, within the next several years enough warming will be locked in to the system to set in train feedback processes that will overwhelm any attempt we make to cut back on our carbon emissions. We will be powerless to stop the jump to a new climate on earth, one much less sympathetic to life."

He goes on to back this up with some pretty solid evidence. And he is not the first to have done so.

This morning at school drop-off a parent turned up with the tree costumes for the play. The appearance of the costumes gave me the chance to open up a discussion with my daughter’s teacher about it. I expressed my admiration for the efforts she was making to bring environmental issues into the consciousness of the kids, and then in a round about way I brought up Hamilton’s conclusions. I wondered out loud what the worth of the "positive" environment message and encouraging kids into activism really might be given the enormity of the catastrophe that is unfolding — and the momentum that it seems to be gathering.

"I worry about the kids," I said. "They are really going to suffer because of climate change."

The teacher responded with an uncomfortable look and said, "It’s not these kids so much, but their kids, who will really have to worry about it."

The evidence suggests to me that this is wrong. I was going to make a point of it, but didn’t because I flinched. What I flinched from was the image of talking about inflicting harm on the children we were in the same room with. Admitting abuse is difficult. Better to imagine the problems of climate change being carried by a generation that does not yet exist.

Christos Tsiolkas, in his highly successful novel The Slap, manages to play out in literal terms one of the big barbecue conversation-stoppers of recent years: the polarised debate about the physical disciplining/abuse of children. The barbecue stopper has become short-hand for the way politics is played out beyond media attention. In many ways it’s the real face of politics.

What the uncomfortable exchange with the teacher made me wonder about was whether or not we are ready to have Hamilton’s imminent climate catastrophe on the barbecue menu.

On Friday, the Greens announced that Hamilton would stand as their candidate for the by-election in Peter Costello’s vacated seat of Higgins. Hamilton is someone the converted will no doubt listen to and vote for when he speaks on climate change. His challenge of course is to get a majority in this largely conservative electorate to listen to him as well. His challenge is to exceed George Monbiot’s definition of politics as "the art of shifting trouble from the living to the unborn". Most people wouldn’t give him much of a chance.

I don’t have much doubt that most people are convinced that climate change is happening, but I wonder whether most are psychologically prepared to accept that it is upon us. I wonder whether we are quite ready for the real barbecue stopper. The Higgins by-election might be the opportunity to put it to the test.

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.