Our Environmental Paradox


Julia Gillard is attending the Rio +20 environment summit today. Most Australians seem only marginally engaged. Media coverage of the event has been desultory (perhaps the media has been too busy navel-gazing).

Even environment groups say their expectations are low. Greenpeace has said that the best outcome to be hoped for from the summit would a global agreement on ocean biodiversity. But it has called the draft agreement an "epic failure". Others are attacking the very idea of the summit itself. The Australia Institute’s Richard Denniss has told the ABC that "It’s like a summit cemetery, where the hopes of the environment go to die." He’s questioned the environment movement’s tactics in trying to use international agreements to address global environmental issues. "Clearly the environment movement’s tactics have failed."

Thom Woodroofe points out that there is still some hope for the summit. He wrote yesterday that Guatemala and Colombia have called for the establishment of a set of Sustainable Development Goals. "The goals, loosely modelled on the soon to expire Millennium Development Goals, could represent a timely and politically expedient outcome for Rio," he argues. But, as the University of Sydney’s Nick Rowley observes, the timing of the Rio+20 talks, straight after the G20 summit in mexico, provides an illuminating case study in the true priorities of world leaders.

"The Rio+20 conference later this week comes as a footnote to the G20 in Mexico," Rowley writes in a fine article on the summit for The Conversation. "Some heads of state will be stopping off on their way home. Many won’t. Economy first, sustainability second; it’s every G20 leader’s itinerary."

But for most Australians, their level of interest in the summit is likely to be negligible. The declining political visibility of environmental issues is an undeniable trend in Australian politics.

The heady days of the late 1980s and early 1990s — or even the enthusiasm about climate action of 2007 — seem eons ago now. In 1990, Labor campaigned very successfully on environmental issues; many considered its stance on the environment to be a crucial factor in its election victory. Similarly, Labor’s climate change policies in 2007 played no small part in helping Kevin Rudd get elected to office.

As recently as 2008, this authoritative ANU poll into Australians’ attitudes towards the environment found that 56 per cent of us thought that climate change would be a "very serious" or "fairly serious" threat.

Fast-forward to today and fewer Australians are as concerned. The proportion of the general public that believes in the threat of climate change has dropped steadily, eroded by the constant misinformation of climate scepticism. And the forces of economic uncertainty have taken their toll too, with the carbon tax debate exposing the yawning gap between the general good will towards environmental action shared by many of us, and the pointy end of paying for higher electricity bills.

The Lowy Institute has the most useful longitudinal data on Australian public attitudes towards climate change. It makes for sobering reading. The 2012 poll found that 63 per cent of respondents were against the carbon tax legislation, "with a high proportion (45 per cent) ‘strongly against’." Of those 63 per cent who said they were against the carbon tax, the key reasons was because they thought it would have economic consequences: "half the population (52 per cent) oppose the legislation and agree it ‘it will result in job losses", the Lowy poll found.

The decline in public support for climate action since 2006 is very significant. In 2006, the Lowy poll found more than two-thirds of Australians — 68 per cent — were prepared to act on climate change "even if this involves significant costs". By this year, that figure had dropped to 36 per cent.

"Intriguingly", the Lowy poll notes, "despite the long-term moderation of Australian views, only a small proportion (7 per cent) of Australians say they have become ‘less concerned about climate change’ ‘since the climate change debate began in Australia’. Most (55 per cent) say they have not changed their mind, while 38 per cent say they have become ‘more concerned’."

Other data backs this up. The Australian Electoral Study of the most important election issues of 2010 found that only 8 per cent Australians thought "global warming" was the most important issue, while only 5 per cent nominated "the environment" — a figure only half that of the figure from 1990. In contrast, health rated 23 per cent and management of the economy 21 per cent, and these issues have retained consistently high ratings for more than two decades.

What’s driving this disenchantment with environmental action? Mark Latham, not a man one usually associates with thoughtful analysis, has in fact written one of the most insightful recent essays on the issue. Latham’s method is not quantitative, but it is none-the-less intriguing for what it implies.

"The current generation of Australians has little memory of any check on material progress," he wrote in a long think-piece for the Australian Financial Review in April. "For many, the need for financial sacrifice to solve a public problem, let alone one as complex as global warming, is unthinkable. In this respect, the climate-change debate is a form of culture shock."

Latham quotes a conversation with a small business owner in his former electorate in south-west Sydney. "We have air conditioning to deal with the heat of summer and the cold of winter," the businessman told him. "We shouldn’t be turning it off because of a couple of government reports. Why don’t the scientists working on climate change get together with other scientists to invent something to overcome the problem they talk about. That’s what we have always done in the past. Isn’t that what we call progress?"

Latham’s article is a very useful contribution, because it uncovers the fault-lines of anti-rationalism that lie just beneath the surface of much contemporary western debate. When faced with a problem that can only be solved by personal sacrifice, many of us would prefer to simply wish the problem away.

Interestingly, Nick Rowley makes a similar point in his article this week. "Humanity, so long striving to contain and master the power of our natural systems, is now undermining the global dynamics that sustain us," he writes. "This is highly confronting for our ethical, religious and personal values. Even among those who "accept" the scientific evidence, it is hard to make the personal, policy or business decisions consistent with that acceptance."

The problem for environmentalists — and for the planet — is that the scientific reality of environmental destruction clashes head-on with one of the most cherished beliefs of our age: the personal material fulfilment that lies at the height of modern capitalism. These ideas are not simply modern inventions pushed down our throats by marketing experts. They are in fact deeply ingrained human philosophies that stretch back at least as far as the creation of civilisation itself.

Many of the most important global religions are frank about their preferred relationship between humans and the natural world — "dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth", as Genesis tells us. Those ideas have been sublimated into many aspects of modern consumer capitalism, which is of course only too happy to tell us that our wishes and preferences deserve gratification.

Set against these long-term verities, the modern environmentalist movement has sought to construct a new ideology based on reducing consumption and trading lightly on the earth. It’s an idea many of us find attractive in the abstract, but deeply challenging when it comes to the concrete realisation that we will need to make do with lower standards of living, fewer resources, and less stuff.

These personal dilemmas are the ones that no global summit can easily overcome, and they help to explain the disconnect between what we say, and what we do, when it comes to the environment.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.