Our Role In The Climate Deadlock


It's time to re-dedicate our body politic to the great challenge of the 21st century: climate change.

The problem posed by climate change is difficult to overstate. It is global. It is endemic. It is devilishly difficult to address.

But address it we must, or our children and grandchildren will inhabit a planet almost unimaginably different from our own: a world of dangerously destabilised climates, devastating natural disasters, flooded cities and dead coral reefs. A world most likely riven by conflict and war. A world in which the global economy struggles against the huge cost of dealing with a preventable global disaster that our generation did little to prevent.

A recent World Bank report into the issue puts it in horrifying perspective. My daughter is two years old. According to the best estimates of climate scientists and the World Bank, by the time she reaches middle age, there is a plausible chance she will live in a world four degrees warmer. That's a world of "extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise." For a father, that's terrifying.

And yet, despite the widely acknowledged risks, not enough is being done. One of the main reasons is politics. That's not good enough.

The time has come for politicians and the leaders of civil society globally to put down the cudgels and recognise the imminent danger the world faces. Climate change is a case study in the power of vested interests to derail sensible and prudent efforts at reform. Progress in dealing with big, complex social problems often occurs slowly and painfully But the consequences of delaying action on climate change are potentially catastrophic. There is a real chance we could be heading towards a six degrees warmer world if nothing is done. That would be a global climate stretching the outer limits of human survival.

I first became aware of global warming as a serious scientific concern as a teenager in 1988, when Scientific American published a major cover story about it. Since that time, the scientific evidence has only got firmer. But the politics has run in the other direction, getting ever more polarised and contested. This has been disastrous for global efforts at mounting a response.

There's no doubt who is chiefly to blame: corporate interests. Big fossil fuel companies have invested hundreds of millions in a sophisticated misinformation campaign to delay action and preserve profits.

But conservative politicians are nearly as culpable. The origin of conservative political thought, as articulated by Edmund Burke among others, is rooted in a belief in prudence and in the preservation of long-lasting institutions. It is quite easy to be both a conservative and an environmentalist; indeed, a modern conservative hero, Ronald Reagan, was one of the key players in the Montreal Convention that banned chlorofluorocarbons. Margaret Thatcher, another giant of the conservative pantheon, was an industrial chemist before entering politics and was an early supporter of preventative action to address global warming. In Australia, Malcolm Turnbull has been among the most consistent of all Australian politicians in his stance on climate change and the need to take sensible precautions.

But, driven by the money power of huge corporations and by an ingrained hatred of the social positions that environmentalists adopt, many conservatives disdain action on climate change, or even dispute the vast body of scientific evidence that demonstrates its need.

This has been an unmitigated tragedy for the world's climate, because conservatives have blocked strong action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and as a result, the US has not played the leadership role required of it globally. Many have rightly lauded the achievements of the Obama administration in legislating for healthcare in the President's first term. But the defeat of the Waxman-Markey bill to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions — driven by visceral climate denialism from US Republicans and weakness from Senate Democrats — may well turn out to be a more significant milestone.

Affordable health-care will help tens of millions of US citizens. But genuine US action on climate has the potential to help billions, including many not yet born.

In Australia, we too must face up to the inadequacy of our efforts so far. Australia's two major parties are both committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent from 2000 levels by 2020, and Labor has gone further by implementing a reasonably comprehensive carbon tax.

But the politics of carbon have been brutal. The Opposition's vicious campaign against the carbon tax turned that measure into a highly unpopular one, badly hurting Labor's standing in the electorate. The government is only now starting to claw back support as voters have concluded that the tax is likely to be relatively benign.

But even as the carbon tax slowly goes to work to reduce Australia's domestic carbon emissions, the government is enthusiastically promoting a vast expansion of Australia's coal and gas exports, fossil fuels that will be burnt overseas and contribute to warming the atmosphere and turning the oceans acid.

Despite Australia's wonderful reserves of fossil fuel, a safe climate is not compatible with a growing fossil fuel export market. Something's got to give. Either the world hurtles towards four degrees, or the countries that Australia exports coal and gas to will have to stop burning these dangerous hydrocarbons for energy.

Looking at the facts, the International Energy Agency has recently stated that global emissions must peak by 2017, and then rapidly start trending downwards, if the world is to limit warming to "only" two degrees. In its latest World Energy Outlook report, the IEA says that "no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal, unless carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is widely deployed."

The incompatibility of Australia's domestic and export energy policies could not be more obvious. And yet, neither major party is prepared to draw the obvious conclusion: that Australia's years of easy money from digging up fossil fuels must eventually come to an end.

At this point in any climate change debate, someone normally points out that it doesn't matter what Australia does about climate, because what really counts are the actions of China, India and the rest of the developing world. And that's broadly true: meaningful action on climate can only be international in scope and implementation.

But Australia can play a bigger global role than we are currently by limiting the export of our fossil fuels, which would help to drive up the price of these global commodities. We also need to start saving for the massive task of climate adaptation, which will entail vast engineering projects to protect much of Australia's coastal property from inundation. Rapidly increasing the price of the carbon tax would be an excellent start.

Most importantly, Australia's political conversation about climate needs to mature and consolidate, and fast. As economist Dean Baker argued recently, conservatives are always telling us they are looking out for our grandchildren when they worry about rising government debt levels. Well, conservatives who believe in a future for their children and grandchildren need to start agitating for lower greenhouse gas emissions too.

Climate is too important for partisan point-scoring. Some sort of consensus must somehow be forged. The long-term challenge of natural security confronting us demands nothing less.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.