Climate inertia shows ugly side of the Australian character
This week’s report from the Climate Commission – established to provide expert advice on the science of climate change and its effects on Australia – tells us nothing we didn’t already know, but everything we’ve lost sight of in our efforts to advance our personal interests at the expense of the nation’s. Veteran journalist Ross Gittens says Australians are proud of their inbuilt bull-dust detectors, but on this issue they seemed to have turned them off, happily believing whatever self-serving nonsense politicians, business people and media personalities serve up to them. “The one thing humans are meant to care about above all is the survival of their young. Yet people with the highest standard of living in history are whingeing that they couldn’t possibly afford to pay a bit more for their electricity.”
Climate inertia shows ugly side of the Australian character
May 25, 2011
Ross Gittens in Sydney Morning Herald (25 May 2011):
Climate change action needed now
It’s time we all started pulling together to do something about climate change, according to Ross Gittins.
It’s a sore test of faith when people put power bills before their children’s future.
Like most people, I’m an instinctive optimist. In any case, I see no margin in pessimism. If you concluded the world was irredeemably wicked, or destined for certain destruction, what would be left but to curl up and die? Since we can never be certain the end is nigh, much better to keep living and keep plugging away for a better world.
I confess, however, I’ve needed all my optimistic instincts to avoid despair over the terrible hash we’re making of the need to take effective action against global warming. We’re showing everything that’s unattractive about the Australian character.
We pride ourselves that Aussies are good in a crisis, but until the walls start falling in on us we couldn’t reach agreement to shut the door against the cold.
This week’s report from the Climate Commission – established to provide expert advice on the science of climate change and its effects on Australia – tells us nothing we didn’t already know, but everything we’ve lost sight of in our efforts to advance our personal interests at the expense of the nation’s.
Its 70 pages boil down to four propositions we’d rather not think about. First, there is no doubt the climate is changing. The evidence is clear. The atmosphere is warming, the ocean is warming, ice is being lost from glaciers and ice caps, and sea levels are rising. Global surface temperature is rising fast; the last decade was the hottest on record.
Second, we are already seeing the social, economic and environmental effects of a changing climate. In the past 50 years, the number of record hot days in Australia has more than doubled. This has increased the risk of heatwave-associated deaths, as well as extreme bushfires.
Sea level has risen by 20 centimetres globally since the late 1800s, affecting many coastal communities. Another 20-centimetre increase by 2050 is likely, on present projections, which would more than double the risk of coastal flooding.
Third, these changes are triggered by human activities – particularly the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation – which are increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, with carbon dioxide the most important of these gases.
Fourth, this is the critical decade. Decisions we make from now to 2020 will determine the severity of climate change our children and grandchildren experience. Without strong and rapid action, there is a significant risk that climate change will undermine society’s prosperity, health, stability and way of life.
That scientists still need to repeat these long-established truths is a measure of how much we’ve allowed short-sighted and selfish concerns to distract us from the need to respond to a clear and present danger.
In this we haven’t been well served by our leaders. The Labor government’s decline dates from Kevin Rudd’s loss of nerve following the defeat of his carbon pollution reduction scheme in the Senate in late 2009, following the success of the Coalition’s climate-change deniers in overthrowing Malcolm Turnbull and replacing him with a man whose record showed him willing to take whatever position on climate change he thought would advance his career.
Had Rudd the courage of his professed convictions, he would have taken the question to a double-dissolution election, fighting in defence of his ”great big new tax on everything”. Instead he dithered, eventually yielding to pressure from those in his party – including Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan – wanting to put the government’s survival ahead of its duty.
Opposition leaders play a vital role in a democracy and are given considerable licence. They’re not expected to speak the unvarnished truth. Dishonest scare campaigns have long been used by both sides.
I don’t like using the L-word, but Tony Abbott is setting new lows in the lightness with which he plays with the truth. He blatantly works both sides of the street, nodding happily in the company of climate-change deniers, but in more intellectually respectable company professing belief in human-caused global warming, his commitment to reducing carbon emissions by 5 per cent by 2020 and the efficacy of his no-offence policies to achieve it.
He grossly exaggerates the costs involved in a carbon tax, telling business audiences they will have to pay the lot and be destroyed by it, while telling the punters business will pass all the costs on to them. He forgets to mention that most of the proceeds from the tax will be returned as compensation.
He repeats the half-truth that nothing we could do by ourselves would reduce global emissions, while failing to correct the punters’ ignorant belief that Australia is the only country contemplating action. Last week’s news that Britain’s Conservative-led coalition government has pledged to cut emissions by half within 15 years is ignored. Economists call this mentality ”free-riding”; the old Australian word for it is ”bludging”.
But it’s far too easy to blame our failure to face up to climate change just on our hopeless politicians. Our increasingly partisan media have failed to hold Abbott to account over his duplicity. Many have sought to increase circulation or ratings by joining in the fear-mongering and denial. The media’s love of controversy has led it to give doubters of the science of climate change a credibility they don’t deserve against the overwhelming weight of science.
Australians are proud of their inbuilt bulldust detectors, but on this issue they seemed to have turned them off, happily believing whatever self-serving nonsense politicians, business people and media personalities serve up to them.
The one thing humans are meant to care about above all is the survival of their young. Yet people with the highest standard of living in history are whingeing that they couldn’t possibly afford to pay a bit more for their electricity.
Ross Gittins is a Herald senior columnist.