Doing nothing on climate is a fool's wager Barry Jones
December 7, 2010
With nothing to lose and much to gain, action is in the national interest.
CLIMATE change as a political issue has probably had a greater effect in Australia than any other nation. In 2007, when Kevin Rudd campaigned on climate change as ''the greatest moral issue of our time'', it was a major factor in defeating the Howard government and sweeping the ALP into office.
Last December, the Copenhagen climate change conference failed to secure international agreement for binding targets for greenhouse gas reductions and was beset by controversy about the validity of projections by climatologists.
Advertisement: Story continues below Australia retreated from its aspiration to be seen as an international leader and exemplary model in setting greenhouse goals, and Labor made the inexplicable blunder of failing to involve the community in education and advocacy, despite opinion polls indicating that more than 60 per cent of voters favoured setting a carbon price and acting decisively on climate change.
In the 2010 federal election, climate change was barely mentioned as an issue and Prime Minister Julia Gillard's proposal to establish a ''citizens' assembly'' of 150 to promote public engagement in climate change attracted much derision.
Climate change was central in reducing Labor's primary vote to 38 per cent, increasing the Greens vote to 11.7 per cent, and may have contributed to the high informal vote.
Labor's vote fell sharply in the mining states of Queensland and Western Australia, increased in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. The ALP maintained a majority of seats in New South Wales despite growing distaste for the state Labor government.
Australia refuses to face a ''post-carbon'' future. The moral implications have been marginalised. National Times columnist Elizabeth Farrelly's coinages ''climate morality'' and ''carbon ethics'' are timely and appropriate, but they are not in the political lexicon.
After the 2010 election produced a hung parliament, Gillard negotiated a deal with the Greens and independents that put climate change back on the agenda. The concept of Australia ''going it alone'' to set a moral example and secure a stronger bargaining position in international negotiations had become a sour joke. We were trailing far behind.
Despite Barack Obama's problems with his Senate, he grasped the issues and some states, notably California, had taken leadership roles. China, potentially facing the greatest risk from climate change of any major state, seemed to be taking practical action. Britain and New Zealand have both adopted carbon prices.
In Australia, the opposition is strongly opposed to setting a carbon price and the Gillard government is hesitant. It is probably too late for Australia to act unilaterally - and courageously - on greenhouse targets. We may be able to regain some moral authority if we propose higher targets, developing new scientific programs for alternatives to fossil fuels and work constructively with the United States, European Union, China, India and Indonesia.
I have proposed my own variant of ''Pascal's wager'' to examine the options for climate change:
■If we take action on climate change and disaster is averted, there will be massive avoidance of human suffering.
■If we take action and the climate change problem abates for other reasons, little is lost and we benefit from a cleaner environment.
■If we fail to act and disaster results, then massive suffering will have been aggravated by stupidity.
■If we do not take action and there is no disaster, the outcome will be due to luck alone, like an idiot winning the lottery.
Failure to act appears to favour the present but it certainly prejudices the future. As the French diplomat Talleyrand acutely observed 200 years ago, ''Not to choose is to choose''.
Political failure on climate change in Australia has had three direct consequences: inaction on the issue, political mayhem, and the sacrifice of international influence.
Crisis-driven policy is a consequence of inaction, which in turn heightens the risk both of environmental disaster and political upheaval. Public involvement in the climate change debate is critical and must be genuine. But there are limits to consensus and, ultimately, decisions will need to be made based on what needs to be done. Leadership matters and political will is required if outcomes are to be changed.
The electorate appears to want, or is at least prepared to tolerate, action even if tough. Policy and the debate that surrounds policy development needs to be informed and critical: opinion must be distinguished from fact, arguments must be supported, and not all opinions carry equal weight in the absence of such support.
A solution will need to be found to the ''two cultures'' approach that separates scientists and economists: the environment and the economy are interdependent. Ultimately, Australia can and should choose to set a moral example and work towards a new economic base. Moreover, as the new version of Pascal's wager suggests, action is the low-risk road with the prospect of highest reward. It is in the national interest to take it.