23 November 2008

Climate policy delusions

Last Tuesday I spoke at a climate forum in the Melbourne suburb of Ringwood, and the topic was Climate and Leadership, which seems the key issue, because we face a chronic failure of political imagination and so also of political leadership. Here's the gist of my comments.

We know the problem, we understand the scientific imperatives that mean we must aim for zero emissions and cooling to return our planet to the safe-climate zone.
We know that we face a sustainability emergency and that speed is of the essence in constructing a post-carbon economy as fast as possible.
We know that an imaginative, large-scale “emergency” programme comparable in scope to the "war economy" is required.
In the second world war the major players spent one-third or more of their economy on the war. Stern says global warming impacts will be worse that he two world wars and the Depression put together, yet today talking about spending just 1, 2 or 3% of our economy on global warming is not even on the public agenda, let alone a third if it should become necessary.
We also know and are using many of the solutions and that commitment to innovation and research can solve many more of the issues.
It seems to me that obstacles to implementing climate solutions are political and social in character, not technological or economic.
The big one is, will it cost too much?
McKinsey&Company’s emissions reduction cost curve for Australia (PDF, see page 14) found that around one quarter of the emissions reduction measures are cost positive – they save money – and in doing so, can pay for another quarter. Yet Ross Garnaut report to the Australian government says we should only act seriously if the rest of the world does – a position of moral failure and seemingly economic stupidity if the McKinsey analysis is right. Why wait when starting to act now will not cost, but save, us money, as McKinseys show?
Garnaut recommendations and the government’s proposed carbon pollution reduction scheme are examples of the delusional public debate in Australia; a delusion being a fixed, false belief resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact.
  • Delusional because policy makers want to appease the coal industry, the biggest polluters. Appeasing your enemy is dumb, because you lose, in this case not a war, but the planet.
  • Delusional because for politicians climate is just another problem, not the GREATEST challenge humans have ever faced.
  • Delusional because most of those in public debate — politicians, business elite, commentators, even some environmental lobbyists — don’t know or understand the scientific imperatives and are profoundly ignorant in the sense that they don’t know that they don’t know.
  • Who has heard had politicians Penny Wong or Kevin Rudd or Malcolm Turnbull or industry lobbyist Heather Ridout or Australian Conservation Foundation boss Don Henry talking about sea-ice loss and its trigger for large sea-level rises and for the permafrost time bomb, why their targets will kill the Great Barrier Reef when they claim they want to save it, or the aerosols dilemma, or why climate sensivity is not 3 degress but probably double that and why that matters because carbon cycle feedbacks are not included in the IPCC emissions reduction targets (such as 25-40% by 2020 reduction for Kyoto Annex 1 countries) which makes those targets wrong, or the Hilamayas and a billion people without spring melt water in the dry season?
Climate policy is characterised by the habituation of low expectations and a culture of failure. We must with all our energy force such people and the power elite to move beyond the politics of failure-inducing compromise because we are now in a race between climate tipping points and political tipping points.
Our political leaders are not taking the actions that the science demands, because the conventional mode of politics is short-term and pragmatic. It's about solving 10% of the problem, or blaming the other side for problems, or putting it off till after the next election, or pretending it doesn’t exist at all. Politics is more and more spin and less and less substance.
Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd and climate minister Penny Wong have adopted a traditional Labor approach to the climate problem: something for the environment lobby and something for business.
But solving the climate crisis cannot be treated like a wage deal. It is not possible to negotiate with the laws of physics and chemistry. The planet cannot be bought off.
There are absolute limits that should not be crossed, and doing something, but not enough, will still lead to disaster. This they simply do not understand at all.
Political pragmatism, window dressing and incremental solutions that will fail take precedence over the scientific imperatives.
The result can only be a suicide note for most people and most species on the planet.
We face a spectacular failure of political imagination. What we lack is political leadership, and so we can only conclude that if our leaders cannot lead, we all must.
In July Al Gore issued his challenge to America:
"Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100% of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years…This goal is achievable, affordable and transformative. To those who argue that we do not yet have the technology … I've seen what they [entrepreneurs who will drive this revolution] are doing and I have no doubt that we can meet this challenge."
This is the challenge we must also make and answer: in our homes, our local communities and at the national and global level. Gore said the challenge of climate is politically transformative.
If politicians cannot lead, then we all must, in building a movement across society that uses the brutal reality of our position to advocate and inspire the nation to take transformative action.
We can only play this game once. If we don't do enough, or at sufficient pace, in building a post-carbon economy, the climate system will get away from our capacity to correct it. Trial and error climate policy is not an option.
We must challenge leaders in our local communities to understand and act on climate knowing how serious the problem is, and if necessary inflict political pain on them and not let go till they say, “Yes, I need to lead, we all need to lead” on climate.
Whether it be local councillors, business or church leaders, local MPs or the prime minister, we must pursue them and debate with them and start a conversation and not stop with them until they say “Yes, we face a climate emergency, this is THE BIG issue” and act accordingly.
Climate is not just another issue, it is THE issue that defines whether we will have a planet fit to live on.
The Australian government has a Future Fund. Why not spend it to make a future safe for people and species in this country? There’s no jobs on a dead planet, and not much place for a future fund buried in a bank fault as the sand of desertification blow over and slowly bury it.
Barak Obama said “Change: yes we can”.
We must all say “Climate change: yes we can”.
A safe climate. Yes we can.
We can all lead, we all must lead. It is our only choice.

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