19 February 2013

To fear or not to fear...

.. as Australia’s contribution to climate change on track to double in next decade or so thanks to fossil fuel exports

Note: As a followup to the post of my contribution to this year's Melbourne Sustainability Festival Great Debate, here is the contribution by Guy Pearse. – David
by Guy Pearse

OK, some personal questions to start… Who’s got a BMI of over 30? What about a tattoo completely covering just one arm – come on I know you’re out there... People are a bit shy... Let’s try an easier one… Who’s got a Facebook account, or has tweeted or felt the need to follow someone who does. Congratulations – you’re part of rapid social change. Not so long ago, very few of us would have answered ‘yes’ to any of those questions. Now, maybe you signed up to Facebook hoping to stalk your high school sweetheart; or got that tattoo fearing you might not fit in without it at the nursing home later in life. But, I’m guessing fear and optimism played little role. Yet, here we are debating which is the stronger driver of rapid social change.
     So what’s meant by rapid social change this evening? Getting large numbers of people to quit smoking, or recycle? Or big steps forward that social movements help society take – like new laws banning everything from slavery to child labour to the trade in endangered species. Either way, it’s about replacing practices long considered perfectly reasonable, with something previously unthinkable. But what qualifies as ‘rapid’? As a slice of human history, the Industrial Revolution rearranged society in next to no time—but still took hundreds of years. The American Civil War result helped to free slaves, but was part of a movement spanning many centuries. every great societal shift, there might be a moment to we see as emblematic of rapid change – when the Berlin Wall fell, for example -- but society didn’t change overnight – change was a long time coming.
     Yet as social media, obesity and one-arm body art examples reinforce, lots of very rapid social change goes on without any grand struggle – no marching in the streets, imprisoned dissidents, civil disobedience, landmark legal victory, or referendum — none of what we might consider the usual precursors. Sure, there’s relentless marketing by corporations hooking us up to mobile phones, social media, fast food and sugary drinks. But, the public generally embraces lots of social changes with heady enthusiasm. Maybe we’re optimistic that these things will make life a little better—even if it’s a fleeting glucose boost—maybe we fear not keeping up with the Joneses if we miss out. But, it’s hard to argue that they’re driving the rapid change.
     So what of the role of optimism and fear in the big environmental shifts. Well, fear certainly helped to mobilise public support against the nuclear industry, and asbestos, and lead in petrol. But was it optimism or fear that drove efforts to save the ozone layer? An argument can me made both ways. Are people installing solar panels and recycling more out of hope for a better world or because they fear rising electricity prices, shrinking bin space and rising tip fees? We can argue until the cows
come home – but we might as well debate whether optimism or fear makes cows come home faster. Meanwhile, the hope vs fear contest glosses over so many other factors—population, economics, new technology, religion, government policy, political leadership.
     It’s the same with climate change, on which I’ve spent the past fifteen years. The argument over whether messages need to be more positive or negative is perennial. Some favour more fire-and-brimstone rhetoric—as if hearing that the world is beyond saving will motivate people to spend the little time they have left building a mass movement. Then there are the green ‘happy-clappers’ – smugly deluded that clean energy revolution is here and can’t be stopped, convinced that carbon prices and free markets will fix climate change. When they’re not telling people they can save the world by greening their lifestyles, this group is busy uncritically amplifying green good news stories, no matter how deviously plucked from the context. The hope and fear camps both mean well. It’s important to build public confidence in an alternative future and people should take the dire consequences of climate change seriously. But there’s a deeper problem than messages not being rosy or scary enough: most people can’t view rapid change as an easy decision because they’re not being told what path we’re really on, nor what the fast disappearing alternative paths involve. Instead, this is hidden from them by politicians, big business, the media, and even well-known environmental groups.
     So, few realise Australia’s contribution to climate change is on track to double in the next decade or so thanks to fossil fuel exports, as we bank largely on imported carbon credits to meet emission targets while local emissions don’t fall below current levels until about 2040 (1). Few appreciate that the biggest polluting industries effectively get most of their carbon tax refunded (2), or that by the end of this year, the emissions the carbon price is meant to save by 2020 will be negated by additional
coal export (3). The emissions these exports create are disowned, so government won’t calculate the consequences of phasing them out. And with no plan to make deep emission cuts within Australia before 2050, they don’t cost that either. So, the public has no idea of what dramatically reducing Australia’s contribution to climate change involves. In fact, our economy would still double by the mid 2030s even if we phased out coal exports and replace coal fired power with renewable energy (4). But rather than useful information like that, the public gets hope and fear-laden campaigns from both sides of politics—misrepresenting incrementalism as something spectacularly worse or better. No wonder the public is sick of the issue.
     The great worry is that while people switch off en masse, we’re on track to experience rather than avoid the most dangerous climate scenarios, and to spend more money adapting to climate change. What might be clean energy investment is increasingly going towards bolstering defences against the consequences of climate change like flood, fire, and cyclones, and to make agriculture more resilient. Arguably, we’re well down that path—it’s just not spelt out. The 2010-11 Queensland cyclones and floods, for example, triggered a national flood levy – part of a federally funded reconstruction package worth $5.6b – around 5 ½ times the annual budget of the federal Department of Climate Change (5). In the US, ten times that amount is being spent on the Hurricane Sandy relief package – quietly wiping out all the savings Barack Obama negotiated to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff (6). Then there’s the $30 billion worth of new dams that Tony Abbott apparently has in mind. So, climate change spending is spiralling, but it’s increasingly about clean-up, not prevention. Catastrophic weather events aren’t causing politicians to redouble their efforts to cut emissions – as some assume must happen -- they’re helping politicians do what they love doing – dishing out big checks and big hugs.
     So how to drive rapid change more sustainably? Well let’s be clear about one thing – changing lightbulbs, installing solar panels, and generally greening our lifestyles won’t do the trick. It’s worthwhile but doesn’t add up to emission reductions required – partly because relatively few people are making these changes – you need only look at SUV and hybrid car sales to see that. But mainly because billions of people in developing countries are buying cars, TVs, computers, fast food, soft-drink, designer clothes and so much more for the first time – erasing many times over the emissions we might save by doing our bit. Ultimately the deep cuts required can only be achieved by governments insisting on a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewables. So, by all means, do the green thing, but go beyond that into meaningful advocacy because we can’t shop the planet green—and the most important difference we can make as individuals is not with our wallets but with our votes and our voices. What’s needed is a mass movement that demands change from both government and big
business. For that to happen the public first needs to grasp the path we’re on, and understand the viable alternatives. And that can’t occur unless politicians, the media, and many green groups address issues they’ve carefully ignored for years.
     My view is that the shift required is unlikely, given where we’re at, the power of vested interests, and the degree to which the public remains in the dark. But even if it’s a long shot, surely we should prevent as much damage as we still can. And if we want to engage the community in rapid large scale change, not just in relation to climate change, but the many other aspects of sustainability, let’s not sweat the relative merits of optimism and fear as PR tools, and focus on whether we’re enabling public to see previously unthinkable steps to a sustainable society as an easy decision.
Guy Pearse is an author and Research Fellow, Global Change Institute, University of Queensland 

(1) See: Figure 3.1: Gross National Income with and without the carbon price, Securing a clean energy future – The Australian Government’s Climate Change Plan, 2011 p.24
(2)  Under the so-called Clean Energy Future plan, ‘The most emissions-intensive and trade-exposed activities will initially be eligible for 94.5 per cent shielding from the carbon price. A second category of assistance will provide an initial shielding level of 66 per cent of the carbon price.’ Dozens of emissions intensive industries are eligible: See:, Securing a clean energy future – The Australian Government’s Climate Change Plan, 2011 p.55
See also: http://www.climatechange.gov.au/government/initiatives/jobs-competitiveness-program.aspx and http://www.climatechange.gov.au/en/government/initiatives/jobs-competitiveness-program/program-indetail.aspx and http://www.climatechange.gov.au/government/initiatives/jobs-competitiveness-program/activitydefinitions.aspx
(3) Australian coal exports are growing and projected to grow further at a rate that adds approximately l 7 million tonnes of CO2 per month – which is equivalent to adding more than 1 large new coal fired power station every month. The carbon tax and all other domestic emissions reduction programs were projected by the Gillard government to save the equivalent of 159 million tonnes of CO2 annually by 2020. The legislation introducing the carbon price passed in November 2011. Given the rate at which coal exports are growing, the benefit projected for 2020 will be negated by around October 2013. See also: See: Figure 3.1: Gross National Income with and without the carbon price, Securing a clean energy future – The Australian Government’s Climate Change Plan, 2011 p.14, 24; http://www.smh.com.au/environment/climate-change/senate-passes-carbon-tax-
http://www.climatechange.gov.au/media/whats-new/clean-energy-future.aspx See also
http://www.australiancoal.com.au/exports.html http://www.bree.gov.au/publications/req.html
(4) See: ‘Australia’s precious place in the coal industry’s world’ -- Speech by Guy Pearse Research Fellow, Global Change Institute -- University of Queensland, Climate Camp 2010, Lake Liddell Recreation Area, NSW 3 December 2010 http://www.guypearse.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Pearse-Climate-Camp-Speech-Final.pdf
For additional sources on the estimate see footnote xxxvii to the speech. See also: See: Pearse, GD
‘On Borrowed Carbon” chapter in Mannne/McKnight’s "Goodbye to All That", Black Inc 2010 p.253 Sources available from Black Inc in Extended Footnotes to the chapter.
(5) http://www.pm.gov.au/press-office/rebuilding-after-floods
(6) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/29/nyregion/congress-gives-final-approval-to-hurricane-sandyaid.


  1. Just trying to parse the message from this piece: It's not hope/fear that we need, it's more education?

    1. Also, I'm not sure reference (4), which references a speech you made yourself, is properly calculated in reference to the impactr of removing the coal industry to our GDP. I'm not a climate change denier by any stretch of the imagination, it just seems that the 'hype' you are railing against in this piece has managed to creep into your own writings.

  2. Love your website (as anxious as it makes me). One small request: would you please put spaces between your paragraphs? All the text running together is hard to scan. Thanks!

  3. Science: Problem or solution?February 19, 2013 at 9:27 PM

    In a universe that is 13.7 billion years old, our fragile and unique 4.6 billion year old earth gravitationally floats through space as a quiet speck of galaxial improbability.
    More than ninety-nine percent of all the species that have ever lived on this planet have become extinct, with the vast majority having met this fate through five major and separate episodes of annihilation. Our coal, oil and gas deposits were formed from the resultant dead bodies of plants and animals that met this fate. The last and perhaps best known episode was 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs and countless other species perished forever.
    The cause of these five cataclysms? Climate change; a warmed planet.
    The evidence shows that all of these catastrophes were precipitated by chance volcanic eruptions of lava or, in the case of the dinosaurs, a meteorite strike, in geologic formations where massive coal deposits ignited and burned and/or carbonate minerals such as limestone were decomposed by the resultant heat.
    Both processes caused a massive release of carbon dioxide, resulting in destructive global warming. The acidified oceans became a warm, anoxic soup of anaerobic bacteria whose toxic, gaseous emissions also poisoned the atmosphere, and hence land creatures as well.
    If the all-consuming, economically-obsessed, plague species that we humans have allowed ourselves to become, continue to release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by burning fossil fuels, decomposing carbonates to make cement for concrete, allowing methane clathrates to melt, and interfering with Earth’s natural nitrogen cycle at accelerating rates, the consequences are as equally predictable as the previous major extinctions. The inertia for the certain continuation of the already-documented warming and ocean-acidification process over the past century, is provided by the simple fact of the known fifty-year atmospheric half-life of carbon dioxide, and, as it dissolves, the resultant, predictable acidification of the world’s oceans.
    It’s ironic that some of the most crucial and elusive evidence that has allowed science to painstakingly piece together the complex, interrelated palaeobiological, geochemical, atmospheric and climate history of earth has been discovered by big fossil fuel companies, in their quest for indicators of likely new deposits.
    These and other recent studies show us that the warming process won’t be uniform across the globe. Some areas in the Northern Hemisphere will get colder, and the Southern Hemisphere hotter, as evidence proves happened in the past, when the last ice age was in retreat seventeen thousand years ago. By ten thousand years ago, the melted and retreated polar ice caps had raised sea levels by 120 metres, and humans had become farmers in a now-stable global climate.
    But now to the present: The already-changed, meandering and lingering pattern of the polar jetstream winds in the stratosphere causing unusual blizzards, storms, coastal storm surges, flooding rains and droughts; the southern shift of the climate equator and resultant shift south of the high pressure systems and their westerly Southern Ocean winds, resulting from the recorded thirty-percent slowing of the Atlantic conveyor current over the past fifty years, itself caused by Arctic ice-melt and decreasing density of ocean surface waters, are evidence of global climate history of the previous twenty thousand years repeating itself. The difference this time though is that carbon dioxide levels and average temperatures started at higher levels, have increased further, and without action, possibly will reach a tipping point with predictable consequences.
    If the ignorant, the apathetic, and the greedy, (including the anthropogenic climate-disruption deniers in the opposition ranks) have their way, (business as usual), the meek shall not inherit the earth.
    Bacteria once again, will; but the Barrier Reef, tourism jobs, precious farmlands, vital ecosystems and coastal real estate will be gone long before then.

    1. So after that long boring meander, I think you're suggesting that naturally occurring changes to the earths climate, if you look at it with a crooked eye, can be twisted to appear to look like it might be caused by human activity.

      ..Hmmm.. that's a new one to me.


  4. "Ultimately the deep cuts required can only
    be achieved by governments insisting on a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewables" is manifestly false. The only countries to have achieved CO2-e emissions cuts of the required magnitude have done so by their governments insisting on a rapid shift from fossil fuels to nuclear.

  5. Moreover, none of the governments insisting on a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewables (strategies that have been running for quite some time now) have yet gotten within a bull's roar of succeeding in those deep cuts, despite vast monies expended.