Amid all the shouting, a plea for finding common cause

The mud-slinging and stereotyping are hindering our capacity to define the climate and energy problems and act to remedy them. [20 April 2010 | Peter Boyer]

The Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 astronauts as it prepares to lift off at the start of the successful 1969 Apollo 11 mission, in which astronauts landed on the Moon for the time. PHOTO NASA

The Saturn V rocket about to lift off for the historic 1969 Apollo 11 mission, in which astronauts landed on the Moon for the time. PHOTO NASA

I loathe modern technology, believe that modern times have brought only misery and fantasise about returning to a primitive state. I put down entrepreneurs and put scientists on pedestals. I’m a socialist, a tree-hugger, a people-hater and a party-pooper.

Or: I’m a petrol-head, into big, noisy machines. I love the new, despise the old and hate everything to do with nature. I’m a libertarian who loathes eggheads and bureaucrats and taxes. I live only for today and don’t care about the mess I leave for my children.

There are stereotypes everywhere you turn in the debates over climate, energy and the environment. In the past few months they’ve started to dominate the discussion. Expressing a firm view leaves you open to being branded an alarmist or a denier, or given some other extreme moniker.

The strength of the reactions is a measure of people’s sense of threat. People who think humans are changing our climate will tend to think badly of people who disagree with them, while the latter very likely feel under attack from suggestions that they should change their ways.

Such feelings are creating rifts that serve no-one. With humanity looking divided as never before over climate, energy and the future of the planet, I’d like to put in a plea for our common cause, and to suggest that the gaps aren’t nearly as large as they might seem.

Take me as an example. I’m deeply aware that the fossil-fuelled technology that enables us to exterminate whole cities with a single nuclear explosion, level mountains to extract minerals, and poison vast swathes of land and ocean is also the foundation of a modern civilisation that has brought great benefit to me and everyone else in the world’s richest countries.

For someone who advocates reducing our environmental footprint I frequently find myself doing otherwise. I enjoy much of what modern technology has brought to us, using energy-consuming gadgets for work and leisure, driving a car and sometimes travelling by air. I find a lot to admire in the inventive, enterprising people who have brought such wonders into our lives.

I still get a buzz from the saga of the space race even knowing it consumed prodigious amounts of fossil fuel. Our burgeoning knowledge about our universe, from sub-atomic particles to galaxies and black holes and anti-matter, about how our planet works, about genes and the evolution of life and the myriad other discoveries of science is both astonishing and admirable.

If I’m at a loss for something to do, modern life gives me a range of options unavailable to anyone before me. If I’m looking for a dose of culture I can take advantage of an arts scene — literary, musical, visual, cinematic — that’s never been richer or more varied. If I’m ill, I can call upon an unprecedented level of medical knowledge, skill and technology.

With access to the internet, I have enjoyed being able to draw on information resources that my parents and grandparents could never have dreamed of. In seconds I can find answers to the kinds of questions that might have bothered them for months, years or a lifetime.

Among my email correspondents are a number of people whose position on climate and energy is broadly opposed to mine. Though it’s often time-consuming, I value this correspondence. Just as science thrives on a variety of views, so do I benefit from the cross-currents of these discussions.

We all want to get to the bottom of the global climate story. In our emails we offer each other sources of information about this or that point of contention. For my part, I check out the links provided and try in my responses to be respectful and reasonable, just as I hope my challengers will continue to be, because I see value in keeping the discussion open.

Unlike a couple of my contrary correspondents, I’m not a scientist. I don’t claim to have the intellectual training to evaluate scientific information, and I accept their superior ability to do so. So when I come across something they say that seems to undermine what I have understood, I turn to other scientists for help, either personally or via the internet.

I’ve found out a lot in this process since I first embarked on climate advocacy in 2006. While I have yet to see anything that justifies a major change in my views, I have shifted position on some things that have compelling implications for public policy on climate and energy.

While I have always understood that nothing to do with our climate is straightforward, I have not always appreciated the extent and complexity of the task we have set ourselves in seeking to understand it. In responding to curly questions thrown up by my correspondents, I am continually coming across twists to the climate-energy story which, while casting new light on previous hypotheses, also raise the bar in getting an accurate and comprehensible picture across to the wider public. This communication issue remains the pre-eminent policy challenge.

My education has covered technology as well as science. I began this journey with a clear view that among the “solutions” to the climate and energy crisis were strong policies to encourage renewable energy, such as photovoltaic solar energy, wind farms and wave and tide power generation. While this remains an important principle, in practice it’s turned out to be a lot more complex than we first thought.

We have come to see the limitations of many renewable technologies drawing on diffuse energy sources (sunlight, wind, water motion) as opposed to the highly concentrated energy in fossil fuels.

We’ve learned the importance of factoring into the cost equation the “embodied energy” — the energy used in obtaining raw materials, in manufacturing and in transport — that exists in wind turbines and photovoltaic panels and other renewable hardware, as well as such alternative transport technology as new hybrid and electric motor vehicles.

Adding to technological limitations, as we draw nearer to critical developments such as rising post-peak oil prices we can see more clearly the powerful political and psychological obstacles to galvanising whole populations, not just within nations but between them and across the globe.

We can’t rely on a single elected party in government to effect whatever we need to do to manage the shocks ahead with reasonable assurance. The global scale of these policies demands bipartisan support: fundamental agreement among the people of key countries, probably including Australia, that such action is needed. As of now such agreement seems so distant as to be irrelevant.

The recent hubbub over climate science and policy has left me flummoxed. We somehow have to put aside noisy disputation, focus on the things we value in common and decide on necessary actions to secure these things. Constructive ideas are most welcome.

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