The US mid-term elections have stopped US climate action dead in its tracks. Obama has intentions of continuing the battle, but he doesn’t seem to have his heart in it. [23 November 2010 | Peter Boyer]
Things are getting serious.
For the past year we’ve endured the poor result in Copenhagen and Australian indecision on climate policy in the faint hope that the United States might soon start to put its considerable weight behind the faltering, so-far ineffectual global effort to reduce carbon emissions.
That hope has now been extinguished by a resurgent neo-conservative movement in the US, led by the querulous Tea Partiers with financial backing from radio and television presenter Glenn Beck and the Koch Industries oil empire. If that sounds conspiratorial, then it probably is.
Barak Obama must shoulder some responsibility. Before he was elected President he gave climate action high priority. Now, after an exhausting health care reform battle and a demoralising election campaign, he seems to have given up, declaring emissions trading to be off the agenda.
In a few short sentences during a long post-election media briefing, Obama said he would be looking to measures other than cap-and-trade “that don’t hurt the economy”. He didn’t mention a carbon tax, but any form of carbon pricing in the US now looks pretty well dead in the water.
In Australia, Opposition climate spokesperson Greg Hunt trumpeted Obama’s announcement as support for the Liberals’ “direct action, no tax” policy — ignoring the mountain of evidence and expert advice that such regulatory measures are the costliest, least effective way to curb emissions.
The election marks a complete failure of US climate policy, which rarely got a mention amid all the campaign hubbub over economic hard times and libertarian prattle about smaller government and personal freedom. It’s an enormous setback for humanity’s battle to stop global warming.
This has been a victory of opposition over cooperation, of suspicion over trust, of personal greed over public interest, of fear and ignorance over considered, well-informed debate. Vested interests — especially resource interests — have drawn on their considerable reserves to play on people’s anxiety about the future.
I thought the slogan-rich, information-poor Australian election campaign three months ago was about as bad as it could get. I thought the noisy, petty posturing of those of our politicians opposed to climate and energy action was as low as politics could get.
I was wrong. On both counts, the US political scene leaves us for dead. Sarah Palin’s declaration that the great challenge of our time is “off the table” was bad enough; worse was the dumb triumphalism that went with it. These people actually think a great victory has been won.
Even politicians in Obama’s own Democratic party are opposing a recent court decision allowing the US government to treat carbon emissions as pollution and regulate accordingly. In the US such populism is considered business as usual. From here it looks close to madness.
I never thought I’d say this, but I’m wondering if we haven’t reached the limits of what democracy and civilisation can achieve. Could it be that the size and complexity of the climate issue has tested our civil systems beyond their capacity, and we’re now observing the start of a breakdown?
The United States arouses powerful passions. This great nation has given us so much to value and admire: in its self-belief, its “can do” attitude and innovative technology, its fierce defence of individual liberty, and its scientific achievements.
But there’s a negative side to this. American can-do self-belief is sometimes manifested in a false optimism that every problem has a technical fix, no matter what its cause. Hence Obama’s misplaced faith that technology by itself can lower emissions despite his country’s rising energy demands.
The nation that gave us the great Abraham Lincoln also gave us the Tea Party, a host of ordinary Americans who see themselves as latter-day Lincolns defending freedom. This is delusion on a grand scale. In truth, they’re being cynically manipulated by vested interests to destabilise a government already under siege from the global financial crisis.
You wouldn’t think so nowadays, but in times past Americans have held their scientists in very high regard. But this faith in scientists has its darker side, painstakingly researched and powerfully evoked in a new book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt.
Merchants of Doubt is a masterful account of how a few scientists, mainly working outside their field of expertise, used their god-like status to conceal the truth about various environmental and health issues. As the book tells it, for decades a small handful of scientists sought for reasons of personal ideology to cast doubt on links between tobacco smoke and lung cancer and the causes of acid rain, ozone depletion and global warming.
In the case of global warming, the results are now plain to see. Americans have ditched their enlightenment traditions to come out against the science. Somehow, this now has to be turned around. Merchants of Doubt is an important first step to Americans and the rest of the world regaining their trust in the integrity of the scientific method.
In the US political firmament, fear and ignorance now have the upper hand over informed public policy. It will take a supreme effort by the Obama Administration to turn this around in the two years before he faces the people to win a second term.
We, too, have the battle ahead of us. Our own record on climate action puts us alongside the US at the back of the pack of developed countries. We have to focus on getting our own house in order while resolving not to allow the same unreason to engulf our own body politic.
• One of the world’s leading climate scientists, David Karoly, will speak about what science is telling us right now about our climate, on Friday at 6 pm in the Stanley Burbury Theatre, University of Tasmania, Sandy Bay. Entry is free. For more information call 62267377.