Politics, not science, is driving climate debate

The science behind climate change is increasingly clear. What is preventing action is governments’ losing war with powerful private interests. [22 January 2013 | Peter Boyer]

Dr Del Weston. (Image Mercury, Hobart)

Hobart was the global epicentre of the climate debate last week. Luminaries of climate science gathered at Wrest Point to put final touches to their review of current scientific knowledge for next year’s landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Incorporating data and conclusions from thousands of research papers, the “Working Group 1” report they were discussing is the definitive assessment of what science knows about global climate.

The 255 scientists from 39 countries at the Hobart summit had to consider over 30,000 comments on the report’s previous draft. Their amended draft will be sent to governments and then submitted for full IPCC approval in Stockholm in September.

The IPCC is the biggest scientific undertaking the world has ever attempted. Its findings carry huge implications for the future of every person on the planet. But if you weren’t watching out for last week’s event you may have missed it.

The fact that the process is kept out of the public gaze raised the ire last month of a conservative US blogger named Alec Rawls, one of about 1000 IPCC volunteer reviewers. Arguing that taxpayers had a right to see what their money was spent on, he posted the draft report on his website.

(Rawls had another motive for releasing the draft, claiming that the IPCC was hiding evidence of a stronger-than-expected solar influence on climate. This was quickly rebutted by IPCC authors.)

There was a short media conference ahead of the Hobart meeting, confirming that the new report will give increased attention to sea level, clouds and aerosols. But after the opening plenary session all deliberations were closed, as they have been throughout the IPCC’s 25-year history.

IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri believes the process is open enough — it does allow people like Rawls to become involved — but says that draft reports should remain out of public circulation because they could be misleading and fail to give a true picture of the final report’s contents.

Some IPCC authors say that there’s nothing to hide and the process should be opened up for media debate, but after the phoney scandal that was “Climategate” scientists are leery of having their every word subjected to scrutiny by people seeking only to undermine their efforts.

While in Tasmania, Pachauri told the online publication Crikey.com that he was optimistic of progress in cutting emissions “in the near future”. “Business-as-usual has a very strong force behind it, and therefore to move away from business-as-usual takes time, takes effort.”

He may be right, except I doubt it will be in the near future, or that it will happen the way he anticipates.

The IPCC’s climate analysis is more important than ever today, yet the organisation itself is a relic of a bygone age. In agreeing to set it up in 1988, national governments felt they still ruled the roost and could manage a bunch of scientists pontificating from the sidelines. How wrong they were.

The global community of climate scientists is now virtually a single voice, citing overwhelming evidence that our carbon emissions are radically changing the climate. Their relentless, logical argument has forced governments to cobble together some sort of political response.

Though strictly speaking no scientific issue is ever settled, the case for man-made climate change is effectively a done deal. For all that, strong scientific argument backed by compelling evidence has so far proven no match for entrenched political and financial interests around the world.

This is where the enclosed, rational world of the IPCC reaches a wall. Complex though it is, the science behind climate change and its mitigation is nowhere near as complex as putting this into practice — getting people, corporations and nations to reduce their carbon emissions.

Two people who understood this better than most were Del Weston and Gavin Mooney, who were killed last month in the living room of their Tasmanian home at Mountain River. Weston’s son, who had previously been diagnosed with a mental disorder, has been charged with their murder.

Academic economist Gavin Mooney was already a star in the health and social justice firmament when he and Weston arrived in Tasmania in September 2011. Social workers and health specialists quickly felt a huge positive impact from his knowledge, passion and active involvement in their concerns.

I met Mooney only briefly. Del Weston I came to know better, as a member of the advocacy group Climate Action Hobart and author of a book to be published in July this year by Routledge (UK) under the title “The Political Economy of Global Warming: The Terminal Crisis”.

A month before she died I took up Weston’s call for help to edit the completed manuscript of her book, developed from her doctoral thesis at Curtin University (WA).

The book is about how powerful, often-corrupt political and financial interests turned the climate challenge into today’s global crisis. Weston describes this crisis as “terminal”, in the sense that climate change will inevitably bring to an end the world order (such as it is) that we currently know.

The world’s wealthier governments, says Weston, have allowed private interests to dominate global and national affairs at the expense of public life and open, democratic government. She finds free-market ideology to have fatally compromised climate policy everywhere, including Australia.

In her final labour of love, Weston showed great courage in calling this unholy alliance of politics and money for what it is, a real and present threat to our future and a huge obstacle to meeting the challenge so clearly described by the IPCC.

Weston’s parting gift to us is an illuminating analysis of how we came to this, our “terminal crisis”, and the big political and economic changes that must happen if we’re to find a way out of it.

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2 Responses to Politics, not science, is driving climate debate

  1. Lorraine says:

    Excellent article Peter, thank you for highlighting Del’s work.

  2. Susan Austin says:

    I agree with Lorraine, thanks Peter.

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