Fossil fuel interests and their apologists are relying on circular arguments to justify inaction on emissions. [18 June 2013 | Peter Boyer]
Earth’s climate story is full of tipping points — times when there’s a discernable shift from one state to another. We may be going through one right now.
There are tipping points elsewhere, too. Our human story is pock-marked with moments of portent, when history hung in the balance before plunging off in a radically new direction.
Historical tipping points can be anticipated, but we tend to remember them as unexpected events, like a military attack, the toppling of a government, or the bursting of a stock or property bubble.
Surprises are part of the deal. Societies build defences against change, whether it’s armies and secret police or things like welfare systems and tariffs, but all of them carry the seeds of their own demise. The more we come to rely on them, the bigger the shock when they fail.
This applies to everyone, because we all have something to lose. People depending on welfare have a tough time when they lose it, but they’re rarely able or willing to make a fuss about their loss. But it’s another matter entirely when people higher up the pecking order see their protection threatened.
Money, power and status go hand in hand in our acquisitive society. The more you have of them, the more you have to lose, and the more vigorously you’ll fight to protect them. That’s a fact of life.
In defence of their holdings the well-heeled have many weapons at their disposal, but in the eternal debate over who should have what, there’s no argument more widely used than this: My well-being is your well-being, and if I go down, the rest of you will go down with me.
If such warnings are intended to cause nervousness in the wider community, they usually succeed. The threat can be as simple as the loss of a regular client at a fancy local eatery, or as complex as a proposed resources project failing to get approval.
Cases like the latter bring the suits out of the boardrooms into the spotlight to complain long and hard that rejection of their proposal will lead to the loss of thousands of jobs. Their protests are picked up by news media and echoed loudly by union officials.
All seem oblivious of the fact that no jobs have been lost by such an approval decision because no-one has yet been employed by the companies concerned. But governments listen. It seems that to them all lost jobs, even imaginary ones, mean lost votes.
We are embedded in a system driven not by physical reality but by perception, a truth brought home to Australians this month by the US climate writer and advocate, Bill McKibben.
McKibben, who wrote the 1989 classic The End of Nature, told public audiences in eastern capitals (relayed by video-link to Hobart, Adelaide and Perth) that the disjunct between perception and reality over climate was driven by fossil fuel interests.
“Even people like George Bush or the CEO of Exxon are saying that global warming is real,” McKibben told ABC-TV Q&A viewers. “The only people who don’t say this any more are people with powerful financial ties to the fossil fuel industry.”
McKibben and others have calculated that realising currently-proven (and committed) fossil fuel reserves — burning all the oil, coal and gas taken from them — will produce five times more carbon dioxide than is needed to push global temperatures beyond safe limits.
By McKibben’s reckoning, untapped Australian coal reserves would fill about 30 per cent of the world carbon budget. He believes currently worked coal, oil and gas deposits may continue to be mined, but says people should take their money out of companies seeking to develop new reserves.
No-one has disputed McKibben’s arithmetic, including two fellow Q&A panellists, Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi and Australian Financial Review editor-in-chief, Michael Stutchbury.
But his divestment campaign is another matter. On Q&A, Bernardi saw it as “sheer folly”; to Stutchbury it was “verging on madness”, “a very big blow to the Australian economy and to the living standards of everyone here.”
To McKibben’s response that “madness is what we’re doing right now,” risking our future at a huge economic cost, Stutchbury said the science might be wrong, while Bernardi said bluntly that it was.
If you want to look serious, it pays to wear a suit with a tie. The Bernardi and Stutchbury suits contrasted with McKinnon’s more casual outfit, and may have lent gravitas to Stutchbury’s assertion that without coal mining, we’re gone. But appearances don’t change the facts.
The men in suits use an internal logic independent of external reality, which goes like this: Money is our life-blood, so to cease any lawful money-making activity is madness. All arguments against it are intrinsically false, and proponents of such arguments are morally inferior.
To reassign Bernardi’s words, “sheer folly” is to wilfully ignore physical reality. Against all evidence, Bernardi asserts that “thousands of scientists” doubt human-induced warming. In truth, all but a handful of scientists hold the contrary position.
McKibben is right. We won’t contain dangerous climate change without a concerted global effort to scale down extraction of coal, gas and oil. It will ultimately mean accepting a change of state, where a fossil-fuelled economy has been replaced by a viable one.
Moving through that particular tipping point is already is already proving hugely difficult in the face of powerful opposing interests. But it’s one heck of a lot less difficult than the alternative.
• World-leading atmospheric scientist and Climate Commissioner Prof Will Steffen will address two Hobart public meetings on Saturday. From 9.45 am at Clarence Uniting Church, Cambridge Road, Bellerive, he will discuss “angry summers of our future” (click here for more information) and at 7.30 pm at the University Centenary Lecture Theatre, Grosvenor Street, he will deliver the 2013 Richard Jones Memorial Lecture, “The Critical Decade” (rsvp email@example.com).