Reflections on our troubling times

The world’s most prestigious scientific institutions say we’ve got a problem. Why don’t our leaders believe them? [25 March 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Kevin Rudd at the Copenhagen climate summit, December 2009. PHOTO SBS

We’ve grown up to believe that scientists are reliable sources of information about us and our universe.

When the three most prestigious scientific institutions in the world make statements about the state of the world, I’m inclined to believe what they say. I’m sure you are too.

I refer to the London-based Royal Society, established in 1660; the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), dating from 1863; and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 165 years old and at over 120,000 members the world’s biggest science organisation.

Climate change: Evidence and causes was jointly published about a month ago by the Royal Society and NAS. It began: “Climate change is one of the defining issues of our time. It is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing Earth’s climate.”

It went on to say, among many other things, that “if emissions continue on their present trajectory, without either technological or regulatory abatement, then warming of 2.6 to 4.8C in addition to that which has already occurred would be expected by the end of the 21st century.”

Then last week AAAS issued its own call for action, What we know. “Human-caused climate change is happening,” it said. “We face risks of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes, and responding now will lower the risk and cost of taking action.”

AAAS said that over the past two decades, well-established evidence including polls of scientists, analyses of peer-reviewed literature and statements by expert science organisations had shown that about 97 per cent of scientists conclude that humans are changing the climate.

Why do eminent science bodies feel compelled to make such statements? It’s a generation since Margaret Thatcher warned in her now-famous UN climate change speech, “mankind and his activities … are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways”.

It’s approaching 22 years since President George Bush Senior told the Rio Earth Summit that the US would act to address global warming. The period since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 is now longer than the Great Depression and the Second World War put together.

They were the moments when it seemed possible that governments might find the wherewithal to do what was necessary. But there were frequent, jarring reminders of how hard this was going to be.

In 2001 US president George W. Bush pulled the United States out of the Kyoto agreement. A year later John Howard did the same for Australia. Kyoto entered into force three years later with Russian ratification, but it was weakened by the non-participation of the US and Australia.

The world suffered a setback in 2009 when the key Copenhagen summit failed, but for Australia there was a double setback. Just before Copenhagen, Tony Abbott was elected federal Liberal leader, starting the steady erosion in the party’s support of rigorous action on climate.

This has gone on too long. Everywhere there are signs of fatigue among people who’ve given hugely of themselves to galvanise support for serious policies to lighten our carbon footprint, reverse the upward trend of emissions and prepare ourselves for a different future.

They have other lives to live, other responsibilities to attend to. Young activists start families; older ones have to earn a crust; yet older ones are getting too old to do any heavy lifting. Adding to their difficulties is knowing that every year that passes makes success that much harder to achieve.

It’s only so long that people can persist with effort that brings no tangible results while gratuitous media attacks continue, vested interests capture the ear of government, and government – never very good at long-term strategies – abandons even the pretence of doing something.

I admit I’m getting tired too, banging this drum week after week. I know some readers would be glad if I stopped because they say so, bless them, but that’s a bit like asking the little Dutch boy to pull his finger out of the leak in the dyke. I can’t do it any more than he could.

My main goal has been to get through to the people in charge, our political, bureaucratic and business leaders, and to understand better what makes them tick and what would enable them to see the disastrous ramifications of their failure to act.

I’ve felt throughout this time they were capable of better things if only they knew the full story; that they would utilise resources to adapt as necessary while striving to mitigate the worst effects. But I now believe I was wrong. I underestimated the power of self-delusion among our leaders.

People who make the big decisions are called leaders, but the reaction of nearly all these people to the climate crisis suggests that to call them leaders is a grave misuse of language.

They are wilfully closing their eyes, clutching at falsehoods to justify doing nothing. When one of their number puts a head above the parapet to argue for more to be done, they’re ignored, isolated or demoted. And we let this happen.

Kevin Rudd’s “greatest moral challenge” was ditched by its author years ago. One after another, led by Tony Abbott in Canberra, Australian governments have given up. Instead of dealing with a real crisis they divert themselves with manufactured ones, like spies or boat people or budget deficits.

Maybe all that virtual reality in our lives has made us impotent in the real world, but maybe it doesn’t matter. Paul Gilding, a member of Tasmania’s soon-to-be-binned Climate Action Council, sees declining fossil energy and the rise of solar already signalling the start of a “great disruption”.

In which case all that’s left is to hope that such a disruption will allow our lifeline, the natural world, to recover while still permitting the continued existence of some sort of civil society.

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