Climate change is the responsibility of everyone

In tackling the challenge of climate change we need to abandon old prejudices, cross borders into unfamiliar territory, and speak to our enemies. This is a task for everyone. [3 May 2008 | Peter Boyer]

Speech to Environment Tasmania dinner, The Friends School, Hobart, 3 May 2008

Before I get to the main subject I want to talk about, here’s a brief personal travelogue. I first became acquainted with the idea that our planet was warming 20 years ago, when Australian Antarctic scientists, whose work it was my job to write about, took up active roles in international climate change groups. When An Inconvenient Truth hit the screen in 2006, I was sufficiently impressed by Al Gore’s effort to apply to join his newly-formed Climate Project, in which trained volunteers inform their public about what’s happening to the climate. In 2006 I attended training with 80-odd other Australians, and ever since I’ve been traipsing around Tasmania trying to alert them to the dangers of global warming.

I think it’s unlikely that anyone here will harbour any doubts as to whether humans have caused our climate to change and that we need to act stop this trend. But if you’re part of, or know of, a group that wants more information on this, you can book one of us presenters just by contacting Sustainable Living Tasmania on 6234 5566. We go to most parts of the state. There are now five presenters in Tasmania, including two in Hobart. I should add that there are plenty of pretty pictures to go with the talk.

Tonight is slide-free. What I want to talk about is how we think – the mindsets within which people consider the things that matter in their lives – and why it’s important that we – all of us –abandon some old mindsets and look afresh at ourselves, our societies, our economies, our governance, our individual and collective responsibilities – everything about the human condition.


We’ve come a long way, we humans, since a race of great apes took to living on the ground. Our prospects then wouldn’t have looked great. We weren’t especially big, fast, agile or strong. Many competing species beat us hands down in hearing or seeing or smelling. But we got around all that. With brainpower and handcraft we learned to exploit other species.

We became numero uno – the most dominant species in the history of our planet. From a Darwinian perspective it’s possible to see us as uniquely successful, having attained a position where no other species can challenge our supremacy. But then, there’s Gaia.

Let’s take a brief history excursion. Around 1900 an Austrian geologist named Eduard Suess introduced the idea of the biosphere, “the place on Earth’s surface where life dwells”, as he put it. The term was later defined to mean the global ecological system that includes not only all living things, but also the ground, air and water amid which they live.

Around the same time, a Swedish physicist, Svante Arrhenius, demonstrated that rising carbon dioxide levels could change surface temperatures on Earth, and forty years later Guy Callendar produced weather observations that he said showed human-produced carbon dioxide was already causing our planet to heat up.

In the late 1950s, armed with new data-gathering technologies, scientists took a fresh look at “greenhouse theory”. Within three years Gilbert Plass, Roger Revelle, Hans Suess (grandson of the biosphere man, Eduard Suess) and Charles Keeling produced effective proof of the “Callendar Effect” – that the planet was warming as a result of carbon dioxide build-up caused by human activity. Plass warned that the early years of the 21st century could see warming approaching dangerous levels.

The next ten years or so were eventful years for the development of environmental consciousness. While David Brower, in defence of natural systems, was leading the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth into battle against big money and big technology, his friend Paul Ehrlich was opening up debate on the limited ability of Earth to sustain life and the need to curb population.

And James Lovelock, then doing extra-terrestrial research for NASA, was developing a concept of our planet as a kind of organism, a complex system of living and non-living parts sustained by a regulating biosphere. This ‘mother of all’ needed a name, and as is often the way, Lovelock turned to the ancients. To the Greek earth-goddess… Gaia.

The science behind Lovelock’s Gaia theory is not without some eminent critics, including a favourite of mine, Richard Dawkins. But I’m not so much interested in the science as in the notion Gaia encompasses, that all life is inseparable from its home, this rocky, watery, airy planet. In these times of trying to make sense of our present existence on Spaceship Earth, Gaia is a very powerful idea indeed.

Gaia is powerful, above all, because it represents an effective counter to the biggest myth we humans have ever created (and we’ve created some corkers down the ages). That is, the myth that we can continue to live out our lives in our own artificial world without reference to anything outside it, independent of the rest of creation. It’s been the mindset of the rich and powerful all through history, but it became ‘democratised’ over the course of the Industrial Revolution, as the power to exercise domination over our environment spread to the masses. It’s a myopic, self-centred and ultimately suicidal myth, but we’ve continued with it because nothing appeared to challenge it. It’s been a comfortable mindset.

But not so comfortable any more. In the past couple of years the braying about the ‘doomsayers’ – about the so-called ‘false’ predictions of Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome, for instance – has become steadily more muted. Slowly – too slowly for my liking – but steadily, people everywhere are coming to realise that what we thought we could do, and go on doing, we can’t really do at all.

The problem is, it’s all been so easy. Steadily, through the decades of the 20th century, with a few hitches like depression and war, it’s become easier to obtain food, to insulate our homes from conditions outside, to buy a car and equip it with all mod cons, to shop till we drop, to travel abroad – and, if we want, to have more children. In the wider scheme of things, this is a false economy because it takes no account of the real cost – the damage to the biosphere that sustains us. But we’ve managed to extend the illusion of comfort and prosperity for much longer than was good for us. We’re clever. Too clever?

I’m talking, of course, only of what we’ve glibly and quite inaccurately called the developed world. The other, ‘undeveloped’, part of humanity, is living in much the same way as it’s always lived, from hand to mouth – except that most of these people are now less independent than they were, because they’ve been driven by war, the global economy and the policies of nations and international bodies to leave their once-productive rural lands and live in urban slums. That’s one of the inevitable fruits of ‘development’.

But let’s not get too stuck on the morality of the privileged few (us) and the exploited others (them). The reality is that anyone in the world would do what we’ve done given the opportunity. Look at what’s happening in India and China, where car purchases and electricity consumption are at unprecedented levels. When there’s money in our pockets we’re all, no matter where we live, all too ready to consume as if our lives depend on it, ignoring the warnings that in reality, the opposite is true.

So where are we now, in terms of our ‘developed’ mindsets?

I think the present situation has thrown up a rare opportunity for change. The instability of our climate due to human greenhouse gas emissions is now a global emergency. More to the point, increasing numbers of people in Australia and countries like it are realising this. Something is developing in the Australian social psyche akin to what existed in 1942 with the fall of Singapore. Perhaps it’s not quite as stark, but it’s getting close. And with food shortages and our drying earth, it’s much closer to home than the Japanese in Singapore.

An emergency focuses the mind like nothing else, and opens up the prospect for radical change as never before. People may not necessarily be pursuing change – many may be frightened into withdrawing, into silence – but this is where leadership is so important. Those people who can grasp the moment, who can understand the challenge of these times and have the voice and the courage to articulate the mindset shifts we need, must step up and speak out.

Tasmania’s present political leadership has many flaws. I’m not going to run through them, because I suspect that in the scheme of things they’re no worse than many others in times past. The fact is, no government in Australia, at any level, has made serious inroads into the radical changes – the actual physical changes – that are patently necessary to deal with the climate challenge. We’ve talked a lot, as we’re doing now, but we haven’t yet taken the substantive action that’s necessary. And all the while the clock ticks, and ticks.

So the Tasmanian government led by Paul Lennon is seriously flawed. But it was democratically elected, and it’s all we’ve got until the next election, which is two years away. That’s two years longer than the time we have to take action. So barring some overtly criminal act I’m not going to spend my energy and time trying to change it. When the next election comes around I’ll decide with other voters whether it’s worth keeping, but in the meantime I intend to see what it can do and to work with it to try to achieve that.

Last October, Tasmania’s Premier, Paul Lennon, said he wanted his government to lead Australia in tackling climate change. In February he said he’d asked Professor Ross Garnaut to provide ‘transparent, independent advice’ on the role of the forestry sector in addressing climate change. And early in March he announced that the public service, starting immediately, would act with all necessary speed to reduce its carbon footprint, and that the government would make laws to mandate a 2050 emissions reduction target to cut emissions by 60 per cent.

These were very welcome developments. I for one applauded the Premier for bringing some much-needed authority and decision to the Tasmanian climate debate.

For all that, it still remains to act on these directives, and to bring the wider Tasmanian community into the picture. To advance the latter, the Climate Change Office is to release a Tasmanian strategy in stages over coming months. I’ve met the people who run this little group and I think they’re as competent as we could have expected. The release of a Tasmanian strategy will, I hope, bring home to the Tasmanian community that we all – government and citizens alike – have a responsibility to work together to overcome, with all possible speed, the natural intertia in our systems and communities and get this show on the road.

And deal with people we once might have avoided. Because this effort will demand that we be open to ideas, and as we all know, good ideas often come from unlikely sources.

One of the new, essential paradigm shifts will involve how we as individuals relate to our respective communities. It’s interesting how our societies in the developed world have evolved over the period of the Industrial Revolution. In keeping with an increasingly artificial physical environment, our social links have left behind communities in their old sense, with their extended families, neighbourhoods, local networks and so on, and taken on a form where people can have more contact with others living great distances away than with the person over their side fence, and where parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews can be so estranged as not to know each other.

You and I accept this as normal, but if we hadn’t grown up in such a world – if we’d come from a past age or a less ‘developed’ community in another place, and thought only in terms of the old, natural way of relating to others – I think we’d conclude that this was weird. I’m sure I would. I suspect the artificiality of our modern social lives is a major reason for people having pets like dogs, whose natural inclination is to be social, dependent, loyal, very focused on the people and other animals close to them in their lives. Sounds a bit old fashioned in today’s detached social environment, don’t you think?

So where do environment groups fit in? You are already well down the road of a mindset shift. Many, maybe most, of you will have gone further than me. You are potential, if not current, leaders in the present debate. You are equipped as few other people are to start the actions that are necessary to change our communities, our country, the world. It is essential that those holding public and corporate purse-strings recognise this and support you in your work.

On your part, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that it’s vital that you continue to refine your messages on protecting our environment and living sustainably, working with the scientists and the politicians and the administrators and the teachers and the next generations, and carry your message as widely and as powerfully as you can. It’s also important that you leave out no-one – no politician, no business mogul, no timber worker – no-one – from your considerations and endeavours. We have to cross borders here.

I can’t put it better than the American poet Max Ehrman:

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story…. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

I’ve found that talking to groups about the science and impact of climate change, and what individual people and their communities can do to improve things, is great therapy. I need a boost, like we all do.

So I’d like to offer two sets of thanks. First, to my partner, Sandy, who’s here tonight, for accommodating so patiently my ranting over the past couple of years. And finally, thanks to you all here tonight, for allowing me to get these things off my chest. I feel better already.

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