Facing the sustainability challenge

The task of reducing carbon emissions is a very tough one, for politicians and the rest of us alike, but it is not an impossible one. We need to put our fears aside and take the plunge into a new way of seeing and doing things. [11 June 2008 | Peter Boyer]

Speech to forum organised by the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Wrest Point Hotel-Casino, Hobart, 11 June 2008.

First up, a short personal travelogue: I first became aware of the dangers of rising greenhouse gases 20 years ago, when my job was to write about Australian Antarctic science. Since I joined Al Gore’s Climate Project in 2006 – there are now four of us presenters in Tasmania – I’ve presented at more than 90 gatherings and talked to over 4000 Tasmanians trying to alert them to the dangers of global warming. We have all benefited: I’ve passed on what I know about this climate challenge, and in return my audiences have given me information, ideas and a lot of reassurance about the ability of humans to work things out.

What I want to talk about today is how we think – the mindsets within which people consider the things that matter in their lives – and why it’s important that we 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 humans have come a long way since some great apes took to living on the ground. Our prospects then weren’t good. 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 animals. In Darwinian terms we’ve been uniquely successful, such that no other single species can now 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”. The term now means the global ecological system, including all living things and the ground, air and water that are their homes. Around the same time, a Swedish physicist, Svante Arrhenius, demonstrated that humans’ contribution to rising carbon dioxide levels could change surface temperatures on Earth, and forty years later Englishman Guy Callendar produced weather observations indicating that human-produced carbon dioxide was already causing our planet to heat up.

In the mid-1950s a new generation of scientists took a fresh look at “greenhouse theory”. In the space of three years Gilbert Plass, Roger Revelle, Hans Suess (grandson of the biosphere man, Eduard Suess) and Charles Keeling produced strong evidence that the “Callendar Effect” – a warming planet as a result of a rising amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – was well under way. Plass warned that early in the 21st century warming resulting from human activity could approach dangerous levels.

In the early 1970s James Lovelock,  an English physicist working for NASA, postulated that our planet was itself 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.

Lovelock’s Gaia theory remains on the fringes of scientific debate. 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 people in authority right down 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 nothing came along to challenge it. It’s been a comfortable mindset.

The problem is, it’s all been so easy. Except for a few hitches like depression and war, throughout the 20th century, fuelled by low-cost energy in the form of abundant petroleum and coal, it’s become cheaper to get food, insulate our homes, buy a car, shop till we drop, travel abroad – and, if we want, have more children. This is a false economy because it takes no account of the real cost – damage to our sustaining biosphere. But we’ve cleverly managed to extend the illusion of comfort and prosperity for much longer than was good for us.

I’m talking, of course, only of what we call the developed world. The other, “undeveloped’, part of humanity, still lives much 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 and electricity usage are at unprecedented levels. When there’s money in our pockets, no matter where we live, we’ll 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. We’ve avoided using the word “emergency’ in the past to describe our increasingly unstable climate, but it’s becoming increasingly appropriate. 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 not quite as stark, but it’s not far off. And our drying earth and rising fuel and food prices bring it 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 – and help those in fear to defeat their demons and join the battle.

Tasmania’s Labor government has come in for some serious flack, but I suspect that in the scheme of things it’s better than many 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.

But Tasmania has begun to move. Last October, 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. In March he said that the government would legislate for a 2050 target to cut emissions by 60 per cent and that the public service would act with all speed to reduce its carbon footprint – a process that’s now well under way.

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

The Lennon government has now given way to the Bartlett government. It’s too early to say how this younger leadership team will change things, but it’s probably fair to say the general thrust of Paul Lennon’s quite strong climate policies will not be changed. The process is being administered by the Climate Change Office in the Premier’s department. I’ve met the people who run this little group and I have high hopes that they’ll perform to all reasonable expectations.

It remains to bring the wider Tasmanian community into the picture, and to advance this the Climate Change Office is to release a Tasmanian strategy in stages this year. It’s behind schedule, like everything to do with climate change policy, these are uncharted political and economic waters. The strategy’s release should bring home to the Tasmanian community that we all – government, business and individual 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. In this effort, we’ll need to expect the unexpected.

For the rest of my time today I’d like to focus on business people becoming active participants in the climate change and sustainability discussions that are now dominating our public lives in Australia and elsewhere. My own experience over the past couple of years tells me that newcomers to this debate, still feeling their way, will find they’ve got a lot of company – and that’s pretty well everyone. We all need help with this.

The first thing to remember is that with climate change there are no experts. Besides being new and unprecedented, the subject is so big, so all-encompassing, that we can never expect any single person to get his or her mind around the whole deal. Even within general subject areas like science and economics it’s impossible to cover the entire spectrum of knowledge. We must all draw on others’ thinking to work this out – another reason for getting together.

For another thing, the game – if we can use such a word for so serious a subject – is changing all the time. You think you’ve worked out some scenarios and possible solutions – then along comes evidence that a key plank of your solutions may be wrong. Technologies we thought might work turn out to be highly suspect: for instance, we talk about hybrid and hydrogen technologies as solutions to car transport, and then we find out that the high energy input required for their production, among other possible negatives, may render them at best only stop-gap measures.

Finally, we have come to see that the most effective solutions are the simplest. It’s true there’s a great deal of complexity about climate change, whether it’s to do with the science of climate, energy and emissions technology, accounting for carbon or different ways to regulate emissions. But in the end the things that have to happen are very simple: as individuals and communities and workgroups and nations, we must reduce the amount of carbon, methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases we’re putting into the atmosphere, and do it quickly. For all the complexities, the most important changes we must make are shifts in human behaviour. Pretty well anyone can get their head around that.

Fear of the unknown, especially with all the dire warnings that have been accompanying the climate debate, can be a paralysing experience. Worse, it can breed suspicion and distrust, such that good work can quickly come undone because something is seen to be unjust, or someone is being given an unfair advantage, or we’re all working our guts out for no communal benefit.

But such fear is eminently avoidable. I believe no-one should feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the challenge posed by climate. All we really need to do is to come together, in a spirit of cooperation, to do the best for our community and that of our children and grandchildren. For this to happen, we need confidence, and for this we need openness in government, bipartisanship on major decisions, and a well-prepared, well-informed electorate. And, crucially, a supportive business sector that is itself well-prepared and well-informed, willing to shoulder responsibility and to help lead Australia into more sustainable ways.

I said “all we need to do…”, and I know there’s justifiable scepticism about how straightforward this is. Talking about the task ahead of him in reporting on costs and benefits of climate change mitigation, Professor Ross Garnaut’s favourite adjective is “diabolical”. Garnaut is a heavyweight ANU economist who’s been working on this task for over a year; when he describes it as “diabolical” you have to believe him.

Garnaut’s principal concern is the design of Australia’s emissions trading scheme, due to begin in 2010. In his most recent speech on the subject (last week on World Environment Day – a speech called “measuring the unmeasurable”), he gave some further hints about what we might expect from this massive economic reform. Having previously warned that the scheme must be as broad-based as possible, and that the scheme would have to include measures to address an undue burden on poorer households, he acknowledged the political reality that there needed to be some controls on the carbon price. But only in early years (till 2012), in the form of a fixed, low price for carbon permits; Garnaut has not yet settled on an overall, long-term price cap.

Garnaut told his audience that coming decisions on mitigating climate change, notably the emissions trading scheme, are based on great uncertainty. All he can offer is that on a balance of probability, mainstream science is right: “The Dissenters (‘sceptics’),” he said, “are possibly right, and probably wrong.” The problem, he says, is that there is no alternative to acting quickly because “the passage of time is rapidly reducing the scope for choice”. He concluded:

An observation of daily debate and media discussion could lead one to the view that this issue is too hard for rational policy-making in Australia. The issues are too complex, the vested interests surrounding it too numerous and intense, the relevant time-frames too long.… Climate change policy remains a diabolical problem. There is a chance – just a chance – that Australia and the world will manage to develop a position that strikes a good balance between the costs of dangerous climate change and the costs of mitigation. The consequences of the choice are large enough for it to be worth a large effort to take that chance, in the short period that remains before our options diminish fatefully.

Is all of this – this debate about the sustainability challenge – headed for the too-hard basket? As we gear up for our national emissions trading scheme, we’re very close to the decisive moment – the point where we will have to make a choice about our future. Will we just shut our eyes, retreat to our bunkers and hope for the best? Or take the half-measures, neither one thing nor another? Or can we expand our thinking, come together, get our heads around the larger challenge, and put in the great collective effort that’s needed to meet it?

It’s up to us.

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