Government and Reality: Persuading politicians we have a problem

Address to Climate Change Action Forum, Dechaineaux Theatre, Tasmanian School of Art, Hobart. [18 September 2008 | Peter Boyer]

“Houston, we have a problem,” was how Apollo Thirteen conveyed to its mother planet that its crew was in imminent peril with a next-to-zero chance of survival. Houston Command Center got the message, and with disciplined thinking and teamwork pulled off the greatest rescue in history.

Today it’s our entire planet that has the problem. But in dealing with this crisis we have no equivalent of Houston’s alert, focused, dedicated, highly-trained professionals, with complete authority to do what’s necessary to save the situation. Instead we have politicians and their systems, replete with rules and processes and egos and gravy trains and spin and argy-bargy and all the other baggage you expect to find in government.

In Australia, democracy is our government system of choice. While its activities are never sufficiently accounted for, it’s far more accountable than non-democratic systems. It gives every citizen a say if they want it and takes account of public opinion. As Churchill said, democracy’s a dreadful system, but all the alternatives are much worse.

The international scene reflects this. The best of international government – the most effective responses to third-world famine, disaster and war – have nearly always been driven by democratic national governments like, and including, our own. So we must bear in mind that this is about as good as it gets.

Is it good enough? In trying to address what Climate Code Red rightly says is a dire climate emergency, we’re stuck with a government system that’s unwieldy; that encourages procrastination and fosters indecision and delay; and that’s strongly driven by perceived public opinion, which in turn is manipulated by spin and half-truth and pretence that all is under control.

This is not a good look. With scientific agreement that we’re now in great danger because of the failure of the world’s nations – especially its developed ones – to act quickly, decisively and cooperatively, we need our governments to be absolutely honest, open and strong enough to admit mistakes, and to instigate urgent action to fix those mistakes.

In Australia we have cause to be very disappointed. Australia was a tough negotiator at the 1997 Kyoto meeting, getting just about the best deal possible for a developed country.

The Kyoto Protocol required developed countries to reduce emissions by 2012 by an average of five per cent below 1990 levels, which though it is now considered totally inadequate, Australia felt was over the top. Arguing special circumstances like an unusually close relationship with coal, we won agreement to increase our emissions by eight per cent above 1990 levels by 2012.

Our path to compliance was made easier still by Kyoto’s agreement to include in the deal decisions restricting native vegetation clearing in Queensland in the early 1990s, giving a result that showed a marked drop in emissions over that period. So we had a head start to meeting our already-bloated target without having to do a thing to actually reduce emissions from burning fossil fuels.

We also, by the way, won agreement that the clearing of forested land that was immediately to be sown with seed for a new forest, or planted with seedlings for a plantation, was effectively carbon-neutral, and that establishing plantations on farm-land would put us in carbon-positive territory. This was a win for the tree-harvesting industry – but problematic when it came to getting a clear handle on what we need to do to reduce our emissions.

What it means now is that, if we take the poorly-quantified land use, land-use change and forestry data out of the equation, our emissions have risen not by eight per cent since 1990, but by around 25 per cent. Ross Garnaut understands this problem. He knows it will be a mammoth task even to get our 1990-to-2008 upward emissions trajectory into negative territory by 2020, let alone to reach a 10 per cent reduction – even a reduction below the higher level of the Rudd government’s preferred benchmark year of 2000 – let alone to achieve a 20 per cent or 25 per cent reduction by that year.

Kyoto was a great international agreement, but for Australia it was a victory for diplomacy over truth. It enabled Australia to spend years basking in the illusion that it was a model climate citizen of the world. How many times did we hear John Howard and his environment ministers declare that “we are on track to meet our Kyoto target”? Unfortunately, the Rudd government has repeated the Howard mantra with its manifestly false reassurances.

In the context of the Kyoto treaty and all its diplomatic double-speak, it’s easy to support such declarations with “facts”. But in the context of dangerous climate change and the global emergency we all face they’re seriously dishonest and deserve the strongest possible condemnation.

It could be worse. We might have political leaders arguing against a carbon emissions trading system – or any scheme which might restrict business as usual – at least as long as our major trading partners don’t have one of their own. We might have senior politicians believing that the science is ambiguous not just about the extent or intensity of human-induced climate change, but as to whether it exists at all – or treating science as some sort of fringe activity or culture, in contrast to the business of real grown-ups, growing the economy. Does any of that sound familiar?

The fact is that we can’t expect any significant progress on climate change, especially in uncertain economic times, without bipartisan support for the basic principles. If any major political party decides, in pursuit of short-term electoral gain, to argue against the regulation necessary to curb our emissions on the basis that it damages prospects to acquire wealth (especially in these times of prevailing economic uncertainty), we can expect climate policy implementation to be seriously and perhaps fatally flawed. Policies to deal with climate change need strong support from both sides of parliament if they’re to be successful. Without that, in a climate of partisan point-scoring they will at best be half-baked half-measures, serving no-one and doing nothing to bring our emissions down.

Without an opposition at least as focused as the government on effective mitigation measures, seeking always to raise the bar in pursuit of this, Australia will once again fail the good global citizenship test. Kevin Rudd’s ambition to bring Australia into the climate change leadership forum may yet prove to be no more than that – an ambition. We need effective opposition, reflecting and leading growing community disquiet about climate change, to prevent Australia’s climate change program sinking further and irretrievably into mediocrity.

I say “irretrievably” because there really is a deadline here. In an emergency, failures resulting from indecision and inaction that at other times might be salvageable become fatal. We know this from looking at the history of major calamities, such as enemy invasion or extreme natural events like cyclones or earthquakes. As David Spratt and Philip Sutton so clearly tell us, with climate change no less than with any of those other contingencies, time is of the essence – except that with climate change, the contingency is global. Action delayed even by months, let alone years, may now be the difference between some sort of manageable future and the death of civilisation.

Where does that lead us? Well, whatever we’re doing to secure action on climate change, we must continue to do with ever more purpose and focus. We must marshal and draw on the energy of a growing public concern to convince politicians and bureaucrats that climate change poses a danger that is real and present. Not just imminent, but present. This means not just convincing the likes of the federal opposition that opposing emissions trading just because it might cost us money is untenable, but also persuading the Rudd government that whatever benefit is delivered by an emissions trading scheme – flawed or not – it won’t be enough.

So, when confronted with the scientific evidence, why don’t politicians drop what they’re doing and get on with the real work of stopping further damage and restoring our planet’s health?

First, let’s look briefly at what’s happening to public consciousness about climate in the wider community. Liila and I are two of around 250 Australian presenters actively working for the Climate Project, which was set up by Al Gore in 2006 in the United States. It is now starting to take on the dimensions of a global movement, having spread to numerous countries in both the developed and the developing world. The Climate Project is but one of countless climate-related advocacy groups and individuals – including of course David and his Carbon Equity group – now working full-time around the world to raise awareness of the dangers posed by climate change and set in motion programs to do something about it.

We should be concerned at any ignorance out there in the community about climate change – and count on it – anyone who’s actively engaged in this work such as the members of this panel is very sensitive to any indication that people “just don’t get it”. But we should also be re-assured that there is a powerful undercurrent of public concern that won’t go away. Throughout Australia, the rest of the developed world and in many developing countries, this undercurrent is becoming a groundswell that no party can afford to ignore. You may have noticed that while many politicians are undoubtedly “deniers”, these days they tend not to voice this in public.

In my case, I’ve now talked and shown slides about climate change to well over five thousand people – by my reckoning a bit over one per cent of Tasmanians. Still a way to go. But the interesting thing is that in all those 120-odd groups – which included quite a few public gatherings and some meetings of state public servants and local government people – there has not been one single state or federal politician. What is going on?

We have to remember that no-one likes being pushed around, least of all people like politicians, who’ve fought tooth and nail to get where they are. The trouble is, the climate problem contains imperatives that have now made it untenable not to act – and that’s a situation politicians and senior state and federal bureaucrats really don’t like. Hearing the kind of message you read in Climate Code Red, or hear from a Climate Project presenter, only increases that sense of discomfort.

As for the science, looking ever-more dismal, they will cling to any possible ray of sunshine. “You know something, scientists don’t agree on this,” was Kevin Rudd’s retort to a reporter’s question on Ross Garnaut’s assessment of the Great Barrier Reef’s future. Well Kevin: you know something? – consensus among scientists has never been as strong on a major subject than it is today about climate. If there are any scientists who are optimistic about the future of the reef, they’re well hidden.

As a Climate Project presenter, I’ve resisted the temptation to bag politicians and bureaucrats. The thing is, while politicians need our approval, we also need them and those who implement their programs. We don’t exactly need them to feel comfortable with the subject of climate change, but we want them to be engaged enough to be prepared to take a few hits in the process of doing what’s necessary to turn things around. Here are a few suggestions:

• We must emphasise the practical consequences of climate change, so that people in charge understand that as the physical consequences of things like vanishing water and rising seas become clearer, people will get angry, and litigious, and many political jobs will be in jeopardy.

• While climate change is inextricably linked to environmental degradation, we need to present it as something new, much bigger in its scope and impact than those more specific environmental issues that people know and love (or hate), such as campaigns to stop dams and logging.

• While economic growth and corporate and individual greed are a big part of the problem of climate change, we must appreciate that these aren’t going away any time soon, and we must find ways of channelling such energy into producing something useful.

• As Climate Code Red so eloquently argues, we’re now in an emergency. The need to act is at least as urgent as the need to act in 1942, when Japanese military forces were racing through the Indonesian archipelago, bombing Darwin on the way, headed for New Guinea. We must emphasise again and again this urgency, and the dire consequences of continuing inaction.

• We must address the problem of phoney figures that allow governments and corporations to make false claims about greenhouse emissions. We must understand the futility and danger of persisting with the flawed Kyoto framework, and aim for a complete and truthful accounting process, so that the emissions of all activities are recorded and added to the balance sheet.

• We must aim to convince politicians, senior bureaucrats and captains of industry that climate change affects everything they do in their work, and it is therefore their problem, not just something for more lowly-ranked “climate champions” to worry about. We must aim to make climate mitigation work integral to the business of government and corporations, and to do that we have to get to the top, in their faces, so to speak. We must miss no opportunity to remind them of their responsibilities and the inevitable damage caused by doing nothing.

• Finally, while we’re focusing on negative consequences of human activity, we must never lose sight of the good things about society and civilisation that we must hold on to – the wonderful creations of our ingenuity and artistry; the knowledge and understanding we have developed about our universe and its contents; the way we care for people with less; the humour and grace and goodwill that have lifted us in the past and will do so again. These are, indeed, worth saving.

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