Memo to authority: practise what you preach

We are right to be angry at the failure of government, political and official, to give climate change the prominence it deserves in policy decisions and administrative action. [10 March 2009 | Peter Boyer]

As a long-lapsed Anglican I’m not inclined to spout the scriptures, but now and again something hits the mark, such as this quote from Jesus of Nazareth: “From the one to whom much has been entrusted, more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48).

Power, in other words, brings obligation, or as the French put it, noblesse oblige. It’s a sentiment that has reverberated down the ages. It has given rise to resentment whenever authority has failed to take responsibility – resentment that sometimes turns into a deep, simmering anger.

Rising anger against governments around the world over the economic shock may not be well-directed. The fault for this lies as much with corporate leadership and our own human frailties as with government, and there may be little that government can do anyway.

But in the case of climate change – just as urgent a problem as the global economic crisis but far, far larger and carrying much graver long-term implications – such anger would seem justified.

The huge scale of action needed to reduce carbon emissions can only be managed by government, both elected (political leadership) and appointed (public servants). It can be achieved only if both these elements understand that it requires a root-and-branch change to the way things are done.

Paul Lennon’s pre-departure commitment that his government would set the example on cutting emissions meant each and every person serving in government, elected or otherwise, taking personal action to reduce energy consumption in their workplace.

In this, Tasmania was ahead of Canberra – and still is. But it’s no more than what’s being done by many people in the community who note science’s clear, urgent message that without deep and early reductions in our carbon emissions, the impact of global warming will become dangerous.

Federal and state politicians and public servants have to make energy frugality the new fashion. They must travel more economically (sharing cars, taking buses, reducing air travel), make sure buildings are well-insulated, keep workplace temperature as close as possible to that outside, turn off unused lights, reduce paper usage.

None of these things can happen in the bureaucracies without top-level elected and appointed people fully understanding why it’s urgently necessary to absorb energy efficiency into every aspect of the program they administer – and then themselves practising what they preach.

Lower- and middle-level Tasmanian public servants are curbing their energy usage following last year’s Climate Change Office training programs, but for most people in high public office both in Hobart and Canberra it’s business as usual. There’s been no slackening off in gold-pass travel.

Recently David Bartlett called senior bureaucrats together to give them the gospel on the global financial crisis and why their budgets would be cut. How about a repeat exercise to instruct them on the greater imperative to cut carbon emissions – along with educational sessions for them and members of parliament? Many in both categories behave as if they think the climate threat is a passing fad.

Financial imperatives seem to have relegated climate to a subordinate place on the policy agenda. But if the need to curb emissions was urgent and critical in 2007 when the Rudd government was elected, how can it be less urgent or less critical in 2009?

I know this is not easy for those at the top of government. But these are demanding times, when our political and bureaucratic leaders must take the rough with the smooth – the responsibility with the privilege of office. The survival of the very institutions they represent may depend on it.

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