How climate change is changing us

Keynote address to plenary session 2010 School Conference, School of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania, Hobart, 2 July 2010. View YouTube video here and here. [3 July 2010 | Peter Boyer]

[Professor] Elaine Stratford [head, School of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania] showed impeccable timing when, a few weeks ago, she asked me to talk to this School Conference plenary session today. A day or so before I’d read a small publication called A Map of a Dream of the Future, an education kit arising out of “Fresh!”, a joint venture by this School and Tasmanian Regional Arts. Having met Neil Cameron, TRA arts administrator, and artist Nic Low last year, and now reading this charming and inspiring booklet, and talking with Elaine and the project’s dynamic educational coordinator, Josie Hurst, put me in a positive frame of mind. It’s these sorts of exercises, and my frequent contact with young people confronting the challenges that will shape their future, that have got me thinking that we in this island community might, after all, be capable of developing the new mindsets that are so essential if we are to curb our excesses in time to prevent catastrophic climate change. The inspiration that brought this wonderfully imaginative project into being, applied more generally and more generously supported than it is at present by government and the wider community, might just manage to help kick-start the large-scale paradigm shifts that we need.

Let me go back a few years. As a writer and publisher, I’d had a long and rewarding association with the science of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean when in 2006 I applied to join a campaign called The Climate Project. Started in the United States by the former US Vice President, Al Gore, The Climate Project involves people being trained by Gore and others to become volunteer climate change presenters, speaking to groups of people in communities, workplaces, schools and other public gatherings about anthropogenic climate change: what it’s about, what sorts of changes it may bring, and what we can do to minimise its potential damage and put our future existence as a species on a more sustainable footing. There are now four other Climate Project presenters in Tasmania. I’ve so far presented an ever-changing slide-show to about 8000 people in about 200 groups, and in the process learned a great deal about myself and this island community that’s been my home for most of my life.

A note about terminology: I use the term “anthropogenic climate change” to describe all changes to the climate for which there is strong evidence of a human origin, notably but not exclusively from our emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning  fossil fuels, mainly coal for electricity or oil for transport. There are many other sources of emissions, such as burning forests for timber and agriculture, and from agriculture itself. The outcomes include atmospheric warming, ice-sheet decay and sea-level rise (as Chris Sharples has reminded us this morning), reduced alkalinity of ocean waters (called “ocean acidification”), lengthened El Niño events, changes in rainfall distribution including increasing drought in some areas, greater likelihood of extreme weather including heat waves and more powerful cyclones, and a host of other spin-off effects broadly classified as environmental degradation, including — critically — severe threats to biodiversity. In fact, you can’t consider anthropogenic climate change in isolation from a degraded environment.

So, I got to work to get the science out into the Tasmanian community. A spin-off from my Climate Project work was a weekly column in Hobart’s Mercury newspaper — a trip back to the future, as I began my writing career as a cadet journalist at The Mercury, too long ago to have any relevance. At first I thought it possible that having to find a new topic each week might be too much — that there mightn’t be enough to write about to keep me going. But far from this, my main concern has turned out to be that I never get enough space to cover what I think needs to be covered. Considering what we must do to reduce our carbon emissions, the subject matter is pretty well limitless. We need to do no less than re-invent everything about ourselves: how we live our daily lives, how we build our homes and plan our towns and cities, what we eat and how we grow and transport it, how we govern ourselves, our rates of consumption, our modes of transport, our generation and use of energy, our creation and disposal of waste, how we affect our natural environment (the atmosphere and the ocean and the land we live on with its lakes and rivers), our relationships with other species and what our carbon-fuelled lifestyles are doing to them… the list is endless. And that’s without mentioning the science and the vast array of evidence that supports the concept of anthropogenic climate change, including observations of past and current climate and weather events.

There’s another group of topics I haven’t mentioned, which we can put under the headings of the politics and psychology of anthropogenic climate change, and which takes in the opposition to what has now become conventional climate science (after man-made global warming having been regarded as fringe theory for the best part of a century). Early on in this work I had held the starry-eyed hope that a few short years of public debate illuminated by, among other things, our Climate Project slide shows, might see opposition to the idea of anthropogenic climate change fade to the point where we could reasonably expect governments to begin to act with confidence, working with their people to implement policies with a clear physical impact, leading to reducing emissions, at least in developed countries.

Of course, such hopes turned out to be wildly optimistic. In Australia, far from taking effective action, we have allowed our emissions to continue on a rising curve. We have yet to put any significant instruments in place (such as an effective carbon pricing mechanism) that might offer some prospect of future reductions. To make matters worse we’ve had to deal with a series of counter-attacks on the science, notably the forensic (and fruitless) scrutiny of emails written by scientists from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit and the assault on the integrity of the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These won’t be the last such incidents. It’s possible that contrarian campaigns will lose support as the evidence for anthropogenic climate change mounts still further, but we shouldn’t count on it. Even if the number of opposing voices declines over time, their rising volume will ensure they continue to be heard for quite a while yet.

It’s instructive to look further into this. The concept of human-induced global warming and associated phenomena has been accepted by a majority of scientists now for around two decades. We expect a lag in more widespread public acceptance of such counter-intuitive ideas; it took a while after Aristotle, for instance, for the idea of a spherical Earth to become accepted wisdom. But from the start of the 20th century most of what science has thrown up — in technology (including bio-technology), medical science, computing science and such like — has fairly quickly received due recognition by the wider public. Twentieth-century science got some bad press, including (by some estimates) the development of nuclear weaponry and other weapons of mass destruction, and the introduction to Queensland of a blotchy Hawaiian amphibian to get rid of a cane field pest, to name a couple of examples. But the popular view of science throughout the century was overwhelmingly favourable. It brought us countless technologies for saving lives and effort, growing food and exterminating pests, generally making our lives safer and (we thought) more secure. It raised the comfort level, and for that most of us are grateful. We gave it a name, progress, and for most of the century basked in the feeling that things could only get better.

So given our general acceptance that science is the best way of ascertaining how nature works and how we might manipulate it for our benefit, why is it that the science behind global warming has been singled out for attack? I think the answer to this lies partly in the message being delivered by this branch of science — something altogether removed from the general, “progressive”, trend, where things are under our control and working for the benefit of all. What the science of climate change is telling us is that, in fact, things look like they’re heading way out of our control (in fact there are things that we cannot control and never have been able to), and that many of the celebrated “progressive” advances that science has brought us are actually part of the problem.

So when in 1938 Guy Callendar, engineer and amateur meteorologist, wrote that human activity was driving a warming already under way, he was set to one side and characterised as a fringe player, a lightweight. In the 1950s Gilbert Plass and Roger Revelle and Hans Suess were taken slightly more seriously — after all they were full-time physicists of some repute — when they calculated that anthropogenic global warming was actually a threat to our future. Even so, it was twenty years before it could fairly be said that their work, reinforced by the research of James Hansen and others, had gained traction in the world science community, and another decade before it began to have even a small influence on world politics.

Thirty years to grasp the nettle. And now, another quarter of a century on, with the balance of probability now firmly on the side of those scientists arguing for anthropogenic climate change, there are still people who dispute such findings as if their lives depended on it (as indeed they might). Less than a fortnight ago some of these people were holding forth in our own Stanley Burbury hall, informing the good citizens of Hobart that all that science had proven nothing, that temperatures weren’t rising or if they were that this was natural, or if they weren’t then humans had only a small part in it. I know what was said because I forked out a hard-won $20 (that was the concession entry price) to listen to it.

So these people put up graphs, including many of uncertain origin, to show that warming in medieval times was greater than now, that Arctic sea-ice cover wasn’t declining, that weather records around the world were tainted by artificial influences, and so on. But the point about this is not the information content of their presentations, which came across to me as fairly minimal. Their message wasn’t intended to be scientific, but therapeutic. They sought to massage their audience, to reassure us that our fears were groundless, that everything was all right and that we needn’t feel concerned about our future. Sure, they said, it’s good if we make our homes greener and use fuel-efficient cars, but don’t let anyone tell us we have to.

The fact is that this global climate debate isn’t about science at all, but about something much harder to grasp and even harder to deal with. It’s not about what we think or how we came by those thoughts, but about our very nature as human beings, these bipedal apes which, since they came down from the trees, have come to dominate the terrestrial biosphere. The truths about this argument aren’t revealed in the actual words but in the emotional signals behind them: in outbursts of anger or irritation, or in silence and reticence. The debate isn’t about what’s said, but what’s not said. The meaning of our words matters less than the way we utter them.

The science that dominated the years of my childhood was that of the atom bomb and its offshoot, nuclear power. The concern then, as it is now, was the future of human civilisation. It motivated philosophers and scientists to join communists and students and ne’er-do-wells in street gatherings in London, and mothers and potential mothers to blockade nuclear power stations, and it later persuaded people, including me, to protest at the threat of “nuclear winter” — the putative impact of nuclear war on climate.

But in those years when administrative authority was dominant, the nuclear threat was within the power of governments to manage. The dropping of the A-bomb on Japan was generally accepted as a necessary act of war, and nuclear power stations were at first pretty well synonymous with “progress”. When the tide of public questioning over nuclear policy started to rise, it was a matter of ensuring that no head of government would take on the responsibility of starting or responding to a nuclear attack, and that government would reduce financial support to nuclear interests to limit generation of nuclear power. The latter decision was made easier, first by the sheer cost of nuclear power stations compared with coal-fired generation (so long as there’s no carbon price), and second by the clear signal provided by the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents that they posed a palpable risk to people living around them, both near and far. And so in the late 1970s the march toward nuclear power generation began to slow, and the first steps were made to reduce the world’s nuclear arsenals as politicians began talking about saving the world from nuclear annihilation. This, we thought at the time, was real progress to a better future.

We can now see that this sort of thinking was naïve. The nuclear threat was never more than one of numerous difficulties facing humanity in the second half of the 20th century. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that while a nuclear threat was worth working on, other less clearly discernable problems with an even greater capacity to destroy civilisation demanded much more attention than we gave them. It wasn’t the ban-the-bomb books and the nuclear action manuals that should have had our undivided attention so much as the eloquent environmental pleas from David Brower of Friends of the Earth, or the radical economic arguments of E.F. Schumacher, author of the 1973 classic Small is Beautiful, or the writings on population and environmental degradation by Paul Ehrlich. Or the prescient warning offered by the Club of Rome in its careful, methodical study of the clash of human economics and the environment, published in 1972 as The Limits to Growth.

What did the world’s powerful people do when the works of Ehrlich and the Club of Rome found their way into the public arena? They falsified or exaggerated the authors’ assertions, and assaulted their findings with ridicule, setting up straw men that they then proceeded to knock down. In 2008, Graham Turner from Australia’s CSIRO, in a published, peer-reviewed analysis of the assertions of The Limits to Growth study, found that what actually happened in the world since its publication in 1972 — how human activity actually affected the environment over these years — takes in all the key features of the Club of Rome’s business-as-usual scenario. Contrary to popular belief, this Limits to Growth scenario, assuming no change to past practices, did not say there would be world collapse by the end of the 20th century, but it did foresee a collapse of the global system midway through the 21st century. As Turner said, The Limits to Growth was a powerful reminder of the importance of understanding and controlling global pollution. Turner’s analysis is a damning indictment of a populist response seeking to discredit any scientific basis for acting to reduce environmental degradation, a response led by powerful political and business interests in the United States and echoed by their Australian acolytes. Yet like The Limits to Growth before it, Turner’s paper has had virtually no impact on the public debate in Australia, let alone farther afield. What does this tell us?

I think the biggest message from the reception to the likes of Turner, Ehrlich and the Club of Rome is that well-argued statements about the state of our planet, based on recorded, verified evidence, count for little in a public arena dominated by people’s present-day needs, and that when presented with information that sits uncomfortably with their current ways of living, people’s first reaction will be to put that information aside. There are pressing things to do now; we don’t need to be distracted by what might (or just possibly might not) happen in the future. We are, after all, the Now Generation.

But let’s pause for a minute before we start thumping the tub about our short-sighted species. The blame game is a particularly fruitless exercise. We’re in this soup together, all of us. No-one is completely to blame any more than any of us is completely blameless. While some big corporations deserve opprobrium for their misinformation campaigns to protect their fossil-mining or energy-intensive investments, no-one who is part of this economy, who buys or uses the products arising from it, is without responsibility. It’s true that the people of the world’s richest nations (notably, those of Australia, with the highest per-capita carbon emissions of all the major developed countries) must shoulder the greater culpability for environmental degradation including enhanced greenhouse warming. But it’s also true that people in the developing world, given the opportunity, would seize the chance to exploit cheap energy resources to raise their standard of living, just like we did.

Yes, as Kevin Rudd famously said, there is a moral dimension to this. Our persistent high level of carbon emissions is not something to be proud of, and we should feel the pressure to lead others in mitigating our impact. But dwelling for too long on this runs the risk of tying us in knots. The need to act is urgent, but the things being demanded of us are so big, so profound, that we cannot expect any action program to proceed without some strong opposition. The science confronts us with something new to human experience. We’re being forced to re-evaluate things that all our lives we’ve taken for granted and to consider profound challenges to our lifestyles, our values, our hopes, beliefs and faiths. Whatever catastrophic climate change events we’ve had to deal with in the prehistoric past have been accepted as acts of God. Today, our fate has nothing to do with God and everything to do with us. The fact that redemption is in our hands is a very daunting prospect.

Our first reaction to the information from science on climate was to ignore it. This was easily achievable until well into this present century, for the simple reason that most world leaders ignored it too. Never mind the “Earth Summit” setting up the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, or the global consensus to act to reduce carbon emissions at Kyoto in 1997. As George Bush demonstrated in 2001 (and John Howard a year later), leaders did not have to accept the Kyoto commitment. Even those governments which did ratify the agreement were not going to be penalised for falling short — at least not for the time being. Enjoying record levels of economic growth, governments rejected the option of allocating money from their budget surpluses to fund a concerted effort to reduce emissions, while ignoring the evidence that maintaining a high economic growth rate made it even harder to reduce emissions. If at any time in the early years of the 21st century we wanted to turn a deaf ear to the scientific message and continue with “business as usual”, we could take the cue from our leaders and do just that. And we did.

By the middle of the first decade of this century, we were becoming aware that the climate problem might, after all, be real. In 2006 Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth and Nicholas Stern’s ground-breaking report on the economics of climate change brought real traction to the movement for climate action. Early reactions included a burst of popular zeal to “do something” — this was the time that I began my own Climate Project work — and for a year or so it looked as if we might just start to make headway.

But in following years politicians and pubic alike came to realise that this was not going to be as straightforward as it first seemed; that some cherished 21st century lifestyles would have to change. As the world’s economies crashed to earth, the chorus of voices calling for action quietened. Activists have continued to beat the drum, but they have not been joined with the same enthusiasm by the people at large. The conversation has grown somewhat muted. In my own case, requests from community, school and workplace groups to put the case for climate action have declined from a torrent to a more sedate flow. According to my own records, in the course of 2007 I spoke to around 60 people a week; this year the rate is a little more than 30 a week, about half.

Far from engaging with each other to secure real, physical outcomes, over the past couple of years we seem to have retreated into relative silence, and since conversation is a primary measure of social interaction, this has meant a retreat into isolation. As us activists have long been concerned about, many people seem to be receiving science’s message not as guidance but as a threat. Leaders and led alike have been responding in an all-too-human way to the increasingly urgent call to act, changing the subject, pretending there are more pressing matters at hand, or simply blanking the mind. For some, this reaction might include denial, sometimes angry denial, and perhaps reversion to old practices. For those people time is not on their side — even without a carbon price, rising fuel and electricity costs will force them to be less profligate — but compulsion is a less than ideal way to persuade people to change the way they do things.

Most thinking people understand as illusory the notion that civilisation’s structures (including its economies) are somehow natural, fundamental and indestructible. Put under any sort of rational analysis, it doesn’t stack up. Of course, human civilisation is not an essential component of our living Earth. As Eliza Doolittle reminded her Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins, without any help from him or anyone else the Earth continues to spin, the tides to come in and the clouds to roll by. Planet Earth can exist without us, but we’re nothing without Planet Earth. Yet still we don’t seem to get it. It’s a mindset that centuries of theology and mastery over a once-hostile environment have firmly instilled into us. And it’s this mindset that’s been blocking us from doing what we have to do.

In case you’ve missed this, I’m not wildly optimistic about the prospects for humanity to act on a rational conclusion that we’re fouling our nest and that we’ll have to stop doing it if we’re to continue living here. That’s without even mentioning that the present biomass of our own species is far beyond the planet’s carrying capacity, or that it will take at least a quarter of a century for our present level of emissions to stop warming the atmosphere, or that it will take much, much longer to slow the current steady warming of ocean waters or the depletion of our biggest ice sheets. Put bluntly, we’re up against it.

And yet, there is always cause for hope. There are signs everywhere that the ground is shifting ever so slightly, that though we yet remain a long way from a critical mass of public opinion in favour of decisive action we’re moving towards it, and that this movement is inexorable. There are signs that we are changing, growing into a new way of perceiving our world and living within it.

We are changing in our attitudes to home energy use, looking for different ways to stay warm or cool. I mentioned that energy prices may dictate shifts, but I believe there’s more to it than that. I think that, notwithstanding a countering political opportunism, people are becoming attuned to the underlying need to be more frugal, more careful, more inventive. The sight of solar panels or hot water systems on rooftops, while not proof that we’re managing to save energy, is an indication of a changing perception. Significant numbers of householders spending several thousand dollars on such systems — even given government support — would have been unheard of a decade ago.

We are slowly but perceptibly changing our modes of transport. We now see more people walking and riding bicycles than we did a decade ago. In Tasmania our Metro bus services are reporting increasing patronage — in 2008-09 it was up less than two percent over the previous year, but I believe we’ll see a marked increase in patronage in the year just completed. We are now actively looking at other public transport options, such as reviving our passenger trains or developing light rail for metropolitan Hobart. Ideas once commonplace but long fallen into disfavour that are enjoying a resurgence include car pooling — the cooperative business is a successful innovator here — and children walking to school in the care of adults, “walking school buses”.

There are changes to many things we manage besides our shelter and our transport. Some of these pre-date the climate crisis, but all have been reinforced by it. Facing the problem of anthropogenic climate change, increasing numbers of people are starting to shift their values. For instance, we have seen a steady rise in acceptance of the Slow Food movement (in which we opt for hand-made food using locally-grown ingredients) and in Slow Design, which seeks a new embrace of hand-made toys, furniture, houses, and pretty well anything else. We are seeing pressure to recycle buildings (even the “chicken coop” at 10 Murray Street) that a decade ago we wouldn’t have hesitated to demolish.

Perhaps in the wake of economic collapse we may even see a shift to smaller buildings. A group of us organising a built environment forum later this year note the increasing acceptance in all states except Tasmania of an energy rating included in all building transactions, including compulsory notification in real estate advertisements. We live in hope that not only will such regulation come quickly to Tasmania, but that it will embrace the size of domestic homes, not to mention the number of bathrooms contained therein. But the very existence of energy rating regulation elsewhere is a hopeful sign.

We are starting to see householders turn to vegetable and fruit gardening to provide them with more exercise and a healthier diet while reducing food miles. They do it in groups — community vegetable plots are springing up all over the place — or by reviving long-deserted veggie gardens on their own land. One business I’ve been keeping an eye on in southern Tasmania is FIMBY, an acronym for “food in my back yard”, which has been doing very nicely now for a couple of years. Its owners provide people with help in setting up a new garden, advice on siting, what plants to grow where, and seasonal growth and work patterns, and people are paying them good money for the service.

Which brings me to perhaps the most important shift in recent times — an increasing awareness of one’s domestic neighbourhood, which we’ve tended to sum up in the all-embracing word, “community”. This sort of change can’t happen quickly. It involves all sorts of shifts that are often beyond the control of individuals, like more flexible work arrangements including a boss’s acceptance of less time at work for employees (leaving more time and energy for community activity), or improved alternative transport options. It also involves a willingness to support local businesses ahead of multinational mega-markets, in support of an increasingly localised economy, and a readiness to give freely of one’s time to community associations, volunteer fire brigades, childcare cooperatives and the like. This isn’t happening quickly, and not everywhere, but it is happening and there are signs that it is picking up momentum.

A better community awareness is an essential component in developing more resilient neighbourhoods. While it’s still in its infancy, and while some communities are well ahead of others, this is a perceptible phenomenon in communities everywhere. A “Transition Towns” model developed in the English town of Totnes, based on the challenges posed by peak oil and climate change, has spread around the world. Some of the standards set by leading transition communities have been astonishingly ambitious, including ownership of local wind, solar and biomass power generation plants, shared government and commercial heating and cooling systems, local transport systems and home improvement schemes. Such advanced transition infrastructure hasn’t yet come to Tasmanian communities, but some are on the way there and more are soon to follow.

Our changing perceptions extend to the way we treat government. While I have no proof that this is happening (perhaps the coming national election will bear me out), I sense an increasing willingness among voters to accept the difficulties facing government in these increasingly fraught times. Take the much-maligned national home insulation program which came to a grinding halt earlier this year. While the Opposition got some traction for a while over electrocuted workers and homes burning down, this doesn’t seem to have turned into the killer electoral blow that some might once have thought. We might have hoped for a better outcome, but we all accept the value of having well-insulated homes and know there are always going to be difficulties doing something for the first time. For me, a message from this is that voters will allow a fair bit of slack to a government when it’s seen to be trying.

Governments and businesses are changing, too. In Tasmania we are starting — just starting — to see government agencies develop energy management strategies in response to audits of their activities. We’re seeing fledgling cooperative efforts among commercial operators, like the “Green Tea” group of tourism operators in southern Tasmania, to make their businesses more climate-friendly. In schools and tertiary institutions (notable among them this School of Geography and Environmental Studies), some committed teachers and pressure from students are seeing long-term educational programs to develop students’ environmental awareness and help prepare them for an energy-constrained future.

It’s fair to say that the changes I have described here are a drop in the ocean of change that’s needed to make a real difference to our carbon emissions and our capacity to deal with whatever our climate throws up in the years and decades ahead. We as individuals, communities, businesses, governments, bureaucracies, institutions — all of us — have a long, long way to go to reach anything like critical mass to avoid the dangerous tipping points coming ever closer as the months and years go by. There are many people in critical positions who have made no shift at all, let alone the big shifts we need to see to get our great ship Titanic — our economy, our culture, our way of life — turned around before we hit the iceberg that’s coming into our vision. And yes, those critically-positioned people have to be asked to explain what they are doing about reducing their carbon footprint, both in their workplaces and personally. There are a few bluffs that have to be called here, and soon. But we’re demonstrating a capacity to change that I think would have surprised many people not so long ago.

So let’s not despair. As I’ve said many times in talking to those people kind enough to invite me into their meeting rooms, and in writing for readers of the Tuesday Mercury, we are a remarkable species. When we need to be, we can be smart, inventive, innovative, imaginative, flexible, adaptable, tough, tolerant, supportive, generous, sensitive. We have it in us to make the changes we need to. We’re starting to give it a go. Now we need to get to the next step. That will entail a unanimity of purpose that hitherto has escaped us.

Does that sound negative? Banish the thought. Just say after me, We can do it. We can do it. Then get out and start doing it.

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1 Response to How climate change is changing us

  1. Paul Jenkins says:

    A well considered article calling for appropriate action. Thank you too for starting this journey through a description of the ‘Map of a Dream of the Future’.

    For those with an interest in how the arts and environmental education movements collaborate in a creative way, Nick Low’s inspiring arts installation will be unveiled as part of the Junction 2010 Regional Arts Australia Conference in Launceston on 29 August 2010.

    Visit the website Junction to find out more sabout this innovative ccollaboration between TRA and UTAS.

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