Making the impossible happen

Getting action on climate is looking more difficult by the day. To succeed, we will need to show determination, care, patience — and unity. [15 August 2010 | Peter Boyer]

Address given at the 2010 Hobart Walk Against Warming

I’ll let you in on a little secret. This doesn’t come easily to me. I’m not a great public speaker. When I’m standing in front of people I forget most of what I’d intended to say, which is why I tend to write my words down, like now. When I’m marching in the street — I’ve done that a few times down the years but not as often as most of you, I’m sure — I’m very self-conscious about it. I’ve been known to carry a banner, but a little reluctantly. When it’s time to provide a chorus for the chants, I’m not noisy enough to make a serious impact.

The truth is, I’m not an especially brave person. I feel uncomfortable at the prospect of being a target, of any kind, and I know that the sort of public statement we’re making here today has become a target for people who are coming to see such statements as a threat to things they value. And so they fling accusations of naivety or bias or corruption. Politicians have joined the party in attacking the science on which the statements are based — attacks which have more to do with ideology than truth.

It’s tempting to make fun of such reactions. After all, they tend to come from people like me — that is, people who themselves are not expert in any of the various scientific disciplines that have been gathered together under the umbrella of climatology. In my case, I had the good fortune to work for many years alongside professional scientists investigating polar climates, and to be given the task of interpreting their findings for a lay audience. I picked up some of the detail of what they were saying, but much more importantly, I learned how scientists work together. I learned that yes, scientists can be petty and political and small-minded and lacking in vision, like the rest of us, and yes, they sometimes make mistakes. But I also learned about the system of checks and balances science has created down the centuries, of subjecting hypotheses to rigorous intellectual scrutiny before they get into the public arena. I have seen how this system, operating across national borders and relatively independent of political or commercial interests, can be an effective counter to these human frailties.

So I had this advantage over the average reporter. People who haven’t had that sort of exposure can fall prey to the notion that the scientists warning about climate change amount to just another interest group pushing its own line in the media, and subject to the same rules of journalistic “balance” that apply to political parties or lobbyists. Hence the acceptance in Australian media circles of the likes of Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman and Tom Switzer, whose efforts to spread doubt about climate change science are motivated not by any wish to represent what science is saying but by their particular political inclinations and personal lifestyle preferences, in defence of which they are prepared to say practically anything.

The folk who read what these and many other media people say are also among the folk who we need to reach, to bring across to the view that the role of human activity in influencing climate changes now and in the future is indeed something that should exercise their minds and galvanise them to act. While we must continue to strive to get current scientific wisdom out into the mainstream, we must remember that information alone will never achieve that aim. This debate we’re having now is not about science at all, but about something that’s just as important to us humans: the need for security and comfort. It’s natural to greet ill tidings with scepticism or even denial. We have a life to get on with, and our lives are complicated enough without this constant underlying reminder that all is not well. The same feelings underlie all the political posturing, all the media outpourings, all the fierce business lobbying that go on in the name of business-as-usual. Whether we endorse or condemn such behaviour, we have to accept it as human nature.

So it’s tricky. How we’d love to have the kind of clear, confronting signal that political and military leaders, with the enemy at the gates, have been able to draw upon in past crises. I don’t for a moment wish to denigrate the leadership of the Lincolns or the Roosevelts or the Churchills or the Curtins in history, those wartime leaders who successfully persuaded their people to put in the hard yards in defence of what they held dear. We honour the fact that through sheer will, determination, clarity of thought and other qualities of leadership, they overcame great adversity. But one thing in their favour was that the various crises they confronted were in clear view, defined by enemy forces and requiring above all military victory.

We tend to quote these sorts of people because they’re all we have in our historical arsenal. But in truth, the kind of leadership we need now is very different, and I suspect much harder to achieve. Today’s leaders must be able to express to their people a threat that is complex and far from obvious, that steals up on us, striking sometimes in a predictable manner but often in completely unexpected ways; an obscure threat whose very existence is denied by many among us. They must also deal with a very noisy world, a far cry from those simpler days when leaders could exercise real authority over lines of communication. The continuous cacophony coming out of broadcast and on-line media is a distraction we truly don’t need. But of course we must deal with it as best we can.

We hear a lot about failure of leadership. I’m one of those who’s raised this from time to time, including in this present election campaign. It’s reasonable to argue that Labor’s original emissions trading scheme failed the leadership test by giving so many concessions to polluters, a failure compounded by the further concessions agreed to in the Rudd-Turnbull agreement. Even more clear-cut is the leadership failure of Tony Abbott, who refuses to accept the scientific wisdom and puts up as “climate policy” a grab-bag of hopelessly inadequate schemes laughingly called “solutions”. In the absence of carbon pricing, much the same can be said of Julia Gillard’s various climate-related schemes — the more so in light of her refusal to take a decision on emissions trading ahead of yet another talkfest, a citizens’ assembly.

We see all too clearly the reasons for this fidgeting and befuddlement and delay and prevarication. The leaders are looking for a lead from the people, and they aren’t getting one. So they’re being called on to do some hard thinking for themselves in the face of a lot of very persuasive lobbying by powerful interest groups very focused on looking after their own turf, their own pile of money.

While we are rightly disappointed that things have worked out this way, we can’t be surprised. We’re asking for vision and courage in our leaders, things that we know are never in plentiful supply among politicians or, indeed, among the rest of us. Our leaders need help, and it has to come from us. We need to find the means of galvanising them into action, of persuading them that their own political future is threatened more by a lack of commitment, decision and action than it is by speaking out, now.

Potentially, we are all leaders. We need to recognise that, marshall our personal and collective resources, gently persuade fellow-citizens that they need to come on board, and together help our elected and appointed leaders to see the road they must now take and begin moving along it. In the process we must rebuild our communities, which of course involves building motivation to think in a community way rather than as individuals — as we used to back before we all became modern humans and forgot that our community is our lifeline. Not much to ask, really.

The task before us is way above partisan politics. If we remain divided, the battle will indeed be impossible to win. Together… who knows?

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