Greg Hunt’s cultivated optimism gets us nowhere

It’s good to be optimistic – so long as you remain well-grounded.

Optimism at work: a Hazara boy learns to ski. PHOTO ABC Foreign Correspondent

Optimism at work: a Hazara boy learns to ski. PHOTO ABC Foreign Correspondent

Optimism has the power to sustain us through grim times, as an ABC Foreign Correspondent report from war-ravaged Afghanistan reminded me last week.

It showed young people on makeshift skis happily sliding down a snowy slope, watched by proud parents and friends.

The people were Hazaras, an ethnic minority living in constant fear of attack by Taliban fighters. Knowing the Taliban could attack them they still came out to play. Amazing.

Optimism gets us up in the morning, keeps us going through the day and reminds us that life is worth living. It’s an essential survival mechanism, built into our DNA.

But sometimes it defies evidence and logic. It’s plain’s wrong-headed, for instance, to assume that human cleverness will always fix problems and control nature, or not to heed plausible warnings of bad outcomes.

The well-established science telling us that humans have destabilised the climate and put future life at risk should have leaders in a state of high alert. Instead they’re acting out the charade that there are more important things to think about

Environment minister Greg Hunt cultivates the air of an optimist when he claims that Australia is reducing carbon emissions, in stark defiance of the evidence of electricity market data showing that emissions rose by 2.7 per cent over the year ending in March.

His bullish assertion that tree-planting and avoided land clearing are adequate offsets for fossil-fuel emissions is ironic, coming after he had repeatedly attacked his predecessors for using tree carbon to offset “real” emissions.

He boasts that our 2030 emissions targets are exceptionally tough on a per-capita basis but omits the important information that we start from a high base. Australia’s per-capita emissions are the highest in the developed world. And our targets are among the weakest.

He suggested last week that controlling crown of thorns starfish and water inflow to the Great Barrier Reef were effective counter-measures to coral bleaching. That was after he’d flown over the northern Reef and learned that warm ocean water had permanently wiped out half its coral.

His approval of the world’s largest coal mine flew in the face of all evidence, glossing over the risk of exporting this coal through the Reef and the fact that when burned it will add a New York City’s worth of emissions to the global total.

But self-assurance is everything in this game. Before flying off to New York last week to sign us up to the Paris Agreement he airily dismissed charges that unambitious targets, the Reef bleaching event, the Carmichael mine approval and CSIRO plans to sack climate scientists had put Australia in the international dogbox.

The down-side to optimism is that it can blind us to real and present danger. We like a cheery airline pilot, but flying a plane calls for pessimism. If Greg Hunt wants to be taken seriously he should lay off the hubris.

Climate change is crying out for leaders unafraid of telling it as it is. That’s why US activist Bill McKibben, who attracted a big Hobart audience last week, gets attention wherever he goes.

Young people made up a big part of that audience. They’re the real drivers of the push to get political leaders and electors to take climate change seriously.

They too want to be optimistic about their future. They’re putting in the effort to create a society that doesn’t trash the planet, and their Australian Youth Climate Coalition is a leading participant in, the global advocacy group co-founded by McKibben.

They know that politicians who say all is well are lying or deluded, and that McKibben is right to speak of the “terrifying” unfolding of global warming. Not because they’d believe anything he says but because they’ve read what science is saying and know what’s happening around them.

Our young are being taken for a ride, and they don’t like it. They have energy and motive, and the government ignores them at its peril.

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