Our future in the hands of simpletons

The Morrison government is going after people objecting to its failed climate policies.

As the saying goes, for every complex problem there’s a well-known solution that is neat, plausible and wrong.

Political leaders grab hold of simple solutions and make them seem plausible. But running the country is complex, so our democratic systems include checks and balances to limit what politicians can directly control. We don’t let them run classrooms and hospital wards, for instance.

Nor our courts, though some would like to. Because justice is complicated, legal professionals administer the judicial system based on centuries of collective wisdom. Politicians seeking the simple solution of mandatory minimum sentences are telling us they know better. They don’t.

The same applies, but even more so, to the natural world. To understand the workings of this most complex of systems we turn to science, which has long-established and trusted methods for working out what is happening around us.

Science has been telling us since the 1970s that human activities are seriously damaging Earth’s natural systems. Politicians in power tend to find this unpalatable. Donald Trump and others like him attack it as “fake news”. Other governments, like ours, choose to ignore it.

The release last week of two scientific reports, from the World Meteorological Organisation and the United Nations Environment Program, should have stopped leaders in their tracks. But neither the Morrison government nor any state administration, including Tasmania, took any notice.

It’s self-evident that ignoring such reports is a monumental political failure. The UNEP report pointed out the heavy – and rising – price we are paying for the failure of governments to act early on advice about curbing carbon dioxide concentrations.

Serious climate action from 2010 would have enabled the world to meet a 1.5C target with annual emission cuts of just 3.3 per cent. Since this didn’t happen, says the report, we now need an average cut of 7.6 per cent each year for the next decade.

While PM Scott Morrison says Australia is doing its bit, the UNEP says that all 2015 Paris pledges are far too weak. It says they need to be at least three times stronger to achieve warming of less than 2C and more than five times stronger to stay below the much safer 1.5C of warming.

Paris targets must be reviewed every five years, and next year is crunch time. The UNEP report warns that if we wait until 2025 it will be too late to close the 2030 emissions gap, resulting in an increasingly unstable climate and a damaged global economy unable to fund adaptation measures or protect biodiversity and food supply.

Last week’s WMO report only added to the general anxiety about how we’re travelling. In a nutshell, it says that greenhouse warming has increased by 43 per cent since 1990 and that greenhouse gases, now at record high levels, are rising faster than the average of the past decade.

Around four million years ago, when Earth last experienced this level of carbon dioxide in the air, it was 2C to 3C warmer than now and sea level was at least 10 meters higher. That’s what we should now anticipate, and perhaps sooner than anyone presently thinks.

A paper in Nature last week by seven world-leading scientists, including Will Steffen of the Australian National University, concluded that we are already on the verge of passing “hothouse” tipping points leading to irreversible climate change and “an existential threat to civilisation”.

None of this will surprise anyone tracking the science debate. Over decades, scientists have been meticulously gathering evidence, like doing an unimaginably large jigsaw, and analysing it in their professional journals. Seeing calamity ahead, they are now desperate to get our attention.

While our political leaders find this unpalatable and ignore it, people who do follow the science are understandably distressed and angry. Public protest is their response of last resort.

In targeting protests that disrupt business, the federal and Tasmanian governments miss the mark by 180 degrees. By far the darkest cloud over our future is carbon pollution driven by fossil fuel businesses – supported by government subsidies which add up to $500 billion globally each year.

The climate crisis needs leaders with the intelligence to recognise complexity, the courage to make hard decisions, and enough determination and empathy to bring people with them on a long journey.

Instead, our governments have gone for the simple, empty answer. “Lock ’em up” is their response to crime and civil disobedience. The mantra for climate change is “We are meeting our targets”.

Simpletons are in charge. God help us.

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