Hope doesn’t come from nothing – we have to make it

The onset of human-induced climate change is now evident around the world, yet there remains a hard core of people who miss no opportunity to disparage efforts to fight it.

People like Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, who told Sunrise host Nat Barr last week while standing under an umbrella in pouring rain, “We’ve solved global warming, we’ve solved the drought, we’ve obviously fixed that problem.” To her credit, in ending the interview Barr retorted that “we haven’t, because global warming creates rain as well.” 

This is classic Joyce and classic climate denialism. Given time, he would almost certainly have disparaged warnings delivered years ago by people like paleontologist Tim Flannery or US leader Al Gore.

Joyce and like-minded critics, including the odd Mercury letter-writer, like to cherry-pick apparently incongruent bits of data while ignoring the conclusions of the scientists who gathered the data. They may think they’re giving us hope, but the opposite is true.

What they do is easy, unlike the complex, endless slog that is climate science. The latter demands both big-picture thinking and an eye for detail, along with a base of detailed knowledge and experience spread across multiple scientific disciplines. No single person can offer all this, which is why most climate science is done not by individuals, but by teams.

Like climate science, annual climate summits are a hard slog. They happen because of the science, but at the core of them all have been paid influencers and their political operatives, there to protect the status quo. This year’s event at the luxury resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, was no exception, despite the presence of young people asking awkward questions.

The numbers of those publicly questioning a human cause of climate change is dwindling, but many more including many politicians give lip service to official targets while quietly obstructing effective action.

These critics live mostly in stable developed countries, insulated against the climate extremes now directly threatening the lives of people living in vulnerable countries. While more muted these days, they have continued to undermine effective action by raising the hackles of the uninformed.

Having for so long sought to discourage official action, they are doing us all a terrible disservice. The false narrative that climate change is imaginary or insignificant continues to obstruct the big paradigm shifts that must happen if the lives of our descendants are to be anything like as civil as ours have been.

The enraged retired cop who confronted a nervous NSW premier, Dominic Perottet, in a flood-hit town last week may or may not have joined the dots between his community’s predicament and the big global emissions picture. But this is happening, and leaders who continue to avoid facing reality will have an increasingly hard time explaining themselves.

Sharm el-Sheikh failed because it did not address our deep dependence on fossil fuels, the central cause of a destabilised climate. Once again the pernicious influence of coal, oil and gas interests diverted the international community from the one step that could save us – leaving fossil fuels in the ground and eliminating them from our lives.

The importance of hope as a motivator for emerging generations is said to be the reason climate change is excluded from conversation when fire, flood or other climate-related disasters have struck. “Hope, not fear” was the Tasmanian government’s catchcry in voting down repeated Green parliamentary motions to declare a climate emergency. 

But hope doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Like liberal democracy, it needs space to breathe and move and grow. When developed economies, including ours, remain locked into a fossil fuel future, when governments say one thing and do another, when they remain subservient to the interests which have got us into this, hope mutates into anger and violence.

Hope won’t come from avoiding the truth but from confronting it and then acting on it. When local, regional, national and international communities can work in concert to stop emissions, that’s when hope will really kick in. Until then it’s all just a talkfest.

• MATTHEW IVES, of Oxford University’s Institute for New Economic Thinking, has thought a lot about hope and the global climate emergency, having worked on international programs to develop private and public economic sustainability. With cooperation and coordination at all levels of society, he says, we can break our addiction to fossil fuels and look forward to “a smarter, cleaner, fairer future”.

“Are the Paris climate goals still attainable?” is the title of Dr Ives’ 2022 Richard Jones Memorial Lecture at the University of Tasmania’s Stanley Burbury Lecture Theatre, Sandy Bay, this Thursday, starting at 6 pm.

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