News & Media Opinion Pieces Climate change and the Garnaut report; we need more than expediency

Climate change and the Garnaut report; we need more than expediency

The conclusions of Professor Garnaut’s report are disappointing. He has grasped the science, urgency and risks and indeed the probability of loss of the Barrier Reef and much more. Yet he recommends measures to control emissions at 550ppm which will fail to avoid these dire consequences. This smacks of political expediency with a recognition that government intent burdened by perceived ecomonomic imperatives and the electoral cycle is unlikely to do more.

In a letter to Professor Garnaut dated 20.9.2008 in response to the Supplementary Report we said

“Doctors for the Environment, Australia does not believe that the recommendations in this report reflect the seriousness of the situation and beg you to consider a reduction in emissions of at least 20% by 2020.

Our position based on IPCC (and some of us have contributed to these reports) projections and other scientific studies is that the ultimate question is one of the survival of society and its constituent humans. This transcends both economic and environmental considerations We remind you that this year the World Health Organisation (WHO) chose “protecting health from climate change” as the theme for World Health Day in recognition that climate change is posing ever growing threats to global public health security and that “wherever you live, climate change threatens your health”. The risks of a 550 ppm scenario cannot be accepted by us.

Health and well-being for the individual has a moral basis. Australians are the biggest exporters of coal in the world. In 1950, we did not recognise the global harm from this, but we now know that the burning of coal on the modern scale is slowly poisoning the atmosphere. The cumulative nature of carbon dioxide emissions means that we are also poisoning the future biosphere. This retrieval of this situation creates an awful dilemma in terms of many Australian livelihoods, but it is one that can be properly addressed by renewable energy development and energy saving. We cannot accept that Australia should make only a “proportionate” contribution to the international effort. To wait for others to offer leadership is a dangerous game and will not be appreciated by developing countries which remind us frequently of our responsibilities.

It may well be that you feel that the opinion we express above removes us from the aegis of science into the realm of politics. Yes, perhaps it does, but with respect your most recent deliberations are also political in terms of what you consider possible. We prefer to approach the problem like the survival of our patients; a poor 5 or 10 year survival merits, without stint, every scientifically appropriate treatment for all who suffer; there can be no expediency or prejudgement of outcomes for the individual patient. There are analogies here, for the physical and biological world is sick, some believe it is in ‘intensive care’. As doctors, our patient in intensive care will receive every known support till the outcome is clear. We feel that your patient is being moved prematurely to the general ward.

The position taken in the Supplementary Draft Report is also contestable because the achievement of a 20% reduction of emissions by 2020 will not be insuperable. A vast amount could be done in energy saving and while the government has commenced on this journey, it needs a much improved effort in public education. For example in our own sphere of public and private hospitals, our members tell us there is a prodigious waste of energy. The renewable energy program could be enhanced as in Germany to a much greater extent with the use of the infrastructure fund………..”

Professor Garnaut’s recommendation of only 10% reduction by 2020 fails to recognise that some countries must offer leadership if humanity is to extricate itself from this mess. He needs to acknowledge the many examples of productive leadership coming from small countries over the years. In the case of Australia the need for leadership must also reflect our ongoing pollution and wealth. We can afford to do more than others. It may well be that Professor Garnaut is constrained by the economic rationalism of self interest as the foundation of economics. He understands the science but can only offer unscientific solutions. We have seen in the past few days the folly of economic man. By contrast, we believe that humans do have the ability to recognise and embrace moral imperatives, natural justice and collective security and these thoughts must enter the realm of climate change if we are to move forward.

Where do we go from now? Decisions rest with the government. We have written to the Prime Minister as have 16 climate change scientists (including Tony McMichael of our Scientific Advisory Committee). The letter from these scientists is above

I suggest that members of DEA also write to the Prime Minister indicating that they are medical doctors. This emphasises once more that there are issues here other than economics.

David Shearman