News & Media Opinion Pieces Climate change, are our elected representatives able to take action?

Climate change, are our elected representatives able to take action?

Around the World, scientists are becoming very anxious about data that suggests an acceleration of climate change. Statements urging reductions in emissions are being made by Academies, Colleges, Journals and by individual scientists. The editorial in the April 30 edition of the Journal Nature says,

“Nations urgently need to cut their output of carbon dioxide. The difficulty of that task is manifest: emissions have continued to rise despite almost two decades of rhetoric, diplomacy and action on the matter. But that unhappy fact should not be taken as a licence for fatalism. Governments have a wide range of pollution-cutting tools at their command, most notably tradable permit regimes, taxes on fuels, regulations on power generation and energy efficiency, and subsidies for renewable energy and improved technologies. These tools can work if applied seriously — so citizens around the world must demand that seriousness from their leaders, both within their individual nations and in the international framework that will be discussed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December”.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration indicates that with business as usual, carbon dioxide emissions will rise by nearly 40 percent to 40.4 billion metric tons a year by 2030. One billion tons will come from developed countries and 10 billion from developing countries.
With 20 years to go we are still on the trajectory of business as usual and the action required is formidable.

But the statements of scientists are not being heard by those who can take action. The reasons are as follows:-

    * There is significant ignorance amongst the political fraternity about the causes, mechanisms and impact of climate change. This creates sufficient dissent in the two main parties in Australia, and particularly the Liberal party, to prevent effective policy.
    * There is even greater ignorance of the fact that climate change is but one of several global factors acting in concert to damage the biosphere. The fact that the world population is increasing at 82 million per year is something in the never- never and irrelevant to Australian policy. There is little understanding of the accelerating decline in world food production and biological resources as a result of population growth and land degradation. There is little understanding that the role-out of renewable energy at projected rates will only cover the needs of the expanding population.
    * There is no understanding that the cult of economic growth in its present form must end if these problems are to be solved. Perhaps this is more denial than ignorance, for growth has become essential for governmental longevity.
    * Those elected representatives who do understand some of this thesis, are impotent to escape from the web of economic culture driven by the financial system and big corporate players. This dictates how far any Western government can proceed. We have to continue to hope that President Obama retains his agenda to tackle this issue, but political worries have emerged. The top US negotiator on climate change policy, Todd Stern, has said recently that domestic politics will not allow Washington to deepen its commitment to cutting carbon pollution over the next decade. The reasons are the same as in Australia; Democrats in the coal mining States are fearful of job losses and therefore the safety of their seats
    * Finally we must face the terrifying possibility that the scientists are being heard but are being ignored because we live increasingly in a Western culture where one’s immediate wants come first, recently exemplified by Labor politicians in the UK who pronounce equity for the poor while ripping away fictitious expenses from public funds, or CEO’s departing sinking company ships while loading bullion into their life boats. And do the immediate wants of re-election and power increasingly transcend concern for the future? As economic man, do we increasingly believe we are entitled to what we can get–from cutting down a forest, by building a desalination plant, or by reducing our taxes by digging a bumper mine, all of which add to the near impossibility of arresting the rise in emissions over the critical decade ahead?

Now to those readers who have reached this point without retiring into depression, the problem must seem too great, too complex and too difficult to do anything about. However by being a member of DEA, you recognise that there is a problem and awareness is the first requirement which leads to action. We believe that it is our role to increase the awareness amongst those with power to take action.

In conclusion, population and economic growth loom large in the acceleration of climate change. About 5 years ago I was giving evidence to a Senate Committee. At the end of the meeting I was asked if I had any questions. I gave a simple explanation of doubling times and then applied this to economic growth in Australia. The economy would be four times larger by 2050. I asked what this would mean for emissions, water, urban development etc. And at what point did they recognise this as unsustainable OR could growth continue indefinitely? The Senators shuffled their papers, looked at their shoes and were silent. The Chair waited for responses for perhaps 20 seconds and then closed the meeting.

Hopefully the tide is turning. The dawn has come for Thomas L Friedman, financial columnist for the New York Times and Pulitzer prize winner,

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall – when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more”.

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese …
We can’t do this anymore

When Treasurer Swan indicated that his predicted 4% growth rate was the means of solving the $300 billion deficit, he had not moved on from Mr Costello’s days. When a Treasurer says, “We will need a 4% growth rate to solve our problems – but it will be a “green growth” rate, with renewable energy infrastructure, energy saving, sustainable agriculture, water harvesting and experts in my department will ensure that we have a negative “old growth rate” as we move into green and sustainable growth”.
If he would say that, then we would know that we have a future.

David Shearman
These are personal opinions and not necessarily those of DEA