Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Climate change: the disastrous consequences of political short-sightedness

This piece originally appeared online at SMH on 6 November 2013. 
Like John Howard, Liberty was frozen in time

On Tuesday, John Howard addressed a gathering of British climate change sceptics. He accused the United Nations' climate panel, the IPCC, of including “nakedly political agendas” in its advice and then explained his government proposed an emissions trading scheme in 2006 in the face of a political perfect storm on the issue. He also said “…the high tide of public support for over-zealous action on global warming has passed.” And on that score, he's right.

Lately, when I hear our politicians discussing the climate, I can't get the images from the otherwise largely forgettable The Day After Tomorrow out of my head. It's a movie that takes a few creative liberties in showing the devastation that happens when polar ice melts due to global warming. 

The unsalted water from the glacier dilutes the ocean, causing the climate to change rapidly. Weird stuff starts to happen, like helicopters freezing solid in mid-flight and a massive flood in New York where Jake Gyllehaal huddles in the library with his friends. And then Jake's dad (Dennis Quaid) – one of the scientists who is not being heard – rescues him and their estranged relationship and the storm passes and the world thaws and, we're like, phew, glad that's over. And we don't just mean the storm.

But the point of the movie was politicians put their shortsighted economic and political interests first, with disastrous consequences.

Howard's is just the latest example in a long list. Watching Tony Abbott bat away suggestions that climate change is contributing to the frequency and ferocity of bushfires with suggestions that the UN Climate Change Chief is “talking out of her hat” and it's all “complete hogwash” fills me with the same sense of foreboding I get watching those disaster movies. He merrily goes on, posing for a pic opp with a fire hose and razing the carbon price, the Climate Change Authority and the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC).

Interviewed recently on ABC's 7.30 program, Al Gore diplomatically avoided scoffing at the Coalition's plan, but reinforced the view that an emissions trading scheme, which drives change towards cleaner, more efficient energy sources is the preferred route. Gore, the mastermind of the most compelling PowerPoint presentation of all time in his documentary An Inconvenient Truth, believes people power is the only way to combat the obvious conflicts that exist between political and business interests and the climate. He likened it to the pressure brought upon politicians by cigarette companies trying to sully the link between smoking and lung cancer.

“I think the public has a role in this and has a voice to be heard,” said Gore. “In the US, we had Hurricane Sandy, which was devastating - US$60 billion in damages and it caused a dramatic change in the message the public was sending to politicians in both parties.” Is it going to take a disaster of that magnitude for Australians to stand up and be heard? I hope not.

A short four years ago, Australia was reeling from the Black Saturday bushfires, in which a record number of people lost their lives in a raging inferno that followed a two-month, unprecedented heat wave. In 2011, Queensland and Victoria were inundated with floods. Climate change seemed palpable. It was happening all around us and even as skeptics brushed them off as cyclical events, we shifted uneasily in our seats and wanted something to be done.

Now, Abbott, with his trademark appeal to our hip pockets and self-interest (“Electricity Bill” – haw haw haw! Good one Tones!) is trying to have us believe that as long as our light bills go down, the world will be a better place.
Abbott's Direct Action policy means he'll dish out a confusing goodie-bag of treats to polluters to help them change their dirty habits.That's like handing an alcoholic $50 and asking him to spend it on green leafy vegetables.

Hollywood end-of-days disaster movies often depict bureaucrats or other people with power making self-centred decisions, usually to further their own interests, throwing the lives of others into peril.

Unless Australians stand up and demand a real solution (not the Coalition's Real Solution) to climate change, we could all be archival fodder for future generations. In a world ravaged irrevocably by warming, they may watch a darkly comic moment in a movie where an Environment Minister trusts Wikipedia over scientists, and leave shaking their heads. “What idiots they were to not act when they had the chance…”