Climate change groundhog day

This post originally appeared on ABC’s The Drum.

To bastardise a line from the 35th US president John F. Kennedy, it’s time that Australian politicians asked not what their climate policies can do for the opinion polls, but what they can do for the planet.

The Commonwealth Government’s independent Climate Commission released a report yesterday saying climate change is still real, it is still caused mainly by burning fossil fuels and digging up trees and the consequences are still going to be bad.

Global temperatures and sea levels rising, ice melting, oceans warming and acidifying, all explained and diligently sourced with easy-to-understand explanations.

But for anyone with even a passing concern in climate change, the announcements felt about as fresh and revelatory as they did the last time they heard them. Or the time before that. Or before that.

Climate Commissioner Professor Will Steffen conceded the document had “drawn heavily” on a “large number” of reviews of the state of the climate and of climate science over the last two years.

Old news too was his conclusion that by 2100, average global sea levels would likely be as much as 1 metre higher than in 1990.

The commission’s report called this the “Critical Decade” in which the world needs to respond to the challenge. Just like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol was supposed to have responded to the challenge. Just like Copenhagen was going to be the meeting that saved the world. These catchphrases echo across the decades.

Climate scientists and those advocating a meaningful response to their findings must surely feel trapped inside a sort of Groundhog Day with large shiny windows, through which can be seen more extreme weather, higher temperatures, more heatwaves, more record-breaking hot days and melting ice caps against a backdrop of coal trains, oil wells, gas pipelines and empty political rhetoric.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard welcomed the report as an endorsement of her Government’s plan to put a price on carbon which, aside from a rogue by-election, will likely make it through Parliament.

The Opposition leader Tony Abbott also welcomed the report, although he still thinks pricing carbon will commit Australia’s economy to some kind of hellfire.

In a particularly considered and thoughtful response, Opposition industry spokeswoman Sophie Mirabella said the commission’s report would “shut down Australia as a modern industrialised economy”.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry spokesman Greg Evans responded by saying Australia should avoid doing anything about climate change until the rest of the world does, forgetting about Europe’s six-year-old emissions trading scheme, China’s recent pledge to cut emissions per unit of GDP by 17 per cent or the UK’s decision to cut emissions by 50 per cent by 2025 (which it is already half way towards).

If the Climate Commission’s report felt like deja-vu, then so did the politicised and self-interested responses.

But it is not the fault of the Climate Commission that the findings of their report came out as predictably as they did. The scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are broadly damaging to the climate system and oceans has existed for decades.

Yesterday’s report was chiefly to re-affirm and re-state the science so successfully misrepresented and/or ignored by deniers.

The commission, like the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology did last year, can’t do much more than continue to re-state the science and find ways to communicate it to the public.

What could be avoided, though, is our tendency to see the climate change challenge through the blinkered prisms of party politics and self-interest.

Because the world’s changing climate system is not neo-conservative, socialist, marxist, or liberal. It is neither a conservative, xenophobe, fisher and shooter or green.

The climate system is more complex, more nuanced and more interesting than any political ideology. But it has simple needs. Among them is less greenhouse gases from human activity.

The outgoing Liberal Senator Nick Minchin argued because Australia was responsible for “about one per cent of the world’s emissions of CO2” that it would be “utterly pointless” to do anything.

Senator Minchin’s debating point is shared by fossil fuel lobby groups such as the Australian Coal Association. But what is also shared is a moral failing across many politicians and bleating industry groups who claim to be able to both believe in climate change and believe that doing little or nothing about it is a sufficient response.

Because if Australia believes it must act on climate change, then it must believe that emitting greenhouse gases is not a good thing to be doing.

If you take armed robbery as an analogy, most people agree armed robberies are not a good thing to be doing. Yet only a tiny proportion of the world’s armed robberies are committed in Australia. Does that then mean we shouldn’t do anything about them?

If Australia truly believes that greenhouse gas emissions are a bad thing, then whether we emit one per cent or ten per cent of the world’s emissions is immaterial.

Cutting emissions is what we must do, but then we know that already.

Author: Graham

Graham Readfearn is a Brisbane-based journalist. Go to the About page in the top navigation for more information.