THE GREAT CLIMATE CHANGE JUGGLING ACT
Politicians must judge how much voters will sacrifice to achieve lower emissions.
In recent days, climate change policy has divided the Nationals as much as it divides the Liberals.
But the question “Do you believe in climate change?” is a curious one because it suggests that change in climate is not a matter of fact but a matter of faith.
The recent bushfire disasters in Australia have been taken by many to confirm that the climate is indeed changing and have prompted more urgent demands that the government do much more to reduce emissions.
Yet the 1974-75 fire season burnt almost 10 times the area so far destroyed this season and the 2009 Black Saturday fires killed in a single day five times as many people — 173 people died on Black Saturday and more than 100 million hectares burnt in 1974-75.
As a moment’s thought would confirm, of course climate changes. The ice ages are an obvious example of it doing so. There was the Roman warm period when grapes grew against Hadrian’s Wall; the medieval warm period when crops flourished on Greenland; and the mini-ice age of the 1600s when the Thames routinely froze. And the story of the Flood would seem to suggest that, in pre-biblical times, the world experienced a cataclysmic climate event.
So the relevant question is not whether climate changes but the significance of carbon dioxide emissions in climate change, and the correct policy response to the changes that human emissions seem to be driving.
We’re often told that 97 per cent of scientists believe in anthropogenic global warming and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change regularly publishes reports modelling a range of different climate scenarios based on assumptions about the impact of different levels of CO2. In some of these scenarios, global temperatures could be several degrees higher and sea levels could rise by 2m within a century. Predictably, it’s the worst-case scenario that attracts the headlines, and if this happened overnight it would certainly be a disaster. Hence governments around the world are urged to take strong action to try to limit emissions.
But other distinguished climate scientists are not so sure. Professors Richard Lindzen and Judith Curry, for instance, question whether carbon dioxide is the real climate villain.
In any event, while politics is often a matter of the “numbers”, science never should be.
As I understand the facts, during the past century atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen from about 300 parts per million to 414 parts per million in 2020. This is chiefly due to human activity such as power generation, transport and agriculture, and, over the same time, global temperatures have risen by about 1C. All other things being equal, so the physics tells us, higher carbon dioxide concentrations should warm the planet by absorbing and retaining more of the sun’s heat.
But as we know, all things aren’t equal. Sunspot activity and slight oscillations in the Earth’s orbit also affect climate. Moreover, the geological record suggests that, at different times in the distant past, the Earth has been both hotter and colder with higher and lower concentrations of atmospheric CO2.
Nevertheless, it seems highly likely that, due to human activity, the rate of increase in CO2 emissions is unprecedented and it’s quite possible that even small-but-very-fast increases in CO2 could make climate change worse.
That’s why it makes sense to limit emissions and to reduce them wherever possible. But, in this regard, a key question is how much disruption and cost are we prepared to bear? And this is where it clearly becomes a question of preferences or value judgments rather than pure science.
If we could all but eliminate human emissions by changing to renewable energy without jeopardising the affordability and reliability of our power supply; if we could eliminate agricultural emissions without giving up meat; and if there were a costless way to shift to electric cars, we would readily change.
But there is not, and the claim that technology will soon solve all these issues is questionable.
Then there’s the issue of whether anything Australia does will make any difference. We account for 1.3 per cent of human emissions and any reduction here will be swamped by increases from China and India — which are unapologetically upfront that the dangers of climate change are not as serious as the need to increase their people’s standard of living via higher electricity use, better diet and better transportation.
The “do much more” advocates say that we wouldn’t use others’ inaction to justify not saving a drowning man or extinguishing a burning building. Fair enough, but only if what we do will actually make a discernible difference, and unfortunately it won’t if global emissions continue to increase.
When Tony Abbott was prime minister, he had a formula that went something like this: climate does change, humans do make a difference and we should take reasonable steps to reduce emissions; but in doing so we shouldn’t put jobs and our prosperity at peril.
Abbott eventually decided that a reduction of 26 per cent in Australia’s emissions by 2030 was a sensible balance between climate risk and economic cost.
And until our recent bushfires produced a moral panic, that was always Scott Morrison’s position too. For Morrison, the problem is that his time in office may well coincide with Australia experiencing an increase in extreme weather events. Thirty years ago such events could have been written off as acts of God. But in 2020 many voters are highly likely to blame lack of government response to human-induced climate change. And there’s the rub for the Prime Minister and his government.
Climate change is a matter of fact, and the Coalition must deal with its complex implications to juggle an economically, environmentally and politically palatable mix of policies in the hope of dealing effectively with this crucial issue, while remaining electable.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 41 books, most recently the political-sexual satire The Dizzying Heights (Hybrid).
The Australian, February 7, 2020, p 14.
It appears the politics of climate change is evolving
A well balanced commentary by Ross Fitzgerald (“The great climate change juggling act”, 7/2). The last paragraph outlined the path Scott Morrison will have to tread carefully.
It’s interesting to contrast this with the call from so many, including industry leaders — who for what can only be described as some form of moral self-adulation — keep chanting the demand that we must do more on climate change.
With Australia contributing just 1.3 per cent of human emissions — forget the per capita rubbish, it’s irrelevant — we must balance the economic and social impact of moving to a sensible and greener energy regime, while committing to and achieving our international commitments such as Paris and putting them in place as effectively as possible.
Fitzgerald puts Tony Abbott’s position succinctly. It’s a pity that people, again for purposes of self or political interest, fail to accept that it was under Abbott that Australia prepared for the Paris accord. He then got bounced for being a climate denier.
The PM is heading down the right path. It’s in the best interests of our nation for the states to get on board and develop and deliver a national strategy on managing hotter, longer summers and all things it affects.
Ian C. Murray, Cremorne Point, NSW
Ross Fitzgerald does well to highlight the politics of human-induced climate change faced by Scott Morrison has changed. Voters expect that real conservatives take out insurance against risks. They are asking why didn’t the Coalition government have in place contingency plans based on the science and mathematical modelling of climate change?
This is all the more so since, over the coronavirus outbreak, Morrison and his ministers say they have contingency plans in place based on the modelling of a coronavirus epidemic.
Peter Smith, Lake Illawarra, NSW
Ross Fitzgerald’s summation of the climate change debate is masterful. He addresses all the issues without rancour or vindictiveness.
But there is one aspect he did not cover which I think is important. In his recent work on the issue, Gregory Wrightstone makes the valid point that warm periods have been marked by social, technical and health advancement together with greater crop yields and overall greater vegetation yield — a direct result of higher levels of carbon dioxide.
In the meantime, cold periods have been marked by shorter human life spans, higher incidence of disease, decline in social and technical advancement and lower crop yields.
There is no doubt that the human race advances during warm periods and the logic behind the fear campaign generated by the activists is not based on the historic evidence.
Simon Gamble, Noosa Heads, Qld
Ross Fitzgerald gave a balanced view of the politics of climate change but reports claiming 97 per cent of scientists believe in anthropogenic global warming are irrelevant because they are based on selective sampling and poorly worded surveys. Science is based on observation, not belief.
Climate is more responsive to variations in energy from the sun, the Earth’s orbit, the amount of cloud and water vapour. Even millions of years ago when levels of CO2 were thousands of times higher, the Earth’s temperature fluctuated between ice ages and warm periods similar to the present. This is not surprising as measurements show increases in CO2 will cause minuscule warming and some cooling.
Ian Wilson, Chapel Hill, Qld
Letters to the Editor, The Weekend Australian, February 8-9, 2020, p 23.
Also see LAST POST, The Weekend Australian, February 8-9, 2020, p 23.
Ross Fitzgerald has provided a balanced summary of the climate change dilemma (“The great climate change juggling act”, 7/2). His omission is to question whether it is preferable for a return to the cold of the little ice age, or for a continuation of Earth’s recent gentle warming.
William Kininmonth, Docklands, Vic