Things that won’t save us from global warming: (3) Politics

Given the current level of cynicism around politics in Australia, this seems a little redundant. Probably most of you know more about politics than I do, so I’ll keep this short. But there’s a few points I’d like to make.

Climate change has been on the political agenda since the 1960s. (It’s been around in scientific circles a lot longer: the basic science was first proposed in 1824 by Joseph Fourier.) And after all the speeches, policies, conferences, and pledges, basically nothing has happened. The CO2 keeps going up, and the planet keeps accelerating, not slowing, in its path to destruction.

George Monbiot commented in an article written during Copenhagen that he was witnessing the nations of the world arguing, not about how much of the planet they could protect, but about how much they could get to ruin. And that right there is the nub. No-one in any mainstream party is saying, “How fast can we phase out fossil fuels?” “How quickly can we develop renewables”, “What is most we can possibly do to reverse our catastrophic trajectory?”. They’re all about how much we can dig up and sell before its too late. Which is why, under Labor as well as Liberal (that’s “conservative” for overseas readers) governments of the past few years, Australia has been engaged in the most rapid expansion of coal production in history.

Given that our current political leaders are not doing the job, what would it take to effect meaningful change? Could anything short of a fascist One World Government, the bogeyman invoked by denialists, really give us a solution?

I think politics could give the answer. But it would take something like this. Imagine Government by a party who were genuinely committed to solving the global warming crisis; who focussed on stopping fossil fuel production as quickly as possible; who made this their central platform and did not get distracted by trivialities and petty squabbling; who had a clear and safe mandate; and who were internally competent and unified. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary or impossible about this proposal. It could in theory happen within our current political systems.

But: it has never actually happened even in one country. And to make a real difference it would require all or the vast majority of the Governments of nations that are the major contributors to climate change. In other words: it’s not going to happen.

Finally, I want to just confirm your darkest fears. I was in Canberra a few weeks ago as part of an interfaith delegation on climate change with ARRCC. We visited some 35 politicians of most parties; I personally saw around 6 or 8.

And yes, many of them do not have a basic grasp of the underlying science. (Remember, this is essentially science from the 19th century. It’s not that hard.)

Yes, some of them just repeated ignorant denialist talking points like, “CO2 is not a pollutant”.

Yes, they were ignorant about the actual environmental impact of the policies they were promoting. One MP we spoke to was promoting natural gas as a bridge fuel. I referred to the recent findings in the US that fugitive emissions of methane from gas production were in fact double that previously estimated based on industry estimates, which, together with other problems with gas, has effectively ended any role that methane could play as a “bridge fuel”, and I asked him whether these findings applied in Australia. He had no idea.

Yes, Greg Hunt repeatedly said “Trust me” (!) as he insisted that Direct Action would work. He promised to send us the studies that showed how effective his plan would be. Needless to say, he hasn’t. On a hunch, I asked him whether there was any conversation in the Government on climate change; he replied, “I think about these things every day.” Which is as clear an answer as any. But when I asked another Liberal MP, he straight out confirmed that there has been no discussion on climate change in the party since 2010.

And yes, the members of Labor party all seemed to have a better grasp of the facts and more sincere commitment to doing something about it, until it came to what really matters: coal. When I asked Mark Dreyfus whether they had any policies to leave the coal in the ground, he became notably less confident and positive, and spoke vaguely about clean coal and sequestration and unicorns. (He didn’t really say unicorns, I just made that up.)

Our Prime Minister has built his career on rubbishing climate change. He has effectively poisoned the waters so that it is hard to imagine a rational policy emerging in the foreseeable future. So, hey, that’s not very far, and things can change fast. But this series of articles is all about empiricism: what are the facts, and what can we reasonably infer from the facts. And it seems to me that the most reasonable inference is that politics is not going to save us.