But we’re only a tiny part of the problem!

The bankrupt philosophy underpinning the Morrison Doctrine

By David Salt

Seven suited powerbrokers sit in an air-conditioned board room discussing the morality of their business. Unfortunately, for them, their bank has been caught putting profits before people in manner which breaks the law and deemed morally repugnant. What are they to do?

David Pope, one of Australia’s leading political cartoonists, imagined what might have gone on in that boardroom. He suggested in his daily cartoon (in The Canberra Times, 24 November 2019) that maybe they could hide behind the argument of relativity: that their bank’s illegal money transactions were just a tiny fraction of the global total and that doing something different wouldn’t change the “child exploitation climate in the Philippines one jot”.

Of course, Pope was using the Westpac debacle to throw a light on the Australian Government’s hypocrisy in relation to our nation’s carbon emissions, something that is quite unmissable because he labelled this cartoon ‘the Morrison Doctrine’. That’s because Prime Minister Morrison used pretty much the same argument in defending his party’s approach to climate change. He said:

“Climate change is a global phenomenon and we’re doing our bit as part of the response to climate change – we’re taking action on climate change. But I think to suggest that at just 1.3% of emissions, that Australia doing something more or less would change the fire outcome this season – I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison*, in The Guardian

To paraphrase, the Morrison Doctrine says that our ‘sin’ is but a small part of the overall ‘sin’ and doing something about our sin wouldn’t make much difference to the global total. The unstated part of this train of logic is: therefore, we needn’t bother because doing something will cost us.

The Morrison Doctrine: Image by David Pope, courtesy of The Canberra Times

The Doctrine fails for some sins

Pope’s cartoon is a fabulous parody of our Prime Minister’s defence and it’s worthy of reflection on several levels.

First, the Morrison Doctrine didn’t work for Westpac. The bank’s CEO at the time, was reported to have told staff that mainstream Australians were not overly concerned about what had happened.

“This is not a major issue,” he said. “So, we don’t need to overcook this.”

But, as it turned out, he was dead wrong. Mainstream Australia was appalled at the behaviour of Westpac and within days our political leaders had sensed this and joined in with the mob calling for heads to roll.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said “these are some very disturbing transactions involving despicable behaviour”. Attorney-General Christian Porter said “this is as serious as it ever gets”, while Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton accused Westpac of giving “a free pass to paedophiles!”

Westpac’s share price plummeted, its CEO resigned and its Chairman brought forward his retirement.

So, in the case or Westpac and the Morrison Doctrine, ‘our little sin’ did count. Not doing anything (or much) was simply unacceptable and believing otherwise was a hanging offence.

But the Doctrine works for the Government

I think the reason the Pope cartoon stuck with me is because of the many questions raised by Westpac’s corporate failure compared to our government’s failure on climate change. The big question is: Why is the Westpac sin seen as an unacceptable moral failure (for which the board must be held accountable) when no-one is held accountable for the policy failure on limiting carbon emissions?

There are many answers to this: the Westpac failure was well documented and the lines of accountability crystal clear; whereas the climate failure is global in scale, complex and it’s very challenging to hold individual people, institutions or governments directly accountable.

The Westpac failure followed on shortly after the Banking Royal Commission which exposed the corrupt heart beating behind so many bank practices so the broader community was already sensitised (and outraged) by corporate malpractice. The Westpac malpractice gave us a target to vent our sense of injustice on.

And the Westpac failure indirectly involved possible sex trafficking and exploitation of children, a moral crime deemed unacceptable by society; whereas conservative governments everywhere are framing climate change as an economic issue and doing their best to discount the moral consequences of inaction. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, for example, summed it up best at the Liberal’s recent electoral victory when he said “Where climate change is a moral issue we Liberals do it tough. Where climate change is an economic issue, as tonight shows, we do very, very well.”

A tiny part of the problem (?)

But maybe the reason Pope’s cartoon got me thinking so much was because it played on one of the central articles of the climate denialist’s cant: that humans have only added a little to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which in themselves are only trace gases. A little on a little surely can’t be the problem the scientists are saying, can it (and definitely not something worth sacrificing economic growth for)?

Well, it depends. The science says it matters enormously. The science says little changes to the atmosphere fundamentally shifts the Earth system. However, setting aside the scientific consensus, a little sin might be completely unacceptable when it involves transgressing community norms like the sex trafficking of children.

But this ‘little sin’ of economic growth heedless of the consequences is drowning the little children of low lying Pacific islands? It’s also destroying the livelihoods of all those families that depend on the ongoing health of the Great Barrier Reef? This little sin is pushing the climate to the point where it undermines our food security.

“There has to be some understanding of accountability for when these things happen.” These aren’t my words, they are Scott Morrison’s but he was referring to the Westpac failure, not his own on climate change.

*Australia’s little bit: whenever anyone says to you Australia is pulling its weight in producing only 1.3% of global emissions (as our PM constantly does) politely point out at only 0.3% of the global population we are the highest per capita emitters in the developed world.

Main image: Image by cinelina from Pixabay

The script that burns us

But what lies beneath our inability to engage with catastrophic fire

By David Salt

The fire emergency is over; for today, anyway. The drought, however, shows no sign of breaking and it promises to be a long, hot, fiery summer. Summer hasn’t even officially started for goodness sake but everyone is scared, frustrated and not a little angry; though who should bear the brunt of this anger depends on who you ask.

We’re scared by the science, by the forecasts and our own experience of recent summers telling us that things are changing for the worse. We’re frustrated because our political leaders are wasting their energy on obfuscation and political fights rather than seeking real engagement with the issue. They fortify their walls of denial rather than build bridges of consensus on a way forward.

There’s been a lot of media commentary on the fatuous point scoring and sniping of recent weeks as our political leaders attempted to shift the focus (and blame) in the face of catastrophic fires. Lives, houses and habitat were scorched, but our leaders seemed more concerned in blaming the other side.

We’ve seen it all before and, tragically, we’ll see it all again, and possibly very soon. I don’t just mean more catastrophic fires. We’ll see the exact same arguments erupt with the next emergency, and the one following that. And, as night follows day, the war of words we’ve just seen was also completely predictable.

The script

So, what’s the script? When the fires return and get out of our control, tearing apart life and certainty, observers will say climate change is multiplying the stress and we need to act on the fire and climate change. Then the government will say we can’t worry about climate change till the emergency is dealt with. The greens (with most scientists onside but not entering the fray) will say this is outrageous and the government will then attempt to shout down anyone trying to extend the debate beyond the immediate emergency.

At some point, as the damage from the fire is measured, some political leader (usually from the conservatives) will inevitably blame the scale of the disaster on inadequate hazard reduction burning that should have taken place before the fires took off. They’ll blame inadequate preparation (from the government authorities) as well as too much influence from green-leaning, inner-city yuppies.

Much media attention has been given to this script in recent weeks, and each of the details it contains has been raked over in some detail. Rather than repeat that analysis* I’d like to consider what lies beneath these arguments and ask whether we are doomed to simply see them repeated into the future.

The ideology

Why can’t our conservative government acknowledge climate change is real, present and an existential threat? It’s a question that has bugged me for many years.

Yes, climate denial serves vested interests, fossil fuels being key. Yes, changing the status quo is always a challenge. But I’ve always felt to generate and sustain the level of comprehensive denial we’ve seen propagated in recent years that you needed an underlying idea that trumps all other considerations.

For me, that idea is that climate change is an existential threat to the ideology of free market fundamentalism (and Libertarianism). If we as a society acknowledge the clear and present danger of climate change (and the need for a deep and systemic response) then we are also acknowledging the need for bigger government and for greater constraints on our personal freedoms (in order to tackle climate change, including more taxes and higher prices to pay for mitigation).

This was the theme of my first blog in Sustainability Bites (A ‘good’ reason to deny climate change) and my conviction on this point has only grown. I won’t elaborate more on this, read it yourself if you’re interested. However, I reckon the script of denialism is never going to change until we appreciate the bedrock of ideology it emanates from.

Dominion

The second part of the script on hazard reduction burning relates to the belief that humans are in control, it’s our God-given right. The destruction resulting from catastrophic fires is because we simply aren’t exerting that control.

Instead, the argument goes, we’re pandering to conservationist (green) cliques, declaring too many national parks, preventing management from whipping the landscape into a more amenable (and safe) shape. Our folly, according to this set of beliefs, allows fuel levels to build and catastrophic fires are the inevitable result.

This ideology fundamentally ignores the nature of the complex adaptive systems, the social-ecological systems of which we are a part. We can control bits of these systems but we are not in control (though we would like to think that we are). No amount of hazard-reduction burning will deliver us from catastrophic fires but it’s the refrain our leaders fall back on as the ashes cool.

It’s a similar response from those wanting more dams to drought proof us. In both cases it’s a partial solution to a complex problem that is probably impossible to implement and wouldn’t fix the problem anyway. But it gives our leaders something to say, a fig leaf of intent to cover their impotence and denial.

Future replay

Given their deep ideological roots, I believe it’s inevitable the fire script will simply be replayed during future fire events. But maybe the growing dissatisfaction over our leaders’ inability to respond to the context of the fires will overwhelm its denial. The levels of outrage over recent weeks I think have surprised many.

Or maybe we’ll simply endure the government’s intransigence and vote them out at the next election (noting we failed to do this last time). Unfortunately, while we wait, listening to pitiful tune the Government is playing, Rome is burning.

By the way, did you hear the latest news? The World Meteorological Organisation has just released figures on greenhouse gases in 2018 and it makes grim reading. There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gas emissions (despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement on climate change).

*Analysing the current fire emergency: If you want to see an excellent-science based discussion on the connection between climate change and catastrophic fires see Drought and climate change were the kindling, and now the east coast is ablaze or Australia bushfires factcheck: are this year’s fires unprecedented?. For an equally solid analysis of the pros and cons of hazard reduction burning, see Controlled burns often fail to slow a bushfire. There’s no question our Government is on the wrong side of science (and history) in their framing of the ongoing bushfire emergency.

Image by Julie Clarke from Pixabay

I’m so angry I’m going to write a letter!!

How do scientists get attention when their science is ignored?

By David Salt

Our elected leaders are ignoring the science on climate change, turning their back on an unfolding biodiversity catastrophe and, in so doing, increasing our vulnerability to ‘natural’ disasters while dispossessing future generations. If the scientist’s science is not making a difference, what’s a scientist supposed to do? Well, it seems increasingly they’re penning public letters to our elected leaders pleading with them to acknowledge the science and act on the evidence (rather than hide within their ideology and continue to prop up vested interests).

Last week, 11,000 scientists from 153 countries and multiple disciplines published an open letter in the journal BioScience calling for urgent action on climate change. It pointed out that science on climate change has been well known for the past 40 years and, indeed, had only grown stronger over that time. While the letter generated considerable media attention, it was largely ignored by our political leaders.

Strengthen our environmental law

A couple of weeks ago, 240 of Australia’s leading conservation scientists published an open letter to our Prime Minister calling for stronger environmental law to protect our imperilled biodiversity. This was done in the hope that a soon to be announced decadal review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act might strengthen the legislation.

That review has since been announced but, despite considerable media attention given to the scientists’ letter, the government has framed the review as a way of making the environmental law more efficient, cutting the green tape that blocks economic development. And not one of the 240 scientists who signed the letter to the PM asking for stronger environmental law are on the EPBC Review Panel; indeed no biodiversity scientist is included.

Letters to governments from scientists are not an uncommon strategy employed to raise public awareness on issues, most often issues connected with sustainability. More than 12,000 European scientists signed a letter supporting the student climate strikes that took place in March this year. In New Zealand more than 1,500 academics released a similar statement of support.

Canadian scientists also seem very partial to a protest letter. Sixty Canadian scientists wrote to the Canadian PM on climate action in 2006. Eighteen hundred early-career researchers in Canada wrote to the Canadian Government in 2016 demanding scientific integrity in environmental decision making. And 250 international scientists signed a letter to the Canadian PM in 2017 warning about the international importance of Canada’s efforts on climate change.

A warning to humanity

One of the more notable letters penned by scientists on sustainability was the ‘World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity’, released back in 1992 by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It was signed by more than 1700 scientists including the majority of living Nobel laureates in the sciences.

These concerned professionals called on humankind to cut back on our environmental destruction and cautioned that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.”

Now, surely in a rational world, when your best brains tell you we need to change because we’re heading for disaster, you sit up and listen. But did we? Not in any way that was really measurable.

You didn’t listen last time!

Twenty five years later in 2017 a new cohort of our ‘best brain’ scientists put out a second notice to humanity pointing out we didn’t listen to the 1992 warning. In this article they also showed graphs of resource use, carbon emissions and other key environmental indicators. In their timelines of these graphs they helpfully mark 1992, the year of the first letter. In almost all cases, consumption or levels of emissions either continued on their merry ascent or even increased in rate following the first ‘warning to humanity’. No government or industry, it seems, was too concerned by what the Union of Concerned Scientists thought was important.

In the second notice to humanity the authors wrote: “To prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual. This prescription was well articulated by the world’s leading scientists 25 years ago, but in most respects, we have not heeded their warning.”

So what is a letter worth? If the response to the second notice is the same as to the first (‘well articulated’) letter, expect business as usual to continue or even to ramp up.

The pros and cons of letters

It’s easy to be cynical about these letter-writing exercises. They often come over as self-righteous and pious. First notice: ‘Listen to me, I am your oracle scientist. If you keep doing what you’re doing you will be sorry.’ Second notice: ‘You didn’t listen to me last time, now you will be very very sorry if you don’t stop what you’re doing!’

As we discovered in Australia in our recent national elections, people don’t like being told they are wrong and need to change, even when the evidence is overwhelming that we do need to change.

There’s also the argument that while a ‘first’ letter sounds revelatory, by the time we reach the 14th letter, it’s beginning to sound whiny and possibly ‘crying wolf’.

Having said this, it’s easy to be cynical and when these letters come out the deniers, party hacks and apparatchiks line up to start throwing stones; it’s easy to be cynical, but possibly it’s not all that helpful. Scientists should be encouraged to take their concerns to the broader public more often. The have the insights and knowledge that will likely prove critical when we get serious about sustainability and climate change. They need to be an active part of the broader conversation.

Communicating with non-scientists on technical and complex issues is never easy. Scientists should be rewarded when they make the effort. Many universities are now encouraging their scientists to be more active in the communication of their science (and its impact on society) to a broader non-scientist audience. We need more, not less of it.

There’s also the argument that throwing out one warning is unlikely to shift society. Change is always a challenge; just ask anyone who attempted to shift the status quo. You need to keep throwing pebbles because you never know when a message cuts through possibly precipitating widespread change.

And sometimes – when the message is well crafted, the timing is right and the need is obvious to all – sometimes a letter is what really makes all the difference. Einstein wrote* to President Roosevelt in 1939 warning that Germany might develop an atomic bomb and suggested the US should start its own nuclear program – the rest is history.

*Actually, the letter was written by the Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd who few people knew and signed by Albert Einstein who everyone knew. The message was well crafted, the timing was right and the need obvious to all.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Shame Greta Shame

Is ‘shame’ a good tactic to get our shameless leaders to engage with the ‘truth’?

By David Salt

An open letter to Greta Thunberg from one Australian

Dear Greta

Thanks for your efforts. You’ve done well. Your speeches, UN discussions and the student rallies you helped inspire have, hopefully, shifted the debate on climate change. (God knows the outcries from scientists don’t seem to be achieving much.)

However, I have to say, I am terribly fatigued by the events of recent weeks. It’s been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. I was elated by the grassroots nature of the students’ Climate Strike, impressed by your fearless denunciations of our world order, appalled by the vicious blowback you then endured, and, finally, I am incredulous at the shameless tissue of lies our national leader, Scott Morrison, told the UN Assembly in the wake of your efforts. His whole engagement with climate change (and his defence of Australia’s efforts to engage with it) fills me with shame.

And that, Greta, is a terrible shame in itself. Because, rather than engage with your heroic message, I find myself longing for the emotional turmoil of these recent weeks to simply recede, be swallowed by the media cycle and let me, us, them, get back to the comfort of business as usual.

Unfortunately, as you so passionately outlined (along with almost all the available science), ‘business as usual’ is neither sustainable nor fair. Business as usual is killing our life support systems, drowning our poorest citizens and disinheriting future generations (which, of course, includes you and the youth of today).

You have every right to stoke our shame on this but I worry that for some it simply causes them to double down on their lies. ‘Double down’, it’s an American piece of jargon that now dominates our media, possibly a sign of our partisan times. Rather than admit you’re caught out on a fib or deception, you reinforce it, double down, by telling an even bigger lie. But I digress.

In any case, Greta, I wanted to tell you that many Australians are very supportive of your crusade. Unfortunately, that doesn’t include our national leaders. They fervently don’t agree with you. Under their leadership, our country is not prepared to play its fair part in saving the future. But they’re not prepared to even acknowledge this, instead claiming Australia is doing its fair share. Sounds shameless, doesn’t it?

I won’t take you through the details of this denial. That has been done comprehensively by many others (for example, see the report by the Climate Council and this story in The Guardian). It seems the facts simply don’t count. But the broad gist of our Government’s defence is that our emission targets are strong (they’re not, they’re among the weakest of all developed countries); we’re doing our bit (we’re not, we’re responsible for 1.3% of global emissions but only represent 0.3% of the global population, indeed we have the highest per capita emissions in the developed world and we are the third largest exporter of fossil fuels in the world); and that we’ll reach our (inadequate) targets at a canter (we won’t, our emissions are actually increasing and have been from the past 5 years).

Our Prime Minister even had the audacity to throw in at the end of his UN statement that our most climate-threatened natural ecosystem, the Great Barrier Reef is in good condition: “our Great Barrier Reef remains one of the world’s most pristine areas of natural beauty,” he trumpeted. “Feel free to visit it. Our reef is vibrant and resilient and protected under the world’s most comprehensive reef management plan.”

I’m sure you know this Greta but, in case you don’t, in 2016 and 2017 the Great Barrier Reef was severely damaged through back-to-back bleaching events which killed half of its corals. Australia’s current emissions target goal, if followed by other countries, would sign the death warrant of the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs around the world.

What can I say? It’s just shameless.

So, while I agree with your message, I worry about the strategy. How do you bring about change by shaming people who are shameless?

This is not just about Australia’s current political configuration. Populism, partisanship and win-at-all-costs seem to be the modus operandi of an increasing number of national leaders all around the world (Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro being three other examples). If they can so shamelessly deny the evidence (simply discount it as just ‘fake news’), then shaming them to change their position may be a futile endeavour.

In any event, keep up the good work. It could be I’m quite wrong. Our more ‘mature’ approach of appealing to rationality, logic and incremental improvement does not appear to be achieving much at the moment. The world is moving away from a sustainable space.

Your call to the younger generation, on the other hand, does appear to be generating grass roots support and action. Shaming our leaders may not influence the shameless behaviour of those leaders but maybe that’s not the point. Your efforts are creating a groundswell of engagement that may, in the years to come, be the thing that actually makes a difference. So, keep it up.

All the best

David

I’ll match your crisis and raise you one Armageddon

The pros and cons of playing the crisis game

By David Salt

Quick, this is an emergency! Do Something!

How do I know it’s an emergency? Because everyone is telling me it is*.

The Australian Medical Association has formally declared climate change a health emergency.

The City of Sydney has just declared a climate emergency (following in Hobart’s footsteps). Indeed, around the world some 660 local governments have made similar declarations.

A few months ago a bipartisan UK Parliament passed a national declaration of an Environment and Climate Emergency (with Canada doing the same soon afterwards).

In Australia there are calls for a conscience vote by the parliamentary representatives for a declaration of a climate emergency but, predictably, both major political parties are resisting. However, pressure is mounting with the Greens tabling a petition of 125,000 people asking the Parliament to declare one.

Crisis talk

Why bother invoking a climate emergency?

Partly it’s because some people feel events are suggesting things have gone way beyond ‘normal’. It is now an emergency.

Partly it’s because some people want our elected representatives to start signalling that they see climate change as being a higher priority than they currently do.

And, given these motivations, some people just want something to be done. Stop talking and do something.

Crises in the past have served to bring on action. Indeed, sometimes a good crisis can galvanise a nation. The bombing of Pearl Harbour, for example, transformed overnight a war-phobic USA into a unified fighting machine that would go on to become the world’s leading superpower.

Calling an emergency signals that special effort needs to be taken to deal with an extra-ordinary situation. It mobilises resources and public sentiment. It ‘allows’ a government to assume more control, often overriding individual freedoms that exist when things are normal. Indeed, I suspect this is one of many reasons conservatives are so loathe to accept the situation we are facing is a crisis. Because to do so leads to constraints on personal freedoms.

Take care when crying ‘crisis’

Climate change is big. Indeed it’s one of the biggest threats facing our species. But does labelling it a ‘crisis’ or an ‘emergency’ really assist us in dealing with it?

David Holmes from Monash University recently set out six reasons why a national climate emergency is not a realistic or helpful option in Australia. Among these, he says it would require bipartisan support (which clearly it lacks), the term ‘climate emergency’ doesn’t mean much to many Australians and no-one trusts politicians. (This lack of trust is especially significant since our Prime Minister visited the UN and told the world a highly misleading and cherry-picked set of facts about Australia’s efforts on climate change).

Beyond Australia’s specific context, I’d put forward five generic reasons why care needs to be taken with crying ‘crisis’.

1. It prevents a calibrated response.
Where do you go once you’ve announced an ‘emergency’? It’s kind of the end of ‘normal’. It often leads the media and government struggling to come up with ways of describing the magnitude of the problem or response. Last year we described the crisis of the fish deaths on the Darling simply as the ‘mass fish kill event’. This year, with the same event looming, we’re told to prepare ourselves for a fish Armageddon!

2. It normalises crisis
And if it’s an emergency this year, what happens when things get worse next year. Is it like emergency plus (maybe that’s what an Armageddon is)? People will just begin thinking that emergency is really business as usual. I find it’s a similar problem when trying to engage people on climate change by discussing how our weather is ‘record breaking’. Yes, they say, we’ve been breaking records each year for much of the past decade. Breaking records is now normal.

3. It causes people to give up
Emergencies promote uncertainty and sometimes even panic. Events are clearly beyond our capacity to deal with them. This leads to anxiety, depression and fatalism (with many people actually declaring they won’t have kids because of the declining state of the world). Indeed, it often induces a form of paralysis.

4. It encourages citizens to not take responsibility
Individuals are often overwhelmed in an emergency and expect higher authorities (usually the government) to take over. In some ways an emergency signals ‘this is not my problem, it’s the governments’ or maybe some other higher power (especially when you start invoking Armageddon).

5. It doesn’t provide a constructive way forward
I’ve spoken before about how people deal with the perception of an existential crisis, an event so big it threatens our very identity. Most people give up and withdraw into nihilism, retreat into fundamentalism or, the constructive option, get into activism. Unfortunately I think too much crisis talk creates nihilists or fundementalists.

Dream on

Several years ago the political economist Anthony Giddens observed that “Martin Luther King did not stir his audience in 1963 by declaiming ‘I have a nightmare’.” Similarly, it concerns me that invoking climate change as an emergency may shut down people more than causing them to believe they can make a difference.

Consequently, I think we need to always be talking about where hope may lie as the shadows of climate change darken. To that end I’d like to finish with six sentences of hope recently penned by Richard Flanagan, one of Australia’s finest authors. He put these words to paper (in an article in The Guardian) because he sought to escape the sense of futility that seems to be settling on us as our government continues to shirk its responsibilities on climate change. He said:
“1. We [the general community] believe Australia can be an affirming light in a time of despair, a global leader in transitioning to a carbon-free and socially just society, and that is why we wish our government to –
2. Work with Australian land managers to stop land clearing, protect existing forests and grow new forests to absorb existing carbon pollution.
3. Work with Australian farmers and graziers to make farming carbon neutral.
4. Work with Australian miners to ensure a transition into 21st century minerals (nickel, rare earth) and end thermal coalmining and gas fracking in Australia.
5. Work with Australian regulators to make all Australian ground transport powered by renewable energy by 2030.
6. Work with Australian industry to make Australia a renewable energy giant and carbon-neutral economy by 2050, funded by progressive pollution tariffs on global heaters.”

So, while I agree that climate change is now a real and present crisis, declaring it an emergency and leaving it at that is insufficient and, indeed, may be counterproductive. If like me you think there’s a crisis but don’t want to conjure up nightmares, you could demand your government representatives to take our situation seriously, but at the same time make sure you put forward constructive and possible alternatives to business as usual.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

*Measuring climate change: Actually, I don’t need to be told it’s a climate emergency. I can see it in every news bulletin be it Australia’s fire season getting underway in a devastating manner in September, unprecedented hurricanes ravaging the Bahamas, and the Amazon burning before our very eyes.

And, not only can I see the direct impacts of climate change, I also accept the reports of the World’s leading scientific institutions. Let me reprint here the summary findings of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report on the Global Climate from 2015-2019. This report, hot of the press, brings together measurements made by thousands of scientists using multiple technologies over many years, and it all paints the same picture.

Given this evidence and our government’s steadfast refusal to respond with appropriate urgency, is it any wonder everyone is calling for an emergency to be proclaimed?

The Global Climate in 2015-2019
World Meteorological Organization (WMO)

Warmest five-year period on record: The average global temperature for 2015–2019 is on track to be the warmest of any equivalent period on record. It is currently estimated to be 1.1°Celsius (± 0.1°C) above pre-industrial (1850–1900) times. Widespread and long-lasting heatwaves, record-breaking fires and other devastating events such as tropical cyclones, floods and drought have had major impacts on socio-economic development and the environment.

Continued decrease of sea ice and ice mass: Arctic summer sea-ice extent has declined at a rate of approximately 12% per decade during 1979-2018. The four lowest values for winter sea-ice extent occurred between 2015 and 2019. Overall, the amount of ice lost annually from the Antarctic ice sheet increased at least six-fold between 1979 and 2017. Glacier mass loss for 2015-2019 is the highest for any five-year period on record.

Sea-level rise is accelerating; sea water is becoming more acidic: The observed rate of global mean sea-level rise accelerated from 3.04 millimeters per year (mm/yr) during the period 1997–2006 to approximately 4mm/yr during the period 2007–2016. This is due to the increased rate of ocean warming and melting of the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets. There has been an overall increase of 26% in ocean acidity since the beginning of the industrial era.

Record Greenhouse Gas Concentrations in the Atmosphere: Levels of the main long-lived greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4)) and nitrous oxide (N2O) have reached new highs. The last time Earth’s atmosphere contained 400 parts per million CO2 was about 3-5 million years ago, when global mean surface temperatures were 2-3°C warmer than today, ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica melted, parts of East Antarctica ice had retreated, all causing global see level rise of 10-20m compared with today.

In 2018, global CO2 concentration was 407.8 parts per million (ppm), 2.2 ppm higher than 2017. Preliminary data from a subset of greenhouse gas monitoring sites for 2019 indicate that CO2 concentrations are on track to reach or even exceed 410 parts per million (ppm) by the end of 2019. In 2017, globally averaged atmospheric concentrations of CO2 were 405.6 ±0.1 ppm, CH4) at 1859 ±2 parts per billion (ppb) and N2O at 329.9 ±0.1 ppb. These values constitute, respectively, 146%, 257% and 122% of pre-industrial levels (pre-1750). The growth rate of CO2 averaged over three consecutive decades (1985–1995, 1995–2005 and 2005–2015) increased from 1.42 ppm/yr to 1.86 ppm/yr and to 2.06 ppm/yr

https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/landmark-united-science-report-informs-climate-action-summit

Calling all economists: don’t let the denialists leave you the blame

Climate change is both an economic AND a moral issue

By David Salt

“Where climate change is a moral issue we Liberals do it tough. Where climate change is an economic issue, as tonight shows, we do very, very well.”

These were Tony Abbott’s parting words on the 18 May 2019 as he conceded defeat at the recent federal elections. The voters in his Warringah electorate had finally tired of his denialist cant, and his wrecking and leaking from the side lines.

But in the ashes of his defeat he still found solace in the fact that while he had lost, his party, the Liberals, had won. They took no credible policy on carbon emissions (or the environment in general) to the election, they backed the development of new coal mines, and they scared the nation that the changes the nation would face under the opposition would cost everyone.

Against all poll-based predications, the Liberals won, and from their (close) victory they claim they have a mandate to ramp up the economic development of our fossil fuel reserves and continue with their non-action on the environmental front (with displacement activity on plastic recycling on the side to cover the void of their inaction).

Economics traduced

So, while Abbott has departed the political stage, possibly his parting observation of how the conservatives should be framing climate change held some truth: ‘Where climate change is framed as an economic issue, the Liberals do very, very well.’

If that’s the case then the once noble science of economics has been traduced – revealed as lacking a moral centre. It is merely a tool (a pawn) in a political game used to instil fear and prejudice in a jittery electorate.

Climate change is big – indeed it’s massive – but it’s also amorphous, uncertain and lies in our future (even though its impacts are starting to be felt). With clever economic framing it’s easy to convince people that the deep, transformative change that the world’s scientists say we need comes with ‘unacceptable’ short term costs. This is the exact game the Liberal party has been playing.

Indeed, the Liberals line in the run up to the last election was that their climate policies met their climate commitments “without wrecking the economy” and they released economic modelling suggesting Labor’s 45% target would cost the economy billions. The Liberals climate commitments have been shown time and again to be inadequate and their modelling of Labor’s higher target have been widely debunked.

It was a climate campaign based on fear and deception, and it seems that it worked in that it convinced voters the short term costs outweighed any longer term benefits. And then the government’s biggest denier (in the form of its past leader Tony Abbott) claimed it was simply an economics framing.

Stand up and be counted!

Well, I say to economists everywhere, please don’t accept this. Your science is based on rationality, public welfare and moral outcomes. Don’t allow conservatives to hide behind the economic façade of short term optimisation. Don’t allow them to sell your science as a reason to turn our back on climate change.

Of course, economists are some of the biggest supporters of meaningful action on climate change. And, truth to tell, there are real dangers in raising any issue to the status of a moral crisis.

In 2007 one of the world’s leading economists, Sir Nicholas Stern, told the world that “climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen.”

“The evidence on the seriousness of the risks from inaction or delayed action is now overwhelming. We risk damages on a scale larger than the two world wars of the last century. The problem is global and the response must be a collaboration on a global scale,” said Stern.

Our own Prime Minister at the time, Kevin Rudd, then chimed in on this rising tide of concern by labelling climate change as “the great moral challenge of our generation.” But then he seemed to squib on his commitment as soon as it hit resistance in parliament (resistance led by Tony Abbott). Surely the ‘great moral challenge of our generation’ was worthy of a bit of a fight.

But with major ecosystems failing, mass extinctions on the increase and Pacific nations drowning under rising seas, there can be no doubt that climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation. It’s also the great ecological, economic and social issue of our times, and experts from all areas should be standing up and demanding our political leaders see it as such.

For a past prime minister (Tony Abbott) to claim otherwise is immoral. To claim legitimacy for his party’s denialism by hiding it behind the cloak of economics is deceitful but in that he invoked economics it’s beholden on economists everywhere to set the record straight.

But the last word goes to the Pope

And another little postscript on Abbott’s election night epiphany. He began by pointing out that ‘where climate change is a moral issue the Liberals do it tough’. Where is Abbott’s moral centre in this debate? As a self-professed Catholic of deep faith, what does he make of Pope Francis’ declaration (coincidently also made in May this year). Pope Francis said: “We continue along old paths because we are trapped by our faulty accounting and by the corruption of vested interests. We still reckon as profit what threatens our very survival.” From this perspective, the Liberals economic framing is revealed to be merely faulty accounting and corrupt.

Not that Abbott has ever shown the moral fortitude of the leader of his Church. At the same time that Abbott was telling the world that climate change was not something to worry about, Pope Francis is on the record as saying: “Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.”

Image byPete Linforth fromPixabay

Nothing to see here

Displacement is the game when you have nothing really to say (on the environment)

By David Salt

‘How good is the environment?’

Well, by any objective measure it’s in serious trouble and getting worse. But what do you say if your policies aren’t prepared to acknowledge this?

As our national government, you’re in charge of protecting the environment. You’re faced with collapsing ecosystems, declining biodiversity and a rising toll from climate extremes. In spite of this, you’ve made cut after cut to your Environment Department, told everyone Australia is going to make our carbon emission targets ‘at a canter’ (despite all the hard evidence that emissions are actually going up) and repeatedly stated when it comes to the environment everything is sweet. It’s getting harder to sustain this line but you have to say (and do) something. So, what will it be?

Based on what our Environment Minister is saying in Parliament in answer to questions from her own side, the game appears to be to focus on the little picture and displace everyone’s attention.

A tiny agenda

‘Questions without notice’ are supposed to be an opportunity for members to raise important issues relating to their electorates. Unfortunately, they have largely become political theatre in which the major parties just try to embarrass each other.

Under Question-Time rules, government members are allowed to ask questions of their own side. These are called ‘Dorothy Dixers’, after a famous syndicated column in womens’ magazines, ‘Dear Dorothy Dix’, in which ‘Dorothy’ played agony aunt to her readers and provided homespun advice on marriage and the other challenges of home life.

When the government gets a Dorothy Dixer (or ‘Dixers’ as the insiders call them) it’s an opportunity for the government to use a rehearsed question from a friendly questioner to spell out its strategy and agenda, often in the context of announcing (or re-announcing) the spending of money. So when the Minister for the Environment is asked by her own side what’s on the environmental agenda we get a good idea on what the Government is setting out to achieve, what its grand vision is, including how it intends to spend our money.

In recent weeks, that vision seems to consist of small community projects – “it’s supporting grassroots organisations working on small projects that make a big difference”; a bit of environmental restoration, a bit more on soil conservation (God bless our farmers) and a big focus on increasing recycling and reducing waste. (Note: the links in this paragraph take you to the Hansard record of Parliament for the day in question – 23, 30 & 31 July in these cases – but not to the specific answers in the Questions-Without-Notice sessions that I’m referring to. Why Hansard can’t provide specific links to specific answers I don’t know. Maybe to make it harder to pin Ministers down to their answers.)

Indeed, recycling and waste reduction seem to be this government’s big ticket item when it comes to the Environment: “We can’t opt out of modern living or the modern world,” says Sussan Ley, our new Environment Minister, “but we can get smarter about the way we live and the pressure we place on our environment, and about doing everything we can to mitigate that—reducing waste, increasing recycling.”

We don’t need to save the reef (?)

They’ve even appointed an ‘envoy for the reef’ in the form of Warren Entsch (Member for Leichhardt in far north Queensland) who has refused to acknowledge the imminent threat of climate change to the Great Barrier Reef instead citing plastics as being the big problem and increased recycling as the solution.

“We don’t need to save the reef,” Entsch said recently in The Guardian. “It’s still going – we need to manage it and manage it well and we’re the best reef managers in the world.”

So what is his (and this Government’s) solution to saving the Reef? Get rid of single-use plastics. Though, when it comes down to it, our political leaders don’t even believe Australia is the cause of this problem: “the bulk of it [plastic] on our seas comes down from our northern neighbours,” says Entsch. “If we can create world’s best practice and get them to clean up their own backyard then we will reduce the volumes that come down to us.”

What about cleaning up our own backyard, Mr Reef Envoy? Have you read any of the voluminous science coming out over recent years telling us our reef is dying (from declining water quality, increased storm activity, increased outbreaks of crown-of-thorn starfish and, multiplying every threat, climate change)?

“Australians care about our environment,” says Environment Minister Ley. “They want to be involved in protecting it now and into the future. The Morrison government will work internationally and with communities, with local organisations and with our scientific experts to address all of the issues that confront us, large and small, including Asia-Pacific rainforest recovery, blue carbon and sequestering carbon in our coastal and marine ecosystems, and we will continue to invest in protecting the Great Barrier Reef.”

Nice words, but it’s such shallow rhetoric. When it comes to our environment, the government only pays lip service to the big issues, and only engages in doing things that are too small to make much difference overall. All the while it ignores and marginalises the scientific expertise it claims to respect.

High opportunity cost

This is displacement activity of the worse type because the opportunity cost of ignoring the bigger picture – trashing the evidence and degrading our environmental capacity – is the horrible cost of environmental failure our society (and children) will bear down the line.

And, even as I write this, the Government is doing more displacement on the environmentally linked sector of energy – let’s set up an enquiry on nuclear energy to show we mean business.

Nothing to see here.

Image: Tane Sinclair-Taylor, Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

The real climate change debate

Beliefs trump evidence while the truth disappears in the babble

By David Salt

A few years ago American comedian John Oliver ran a skit on the way most mainstream media run debates on climate change. He lampooned the way they inaccurately portray the debate as a balanced affair in which a climate expert is pitted against a climate skeptic. The viewer sees one person versus one person – a 50:50 debate. But, as Oliver points out, the scientific consensus supporting climate change is an overwhelming 97%. To portray the debate as a 50:50 divide is inappropriate and dangerously biased.

Oliver demonstrates the ludicrousness of this by staging a ‘statistically representative debate’ in which three climate-change deniers argue their cant against 97 climate scientists who drown out the naysayers with their chorus of facts.

It’s a great skit, much loved by climate researchers and science communicators everywhere. If you haven’t seen it, I commend it to you. Indeed, I regularly screen it in a talk I give on ‘science and policy’. And, I note, it’s been watched by well over eight million people with 77,000 giving it the thumbs up with around 3,000 giving it the thumbs down – fairly close to the 97% scientific consensus.

So, having praised Oliver’s efforts, and lauded the skit’s central conceit, I’m now going to call it out for demonstrating two critical weaknesses in the overall effort to communicate the seriousness of climate change; flaws that are hampering current efforts to bring about enduring policy reform.

Belief vs evidence

The first relates to Oliver’s contention that facts are more important than people’s beliefs. He begins by pointing out that a recent Gallup poll found that 1 in 4 Americans are skeptical about the impacts of climate change and think this issue has been exaggerated. Oliver retorts (to much laughter) “who gives a shit, that doesn’t matter; you don’t need people’s opinions on a fact; you might as well have a poll on which figure is bigger, 15 or 5? Or, do owls exist? Or, are there hats?”

But, as we have seen increasingly over recent elections both here and abroad, beliefs do trump facts. We make fun of people’s beliefs, regardless of their relation to evidence, at our peril.

When I looked for stats on current beliefs in the US on climate change I found results from multiple surveys. Most suggested there was a growing acceptance of the reality of climate change, that young people had higher rates of acceptance and believed that governments should be doing more, and that Republican voters had significantly lower rates of belief.

One recent survey by Yale University of over 1000 adults found that a record 73% of Americans polled agreed that global warming was happening, marking a 10% point increase since 2015. The results were trumpeted in Forbes news under the banner New Survey Finds 3 Out Of 4 Americans Accept The Reality Of Climate Change, which is really pretty much the same as the figure quoted in the Oliver skit, just framed in the reverse way (1 in 4 Americans are skeptical about the impacts of climate change).

Speaking with one voice

And the second issue raised in the Oliver skit relates to the cacophony of scientist cries as the ‘statistically representative debate’ gets underway. The point he was trying to make is that the weight of evidence drowns out the denialism if you line them up along the lines of the 97% scientific consensus (97 scientists vs 3 deniers).

But I couldn’t hear any message; it was drowned out in the babble. Indeed, the only line you actually hear is that of the deniers who get the first line in: “Well I just don’t think all the science is in yet and settled,” says the denier. Oliver then asks for what the scientists think and you can’t hear anything from then on as the 97 voices speak out in unison.

So, Oliver’s point is made with comic impact but I think he also highlighted the problem of what the public hears when confronted by multiple voices spewing out endless facts and figures, impenetrable graphs and numbers loaded with dense techno-speak expositing doom and gloom if we don’t dramatically change our ways.

On the other side* is a tiny minority of players (usually representing unstated vested interests with deep and well-funded ideological roots) putting out simple, well-crafted messages of uncertainty, sowing seeds of doubt that, with time, flower into vigorous weeds of denial that prove ever so hard to pull out. Their seductive message is that this whole climate change thing is big and complicated, we’re still figuring out what it means, but we’d be fools to change the status quo while so much uncertainty is present. Let’s do nothing for now, keep the economy growing as we have for the past 50-70 years and some way down the track we’ll fix up the climate if indeed it turns out to be broken. And, if it does need fixing, our wonderful science and market forces will provide the solution.

It just isn’t fair

Scientists live and die by the evidence they generate. In their world facts win and beliefs inevitably bend to the weight of evidence, even if it takes a while. It’s a numbers game; over time the evidence builds and a scientific consensus forms (or shifts).

The scientific consensus on (anthropogenic) climate change has grown and solidified over the past 50 years. There is now no doubt in the world of science as to its reality or consequence, even if a small clique of deniers still warps the media debate. But this clique represents powerful vested interests, and their influence may take more than facts to shift.

Scientists believe their consensus will eventually permeate the societal debate; that, in a rational world, ‘facts’ will squash unfounded belief. But the real world isn’t always rational (or fair), and it doesn’t always conform to the rigorous black and white perspective of its scientific citizens.

*Sowing seeds of doubt is just one of several techniques employed by the climate-change denial lobby/collective. They also peddle conspiracy theories, cherry pick data, employ logical fallacies and set up fake debates. If you’d like to learn more about these dark arts and how they can be resisted, check on the University of Queenslands’ online course called Denial 101: Making Sense of Climate Science Denial. Highly commended.

Image: John Oliver stages a statistically representative debate. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjuGCJJUGsg

Confessions of a cheerleader for science

Don’t put off action today in the belief that science will save us tomorrow.

By David Salt

In the halcyon days of my youth I thought science was the solution and that clever technology would always be the shiny knight that would eventually come to our rescue. These days I think such beliefs are dangerous. They are dangerous because they build in complacency about making tough decisions now: ‘things might be getting worse but science will save us down the line so no need to interfere with business as usual’.

Selling science

As a younger man I was salesman for science. I had a science degree, I loved technology and I was lucky enough to score a job at CSIRO Education. My job was to get young Australian’s into careers in science, raise the profile of science & technology in society, and promote the value of research (which, by the by, also promoted the value of CSIRO, Australia’s premier research agency). It was a good job, one you could believe in, and I thought I did it well. I developed a popular science magazine called The Helix. For ten years (the 1990s) I was a cheerleader for science.

Now I’m not saying I’ve since turned anti-science, because I haven’t. I love a good science story when it’s well told. But over the years I started to question the claims that were routinely rolled out with every new announcement: ‘We’ve discovered a cure for the flu’; ‘this process will revolutionise waste disposal’; ‘this new material promises to transform industry; ‘our new breakthrough solves the energy problem’; and so on. Each story presented a new bit of science in such hyperbolic terms that the reader is convinced the world is about to be saved – science to the rescue!

Are things getting better?

But the areas I was most interested in – biodiversity conservation, ecology and conservation – things weren’t getting better.

Over time I grew ever more skeptical of the ability of science to turn these things around. Clearly science and technology was contributing to incremental (and sometimes transformative) increases in productivity, improvements in quality of (human) life and safety. But all the time the impacts of our escalating development was destroying and degrading the non-human parts of our world.

In the last ten years we’ve reached the point where there is a broad scientific consensus that human activity has actually distorted the Earth system, pushed it into a new way of being. Climate systems and hydrological cycles are no longer functioning as they have in the past. Species are being lost at ten to a hundred times natural rates, land is degrading, available freshwater is declining, and seas are rising.

Living standards have improved for developed countries but most developing countries are struggling.

And here’s a statistic that amazes me: In 2010 the OECD countries accounted for 74% of global GDP but only 18% of the global population. In other words, three quarters of the planet’s economic growth is being enjoyed by one fifth of the planet’s people, the people in developed nations. And yet it’s this economic activity that has pushed the planet out of its safe space of operation, and everyone will pay for that (and the poorest people will pay for it first).

Cognitive dissonance

So, on the one hand I was selling science as the answer to all our problems. But, on the other, economic development (fuelled by science and technology) was pushing the Earth over multiple planetary boundaries.

Indeed, every promised 5% increase in efficiency (or 10% or 20% or whatever you like) delivered through scientific innovation seemed to correlate with an even greater deterioration in environmental condition rather than an improvement.

About the time I was leaving The Helix I vividly remember a molecular researcher preaching to me about the new world opening up through nanotechnology. It would be a world in which anything was possible, a world without limit; a time in which humans would wield ultimate mastery over the very building blocks of matter!

I think this technological hubris was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. It was hyperbolic hyperbole. Did this person even listen to what she was saying?

In any event, that was 20 years ago. Nanotechnology has certainly transformed many areas of the economy but, over the same period, Earth’s sustaining ecosystem services have lost resilience and the future is looking increasingly dire.

Do scientists believe the hyperbole of science?

Back in the 90s there was much greater accord on climate change and the need to curb it. Since then the science on climate change has firmed; there’s almost no doubt (not in scientific circles anyway) that it is real, present and growing. But, ironically, the accord of past decades has become fractured and contested. And real effective action is continually postponed, a challenge for the next generation down the line.

About ten years ago I discussed the parlous state of the planet with a senior government scientist. This guy had charge of a large climate change research program. I asked him what he honestly felt about the world’s response to climate change. He said it got him seriously depressed; clearly governments everywhere were in a state of denial, prioritizing short term economic growth (business as usual) over long term sustainability.

But, he told me, he was sure that a time would come when the truth of climate change would sweep away the denialism. And when that happened, the incredible power of science would generate the solutions we need to tackle this existential threat.

And that got me thinking; scientists themselves believe that science will be there to save us.

So when governments and political leaders tell us that science will save us, and their scientists believe that too, then it’s okay that we stick with business as usual a little bit longer. Because no matter how bad it gets, there will always be a technical solution down the line to undo the harm we’ve done.

Unfortunately for my peace of mind, I stopped believing that decades ago.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

If science is the answer, what was the question again?

THE answer to the challenge of sustainability is NOT science and technology

By David Salt

It should be apparent from previous blogs that I am a believer in science and the scientific process. That said, in and of itself, I don’t believe science is THE answer when it comes to the challenge of sustainability. Yes, it has an important (and central) role to play but anyone who believes that science will save us is deluded. And when political parties tell us that science will be our salvation, there’s enormous potential for perverse outcomes.

The problem with science-as-our-savior has many dimensions including partial solutions and delayed action. And it has more to do with how science is used (and abused) by our political leaders than the science itself. I’ll deal with partial solutions in this blog.

Addressing symptoms

Science is not wrong or bad. Much of its application, however, is usually applied to one part of a complex problem, and our political leaders pick and choose which part that is and then usually ignore the bigger picture. In this way our science is often focused on the immediate issue and not the underlying cause. In many ways we address the symptom but fail to tackle the ‘disease’ that created the symptom.

More often than not, the symptom being addressed is a consequence of development and economic growth (and the way we make decisions around this growth). For example, declining water quality is the symptom but from over extraction of our rivers is the cause; extinction (symptom) from over clearing of habitat (cause), or climate change (symptom) due to carbon pollution (cause). The development generates economic activity and contributes to our quality of life but also comes with impacts on our environment that, at some point or other, come back to bite us.

And when our communities demand that our political representatives fix the problem (be it fish kills, mass coral bleaching or climate-change supercharged storms), our leaders turn to science and ask for quick fixes. And when scientists respond with the best science they can muster, the politicians will seize any skerrick of information they can that suggests they have a solution; that they are on top of the problem.

Silver bullets for dead fish

A small illustration of this: when billions of fish recently died on one of Australia’s major river systems, scientists pointed out the proximate cause of death was a lack of oxygen in the river water. It is possible to artificially aerate small patches of water and maybe keep some fish alive but the bigger problem is over-extraction of water and poor governance of the river system (something pointed out by the scientists).

Politicians seized on the quick fix and deployed manual aerators in a few locations (and maybe saved a few fish) but squibbed the bigger problem of over extraction because that involved changing the way we are managing the whole river.

Of course, this points to the nature of big environmental problems. They are multi-dimensional and complex. They are rarely fixed with single technological solutions, yet when the politicians turn to science that is what they really want – a quick fix, a silver bullet.

The problem with ‘quick fixes’ is that while they might address a symptom, they usually don’t fix the underlying cause. And ignoring the underlying cause usually leads to a worse (and possibly irreversible) situation down the line.

The biggest silver bullet of all

So let’s consider one of the biggest sustainability challenges of our time – climate change. The cause is humans pumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a byproduct of our economic growth (acknowledging that this has growth has underpinned massive improvements in the quality of life by many people). A symptom of this problem is rising temperatures which has produced a raft of devastating impacts (one of which is mass fish kills).

The ultimate solution to the problem of climate change is to somehow decouple economic development from the environmental impacts it is producing. But that’s hard. It involves massive disruption to our economic system and probably a basic change to human values.

Or we could look for a technological fix that reduces the planet’s temperature (and not worry about the hard stuff relating to economic reform and changing behaviour). If this sounds like a ludicrous suggestion then you haven’t been following the news. The big talk around the planet at the moment is geoengineering, and specifically the injection of sulfide particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect away sunlight to cool the Earth.

By focusing on the symptom (temperature) and not worrying about the cause (carbon emissions) we are setting up subsequent generations for a gloomy future. Gloomy because we’re blocking sunlight (by deliberately polluting the upper atmosphere). And gloomy because rising temperature is only one of the symptoms of carbon pollution. Another is rising acidity in our oceans (an impact quite separate to temperature effects) leading to the collapse of marine ecosystems. And what happens to crop productions if we miscalculate and block too much sun?

A sting in the tale

This form of geoengineering has yet to be tested in any meaningful way and many scientists are urging caution. Playing with the planetary climate thermostat is not something done lightly. Who wants a technological fix that might wipe out the species?

And yet this story on geoengineering appears to be moving in a sinister direction. A couple of weeks ago, an effort by several countries at the UN environment assembly to better scrutinise climate geoengineering experiments was scuttled by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Why? Because their petrochemical industries see climate geoengineering as a pathway that might enable further expansion of fossil fuel use.

If that’s the case then this silver bullet is surely more of a Faustian Pact.