Look, Let’s Just Cut Out the Hot Air

By Richard Laidlaw

It’s a good thing hot air – the metaphorical product of heated argument – cannot heat the planet. If it were an agent of climate change, the polar ice caps would long ago have melted as a result of fractious international arguments over climate, assertions of human agency in overheating it, the exquisite imprecision of science and especially computer science and whether taxing carbon emissions is an environmental policy or a revenue grab.

Debate has polarised – a delicious analogy in the circumstances – since the Bali Climate Conference of 2007 over what we can do to reverse climate change, and further heated up as we approach the Copenhagen conference, being held from December 7-18, and all the other peripheral chattering associated with it, including lately in Bali. But none of the arguments are to the point, on either side.

Science can tell us what has happened, in historical terms. We know the globe has always had eon-length cycles of warming and cooling. That’s what the ice ages and the carboniferous period were all about, after all.

Science can record what is happening. But it can only make inexact assumptions from this data as to what might occur as a result. It cannot dump all its data into a computer, input further – human – assumptions and tell us anything much at all. Scientists actually know this. They just don’t want us to know that they know.

Similarly, so-called climate change deniers – they’re not, actually; no one rational could possibly argue that climate (or climates, regionally speaking) do not change – have done themselves a huge injustice by allying themselves with politicians who want to win votes by arguing against taxation.

It’s true, in a way, that if the answer is more tax, the question it purports to answer must be a stupid one. But at the same time science is taking us rapidly into the post-fossil fuel era. And we must go there. It will impose a cost – the so-called change costs for which politicians, established industries and rent-seekers possess a condign hatred because they threaten their welfare – but this must be met.

Julia Gillard, who seems to have spent more time as acting prime minister of Australia than the serially peripatetic Kevin Rudd has spent being actual prime minister, said a very sensible thing last weekend: This is not about climate change or carbon reduction – it’s about the future. (She was talking in the context of Australia’s own political debate, something of largely academic interest anywhere else, but her comment was right to the point.)

In the chaos theory that rules the world, it is of course the political class that generates the heat, cops the flak and generally muffs the answer. Not least on climate change. In America, President Obama has been having an eleventh-hour battle with a querulous legislature to get something through that he can carry with him to Denmark on Air Force One.

In Australia – peripheral to the world in so many senses and specifically in terms of its real impact on global warming – the debate has led to the fracturing not of the government, over which Prime Minister Kevin Rudd still exercises mandarin-like control, but the opposition which next year must try to persuade the electorate that it is electable.

In all the other developed economies, politics has pedalled back the ambit of greenhouse and carbon-reduction proposals. Canada, among the least offensive (and least noticeable) of nations, even got into the headlines last weekend because, at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in the West Indies, it was suggested it should be suspended for its lacklustre climate response.

So, as we head into the last few days before the world as we know will not come to an end in Copenhagen, let’s take a moment to reflect on some essential points:

IT is immaterial in a very real sense whether human agency has caused any of the current cycle of global warming. But it is essential is that we stop poisoning ourselves with increasing avoidable noxious atmospheric emissions into the atmosphere as soon as possible and turn to clean energy options that science is developing.

EARTH’S climate is a dynamic entity, far beyond the present capacity of humans to control or even influence in more than a minor, localised way. Neither Al Gore nor all the money he hoped to make from carbon sinks after persuading the world to embrace de-development as a sensible policy option, nor all the other rhetoricians conscripted to the doomsday cause, can make an iota of difference.

WE cannot stop economic advance. We must recognise that this inevitably means more and more people living in cities and earning their wages in non-agricultural pursuits – and the corollary to that, which is that the real job is to make cities truly liveable; and in countries such as Indonesia, to create a real economy that will give citizens real jobs.

THE developed world must fully recognise – that is, beyond its rhetoric and concessional loans – that the developing world in the 21st century can no longer be ignored. There must be compromises. These will have to come predominantly from the developed world, for practical and well as political reasons.

The message of the moment is that now is the time to embrace change. So let’s embrace it. But hold the hot air.

Richard Laidlaw is a retired Australian journalist and political adviser how living in Bali.

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