Monday, December 7, 2009

Differencemakers make a difference

A bunch of politicians are gathering in Copenhagen this week, ostensibly to set out a plan of action for managing - and reversing - the effects of human-made climate change.

There's been a lot of talk and spin about the Copenhagen talks, and it's easy to get caught up in the fervour without stopping to think about what's really going on.

So let's stop and think.

First, let's forestall one line of objection and assume climate change is a problem, that we humans caused it, and that it's going to take a concerted international effort to fix it.

Assuming that's the case, then it is appropriate to have a global summit to tackle the issue.

The first question must be: What's our goal?

Just for a moment, let's put aside the economic costs, the feasibility, and especially the rhetoric. And let's turn to the simple scientific statement of the problem. Presumably it's something like this: The atmosphere has currently X parts per million of carbon dioxide, and that's too high. We need to reduce it to Y.

The next obvious question - and yet one that nobody seems to be asking - is: What do we need to do to fix it?

It's all very well for Kevin Rudd, Penny Wong, Barack Obama and other politicians to spout hot air about what level of change they're going to commit to. But if it doesn't fix the problem, it's a waste of time and resources. Sure, it serves their purpose to pretend to be doing something; but it doesn't serve the planet's purpose.

Not only would that be a waste of time and resources; it would be an unconscionable waste of time and resources.

Some would argue that some action is better than none, or that we can't afford the risk of not taking action (the Precautionary Principle). But these are not valid arguments. Sure, all other things being equal, these arguments hold water. But all other things aren't equal.

There's a huge cost of taking action: People - particularly the world's poor - suffer; jobs are lost; whole industries struggle; and livelihoods are put at risk.

There's also a huge cost of diverting all our attention and resources to this one issue - that may or may not be solvable - at the expense of other, more pressing issues. Right now, people around the world are dying of malnutrition, curable diseases, lack of clean drinking water and war. And instead of saving them, we're chasing some far-off solution that might save their great-grandchildren!

Some would say this is a small price to pay to save the planet, but that's my point: Does this save the planet? Or is it just a bunch of hot air from politicians who care more about their own jobs than the planet?

Our elected officials almost always promise to make a difference. They hold themselves up to be differencemakers. But when the rubber hits the road, let's see what happens. Differencemakers make a difference. That's the point.

Already we're being told that the Copenhagen summit won't end with an international treaty. Fair enough - this is not something that can be hammered out over a few chats and cocktails. But what should we expect from these self-proclaimed differencemakers?

Well, the correct course of action is for the summit to say something like:
  1. Here's what we need to achieve (in a scientific sense) for the climate.
  2. Here's what each nation needs to do to play its part.
  3. Here are the sacrifices you - ordinary citizens - need to make.
  4. Here's the course of action we've plotted.
Is this going to happen? Possibly, but very, very unlikely. It's more likely that Rudd and Wong will return to Australia with some vague statements about international goodwill and cooperation.

And they'll push ahead with their ETS, as if it's a solution - or even part of a solution. It's not. Unless they demonstrate that it's going to help solve the real problem, it's just a tax that redistributes wealth. And it takes our eyes off the real human suffering going on all around us today.

I wish this wasn't the case, and I'd like to be proved wrong. But I suspect that I'm right.

So let's hold them to task. If they don't return with at least a clear path of action based on the science, let's treat them with the contempt they deserve. And hold them to task until they do the right thing.


  1. Yours is an excellent post Gihan.
    My question would be how do we hold these people to account aside from voting them out?

  2. Have better conversations!

    Don't let them get away with their sound bites; and don't let your friends, family and colleagues fall for them. You might not be able to change the pollies; but you CAN change the people in your circle of influence.

    When KRudd (yes, that IS how he signs his tweets!) says something like, "We need it for the environment, the economy, for jobs and our kids", take issue with it. Discuss it with people. Look at the underlying facts, not the political spin.

    It's not just the pollies at fault, though they are the most vocal. I've yet to meet ANY climate change proponent who can tell me exactly - or even broadly - what we need to do to fix the problem. They can list 1,000 things we can do to save energy, but can't tell me which of them - or indeed, whether all of them together - will actually make a difference.

    Most people accept this without question. They buy the energy-efficient light bulbs, they feel guilty if they don't recycle, they applaud governments who make symbolic gestures, and ... they totally miss the point.