February 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Why climate change defeats our short-term thinking

By Judith Brett
On science, religion, politics and ideology

In the middle of the 19th century, science forced a massive readjustment of the West’s temporal imagination. Geology and the theory of evolution expanded time from the Bible’s thousands of years to millions, of which humanity had been around for a mere sliver. At the same time, German scholarship was turning the Bible from the word of God into a historical text and embarking on the comparative study of religions. It was all very disorienting. In the 1870s, Henry Bournes Higgins, a University of Melbourne student who would go on to set the first national wages standard in the famous Harvester judgement, read the classicist George Grote on the origins of Ancient Greek mythology. It shook Higgins’ world “like an earthquake”. What if the Protestant beliefs in which he had been raised had no firmer foundations than the Greeks’ myths of Olympus? What indeed? Despite the large numbers of fundamentalists who have never accepted evolution as fact or the Bible as a cultural artefact, religion in the West gradually adapted, giving up its cosmological claims and accommodating other faiths.

We are facing another massive assault on our temporal imaginations. The debate about global warming – its causes, its trajectory and its likely impact – asks us to think in centuries at least, and to project this thinking into the future, long after the deaths of those alive today. We are all used to shifting between overlapping temporal scales: the daily round, the weekly routine, the rhythms of the year and seasons, the phases of the life cycle, and lived historical memory. But lay these across longer-term claims about the way the world’s climate might be changing and it is as if our minds shut down. It is just too hard for most of us to think about. And it seems almost impossible for our political processes to deal with.

We know that politicians are always trapped between the long-term need for substantial policy reforms and the short-term pressures of winning elections, which, combined with vested economic interests, generally means that maintaining the status quo becomes the default option. In this case, the status quo is our carbon-based economy. To dismantle it would impose serious short-term risks and costs, as against the even more serious long-term risks and costs of not doing so. And for politicians, the short-term risks always loom larger than the long-term ones, as they do for most of us in our daily lives.

Even so, I am still puzzled about the motivation and the world view of those who refuse to take seriously the risks of a warming planet. Yes, we can agree that the science is not definitive – and may never be; yes, we can agree that the forces governing the world’s climate are complex and exact outcomes are hard to predict – in some places it might actually get colder. But can’t we also agree that if even some of the predictions prove correct then these will have consequences that it would be wise to avoid if possible? I can only conclude that many of the people who actively oppose attempts to mitigate the risk of global warming don’t really believe it is a risk. Some, of course, don’t care: those who are rich from the ownership and exploitation of coal deposits, for example, who want to dig them up and sell them as soon as possible, before the rest of the world stops buying coal. There is no arguing with them. The ones I am interested in are people like Tony Abbott and John Howard, who do care about the future of the world and whose actions could make a difference. If they really believed in the risks of human-induced global warming, they would act differently.

Kevin Rudd said that climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation. True, there are grave moral issues raised by the fairness of the measures used to respond to the risks of global warming. There is also an intergenerational moral challenge, but this runs up against the limits of our temporal imaginations to about three generations ahead of us. What will the world look like for our great-great-grandchildren? It is impossible to imagine.

But to face the risk of human-induced global warming is not primarily a moral challenge. Rather it is a cognitive and emotional challenge. We can’t live in constant anxiety about cataclysmic risk, yet we need to be able to formulate policies that respond to these risks; we live day to day and year to year, but the risks exist on a much longer time scale. Denial is perhaps human beings’ most common response to anxiety: “it can’t happen to me”. And, of course, it probably won’t happen to many of us who are alive today.

In November last year, John Howard spoke to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a London-based organisation of old men dedicated to climate change scepticism. To quote from its website, “while open-minded on the contested science of global warming, [the foundation] is deeply concerned about the costs and other implications of many of the policies currently being advocated”. From the online materials, it is clear that the foundation sees the short-term economic risks posed by policies that mitigate carbon-dioxide emissions as far greater than the long-term environmental risks of not doing so. These short-term risks they already know how to calculate and think about. The preoccupation with the data of the past 15 years, which they claim demonstrates that world temperatures have not risen, shows the limits of their temporal horizons.

Howard’s lecture gave us insight into the cognitive strategies of those, including Tony Abbott, who are attempting to hold back substantial policy responses to the risk of global warming. Howard called his lecture ‘One Religion is Enough’, largely, he explained, “in reaction to the sanctimonious tone employed by so many of these who advocate quite substantial, and costly, responses to what they see as irrefutable evidence that the world’s climate faces catastrophe, against people who do not share their view. To them the cause has become a substitute religion.” He then went on to complain about the increasingly offensive language used in such rebuttals, to proclaim his preference for agnosticism on the issue, to present people concerned about global warming as being against economic development, and to describe with quiet satisfaction the politics behind Abbott’s defeat of the former Labor government’s emissions trading scheme.

Howard neatly corralled the debate inside the old ideological left–right fences. Those concerned about global warming became extremists opposed to economic growth and technology, eschewing pragmatic and humane economic common sense. So he presented the debate about climate change as primarily about political differences, shifting the threat from the real natural world to the ideological battlefield where he could recognise his enemies and use his familiar weapons. It was very much a case of shooting the messenger. To do this with any credibility at all, Howard needed to marginalise the role of science in the debate, which he did like this: “Scientists are experts in science. Judges are experts in interpreting the law … But parliaments – composed of elected politicians – are the experts at public policy making, and neither expressly or impliedly should they ever surrender that role to others … Global warming is a quintessential public policy issue.” This is an extraordinary move, given that we can only know about the long-term climate through science. In a widely cited comment Howard made before giving the speech, he said, “I instinctively feel that some of the claims [of climate scientists] are exaggerated,” leaving himself open to ridicule as substituting his gut instinct for science, though in the speech itself he only claimed to be “agnostic”.

Of course, we all hope that Howard’s instinct is right, but this is not an evidence-based response. The response to the risk of global warming may be the domain of public policy, but the process itself is natural, and science is our only means of understanding it. Even if we think that what the science points to is a risk rather than a certainty, isn’t it prudent to take the risk seriously? For if even some of the predicted catastrophic consequences of climate change eventuate, then the emotional and ideological character of those who believed in it and those who did not will matter not one iota. Whether we are rude or courteous to each other, whether we are optimists or pessimists, whether we are sincere or not in our motivations, has no impact on long-term natural processes.

Some of those who warn of the risks of climate change may do so with the passion of the religious zealot, but they share none of the believer’s faith in a divinely ordained universe. The supreme indifference of nature is the earthquake shaking the established politics of the West. There is no god who will rebalance the forces of nature for us to ensure his supreme creation does not go the way of other species into extinction. But one suspects that both Tony Abbott and his mentor John Howard still believe there is.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is The Enigmatic Mr Deakin.

February 2014