Election Blues

Nowhere is the lack of ability for humans to deal with long-term challenges more evident than this coming election. none of the major parties really cut it if you’re concerned about climate change.

My prediction is that Australia’s 2013 election will be looked back on as a textbook example of mass denial. We’ve just experienced a very vivid example of climatic shifting – the warmest winter for most of our major cities as well as the hottest 12 months on record – yet in the lead-up to this election what our potential representatives will do to address climate change is barely mentioned, let alone scrutinized, as if it has no relevance for Australia’s future.

How can this be?

Upon returning to office, Kevin Rudd made a decision that may prove to be the undoing of his electoral chances, and with it, much hope for domestic action on climate in the near-term. He calculated that it was better to distance himself from the festering sore of Julia Gillard’s carbon tax “lie” than expose the recklessness of Abbott’s plans to dismantle any hard-won progress gained over the last few years, perhaps believing that those in the electorate that truly cared about such issues would implicitly just trust him on this one. Within a few weeks, it became obvious that “shifting the debate” on climate was code for making it disappear from view.

We are in, let us not forget, what experts from Government’s own Climate Commission have dubbed “The Critical Decade” where decisions we make over the next few years will have far-reaching consequences for many generations to come, stating the need for us to decarbonise globally over the next 30-35 years. 

By now, we’ve all heard ad nauseam what must be done to address this kind of challenge, yet a curious apathy has settled over us rather than us just getting on with it as a matter of urgent national priority.

Facing the reality that we, along with our ancestors, have been unwittingly geoengineering the planet with greenhouse gases is one thing, but when our elected representatives spin or play down the issue – for ideological, political or other reasons – it can become highly demotivating for people that desire strong action, and I think that many of them have been left feeling there’s little they can do individually.

We know from Stanley Milgram’s controversial psychology experiments, dating from the ‘60s, that figures of authority can override our innate sense of ethical behaviour. It’s hardly surprising then that leaders who do precious little about an issue as important as the desecration of our global ecosystem can cause a jarring disconnect in many that is hard for them to overcome. I believe this disconnect manifests itself, at least in part, as what Jonathan Green termed the ‘same sense of near universal “whatever”’.

Simply put, the only thing we’re lacking is courageous and honest leadership, not more scientific evidence that climate change is real, human-caused and potentially catastrophic.

Of course, the irony is that a leader that offers comforting words alone will make us feel less guilty for not doing anything, and will probably seem more appealing, even if we can’t readily understand why.

If he gets elected into office, which looks more likely by the day, Abbott may come to rue his relentless negative attacks on Labor over what is, after all, quite a sensible policy, even if it lacks the necessary ambition. It will become painfully obvious that the direct action policy is actually a big white elephant that just can’t scale to meet the challenge. Increasingly, he’ll have to rely on external pressure to force a reversal of his “blood oath” against implementing a carbon price, or ‘fess up with the mother of all mea culpas.

The truth is that addressing climate change in any meaningful way has a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity. The more we procrastinate, the more expensive it will become to deal with and the more harm will be done.

There will come a point soon where, climatically, we really won’t be able to make much difference unless we can develop a technology that can efficiently suck the carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere and “un-geoengineer” what we’ve already done. Even this though will do little for our acidified oceans, and, if we’ve crossed major tipping points, will largely be a futile exercise in damage limitation. Perhaps it would be prudent to not just cross our fingers and hope for the best?

To do that would mean both Rudd and Abbott need to actually listen to what our best minds are telling us about this issue rather than hide behind a pretense that they’re just listening, and responding to, public opinion. It’s now more clear than ever that in 2013 none of the major parties have any integrity when it comes to the biggest challenge of our generation, and the likely lament of future ones.

Steve O’Connor is a coordinator with SolarShare, He tweets at @stevepoconnor