As the nation reluctantly returns to work, one job looms over every other; and it is, of course, dealing with climate change.
Surely the weather over the holiday period has convinced even the most pig-headed of sceptics that we are now facing increasingly violent weather patterns which can only mean massive changes to our life styles. Hit by cyclones in the north, faced with record heat waves in the south and west and flooded out along the eastern coastland, Australians must surely be ready to take action. The question, of course, is what action.
The first thing to get clear is that this is a natural crisis, not a political one, and that it cannot be solved by purely political means. This should be blindingly obvious, but it is hard to convince the politicians – who will, in the final analysis, be the ones who decide what is to be done – that we are looking for genuine solution, not simply a tactical victory.
John Howard, although he ended up describing himself as a “climate change realist,” never learned this lesson; he always insisted that Australia had to maintain its comparative advantage as a major coal producer as part of any international strategy. His instinct, indeed the habit of a lifetime, was always to look for an edge over the rest of the world, to be able to boast of having outsmarted those whom he saw not as fellow warriors in a common cause, but as economic opponents.
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He was simply unable to view the mining and export of dirty coal not as a comparative advantage, but as an environmental crime. But this is how it will have to be viewed, and crimes entail penalties. These will be exacted as some form of carbon tax, and eventually we shall have to pay it. To avoid what could be a prohibitive cost, perhaps even culminating in economic sanctions against us, we would be wise to start weaning ourselves off coal as soon as possible.
This will not be a painless process either, but it will at least make us part of the solution rather than a continuing part of the problem. Clean coal would of course be the ultimate breakthrough, but at present remains a very expensive fantasy. By all means let us keep going with the research, but let’s not abandon everything else in the hope that it will work out, because it probably won’t.
Apart from finding alternatives, the only way to reduce the emissions that cause climate change is to reduce the overall use of energy, which we are trying to do: more efficient cars, don’t leave devices on standby, change the light bulbs. These are all worthwhile because they involve ordinary people by making them fell they can contribute. But they are still no more than fiddling at the margins.
People are not going to give up air travel, private cars and air-conditioning, to name but a few of the worst offenders – at least not on a voluntary basis. Nor is any government going to force them to do so. The idea that the developed countries are going to sacrifice a large chunk of their living standards for the common good is a noble one, but it won’t happen – any more than the developing countries are going to abandon their efforts to close the gap.
Overall, energy consumption is almost certain to continue to rise. The best we can do is to make sure as much of it as possible is clean and renewable energy, and to prepare to live with the climate change from the bit that isn’t. This is likely to be difficult enough, as the last few weeks have shown. Climate change is no longer a distant threat; it has arrived.
And every single decision Kevin Rudd’s government takes should bear this in mind. The priority in the year ahead will be not only to put in place a comprehensive plan of action, but to convince the public that whatever sacrifices it involves are necessary and worthwhile. It’s no longer a question of winners and losers. Now more than ever we must act not as citizens of Australia but as citizens of the world.
Many years ago a touring English cricket team, in a moment of nostalgia, decided to hold a fancy dress Christmas party. Each player was to draw a tile from a Scrabble set, and then come dressed as someone or something beginning with the letter he drew. Captain Bob Willis picked up a ‘u’, and arrived wearing a white jacket and dark glasses and tapping his way around with the aid of a white stick. He was, of course, an umpire.
For visiting sides it has ever been thus, but few have gone through such a rough trot as Anil Kumble and his Indians, a potentially formidable team whose talent and performance is considerably better than the record books will show. A truly horrendous run of decisions disrupted their chances in the first test and cost them certainly a draw and very possibly a win in the second.
This in turn has led to a lot of unnecessary ill-feeling, culminating in the suspension of a player whose crime appears to be over-stepping the line in replying to abuse from the Australians. Given the remorseless use of sometimes dubious technology to expose umpiring mistakes to even the dumbest cricket fan, feuding between the teams has now left the sports pages to become an international issue – along with the weather. Well, at least it’s finally got politics off the front page.