Ross Gaunaut laid out an updated case for action on climate change in his 2010 Cunningham Lecture speech at the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia last night — read the full speech on Crikey‘s environmental blog Rooted. He concluded his remarks with the following plea …

What if the mainstream science is right? What if the science supported by the overwhelming majority of scientists who are qualified in the various disciplines related to climate, is broadly right? What if all of the Academies of Science in all of the countries of scientific achievement, are not deluded, or enticed into error by the availability to their members of certain types of research grants?

If they are broadly right, we would probably see a threat to our prosperity rather larger than any of the issues that do the rounds of public discourse on long-run economic development. The threats would manifest themselves in large problems in a few decades, and as the dominant problem well before the end of this century. The challenges beyond this century are difficult to reconcile with continuity in modern human civilisation.

If the mainstream science is broadly right, later in this century we will probably not be squabbling about whether a 37% reduction in allocations to Murray-Darling irrigators is too much; but rather working hard to improve the chance of there being any water at all to allocate.

If the mainstream science is broadly right, defence and immigration would probably have radically different contexts. Probably, because there is uncertainty. It may be worse than this, or better. There is no reason to think the chances of better are higher than the chances of worse.

We should think about it, because there’s a chance that the mainstream science is right. When we think about it, those of us who are not climate scientists would need reasons beyond the current state of knowledge to think anything except that they are probably right. Certainly more likely to be right than people who have not spent the months and years and decades learning the subtleties of this complex area of knowledge.

I hope that we here at least — members of this other learned academy that takes seriously the development and testing and accumulation of knowledge — can agree that there is enough of a chance that the mainstream physical and biological science is broadly right, to invest in understanding the implications for human society. After all, ours is the Academy that Australians look to for knowledge on how the immense pressures that we are in the process of placing on our societies may change human life on earth.

If we thought about the respective credentials of those who line up with the mainstream science, and those who are prepared to take their chances with information from other places, we would think that this issue was at least one of the fateful public policy matters of our time.

I suppose that is where I was when I accepted my first commission to prepare the Climate Change Review from Kevin Rudd and all the premiers and chief ministers in April 2007. I was deeply steeped in the question for 18 months after my commission. I was asked to come up with an independent assessment of Australia’s interest in domestic and international climate change policy. With an excellent team of mostly young people, I sought to work through the implications of the science being broadly right. The implications for humanity on a global scale and in Australia if there were no effective mitigation; the costs and benefits of various approaches to mitigation.

To their credit, the commissioning leaders respected the independence that had been written into my terms of reference, although my conclusions as they came through in interim and draft reports, working papers and the final report, were not always what they would have preferred to hear.

I sought to make my premises, logic and sources of information clear for all to see. On a matter as complex as this, and breaking new conceptual ground, I was not going to get it all right at once.

I came to the conclusion that we should be doing a great deal at home and abroad to increase the chances of effective mitigation.

The extent of interest in the subject, in Australia and abroad, surprised me. More than 10,000 filled the town halls of the mainland capitals to hear about and to discuss the draft report. More than 10,000 sent in submissions. People struggled through unfamiliar lines of logic in the final report, and sent emails to me or stopped me in the street or coffee shop to discuss some detail.

It was the extent of community realisation that this was an issue beyond the weft and warp of day-to-day politics that gave us the unusual result in the 2010 election and the chance to have another try. Some of you, my colleagues in the Academy, are already deeply engaged in aspects of this important subject. I hope that more of you join us, at least to the
extent of seeking to follow the logic of the 2008 review and the update that will follow. The Australian community will need the engagement of the people who spend their lives with knowledge and analysis to help them to a satisfactory conclusion the second time round.

Australia has mostly been a laggard in the great international challenge of climate change mitigation. That has made it less likely that there will be a satisfactory global mitigation. It is unlikely that Australia will come to play its proportionate part in an adequate global effort unless there is a strong independent centre of our public life, that holds some ground for the public interest against the huge investments that will again be made in false information and the distortion of the political process. The learned academies are an essential part of that independent centre.

Peter Fray

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