Nicholas Aberle writes: The way in which climate change is communicated has been a constant theme in the public debate about pricing carbon emissions, but this distracts from the two key topics: the urgency of our situation, and the importance of leadership in taking comprehensive action now.

The science is clear. The next 5-10 years have been identified as a critical period for action and, without significant reductions in global emissions in the very near future, we will be facing a world that it is (on average) four degrees warmer. Droughts, heatwaves, bushfires and floods will become much worse, and our ability to live well in such a world is highly uncertain. Ideally, this would not be the case, but it seems that everyone who studies this material says it is.

That we still see such outrage at something like a carbon price suggests we, as Australians, are nowhere near making the necessary changes commensurate with our per capita contribution (not to mention our imported emissions), especially within the timeframes required by the science. We have the great fortune of living in a stable democracy blessed with both strong institutions and plentiful natural wealth. The nature of a two-party democracy, however, is that if one side proposes unpopular (though valuable) measures, it is there for their opponents to take a more populist and easy route. Overwhelming public support for real action on climate change would largely remove the political slanging match from centre stage, and the bipartisan focus could shift to genuine efforts to address emission levels.

How does one gain public support for such measures, so that those who introduce them are not deposed at the next electoral opportunity? The difficulty of this is demonstrated by polls from the ANU and the CSIRO showing that public opinion on climate change is essentially going backwards.

Public debate is governed, according to cognitive scientist George Lakoff, not by the evidence but rather by how both politicians and the media present the issues, which is understandable but clearly sometimes unfortunate. Further, psychological studies suggest that no amount of evidence will change the minds of many people. Experiments reported by Feinberg & Willer in the journal Psychological Science in February support the view that “fear won’t do it”, and the authors observe a correlation between climate change denialism and the strength of one’s adherence to the “just world theory”. This refers to a belief that the world is just, orderly and stable, and anything that threatens this view (eg. climate change) is instinctively rejected in a form of emotional self-preservation, albeit at the cost of intellectual and moral integrity.

In an essay in which he draws disturbing parallels between climate denialism and both the rejection of Einstein’s theory of relativity in Weimar Germany and the ignoring of Churchill’s warnings about Hitler in the lead up to World War Two, Clive Hamilton discusses how those who reject climate change tend to be those whose cultural identity is most threatened by it. And if this weren’t enough, a major thesis of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s best-seller The Black Swan is that, for the most part, humans simply cannot conceive of the risk of catastrophic events.

Based on their studies, Feinberg & Willer conclude that less dire messaging could be more effective in helping people accept climate change, but can “less dire messaging” really achieve the urgency of action that is required? And if it can’t, what are we left with? Julia Gillard has spoken of the need for “a deep and lasting consensus” across the country. Given the apparent downward trend of community support, and psychological research suggesting we will never achieve it, we cannot afford to wait for this consensus.

The alternative path is brave leadership, with associated courage from an opposition party not to play political games with our future. In a film called Climate Refugees, which we screened at the 2010 Environmental Film Festival Melbourne, Lester Brown, author of “Plan B”, tells a story about US President Roosevelt one month after Pearl Harbour. After announcing that 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes and 20,000 artillery guns would be needed for the war effort, Roosevelt called the captains of the car industry (who represented a large portion of the US industrial capacity at the time) to discuss how this would be achieved. The manufacturers said it would be difficult to achieve those numbers while still making their 2 or so million cars a year. Roosevelt explained: “You don’t understand. We’re going to ban the sale of private automobiles in the United States.” And so he did, and the arms goals were achieved. Speculate as you wish about the course of history had Roosevelt taken the path of least immediate resistance. While this demonstrates the power of leadership, one wonders what kind of media campaign would be brought out today by those industrialists, and how a political opponent would respond.

In the panel discussion that followed the film, it was said that the war-like mentality serves only to create an “Us-versus-Them” situation, but I submit now that what we need is not war-like in the sense of confrontation or opposition, but rather war-like in the sense of unity in a time of crisis and rallying together around a common problem.

What we urgently need is leaders who make tough choices and people who support those decisions, not because they like it but because it is in their best long-term interests. A price on carbon emissions is a critical starting point for action on climate change, but it does not end there. For example, we have the capacity now to radically change our energy sources for the better (consider the Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan from the Melbourne Energy Institute), but what are we doing with it? What if every car manufacturing plant was asked to spend a year making wind turbines instead, and every television manufacturer to make photo-voltaics?

While I suspect not intended to be read specifically in this context, Waleed Aly’s dedication of his book People Like Us to his two children beautifully sums up what we face: “May your world fulfil its potential, not complete its trajectory”. In the conclusion to his Requiem for a Species, Clive Hamilton observes that “clinging to hopefulness becomes a means of forestalling the truth”, and that we will need to embrace a new vision of how we conceive of ourselves in a changed climate. The reality is that we no longer have a choice about whether our lives are transformed or not. We do, however, have a choice of futures, but only if our leaders have the courage to lead us there, and only if people have the courage to follow.

Nicholas Aberle is the Director of the Environmental Film Festival Melbourne.

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Peter Fray
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