A Very Large Elephant

Sev Sternhell is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of Sydney. The author of approximately 200 scientific publications, he has chaired two panels of the Australian Research Council.

Sometimes nothing but a well-worn cliché will do: I am a “climate sceptic” (Quadrant, June 2008) but even if I were the most fervent of global warming alarmists I would acknowledge that the Australian economy at about 1.5 per cent of the world’s is so small that whatever actions Australia might take to mitigate our carbon dioxide emissions they would have no measurable direct physical effect on the Earth’s climate. That is the pachyderm in question—not quite unacknowledged, but never to the best of my knowledge actually discussed, which is puzzling seeing that we are seriously contemplating expensive, disruptive and controversial actions with major predictable and undoubtedly also some major unpredictable consequences.

Before listing possible motives, which are unlikely to be mutually exclusive, we must briefly consider the virtually insane proposition that some politicians actually believe that mitigating Australian carbon dioxide emissions will have a measurable physical effect—that is, that they deny the presence of our elephant. Certainly Kevin Rudd in full flight about “the need for action” by Australia to “save the Barrier Reef” and prevent droughts could be thus understood. I have always chosen to interpret that sort of rhetoric—Mr Rudd is by no means an isolated case—as simply “pollie-speak”. I prefer to think of our politicians as tricky with words, or even as brazenly mendacious rather than insane.

The most obvious sane reason for reducing carbon dioxide emissions by Australia is moral: if you really believe that the stuff is a dangerous pollutant rather than the basis of life, Australians need to “do our bit”, a nicer way of putting it than rabbiting on about the “greatest moral challenge of our times”. We should be clear, however, that this constitutes merely a symbolic action because without a serious reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by the large economies, nothing physical (such as lowering sea levels and temperatures) would actually eventuate. We would be making a sacrifice to make ourselves feel better, but nothing else.

Another sane reason for taking unilateral action is the hope that we would provide a moral lead to others, especially those who matter like China, the USA and India by enlightening or shaming. Before Copenhagen and Cancun this argument may have had some traction, but I suspect that while sane, it is on the delusional side. Certainly the big emitters do not seem to be inclined to follow the (hyped rather than substantive) example of the European Union. The obverse of this argument is that inaction by Australia would make us a pariah state. However, this is an argument in favour of following rather than leading.

Whatever the motives actually propelling most Australian politicians to advocate various “carbon abatement” schemes, the cynic in me is convinced that the major motive is political—they believe (correctly in my opinion) that the Australian public is sufficiently concerned about anthropogenic global warming to expect “something to be done”. Polls suggest that public interest in the issue is waning, but a few hot days could well change that and in any case a real U-turn simply cannot be contemplated. The emperor may or may not be clothed, but the majority don’t see him (yet?) as actually starkers.

To turn from analysis to advocacy: given that while we cannot actually achieve anything, but for political reasons must “act”, we should hasten slowly, adopting a scheme or schemes for carbon dioxide abatement which appear to be “doing something” without damaging the economy too much.

In fact, our windmills and solar panels on roofs are in that category, as is any action incorporating the word “research”. If we must put a “price on carbon” (diamonds anyone?), we should make it very low, with the excuse that the scheme can be adjusted. A few rubbery and not actually achievable “targets” won’t go amiss. Something similar is happening in China, whose government is right at this moment convincing the Western public that it is working hard to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, while in fact remaining the biggest and fastest-growing emitter. China is, by the way, acting in a great totalitarian tradition: remember that Mussolini made “the trains run on time”, Hitler “built the Autobahnen” and assorted British twits returned from the Soviet Union declaring that they have “seen the future and it works”.

In the long run, the optimist in me hopes that the non-problem of AGW will wilt on the strength of broken hockey sticks, satellite measurements of temperature, East Anglia-type scandals, unfulfilled computer predictions, and other fiascos, in other words that we will simply outgrow it, just as we have outgrown numerous other widely-believed but baseless notions.

The pessimist in me nags that science (“the” or otherwise) is never settled and that AGW could just possibly turn out to be real and the cause of real problems. In that case the advocacy is much simpler: forget trying to control the climate by the doubtful expedient of cutting down carbon dioxide emissions and take action as problems and opportunities appear. 

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