Risk, Rorts and Realities in the Climate Debate

By John Connor
Posted on 4 November 2011
Filed under Politics

This is the text of a speech given by John Connor at Notre Dame University in Fremantle, Western Australia, on 28 September. It is reproduced in full with the exception of some introductory remarks.

Introduction

Tonight I want to share some observations as something of a climate policy veteran now having been around for all four of the legislative efforts at carbon pricing and for quite some time of the debates before that.

Another veteran of public policy debates is Mitch Hooke CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia who raised some eyebrows when he recently said: "…over the period of the past four years, there has been a profound shift in the manner of public policy development and implementation. The new paradigm is one of public contest through the popular media more so than rational, considered effective consultation and debate. The MCA must similarly engage the community if it is to effectively represent the industry's interests."

The MCA and the mining industry have been incredibly successful in representing their interests and influencing public opinion. 

As a recent Australia Institute survey showed, many Australians have views about the mining industry that diverge radically from the facts.


The survey showed that Australians believe that the mining sector:

  • Employs nine times more workers than it actually does
  • Accounts for three times as much economic activity as it actually does
  • Is 30 per cent more Australian-owned than it actually is.


The mining sector plays an aggressive game to maximise its interests. 

The tens of million dollars spent undermining the Rudd/Turnbull Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and chiselling down the mineral resource rent tax proposal have reaped billions of dollars of benefits in avoided or deferred responsibilities and payments.

Thoughtful comments with a long-term perspective from industry leaders have been few and far between. 

One stellar exception was BHP CEO’s Marius Kloppers' acknowledgement last September that the future global economy will be carbon constrained and that Australia faced risks unless it moved to a low carbon economy.

In the current legislative debate Kloppers and BHP, unfortunately and apologies for saying this here, promptly went all Augustine. 

BHP’s submissions and public comments on the current legislation had all the hallmarks of ‘lord give me chastity but just not yet’. 

Others in the Australian economy should front the responsibilities first.

Now I’m not an opponent of all mining nor for that matter of profitable businesses.

Mining is an important industry which will continue to grow. 

This is revealed in all economic modelling, included by the industry itself, and of course the inconvenient truth of almost half a trillion dollars in the mining investment pipeline. 

Minerals earn handy export dollars, are the basis for a range of vital and not so vital goods and services, and will be needed in the shift to a low carbon economy. 

You can’t dig forever however, and in the longer term humanity will need to find alternatives.

And we’ll need to find alternatives to fossil fuels sooner.

In the short to medium term the mining industry’s weight and heft will continue to be a factor that warps Australian debate, policy and investment for years to come. Reality.

But my aim tonight is not just to look at the truth bending activities of many in the mining industry.

My aim tonight is to step back a bit from the current debate and have a look at the chronic imbalance between short term and long term perspectives and to highlight some key steps to redress that imbalance.

Australia is tantalisingly close to passing legislation that doesn’t just put a price on carbon pollution.

Crucially, from 2015, it establishes a mechanism which limits and automatically reduces net pollution from around 500 of our largest companies. 
It does this with tax cuts for households and pension increases. 

It does with transitional assistance for business and with investment and other support for clean energy, landscape repair and carbon farming.

The strategic importance of the market based system of limits and pollution reduction cannot be underestimated but is poorly recognised by many.  

More on that and the other policies, new investment approaches and reinvigoration of civic culture necessary shortly.


Risk, Rorts and Realities - overview

First though we need to peer through the unseemly mish-mash of risks, rorts and realities in the recent current climate/carbon debate.

The problems however, as Mitch Hooke’s comments indicate, are not isolated to this debate.

Numerous political, economic, legal and cultural drivers are at play to cause public and private decision making to be in a gravitational spiral towards short term thinking.

Mitch is not alone in making observations of a changed political culture.

Post Truth Politics

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Lenore Taylor is amongst those warning of a “hollowing out” of Australian democracy.

A hollowing out not just confined to Australia.

Taylor quoted US commentator David Robert’s description of the world of “post truth politics”:
a world where a politician's rhetoric doesn't have to have anything to do with their actual policy agenda, or bear any relationship with the slogans or agendas they were running yesterday, or in some cases any relationship with the facts (SMH June 4 2011).

The recently retired politician Lindsay Tanner largely attributes this to the corrosive demand of the 24 hour media cycle, now on social media steroids, and its radical inability to sustain a measured debate on long term issues.

His latest book Sideshow: dumbing down democracy details how carnival, short term antics focused on the evening news have become the norm.

He also highlights how for resource strapped media outlets, poll speculation and leadership contests are perfect fodder for the modern media menu. 

There can be no denying the results have been toxic and at least partly fuelled the remarkable revolving door of political leaders of late.

Pity we can’t harness that energy – it would power a small city!

Taylor is prepared for the media to cop some, but not all, of the blame

It can't be entirely our fault that politicians increasingly say things that don't make sense, or just aren't true, or contradict what they have previously said that they stood for.

In reality both the political parties and the media, with its concentrated ownership and the agendas of shock jocks and others, are both partly to blame.
Other economic and legal drivers are also at play in limiting the horizons of public and private discussion and decisions.

A sputtering global economic engine has many of our politicians and commentators cluster shopping for short term fixes. 

The reflexive response is to put the foot on the accelerator of resource and material consumption. 

This is despite the fact that many of the resources such as fresh water, fertilisers and even oil, are hitting limits.

This is despite the fact that with 7 heading to 9 billion people, the nature of consumption is already challenging food security, energy security, geo-political stability and our biodiversity.

This is before we even get to issues of climate change!

These risks and the need to at least redirect economic growth are recognised by a growing number of economists and experts including the developed world’s think tank the OECD in its latest work on green growth strategies.

On top of these risks enters the risk multiplier of climate change.

Scientists from CSIRO and the international academies of science share the concerns of the 97% of peer reviewed scientific experts that the world is warming rapidly, that human activity is highly likely to be the major cause, and that prompt action is necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.

“Highy likely” comes with a tag of 95% certainty.

These activities have been responsible for lifting atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide from 280 parts per million prior to the industrial revolution to almost 388 parts per million today.

This according to CSIRO is a rise of some 40%, to the highest levels in more than a million years.

These greenhouse gas emissions, rightly called pollution because they have taken us far beyond any reasonable consideration of natural balance, have been described as “steroids for our weather systems”.

All the predictions are that the increased atmospheric and oceanic warming will drive more intense if not also more frequent extreme weather events and climate impacts. 

We could be lucky and have the impacts occur at the lighter end…
Whether the current spate of extreme and often unprecedented weather events here and abroad are climate related is at least arguable. 

But they are consistent with future projections and illustrative of what is to come.

The human and economic costs of these events are significant.  Beyond the tragic loss of life in recent extraordinary bushfires and flooding events have been billions of dollars of costs for the Australian economy.   

To me the efforts of those to sideline the warnings are advocating extraordinary risks. 

They shatter all boundaries of prudence and conservative judgement.

As Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb said two days ago
“Science will always have some level of uncertainty, but if you're 95 per cent certain your house is going to burn down, do you do nothing? I don't think so.”

Troubles with belief and taxes

One of the major errors in this debate, even more than the mistake of describing this current legislation as “in effect a carbon tax”, is that made by those who say they “believe in” climate change.

It is not a matter of belief or faith or other questions of metaphysics and the mysteries of life.

It is a matter of risk management.

It is a matter of risk management just as much as the tens of billions of dollars we spend on our defence systems against possible security risks.

As others have pointed out Australia is just about to spend tens of billion dollars on a fleet of submarines that may never be used, replacing a fleet of submarines that were never used in conflict. 

No one mentions a “defence tax” when talking about this risk management.

Tax talk is getting more popular though.

This week we had Eddie McGuire labelling proposed gambling protections as a “footy tax”!

With the backing of a firestorm of falsehoods, distortions, scaremongering and stunts – not to mention millions of dollars of advertising - this current legislative debate has been framed in the public and political vernacular of a tax, as a cost.

A key example of how short termism dominates the debate and how comprehensively this phase of the communications struggle has gone awry is the fact that everyone is talking about the “carbon tax”.

Media from the ABC to The Australian call it a carbon tax.

Activists, experts and probably occasionally even I call it a carbon tax.

As a matter of first principle few voluntarily supports a tax.

The moment this round of pollution prices and limits, and in fact tax cuts, was described as “... in effect a carbon tax…” I knew we were in for a rough ride.
And it has been rough.

The rorts, myths and scares have come thick and fast. 

They have been about the science. 

They have been about the economics. 

They have been about the extent of action taking place around the world.

They are too numerous to cover in totality tonight. 

They have been frustrating, confounding and, when backed with astonishing vigour by some tabloid papers and shock jocks, at times overwhelming.

Attempts to counter them have often been like nailing jelly to a wall.

But, like jelly, they can’t stand the heat of scrutiny and will not endure.

Amongst the most shameless of rorting has been the distorting of economic and other analysis to instil deep fear in the community and amongst workers about the impact of these reforms on jobs. 

This rort is to portray relative job losses from economic modelling – a slight slowing in the rate of income or jobs growth – as absolute losses.  Or “carnage” as it has been headlined on the front page of a national newspaper.

The reality is that the very same models used by those pushing this myth show jobs and investment will continue to grow with action.

The very same modelling used by the mining industry, for example, showed a slowing of jobs growth but still significant growth.  Growth of 10 to 16 000 mining jobs above 2008 levels through till 2020.

These models also show economies and investment continuing to grow. 

I’m not saying we won’t need to pay extra attention to some regions we will.  But this legislative package won’t destroy whole industries or cities as some have claimed.

Yes there are costs. Hospitals cost. Schools cost. Universities cost! 

Every public policy and every private investment decision has elements of costs, of trade-offs, of risks and of returns.

All of these calculations differ if we look from a short term or long term perspective.  All need to integrate them both better.

Public policy

Let’s examine three areas of policy – reducing pollution, transforming our economy and interpreting global actions as we do both.


Reducing Australia’s carbon pollution

One of the frustrations in the current “post truth” debate is that both Labor and the Coalition, on paper, support the same 2020 pollution reduction target range and both recognise the climate science.

For now both accept the 2020 target range of 5 to 25 per cent reduction on 2000 levels dependent on the extent of global action. 

The Coalition’s policies, and the taxpayer tender program at its heart, pose a number of problems. 

There is not just the fact that no credible external source believes it can even achieve a 5% reduction. 

The Climate Institute’s 2010 election Pollute-o-meter was perhaps the most generous and it still had the Coalition increasing pollution levels by at least 8% by 2020. Others analysis point to increases of up to 18%.

Just earlier this week Citi-group and the Investors Group on Climate Change both called into question the capacity of the Coalition’s policy to hit the minimum target.

There are also problems with reliance on soil carbon reductions still unable to be accurately and sustainably accounted for, let alone purchased from farmers for the prices in their assumptions.

But the key problem is the fact that the Coalition policy ends at the beginning.

If you accept the science then all countries will need to be limiting and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric levels for decades if not centuries. 

Yet the Coalition has a plan till 2020.

It is a nightmare of some in industry that an elected Coalition Government will go to a double dissolution by 2016, unwind the emissions trading scheme and then have to deal with the inadequacy of their Plan. 

Then in 2018 Australia will have to re-start considerations of the most cost effective means of reducing emissions. You know where that takes us.
The ALP had a similarly woeful policy platform prior to the election.

In contrast, the agreement between the Government, Greens and Independents, while far from perfect, is an important step forward. 
It includes, but is not restricted to, a short term price on carbon pollution which crucially morphs into a mechanism for limiting and reducing the net pollution levels from the around 500 largest companies to which it applies. 

Under the legislation currently being debated, the establishment of those limits in three then 5 year slabs are assisted by crucial long term tools, many new since the Rudd/Turnbull CPRS.

These include a more transparent process, guided by the advice of an independent Climate Change Authority. 

The Authority’s recommendations need to incorporate factors including the legislation’s objectives of Australia helping avoid warming of more than 2 degrees, and a carbon budgeting approach guided by an increased 2050 target of 80% reductions.

We don’t like what in many cases is excessive assistance for some of our bigger polluters, but each has a remaining incentive for investing in reducing emissions. 

In addition there are important opportunities for review of that assistance in the light of global efforts by the Productivity Commission – no fan of unwarranted public subsidies.

When viewed from the medium to longer term it is an incomparably better offer.

In case you think this is just a partisan assessment I should remind those of you who don’t remember The Climate Institute did support the Rudd/Turnbull CPRS onto which additional improvements have been grafted.

These improvements and associated commitments have made this a far better package overall. 

There is no question that this almost miraculous second chance resulted from a hung Parliament.

There is also no question that it has come at the expense of two years delay and the shattering of an admittedly fairly rude bipartisan consensus.

The Climate Institute, like others such as the Business Council of Australia, would prefer a more non-partisan approach to this debate.

But we are where we are.

While we should support this system of pollution prices and limits, it is by no means the be all and end all of what is needed to transform our big polluting Australian economy.

Transforming Australia’s economy and energy sources

It is true that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are around 1.5% of global emissions but this does not mean we aren’t a big polluter by global standards. 
Our pollution levels are comparable to those of Mexico, United Kingdom, South Korea, Italy, France and the Ukraine despite all of these having populations at least twice that of Australia.

And depending on your sources, Australia’s energy sector is at least the 9th dirtiest when it comes to carbon pollution per kilowatt hour.
As Marius Kloppers said last year:
To remain competitive in a future carbon-constrained world, Australia will need turn into a lower carbon economy.

The longer we delay doing this the more costly it will be.

This is why there are short and long term imperatives in having policies that buttress the medium to long term investment incentives that come from putting a price on carbon pollution.

Policies that accelerate energy efficiency, carbon farming and clean energy not only accelerate that transition, they also accelerate the development of exportable skills. 

They are also likely to be more cost effective in the long run principally by accelerating the “learning by doing effect”.

For example, Suzlon is one of the world’s largest wind companies. Since the company began working in Australia, it has reduced its costs by developing systems adapted to Australian conditions, standards and grid requirements. 

In a competitive environment the cost benefits from learning by doing are then passed on to the broader community.

This is why researchers at the OECD’s International Energy Agency recently recommended having policy support for clean energy in addition to carbon pricing.

When examined from a short and a long term view, such support reduces costs. 

This is why relying just on analysis that takes a snapshot of cost effectiveness in terms of abatement costs is inadequate. 

The recent Productivity Commission report, which in fairness was asked to do the analysis by looking at current comparable policy action around the world, is an inadequate basis for making long term cost effectiveness decisions.

Independent modelling commissioned by The Climate Institute showed that the Renewable Energy Target reduced investment requirements for long term pollution limits by $10 billion.

The 20% Renewable Energy Target by 2020, when combined with existing and proposed clean energy public investment and policy support is needed to achieve other long term objectives when it comes to clean energy.

Firstly they should help take a portfolio approach to developing a range of renewable energy options so we can truly assess which is commercially viable by 2020 and which we can put the foot down on from then. 

Large scale solar photo-voltaics and solar thermal needs to be part of this. Options for which Australia potentially also has competitive advantage should be included, options such as in geothermal and wave technologies.  

Secondly we need to bear in mind that virtually all the models which show the world stabilising and reducing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere require technologies that strip carbon from the atmosphere and store it long long term.

These models require biomass fuelled power with carbon capture and storage.

Although he expresses reservations, it is a plank of Paul Gildings “One Degree War” campaign in his excellent book The Great Disruption.  It is a wedge in Socolow’s 7 now 9 wedges.

Related to this is the inescapable and unfortunate reality that there are widespread resources of coal and gas across developed and developing nations.
For this reason The Climate Institute backs and works with other NGOs worldwide to accelerate the deployment of the technologies of carbon capture and storage.

This is also why we have advocated for low emission standard for new power stations to ensure no new conventional coal plants are built, and that all investments in new coal and gas plants move towards full commercial scale CCS post 2020.

Global action

Finally in this review of public policy implications is the vexed but really not that difficult question of the extent of global climate and clean energy action.

Now I promise this is the last time I’ll quote the good parts of Marius Kloppers’ remarkable speech of last year but he almost completely nailed it when assessing the global situation and implications for Australian policy when he said:

  • our preferred solution is the introduction of an international climate framework, which includes binding commitments by all developed and major developing economies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • we believe local actions that are eventually harmonised into unified global action is a more likely outcome than an immediate broadly supported global initiative.
  • we also believe that such a global initiative will eventually come, and when it does Australia will need to have acted ahead of it to maintain its competitiveness.

Well we are at no risk of acting ahead right now.

The Productivity Commission’s snapshot analysis showed we are at best in the middle of the pack.  Other independent assessments are less generous.
The greater risk is of being left behind.

I say Kloppers almost completely nailed it because in the emerging reality of a patchwork quilt of domestic actions, global ambition and harmonisation prospects are boosted by the individual efforts of nations. 

This is why it is of great strategic significance to enact this legislation that in our view can help enable the achievement of the full range of at least 25 % pollution reduction by 2020.

This can boost not only Australia’s domestic efforts but also it’s sometimes all too effective climate diplomatic efforts.

Australia has been a force for good and bad outcomes in international diplomacy, punching above our weight in issues from Antarctic preservation to historically disrupting climate negotiations.

Passage and implementation of the legislation will also boost the ambition and efforts of other nations.

This was vividly brought home to me in China from where I have just come.

I visited there as part of a Global Foundation delegation with Australian business leaders and headed by former Governor General Michael Jeffreys.

Many commentators, particularly here in Australia, view China’s efforts with great suspicion or just through the prism of Sino-US global top dog jostling.
Those are important but you shouldn’t deny the importance to China of energy security and independence, let alone their concerns about the impacts of air pollution and climate change on their economic growth and their population.

Nor should you underestimate their nose for global economic opportunities in already building global leading firms when it comes to solar and wind energy.
These various drivers are behind China’s ambitious planned reductions in the emissions intensity of their GDP of 40 to 45% by 2020.

As FOI documents of departmental assessment reveal, these targets if matched by the other conditions, would have met the Government’s requirements for Australia’s target going to a 25% reduction commitment.

China’s 12th five year plan now being implemented has these targets in focus and the stringent enforcement of the 11th plan’s energy intensity targets has put beyond doubt questions of the central government zeal to see delivery of their targets.

This enforcement saw provincial leaders who’d second guessed that intent scurrying not only to temporarily close down factories but also in some instances hospitals!

But in China, through the looking glass, there are also cultural and confidence battles underway. 

Business leaders question the science and suspicious cultural champions stress about conspiracy theories. 

The alter egos of Nick Minchin worry that climate change is just a capitalist conspiracy to undermine the socialist regime. 
Weird but true!

But overall it is clear China is examining Australia’s progress towards pollution prices and limits with great interest. 

Success here will build confidence there and elsewhere like South Korea where similar domestic schemes are under consideration.

Investment and profitability with purpose

Hopefully the above gave some fresh long term insights into current policy debates all too obscured by our short term sideshow alleys of media and political debate.

It is important however to understand that the agenda cannot simply be about calling for new laws, policies and public institutions.

We need to engage the private institutions and practises that lock us in to short termism and merely drive mindless material consumption.

And critically, in this age of debt ridden public governments, we need to unlock the private investment needed for cleaner industries and clean energy.

One of the areas where these interests coincide is the management of your and my retirement nest eggs, the superannuation and pension funds. 

These are funds with long term responsibilities and also with trillions of dollars of funds under management.

Combined with insurance and sovereign wealth funds, all ostensibly with long term goals, Deutsche Bank estimates there are over $52 trillion dollars under management.

But when you look at how these funds are managing their climate and carbon exposure, or position for the opportunities of the emerging global clean energy economy then the results are second rate.

Deutsche Bank estimates just 1.6% of these funds are invested in low carbon assets.

For three years The Climate Institute has joined with the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees to examine super funds’ performance in this area.

While the performance of some funds, like Local Government Super, have been positive and there are some good signs with overall involvement in the property sector, the broader results in their fund management have been disappointing.

In saying this I do want to acknowledge that the funds, particularly through their Investor Group on Climate Change, have been a strong positive voice in this debate.

The reality of their fund management, when we scratched the surface, is that trustees are largely devolving investment mandates down the investment chain to shorter and shorter term focused fund managers and financial traders.

Let’s leave aside the egregious but honest trader who yesterday admitted he dreamed of recessions because he knew how to make good money out of the trades involved. 

Another analyst and former trader we spoke with about the need to better integrate long term considerations said “mate in our business 90 seconds is a f***ing eternity”.

The reality is, while there have been some improvements, the internal skills and capacities in these funds, their disclosure of carbon exposure in their, our, portfolios are inadequate and the investment levels are less than would be considered prudent risk management.

We have been engaging with this industry about stepping up performance across these areas and in more active engagement in the companies in which they have substantial stakes. 

Again it is very early days.

All this is important because these funds should be considering climate impact and re-pricing risks.

An excellent illustration of this risk is in the increasing discussed concept of a carbon bubble. 

This concept draws from analysis that only 20 per cent of the fossil fuel reserves currently booked on the balance sheets of companies around the world can be realised if the world gets serious about keeping warming to below two degrees.

If, as Gilding argues, the broader economic impacts of accelerating climate change drive an urgent shift in economic priorities towards clean energy then that is a lot of stranded assets and investments!

The Climate Institute will be re-invigorating our work in this area in the new year. 

We are also continuing our partnership with Australian Ethical Investments through whose Climate Advocacy Fund Australia’s first climate change shareholder resolutions have been moved.

Another aspect of this which needs re-examination is the priority many corporations currently give to short term shareholder value. 

I’m not naively suggesting companies should put at risk their sustainability and profitability but I do think there are much greater opportunities for profitability with purpose.

This throws up issues of corporate form and governance issues such as remuneration rewards for Executives for which there is no time tonight!

Citizenship, civic culture

Finally, what has all this got to do with citizenship and civic culture?

Well lot’s really, when reflecting on Mitch Hookes comments, marketing expert at ANU Andrew Hughes noted:
Over the last five years, Australian politics has undergone a quiet revolution. It has killed off political parties with long-term ideology and platforms, and replaced them with politicians who are market [research]-driven, short-term in focus, and chase after electoral success at any cost.

For Hughes “we’ve lost the voter, but gained the consumer”, electorates are now treated and
..act as groups of consumers, thinking short-term and not long-term. The visionary voter disappeared with the visionary party years ago. The “Me” voter dominates the middle… (The Conversation 30 Aug 2011)

Major political parties have in their armoury masses of personalised profiles and sophisticated software. 

These parties use marketing techniques just as savvy as those used to drive the desire for material consumption.

Under this scenario post truth politics breeds and feeds.

Pithy slogans, brand adjustments and a limited grab bag of issues carefully calibrated to your demographic and social leanings dominate.

People’s “cost of living” becomes a perennial strategic campaign ground. 

Now too many Australians genuinely struggle to make ends meet.

The overall reality, however, was revealed earlier this month by the Australian Bureau of Statistics who showed that recent average incomes have risen faster than average costs.

But there’s always an average family on struggle street for front page info-pics or current affairs shows.

As Tanner points out, under this marketing onslaught, especially during elections, the media’s capacity to make big picture, long term analysis is severely constrained.

Ever diminishing resources are concentrated on following the caravan around to report carefully scripted comments, or even better the gaffes.  
But again I think it is too easy just to blame the media and the political parties.

These players act out their moves on a narrow stage that confines the measurement of our individual and collective well-being primarily to measures of gross domestic product.

There’s plenty of literature that goes into the madness of over reliance on this measure which treats activity after oil spills, floods and bushfires on par with activities without the damage to social or natural assets, so I won’t occupy you with more. 

The point is that this measure continues to suck the life out of broader long term discussions.

We look at the speed gauge more than where we are going, who we are riding with or even at the fuel (or natural resource) gauge.

There are many other ways individuals are primarily treated as consumers and frustrated as citizens.

Planning systems have mostly gone backwards in rights for citizens to participate in decisions affecting their communities. 

Citizen’s right of “standing” to access the courts to enforce public duties and private responsibilities created by our laws ebb and flow on a case by case basis. 

Open standing in the courts is of course granted under competition and consumer legislation but in other areas it has been more of a struggle.
The Government is opposing such clarity for the Clean Energy Future legislation.  There is a halfway house in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. 

Our ability to participate as citizens in public discourse is made not impossible but difficult. 
A civic culture will struggle to flourish if the ability to participate in the “public thing”, or in latin res publica, is limited.

And don’t get me started on the focus of the republican agenda just on the leader, the head, rather than the rest of our body politic. 
Little wonder it is a languishing agenda.

I’m not saying the trend is complete.

I’ve been privileged to have been able to have made a career as a public citizen.
There are exciting opportunities opening up in online communities of participation across the political spectrum from Menzies House to the Australian Youth Climate Coalition to GetUp.

But these trends feed into the reality of diminishing social trust and cohesion as this week’s Scanlon report highlighted.

The withering of our public, civic capacities also underprepares people for engagement with long term issues such as climate change.

This is compounded when the fuller implications of unmitigated climate change could be so extreme and calls go out for us to get on a war footing.

We need to act urgently and we need to discuss realistic impact assumptions, but we also need to understand the reality of psychology.

For some it is a perfectly understandable reaction to such communication to cling to the 5 per cent chance scientists say there is that human activity isn’t causing climate change or to the less than 3% of climate scientists who say we aren’t responsible.

We could be so lucky.

It is hypocritical to rage against economic theories which say we are perfectly rational human beings at all times and then ignore that when it comes to climate communications.

To enable us as individuals and communities to be more engaged with long term issues then we need an approach to civic culture that encourages our ability participate as citizens.

When it comes to climate it is important we act as climate citizens as well as good climate consumers. 

Participate in community actions, engage with the literature, work with community groups and businesses willing to take action and realise opportunities.
With the likelihood of increased extreme weather event so high we also need to enhance and build resilient networks, communities and cities.

Conclusion

We live on an overcrowded and overstretched planet heading for 9 billion people with more intense, if not also more frequent, extreme weather events and other climate impacts very likely or underway.

Humanity’s social and natural infrastructure is shuddering to bear the load.

We also apparently live in a world of post truth politics, post industrialism, post modernism, post this and post that.

It is as if we are a generation in a collective hangover.  Post the party.

The wasteful, if not the wasted, generation.

While I am by nature and profession an optimist, it is often an act of will against the churning in the guts that follows any sober assessment of the challenges ahead. 

Any sober assessment of the counsel we are getting from all the major Academies of Science, CSIRO and others is that human actions are causing climate change and that we are chewing through the critical decade of the carbon challenged century.

We could be lucky and experience the extremes at the lower impact end of projections, and/or discover some feedback loops or processes of which we are unaware.

I happen to think it is reckless to rely on such luck.  

I do think humanity will come through this carbon challenged century and that we will be better for the experience. 

Better connected and stronger in our social communities and networks.

Better connected to our, hopefully not too much poorer, natural communities.

Better connected to revitalised concepts of prosperity, well being and the good life. 

I look around at the remarkable efforts of a new generation of thinkers, entrepeneurs, innovators, activists and community workers.

This is an emerging generation who are recognising the risks and keen to realise the opportunities of climate action.

This is the Re Generation.

The renewables generation

The reducing pollution generation

The resilient generation

If we can better integrate short term and long term thinking across public policy, private investment, our civic culture and other areas I didn’t have time to mention, this will be a remarkable generation.

Bring it on!

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