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Rudd's delusions of grandeur

By Melvin Bolton - posted Thursday, 13 May 2010

I’d better say at the outset that I won’t be commenting on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s motives for shelving his ETS, or on Malcolm Turnbull’s turnaround. Nor will I waste precious space on Tony Abbott’s view of the Great Big New Tax, or why Bob Brown wasn’t convinced it would keep the planet out of the greenhouse. I’m not even concerned with those who think climate change is an urban myth. What bothers me is how the whole lot of them remain blind to the bigger picture.

While politicians argue, the effects of a changing climate around the world are being measured in hard scientific currency, but Australia’s output of greenhouse gases is only about 1.4 per cent of the world’s total. If greenhouse gases are causing climate change, then after subtracting our share from a sea-level rise of 1 metre, we would still be floundering in a depth of 98.6 centimetres. In short, it won’t make much difference what Australia does to reduce carbon emissions unless we can persuade the big polluters, or lots of smaller ones, to follow our example. This is not to say we should do nothing, but there’s no point in being wildly unrealistic. Delusions of grandeur don’t help.

For generations, in ways too numerous to list, we humans have been bashing nature so hard that we have altered much of the face of the land and over-fished the 70 per cent that is ocean. Our impact on the earth’s natural cycles is such that half the nitrogen fixed in all plants now comes from synthetic fertilisers and other human interventions. Yet political leaders of every stripe still talk as if we could carry on as usual if only we can avoid upsetting the climate too much.


The threat of climate change is alarming not only for the new problems it will cause, but also for the ways in which it will exacerbate existing ones. The existing problems will still be there, and getting worse, even with no change in climate.

The basic conflict, that politicians fail to grasp, lies in the fact that nature’s complexity is sustained by a myriad checks and balances that work to maintain a rough stability over the long term. In contrast, the world’s economies are hammering away at the natural systems in pursuit of perpetual growth. And despite massive environmental deterioration, and the near certainty that it will all get a lot worse, the growth promoters seem set to be calling the shots until the bitter end.

To be fair, governments around the world have been considering whether economic growth can somehow be decoupled from material growth so there is no environmental impact. In 2001 the environment ministers of the OECD adopted decoupling as one of the main objectives of the Environmental Strategy for the first decade of the century. Well, the decade is closing and there isn’t much to celebrate. In some countries carbon emissions have grown less than GDP so that is being praised as a relative decoupling. But in absolute terms emissions have increased everywhere, as has the total use of energy. How could it be otherwise while, globally, numbers and demand are still soaring?

So, back in Australia, now that Mr Rudd has shelved his plans for improving the atmosphere round the entire planet, perhaps he can give more thought to caring for the fragile land within our borders. It is not unrealistic to think we can be better prepared for the challenges of nature where we live. Preparing for climate change, instead of trying to avert it, is not a cop-out, it is the prudent response in our circumstances. And if the most dire predictions don’t eventuate, we shall be all the stronger for it.

I’m thinking ecologically, of course. But as a former US senator once said: “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.”

Perhaps, when all is said and done, we shall still be left with delusions of grandeur. Because now I think of it, apart from his intention to reduce carbon emissions, the Prime Minister has repeatedly spoken of his concern for the natural environment. Our rivers, wetlands, corals reefs, fish stocks, forests, farmland and unique wildlife will all be cherished and preserved for future generations. Cities are to be made more livable and less congested.


But he would also have us believe that by supporting the policies of continued baby bonuses and high immigration, we can confidently share his radiant vision of a nation with double the population, still in a growth phase, within a few decades. These are the dreams of one who thinks he knows how to get lean and grow fat at the same time. Delusions of grandeur, or is that just business as usual?

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First published in the Canberra Times on May 10, 2010.

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About the Author

Melvin Bolton worked as an ecologist for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In semi-retirement he is a freelance writer and occasional broadcaster on Radio National. His writing output has included seven books, ranging from fiction through popular science to academic.

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