Julia Gillard’s suggestion of a “citizens’ assembly” on climate change raises a number of questions.
Why a “citizens’ assembly”? Why not a public education program about the science of global warming? A well and critically informed public will give the politicians a clear mandate to act - a mandate that they do not currently have. It is clear, people do want action on climate change - but it is far from clear at present what action they want: which is not surprising as the issues are complex and there have been concerted efforts by climate change deniers and irresponsible media to obfuscate the issues.
What the government not only has a mandate to do, but a responsibility to do, is to critically inform citizens of the unpalatable facts about climate change. The best way to do this is not to construct a citizens’ assembly - a diversion- but to have an education program, much as there was a public education program about HIV-AIDS.
The science is telling us that global warming is for real. It is telling us we have a very short time frame in which to act to avoid irreversible global warming. The science is telling us that there exists a threshold, a level of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere which, once passed, nothing the nations of the world can do will alter the outcome and the Earth will move irreversibly to a new hot state.
As James Lovelock has written in The Revenge of Gaia (2006), “the planet we live on has merely to shrug to take some fraction of a million people to their death. But this is nothing compared with what may soon happen; we are now so abusing the Earth that it may rise and move back to the hot state it was in fifty-five million years ago, and if it does, most of us, and our descendants, will die.”
Once certain global warming tipping points have been passed, the momentum for global warming will be irreversible. At this point, the melting of the ice caps and the greater absorption of heat from the sun’s rays into the darker surface of oceans, the release of methane from the melting permafrost, the declining absorption of carbon emissions by the warmer oceans and so on, kick in and the process of global warming becomes unstoppable. The impacts will be felt for thousands of years. The human costs will be incalculable and the economic costs will be so large as to be eventually irrelevant.
We have hard decisions to make.
To do nothing is to condemn present and future generations to an increasingly hostile and uninhabitable planet. But - what to do? Do we leave it to the market - through carbon trading and carbon tax regimes? Do we have such faith in the market that we will let it take care of what, essentially, are life and death decisions?
There is no evidence that emission trading schemes or carbon taxes will work. Emission trading schemes in Europe have been characterised by both large scale profits and large scale fraud - and still have not reduced emissions.
Or do we tackle emissions through regulation? Do we tackle the root causes of the problem - an economy dependent on growth and its parallel demand for energy - from fossil fuels?
Do we really believe we can consume without end on a finite planet? Is our democracy about just the freedom to consume, or is it something deeper: about not just our rights, but also our responsibilities to those who are already being affected by global warming - the poorest of us in the world, and our future generations? Would we consider reducing our standard of living to what it was, say, in the 1960s - when we were just as happy but had smaller houses, smaller cars and less gizmos - but a less carbon-satiated atmosphere?
Given there is limited atmospheric room for further carbon emissions - should those of us who have already had more than our fair share have more - or should it be for the emissions arising from the production of essential goods and services, and for improving the standard of living of the poorest - who to date have emitted little carbon pollution?
The science has told us we have fewer than ten years to avert irreversible warming. Do we need a citizens’ assembly, or do we need an education campaign so we understand the issues and can then support a government to take real and meaningful action?
Do we need more political rhetoric or do we need a Prime Minister with the courage to tackle the most challenging issue facing Australia and the rest of the world?
As Australians, do we want to be consumers who vote for a particular lifestyle and mortgage interest rate, or do we want to be responsible citizens more meaningfully engaged in caretaking a world in which we and future generations can live in harmony with nature?
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