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A climate policy for grown-ups

By Tom Biegler - posted Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Abbott government prides itself on a grown-up outlook. What would a climate policy for grown-ups look like?

Primarily it would reflect the characteristics of grown-ups. Grown-ups know that they can't have everything they want. They know about instant gratification and postponed rewards. They usually value the wisdom of experience. Grown-ups avoid wishful thinking. Grown-ups don't believe everything they hear but accept that there is much that they can never fully comprehend. Grown-ups value productive activity and dislike futile effort. Grown-ups know there is no free lunch.

A climate policy for grown-ups should be coherent, durable, credible and cautious, especially as mistakes will cost a lot. Here are my suggestions for feeding grown-up values into a long-term climate policy:


1. Declare unequivocally that the coalition government accepts the IPCC as the authoritative source of climate science.

An adult government should see that only the scientists who devote their careers to the subject of climate science and atmospheric physics (which was the name CSIRO gave to its first climate research unit) can possibly sort out all the complexities involved. Politicians in particular should eschew personal interpretations of climate science and events. In that regard it might help them to imagine hearing news that the President of, say, Kazakhstan has announced that all his ministers have read the latest IPCC report and don't believe a word of it. 'What would they know?' I hear our politicians ask. I rest my case.

In short, the government's climate policy must be dissociated from climate scepticism.

So, ignore the amateurs and the bloggers with their pet theories. Take no notice of the lawyers or the bankers or the mechanical engineers or, especially, the shock jocks, who argue that the 'tiny' atmospheric content of carbon dioxide cannot have any effect, or that climate 'has always been changing', or that solar activity or underwater volcanoes are responsible, and so on. These folk all treat climate scientists as idiots who have overlooked or ignored or misunderstood their pet theories.

Don't pretend there is no debate and don't try to stop it. Let the kids in the playground argue amongst themselves about climate change, but have faith in the real scientists. They are sceptics by nature, compete vigorously and love nothing more than proving their peers wrong. The truth will prevail. So, get right behind the IPCC as the voice of authority on the current status of climate science. Knock out any connection between government policy and climate scepticism. Align the government with Australia's IPCC delegates to help strengthen climate science. Use them openly to help settle any questions or doubts, which will inevitably arise.

2. Keep climate science and climate action separate. One is science, the other is politics and economics.


Climate change does not automatically demand mitigating action. The science and the actions in response are inter-dependent but distinct. Climate change mitigation plans should use the science in conjunction with a reasoned analysis of costs and feasibility. Rely on the IPCC for the science but be wary when it strays into politics and economics, or even energy technology.

Never assume, or encourage the view, that governments can necessarily fix the problem. Leave room for doubt. Beware of exhortations for more 'political will'; it cannot create miracles. Explain that climate action might turn out to be futile, that acceptable means for reducing global emissions might not emerge, that international agreements will be elusive and that caution should override the sense of urgency associated with reversing climate change. Unjustified confidence in remedies can turn out very costly.

3. Ensure that Australia plays its part in advancing the technology solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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About the Author

Dr Tom Biegler was a research electrochemist before becoming Chief of CSIRO Division of Mineral Chemistry. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.

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