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After the climate backflip, what next?

By Chris Harries - posted Monday, 13 November 2006

In the space of just two months climate change has hit home with a bang. Virtually every news bulletin these days contains a climate story - about terrible calamities being experienced around the world or foreboding predictions about what will happen if action is not taken very quickly.

Strange to think that this story is over 100-years-old! It was way, way back in 1907 that a Swedish scientist first postulated that growing levels of carbon dioxide in that atmosphere would impact on natural ecological systems.

Then, 36 years ago, the Club of Rome’s sensational book, The Limits to Growth, used scientific modelling to show that human activity, if unchecked, would bring about a collapse of civilisation as we know it. At the forefront of their predictions was the inability of the planet’s atmosphere to continuously absorb fossil fuel pollutants without disastrous consequences.


Fascinating to think that if its dire premonitions were heeded then, the course of world history would have changed and the present crises avoided. Although The Limits to Growth sold 30 million copies in more than 30 translations, political and industry leaders were far too enamoured by the unbounded promises of economic growth and wealth to take heed. The Club of Rome’s seminal treatise was debunked as scientific nonsense.

From that point it took another 25 painfully slow years for the majority of world’s scientists to overcome their inherent conservatism and doubt. Yet, so long as a sparse minority in the scientific community offered scepticism, it was easy for politicians to do nothing on the grounds that “the jury was still out”. Overcoming that step took another disappointing, time-wasting decade.

Now, as we approach the year 2007, no scientist can, with credibility, cast doubt on human-induced climate change. No layperson with average intelligence can deny the bleeding obvious. After 100 years we have finally arrived at the critical turning point.

This long history is important to understand, because it highlights the painstakingly long lag time between postulation, scientific proof, political acceptance, then corrective political action being taken. We are only just entering that last phase, yet we are over 100 years into the saga.

Similarly, the link between smoking and cancer was postulated over 50 years ago, scientifically proven soon after that, but such proof was legally accepted only after a 35-year protracted struggle in the courts, political remedial action being so retarded that millions of human beings died in the interval. (The saga continues still as cigarette companies vend their products to billions of customers living in the world’s most populous nations.)

In these two case studies, the pathway to political acceptance and action was strategically blocked and delayed by vested interests who cunningly played on the instincts of individual consumers to reject negative news.


That aside, as a rule of thumb, history shows that the lag time between a new scientific phenomenon being understood and corrective political action being taken is generally accepted to be about 40 years, on average.

Now let’s go back to the climate debate.

Prime Minister Howard and his ministers have, in a few short weeks, catapulted themselves from a position of feigned denial to acceptance. Yes, climate change is happening; yes, it is proving to be disastrous for our farmers; yes, the national economy is being seriously affected; yes, Australia has to act.

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About the Author

Chris Harries is a Tasmanian based opinion writer and social advocate, and former adviser to Australian Greens senator Bob Brown.

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