After years of ignored warnings and predictions of imminent ecological cataclysms, environmentalism is now all the rage.
Spurred on by the immense success and world-wide appeal of Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, environmental issues have dominated airwaves and print media over the past eight months, tapping into the public’s latent green sympathies, and sending corporations scrambling to acquire “green friendly” endorsements and logos for their products.
Sensing a shift in the popular mood, many politicians who formerly claimed that the “jury is still out” on a direct link between climate change and the concentration of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHG) now seem only too happy to assert their green credentials.
The deeper question - leaving aside the still-contentious issue of the actual science of climate change - is this: Why now? Why are these environmental concerns suddenly centre stage?
After all, the predicted consequences of a “business as usual” approach to development and energy consumption are far from new, and little additional hard data has been presented to warrant so radical a shift in public opinion and Federal policy.
In a time such as ours, remarkably devoid of any altruistic impulses, it would not be surprising to discover another, more self-absorbed motive behind this sudden environmental concern.
The Federal Government’s refusal to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol is an example of this “enlightened” self-interest. The refusal was extraordinary, especially given concessions granted to the Australian delegation (including permission actually to increase its GHG emissions by 8 per cent until 2012).
The reason for the refusal was not the failure of climatologists to demonstrate a direct correspondence between global warming and carbon emissions, but rather an unwillingness to act against “our unique national interests”. In other words, environmental sustainability would not be allowed to take precedence over robust economic growth.
But now that a political and economic climate exists that makes heightened environmental awareness expedient, even profitable - fuelled, in part, by the immense economic potential of a broadened nuclear industry - the Federal Government seems willing to acknowledge the need actively to explore alternate energy models.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said that the greatest ethical travesty is to do the right thing, but to do it in the interests of personal reward. If this is true, then what often passes for public morality in our time, being a responsible global citizen, is in fact little more than a thinly disguised, particularly vile form of self-interest.
This kind of fake morality was displayed prominently in a document that marked the turning of the political tide late last year: The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.
Its approach - both to highlight the economic consequences of failure to curb GHG emissions, and to outline co-operative strategies for climate stabilisation that will not adversely effect economic growth - is a troubling indication of our unquestioned assumption that everything must, ultimately, be weighed up against the dominant economic realities of our time.
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