Some days my head hurts, as I shift between what feels like two parallel universes in the climate change debate. First I have these conversations with world-class scientists who calmly lay out the scientific view of the various risks posed by climate change and their relative scale and likelihoods. They tell me the science says it is almost certain the impacts will be serious and destabilising for our society and our economy. The science also describes a lower level of risk – which they find hard to quantify but generally say between 10% and 50% – that the impacts of climate change will be catastrophic, perhaps even civilisation threatening. This could include widespread famine, war and economic collapse. Not certain, but a reasonable possibility.
It is very clear when you listen to these scientists and read their peer-reviewed reports that, on any calm and rational analysis, we should be preparing for a carbon reduction war. Yes, a war – with all that implies about focus, effort and sacrifice. The threat posed is, after all, a “clear and present danger” and the response should be strong, global and immediate. This should be a ‘whatever it takes’ moment.
Then I shift into the parallel universe.
I spend time in corporate boardrooms and listen to the analysis of business executives who explain how we mustn’t damage the economy by “over-reacting”. They explain their concern about protecting jobs and economic growth, how we must not jeopardise “our” (insert India, China, South Africa, USA, Australia etc) national competitiveness by acting “early” because, after all, without a global solution what difference will our actions make anyway? When I engage with policy makers, even those supportive of climate action, I get only a marginally stronger response.
Of course, each of these arguments has its narrow appeal. There’s always a bit of truth and rationality, and that’s why people use them. But the collective consequence of these arguments is the real story here – the story that historians will tell. We have had the risk thoroughly analysed and explained to us and we are choosing, with endlessly shifting reasons for prevarication and delay, not to act commensurate to the level of risk.
I wonder what it was like in the lead up to WWII, the last time we had a serious and clear global threat. When Hitler invaded Poland, did Winston Churchill order an economic modelling exercise to understand the implications of spending over a quarter of GDP on the war effort? When Pearl Harbour was bombed, did US industry argue we shouldn’t over-react, that America shouldn’t respond until there was a global agreement to act so as to avoid a disproportionate share of the cost?
No, fortunately for us, that wasn’t their response. In fact, just four days after Pearl Harbour was bombed, the auto industry was ordered to cease all civilian production in order to focus on the war effort. Such actions soon spread across the economy. I imagine US political leaders thoughts were something like this: “Well damn the objectors, this is a threat to our freedom and to our way of life. In fact, this is such a profound threat we will throw everything we have at it and make it work, even though we don’t know whether we will succeed nor the costs of trying.”
They would have said: “We will have to do this because if we don’t, our children will curse our lack of courage and our selfishness. If we act we may fail. But if we don’t act, we won’t be able to live with ourselves for not trying.”
In our present day to day lives, when the weather is a bit warmer than normal but often rather pleasant, and our economy is showing signs of improving, it is hard for most of us to think like this. The business leaders I talk to about this topic are not bad people. Nor are the policy makers grappling with the complexities of transforming an economy and the uncertainty of the outcomes. They are normal people with children and friends – they go to church, they volunteer in their communities and they care about the world. (OK, there are a few exceptions, but not many!)
But they still fall for the easy way out, the path of denial and avoidance. Not because they’re bad people, but because they’re not thinking clearly and courageously.
My message on this topic is clear and direct. We are at a crucial moment in human history. 2009 is to climate change what 1939 was to WWII. Poland has been invaded – the Arctic is melting, the bushfires are burning, the droughts are strengthening and the floods are sweeping away communities. There is only one question you have to ask yourself: “what will I tell my children?”
So now, imagine yourself in 2030. The world is teetering on the edge of geopolitical and economic chaos (this is not a certainty, but it is certainly a reasonable risk). You are talking to your children (add 20 years to their current age) and explaining what it was like in 2009 – what the scientific consensus was and how you personally responded, then and there, when the reality became clear. What did you do in 2009 and why?
In 2030, the parallel universes will have closed and there will only be one left. It will be called reality and you and your children will be living in it. Imagine the conversation. Do it now, then decide what to do.
“They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent…Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences …We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now…”
Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936