Just how serious is climate change? Ross Garnaut called it one of the
most "diabolical" policy challenges ever faced by humanity – and he’s
right, of course.
"The costs of doing something about it come early," he told the ABC’s Mark
Colvin last week
"The benefits come later." "It’s hard also because this problem requires
cooperation across countries of a more complex kind than the human species has
ever managed before," he continued. "There’s no precedent."
History suggests that humanity does not cope well with the cognitive
challenges of climate change. The changes occurring in the earth’s atmosphere
may be astonishingly rapid on a geological time-scale, but in political terms
they’re happening slowly. After all, the very worst consequences won’t be felt
until long after current governments have left office and most of the
negotiators at Copenhagen are dead.
Because climate change is so big, it challenges the way we see the
political landscape. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a level of bipartisan
understanding of climate science; Margaret Thatcher (a former industrial
chemist) was a famous early supporter of action on climate change. But in the
1990s, particularly in the US, the influence of the culture wars saw many on
the right begin to attack climate science in overtly political terms, as a
trope of the supposedly extreme left-wing ideology of environmentalism.
Subsequently, conservative politicians in the US, Canada and Australia opted to
abandon any serious commitment to the rational observation of scientific
evidence, and instead embraced the seductions of junk science and climate
denialism. The end result of this trend was the recent split in the Liberal
Party over climate change.
Even for decision-makers who do believe that the world is warming and that
this is a problem, there are utterly rational motives for countries to stall,
cheat and prevaricate at Copenhagen. This is in fact exactly what John Howard’s
government did at Kyoto in 1997: after negotiating a generous carbon emissions
target by threatening to pull out at the last minute, the Howard Government
then went back on the deal, refusing to even ratify the agreement. To those who
support action on climate change, it was a betrayal. The hard-heads in Howard’s
cabinet portrayed it as sensible hard bargaining in the national interest.
This disconnect between national and global interests is one insight of the
branch of mathematical logic known as game theory. Game theory is often used to
model political and strategic situations, and when applied to the climate
change policy challenge, it helps us understand why international cooperation
is so difficult.
From a game theory perspective, a strong agreement on cutting emissions at
Copenhagen was always going to be highly unlikely. The only way global
emissions can be reduced effectively is if the majority of the world’s big
polluting nations sign up. But in such a process, there are huge temptations
for countries to refuse to participate, to cheat, or to insist that they
shouldn’t commit until everyone else does (this is the Liberal Party position
in Australia). This is the very heart of the conundrum.
One of the world’s best known game theorists is Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. He
predicts that Copenhagen will be "a bust", arguing that
"today’s emerging powerhouses like Brazil, India, and China simply won’t
stand for serious curbs on their emissions, and the pro-regulation crowd in the
United States and Europe won’t be strong enough to force their hands."
If that is the case, then we may well be locked into a world four, five or
perhaps six degrees warmer than now: a calamity for our children – and
especially our grandchildren.
Another influential analyst, Australian scientist Barry Brook, believes that action will
eventually be taken – but only after climate change becomes a looming emergency
obvious to all. He points out that under the existential threat of invasion in
the Second World War, many countries nationalised major sectors of their
economies and re-tooled their entire industrial base to armaments production in
a matter of a few years (a very costly response, although one that had a
positive effect on employment and GDP).
Tragically, we may see the worst of all possible outcomes: catastrophic
climate change, wrenching industrial transformation and perhaps even
climate-caused wars. Gwynne Dyer’s chilling book Climate
Wars models the possible threats to international stability posed by
climate change, and predicts that wars will be fought in the 21st
century over issues like unilateral climate engineering (for existence, risky
and speculative climate-cooling sulfur dioxide injections into the upper
Even if the world eventually adopts some kind of concerted action to cut
greenhouse gas emissions, dangerous climate change is now locked in. The
challenge for all of us – governments, scientists, industrialists and citizens
– is to finally face up to the reality in all its frightening uncertainty and
It’s going to be a hotter, drier, scarier, more drought-prone and more
fire-prone future. Get used to it.
Read more of Ben Eltham’s
analysis of Copenhagen and climate policy at New Matilda