Difficult, but not diabolical

In October this year the UN named Tinker Bell its ‘Honorary Ambassador of Green’. A cynic might conclude that her appointment was sadly appropriate, given that a binding international agreement to replace Kyoto currently seems as elusive as Never-Neverland.

There’s something strangely fitting about treating JM Barrie’s green-eyed fairy as a metaphor for climate action. The fate of human civilisation now depends less on technical innovation than it does on trust: the level of trust that citizens of the world have in our scientists, our governments and each other to do the right thing. This means that defeatist rhetoric can do material damage. The naysayers and doomsdayers who disbelieve in the potential for individuals and their communities to act altruistically, or who dismiss science-based action as politically unfeasible, actually have the power to kill the climate action fairy. And those of us sitting on the sidelines chanting “I do believe in concerted international climate action based on the latest science, I do, I do!” won’t know if our efforts are making any difference until a decent agreement finally splutters into life.

Climate change is a problem which requires us to marshall the best of science and faith, simultaneously. But it’s hard to have faith without knowing what to have faith in – a vision of what a transition to a sustainable economy would look like in practice. This is why we need the work of people like Paul Gilding, whose ‘1 degree war’ describes a set of steps that could limit global warming to 1 degree, and Rob Salter, whose essay on ‘Cooperation, Community and Climate Change’, outlines the cultural shift involved in serious climate action, and the social benefits that will go with it. Thinking happy thoughts won’t be enough to make COP16 fly, but we do need a vision of the future that we can be happy with. This is why CPD is planning to spend 2010 researching options for sustainable industry policy and the measures needed to track whether such policies deliver genuine social and environmental progress.

Ben Eltham cites Ross Garnaut’s description of climate change as a ‘diabolical policy problem’, but just how diabolical is it? Across history and around the world people have laid down their lives to protect their families or to defend an ideal. While the Garnaut report’s recommendations were deemed too demanding by the Rudd Government, even its most challenging option would have barely made a dint in the lifestyles of most Australians.

As Peter Colley points out, a ‘Just Transition’ for the workers who will be most affected by climate action is essential. We must be careful, however, not to focus so much of our attention and energy on the potential losers from the shift to a sustainable economy that we miss the enormous opportunities that come with it. Even the most fundamental and disruptive change presents opportunities for social and economic progress. In the US during the Second World War, up to half of the total economy was diverted towards military activity within a few years. Yet despite this massive transformation, and despite the fact that personal consumption was rationed, the economy was not devastated – quite the reverse. Wages grew 65% over the course of the war, company profits rose, GNP grew sharply, and unemployment fell. (See pages p. 227 and 252 of Climate Code Red)

And it’s not all about sacrifice. Buildings designed to be energy efficient through the use of natural light are more pleasant to work in. Cities designed around sustainable transport have cleaner air and healthier populations. Companies which put the planet before short-term profits can end up with a better bottom line than their resource-hungry competitors when costs go up. The New Economics Foundation’s ‘Happy Planet Index’
(which tracks self-reported life satisfaction, life expectancy, and economic sustainability) demonstrates that it is possible for a country to have a very high quality of life with vastly lower environmental impact than the Western average (Costa Rica is a standout example, with higher life expectancy than the US and an environmental footprint of 2.1, compared to the US’ 9.5).