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Climate change solution gets lost in political fog

Date

Nicholas Stuart

A simple, logical argument has been mishandled.

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Photo: Harry Afentoglou

I can't help it: I'm a contrarian. Whenever the weather bureau predicts there's "a 95 per cent probability of rain" I'm willing to bet it will be dry. And that's why - at about ten to seven last Saturday night - I was getting absolutely soaked as I stood by the barbecue. The rain gauge showed 18 millimetres had fallen in the short time it took for the sausages to take-on their customary blackened, charcoal appearance.

Everyone laughed, the garden bloomed, and we sat down to a glorious feast that was saved by my wife's salads and some wonderful wines.

The sudden flood completely washed away the last lingering memories of the parching dry spell we'd just been through. It was as though we couldn't even remember having to move the horses because of the threat of bushfires, or clearing the tinder-dry bush in the paddock.

The next day I went into the newsagent. A large pile of Tim Flannery's latest Quarterly Essay ("Now or Never: A Sustainable Future for Australia") was still sitting near the papers. I asked if many people had been buying copies, but the proprietor said it had barely moved. "So what", I asked, "do you reckon the problem is? Don't people believe in climate change?"

He paused. "Yeah," he said, sighing, "I don't think that's the problem. Something's happening. But I don't know that he's going to tell us the answer."

Sticking your neck out is always a risk. It's to Flannery's credit that he's been prepared to mortgage his credibility totally on something that he so utterly believes in. And, just to get this straight right now, I agree that climate change is occurring and I have little doubt that it's being caused by the increasing amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere. I do think we need to act now to reduce carbon emissions and I do believe that, even though Australia's contribution to the problem is small, it is vital that we demonstrate to the rest of the world that we're not simply freeloading on the efforts of others. But, although I believe I'm on the side of evidence, goodness and light, I can't believe the bizarre, chaotic manner in which a simple, logical argument is been mishandled and traduced by the very people who claim most sincerely to believe in the immediate need for action on climate change.

Flannery has made his own contribution to this over the past decade. Predictions of a coming apocalypse will gain air time; after all, that's the way the media works. The bigger the threat the bolder the headline. But such predictions don't really serve anyone's interests because, just like the boy who cried "wolf", after a while people just stop listening. Someone who understands the vagaries of weather patterns should know better than to offer absolute certainty. That's why the Bureau of Meteorology has reverted to suggesting that there's a certain "percentage chance" of rain.

The extremely hot temperatures in the seas off Queensland made it highly likely there would be a devastating cyclone at some time this summer. But the torrential rains could very easily have come earlier or later or, indeed, not at all. The vagaries of different conditions make exact prediction impossible. The BoM understands this. Unfortunately, the headline grabbers haven't understood the wisdom of talking in terms of percentages. This has allowed the deniers to leap on every failed assertion of doom.

The point that should have been stressed was change. Variation, and the increasing number of occasions on which extreme weather events are occurring and the way climate change is affecting different places in different ways. Politicians on both sides have grasped at the idea of changing conditions as a lever to belt the other. Julia Gillard's original idea was to ask a citizen's assembly if we really needed a carbon price. Does anyone actually believe we'd have a tax now if Gillard hadn't been desperate for the votes of the independents? When John Howard was prime minister, Tony Abbott was quite prepared to accept the wisdom of a scheme to cap carbon emissions. What's changed today? Certainly not the science.

Politicians are like children, so you've got to expect a bit of shouting at one another. The problem is they're all insisting they ''know'' what's happening and their ''answer'' is the only one that's right. They're asking us to join them in an argument that's being held in an inky black room. The politicians are sticking to the walls on either side - they insist that in the centre there's a huge hole that will swallow anyone who ventures away from the safety of the corners. The reality is that the centre is where we will have to find our future, but neither party seems prepared to even begin to address this.

Even if the government's policy significantly reduces our own emissions production (an assertion that appears more and more dubious by the day), the climate is changing. People don't really care why things are happening, but they are interested in scientific best guesses about what change will mean for particular areas.

Will tropical Queensland have to deal with torrential floods every second year? Is there a way of channelling that water inland? Will fires continue burning inland Victoria? Will we still be able to obtain insurance? And why doesn't the government act to bolster civil defence?

Disappointingly, these are questions for which neither political party seems prepared to attempt to find an answer. Perhaps the reason is they're frightened of the results. Not the dire climate predictions but the other thing, which for them is a far more terrifying reality. That this is a problem for which no politician has an answer.

>> Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.

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