After Copenhagen's failure, should we just learn to live with the consequences of climate change? Tom Switzer and Clive Hamilton debate.
It's nice to resume contact after so long an interval. Many years ago I had the pleasure of publishing you in The Australian and The Australian Financial Review on various subjects from Suharto's downfall to climate change.
I must say I've recently felt your pain about the latter. When I say the climate is changing, I do not simply mean, as you have eloquently argued elsewhere, that man-made global warming is destroying the planet. I mean that the political climate is changing.
We all know about Kevin Rudd's failure to prosecute the case for an emissions trading scheme, but he is hardly alone. All over the globe, politicians of different ideological stripes are questioning the costs of slashing carbon emissions.
In the US, the cap-and-trade bill is virtually dead this election year. In Canada, the ETS is stalled in legislative limbo. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has shelved his carbon tax proposal. In China and India, leaders insist they won't sign a legally binding, enforceable and verifiable global treaty to slash greenhouse gases, lest it hurt efforts to grow their economies and alleviate poverty. The Brits, notwithstanding the green political class, are more sceptical of the science than even the Americans.
I could provide more examples, but you get the point: the politics of climate change have changed so rapidly in recent months that "global warming" as a political issue is ceasing to be an important public policy priority all across the globe.
Now, I recognise that many people of goodwill and repute, such as you, are seriously concerned about this issue. It is indeed a noble cause to try to reduce our dependency on carbon energy.
But acting on it, as opposed to merely feeling virtuous, is a complicated and delicate business, one that involves acceptance of not only higher prices across the energy chain but radical changes to our way of life. It requires, above all else, a genuinely global response. But given the rapidly changing political climate here and abroad, not to mention the Copenhagen fiasco, what now? Is the UN agenda really the way forward? Or is there a plan B?
It's good to make contact again. I remember the last time we spoke. You rang to say that The Australian had run so many anti-Kyoto and climate-denying pieces that you thought you'd better have one from the other side.
As you say, there is no doubt that public sentiment and political resolve are moving in the wrong direction. The hacked emails from the University of East Anglia were a big coup for climate denialists around the world and were beaten up for all they were worth by some media outlets. Of course, the subsequent inquiries that have both vindicated those accused of malpractice and reaffirmed the validity of climate science have rated little mention in the press.
Nor have they done anything to undermine the belief of those convinced that the world's climate scientists have been engaged in a vast conspiracy to fool the public to -- well, to do what exactly?
One of the little-noticed features of the thousands of leaked emails was that those cunning scientists successfully managed to keep their devious plans concealed and continued to masquerade as disinterested researchers.
What puzzles me most about your comments is that you seem to be suggesting that the weakening resolve of political leaders and the softening of public attitudes somehow erode the case for protecting ourselves from climate disruption.
Public opinion has never stopped a drought. In fact, in the six months since "Climategate", new scientific research has shown that the situation we face is even worse than we imagined.
So against the recent facts you stress -- the failure of Copenhagen, the Rudd government's capitulation and congressional opposition in the US -- I would stress other new facts: the past decade has proven to be the warmest on record, new data shows glaciers disappearing more quickly and a study just published reports methane oozing more rapidly from the permafrost. As someone who eschews postmodernism's relativatising of science, I think you will concede that my facts trump yours.
I appreciate your empathy in saying you can feel my pain. If I were in your position, I hope that I could be so magnanimous, although I fear I would waste far too much time in the small hours worrying about the consequences of being wrong.
Good memory. In fairness, The Australian has merely provided some balance in the debate. Given that science is, by nature, a calling for sceptics, surely it makes sense to tolerate dissenting views on such an important subject.
But however much there is a scientific consensus on man-made global warming, the fact remains no policy consensus exists.
Indeed, it is striking that Al Gore, James Hansen and James Lovelock advocate quite different ways of going about things such as emissions trading, a carbon tax and nuclear energy which indicates less than unanimity among even the so-called alarmists.
So, if the experts can't reach a policy consensus on how to slash carbon emissions, how on earth will the developed and developing nations alike establish any kind of global consensus on tackling climate change? How will the world agree to a comprehensive treaty to slash emissions on the scale you and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demand and justify?
As a critic of economic globalisation, you know just as well as I that nation-states do not act on the basis of what they perceive to be good intentions or moral purity of other nations. They act on the basis of defending and promoting the national interest.
What may make sense for a developed nation in western Europe does not work for a developing one in east Asia eager to expand its economy and lift its people out of poverty.
So I remain highly doubtful that the UN can do anything meaningful to reduce global emissions. What do you think?
Moreover, I think you downplay the significance of the changing political climate. Elected representatives are accountable to the people. If the people increasingly do not rate global warming as a high priority, as you acknowledge, then governments are surely limited in making the kind of emissions cuts that you desire.
Take the US, which accounts for more than 20 per cent of global emissions. In this congressional election year, it is politically dangerous for, say, a Democratic politician facing re-election in a rustbelt state to support higher energy prices or explain why their constituents should pay higher taxes to help China become more energy efficient and more economically competitive. Climate change is politically toxic in many parts of Middle America. And if the US can't play a leadership role in climate deliberations, what hope for the rest of us?
Some see public vacillation as a justification for passivity; I see it as demanding leadership.
What sort of politician would refuse to act on the greatest threat to the future of our nation? The one who takes the pusillanimous stance you recommend.
The parallels between our present situation and pre-World War II Britain are striking. Through the 1930s the warning signals from Europe reached a deafening volume, yet the pacifist wishes of the British public rendered them deaf.
Winston Churchill was almost alone in taking a clear-eyed view. In 1933 he began a series of speeches warning of the belligerent intentions of Hitler's Germany, returning over and over to the scale of German rearmament and urging Britain to prepare. Churchill's aim, according to his biographer, was "to prick the bloated bladder of soggy hopes" for enduring peace. His alarums were met with derision and denial. With words now used by conservatives to attack those warning of climate change, he was accused of fear-mongering, doom-saying and alarmism, of behaving "like a Malay running amok".
In the face of overwhelming evidence of Nazi aggression in Europe, the British public and the Conservative government wanted to hear only the soothing words of peace, and in 1938 Neville Chamberlain was cheered wildly when he returned from Munich waving his scrap of paper. So earnestly did the public wish for peace that it was prepared to suspend its grasp of the facts in return for the delusion of appeasement; just as today, so earnestly do we wish for uninterrupted growth and greater material comfort, we refuse to accept the facts of climate science.
Churchill stepped up his warnings after Munich, condemning the pact as "a total and unmitigated defeat", words that might apply to last December's Copenhagen agreement. His years of awkward reminders earned him few friends and many enemies. As late as 1939, government loyalists were stacking branches in the Epping Conservative Association in an attempt to unseat him, the MP who within a year would become wartime prime minister.
Wishful thinking could not stop Nazi aggression; nor can it undo climate science. Is it naive of me to expect climate leadership instead of appeasement from our Prime Minister? I hope that I never become so cynical that I am no longer shocked by the scale of our governments' failure.
We have something in common: we share the same low opinion of Rudd and his government's vacillating and opportunistic response to climate change; and we believe there exists no international policy consensus.
As for our disagreements, you are surely incapable of understatement when you compare the Western appeasement of Nazism in the 30s to the weak-kneed response of politicians and policy-makers to climate change today.
I take a different view. While I do not question the warming of the planet during the last 25 years of the 20th century, history indicates that uncertainties in climate forecasting remain huge. In the 70s, prominent environmentalists were issuing dire warnings about overpopulation, mass starvation and global cooling. Yet population growth estimates have declined. Biotechnology advances have found ways to feed more poor people than the alarmists predicted. And global cooling has become global warming.
Bear also in mind the fraudulent scares we've recently lived through, from mad cow disease to the Y2K bug to genetically modified foods.
All in all, having read your two responses, I remain confused rather than convinced. If the experts are in such disagreement about the policy response and (as we agree) the political leadership here and abroad is so weak, it does not seem to me that the international community is in good shape to stop this climate change.
So, let me suggest what I propose should be done: jettison the UN's Kyoto-style folly, and abandon the highly expensive and counterproductive policy of decarbonising the global economy, and do what humankind has always done: adapt to whatever changes in temperature may arise in the future.
This happens to be the view of Nigel Lawson, the former British chancellor of the exchequer and Spectator editor, and one that is starting to attract attention in Western policy circles.
Beyond adaptation, Lawson suggests, a new policy response could involve more public spending on technological research and development in energy, adaptation and geo-engineering. Not perfect, but a better alternative to economically crippling policies, futile grand gestures and high-profile climate-change travelling circuses when there is no global or policy consensus whatsoever.
For conservatives, accepting climate science requires some awkward admissions: that unrestrained capitalism is jeopardising our future, that far-reaching government intervention is needed and that environmentalists were right all along.
Anathema, I know, but you have to choose between dogma and science.
In choosing dogma, you and fellow "luke-warmists" and deniers abandon something truly fundamental, accepting that scientific evidence should govern our understanding of the world. It is natural that climate deniers have formed close links with creationists. Of course, you won't admit to rejecting science and must come up with various rationales for trivialising climate science.
So you argue that because some scientists suggested global cooling in the 70s we should take global warming with a pinch of salt. Apart from the trick of equating the speculations of a couple of fringe scientists with a vast body of peer-reviewed research, you may just as well argue that because Lamarck was proven wrong we should reject Darwinian evolution.
(And, incidentally, your claim that mad cow disease was "fraudulent" will be a surprise to the families of the 166 Britons who have so far died from vCJD.)
You also equate the unsubstantiated and politically motivated claims of denialists with careful research subjected to rigorous peer-review, a false equivalence that allows you to justify promotion of climate "sceptics" in the interests of "balance".
Do research protocols and the accumulation of testable claims count for nothing in your understanding of science? How your teachers must despair.
The sorry history of climate denial, including the substitution by US Republicans of the green scare for the red scare after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is a story I tell in my new book, Requiem for a Species.
While I look to Churchill as a leader who gazed unflinchingly at a mortal threat, you appeal to Lawson for authority. You would do better to heed the words of Lawson's prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, a trained scientist unafraid of environmentalism.
"We have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself," she declared in 1988. "Protecting the balance of nature is therefore one of the great challenges of the late 20th century."
Today, the world desperately needs conservative leaders who accept the science to speak out and thereby isolate those who would sacrifice the planet in pursuit of an ideological war.
Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of The Spectator Australia.