Essential Report

What if the hippies are right?

Feb 8, 2011

First published on The Drum: 08/02/2011

When the floods have receded, the cyclone has blown, the bushfires have burned out and Sydneysiders can sleep again, one question will remain: what if the hippies are right?

Willingness to convince the public there is a link between extreme weather and climate change will go a long way towards determining whether the Prime Minister can meet her own KPI of securing a price on carbon.

Recent history shows that the public responds to the need for action on climate change when warnings are being reinforced by their own experiences and observations. It is no coincidence that support for action peaked in the middle of the last drought and fell away as weather patterns returned to something close to normal.

Now we have a summer from climate apocalypse central casting – but as this week’s Essential Report shows – climate change is barely on the radar.

Q. Do you think the recent floods across Australia were linked to climate change or were they just a natural occurrence?

Total Vote Labor Vote Lib/Nat Vote Greens
Linked to climate change 31% 42% 18% 68%
Just a natural occurrence 59% 49% 76% 28%
Don’t know 10% 9% 6% 4%

If you are to believe the scientists (a big ‘if’ for many who participate in the debate) the majority of the public are wrong; the current extreme weather events have been brought about by warming waters in the Southern Oceans, the so-called La Nina effect.

While these fluctuations in temperature have been observed for centuries, the scientific consensus is that the regularity and severity of these events are increasing as a result of global warming.

It is these changes, the argument goes, that leads to stronger force cyclones, more severe floods and more intense bushfires.

In other words it is possible to explain in three sentences how the summer’s extreme weather is indeed linked to climate change.

On this logic, the time to turn up the heat on Tony Abbott is now. But what has been strange about this summer is the timidity with which the scientific debate has been pursued.

Greens leader Bob Brown had a swing while the Queensland flood waters were still rising, but he was roundly condemned for making political points while lives were at risk.

In recent days, Ross Garnaut has made a carefully-worded argument linking the events to global warming, talking of the ‘intensification’ of extreme weather events.

But to date the PM has remained mute – playing the role of national inspector of disaster areas without firing a shot on the climate front.

Her problem is, as this week’s Essential Report shows, the light touch is not cutting through with the general public, the majority of whom do not accept a link with climate change.

But if climate change is a national political priority, then the Government needs to be prepared to use everything at its disposal to win the debate.

Here’s a few ideas to get started:

  • • Recast the flood levy as a national ‘Extreme Climate’ fund – link major weather events to climate change whenever funds are needed.
  • • Commence a capital works campaign in taking remedial measures against rising sea levels – this is one of the actions identified as being capable of shifting public opinion – if you are building higher sea walls, people start taking you seriously.
  • • Harness the science community and encourage them to tell the community the facts – it may take a few steps of sustained logic, but there is a link between extreme weather and climate change.
  • • And finally, stop pretending that shifting from a carbon-base will be pain free – it’s just a different sort of pain to having your home swept away or blown away or burned to the ground.

The greatest success for climate deniers has been their ability to swing climate change from an issue of scientific fact to a two-sided debate, in which all views are apparently valid and should be equally heard.

For the Federal Government, the first step in delivering action on climate change will be to reclaim climate science as fact. Like gravity.

The takeout message for those arguing for action on climate change is that they have to be every bit as ruthless as the deniers if they want to see Australians sign up to the sort of action that will make a difference.

– Peter Lewis: Director, EMC


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