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Breaking news on climate change

What a relief to see ‘Four Corners’ interview a wide range of business people talking about the realities of climate change, and how these changes are being factored into current and future plans (ABC, ‘Four Corners’, 5 March, 2018). The direct consequences and risks posed by increasing temperatures, chaotic weather patterns, longer bush fire seasons, more ferocious bushfires and rising sea levels have, apparently, become more obvious. It is reassuring to know that this increasing awareness is affecting farming practices and forward planning in many sectors of the economy - company directors now face prosecution for failing to factor climate change into business plans. One suspects that insurance companies are among the most proactive players in increasingly risky times.

The main point made in the program was that, in Australia, business is well ahead of organised politics in being proactive about climate change. This can come as no surprise to those of us so thoroughly disillusioned with the performances of many Australian politicians and their parties.

However, no one interviewed was brave enough to cite population growth as a global or local problem, and absolutely no one mentioned economic growth as problematic. Further, 2030 was about as far forward as future planning appears to extend - one grape grower was asked what he would do if temperatures increased more than the two degrees planned for. ‘Where else do you go after Tasmania’ was the response. Fair enough.

The point of this blog concerns collective unwillingness to face the facts about economic growth: can’t live with it, and can’t live without it - what can be done?

The first thing to recognise is that politicians have a vested interest in the growth of populations and economies. More people mean more votes to be had, and growing economies mean economic success - which also means more votes to be had. In that light tackling climate change is a very risky proposition to most politicians. The fact that there are limits to growth is something that politicians do not want to hear. This means that they have to be forced to act by the popular pressure of social movements, individual activists, and other noisy networks - or be reduced to a role of crisis management. Reason alone will have very little effect on politicians.

The second thing is that most people do not want to hear very inconvenient truths about climate change, population pressure and economic growth. Anything that threatens the right to have families of any desired size and the associated right to consume pretty much anything is also ‘bad news’. Individuals and societies are prepared to fight and die for these rights.

So really, there’s not a lot that can be done. These last two sets of inertial forces are formidable and in my view will continue to outweigh all the outrage and sustainable technological changes that are so good to see. Short of tackling limits to growth – in particular over-population and over-consumption – programs like the recent ‘Four Corners’ episode can only reassure people that the right steps are being taken. We really need a very different headspace to begin with, and then some reconciliation with lifestyles that consume far less. Nothing else will help enough.

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