To fear or not to fear…


To fear or not to fear…

Posted: 18 Feb 2013 08:16 PM PST
.. as Australia’s contribution to climate change on track to double in next decade or so thanks to fossil fuel exports

Note: As a followup to the post of my contribution to this year’s Melbourne Sustainability Festival Great Debate, here is the contribution by Guy Pearse. – David

by Guy Pearse

OK, some personal questions to start… Who’s got a BMI of over 30? What about a
tattoo completely covering just one arm – come on I know you’re out there… People
are a bit shy… Let’s try an easier one… Who’s got a Facebook account, or has
tweeted or felt the need to follow someone who does. Congratulations – you’re part
of rapid social change. Not so long ago, very few of us would have answered ‘yes’ to
any of those questions. Now, maybe you signed up to Facebook hoping to stalk your
high school sweetheart; or got that tattoo fearing you might not fit in without it at
the nursing home later in life. But, I’m guessing fear and optimism played little role.
Yet, here we are debating which is the stronger driver of rapid social change.
So what’s meant by rapid social change this evening? Getting large numbers of
people to quit smoking, or recycle? Or big steps forward that social movements help
society take – like new laws banning everything from slavery to child labour to the
trade in endangered species. Either way, it’s about replacing practices long
considered perfectly reasonable, with something previously unthinkable. But what
qualifies as ‘rapid’? As a slice of human history, the Industrial Revolution rearranged
society in next to no time—but still took hundreds of years. The American Civil War
result helped to free slaves, but was part of a movement spanning many centuries.
Indeed for almost every great societal shift, there might be a moment to we see as
emblematic of rapid change – when the Berlin Wall fell, for example — but society
didn’t change overnight – change was a long time coming.
Yet as social media, obesity and one-arm body art examples reinforce, lots of very
rapid social change goes on without any grand struggle – no marching in the streets,
imprisoned dissidents, civil disobedience, landmark legal victory, or referendum —
none of what we might consider the usual precursors. Sure, there’s relentless
marketing by corporations hooking us up to mobile phones, social media, fast food
and sugary drinks. But, the public generally embraces lots of social changes with
heady enthusiasm. Maybe we’re optimistic that these things will make life a little
better—even if it’s a fleeting glucose boost—maybe we fear not keeping up with the
Joneses if we miss out. But, it’s hard to argue that they’re driving the rapid change.
So what of the role of optimism and fear in the big environmental shifts. Well, fear
certainly helped to mobilise public support against the nuclear industry, and
asbestos, and lead in petrol. But was it optimism or fear that drove efforts to save
the ozone layer? An argument can me made both ways. Are people installing solar
panels and recycling more out of hope for a better world or because they fear rising
electricity prices, shrinking bin space and rising tip fees? We can argue until the cows
come home – but we might as well debate whether optimism or fear makes cows
come home faster. Meanwhile, the hope vs fear contest glosses over so many other
factors—population, economics, new technology, religion, government policy,
political leadership.
It’s the same with climate change, on which I’ve spent the past fifteen years. The
argument over whether messages need to be more positive or negative is perennial.
Some favour more fire-and-brimstone rhetoric—as if hearing that the world is
beyond saving will motivate people to spend the little time they have left building a
mass movement. Then there are the green ‘happy-clappers’ – smugly deluded that
clean energy revolution is here and can’t be stopped, convinced that carbon prices
and free markets will fix climate change. When they’re not telling people they can
save the world by greening their lifestyles, this group is busy uncritically amplifying
green good news stories, no matter how deviously plucked from the context. The
hope and fear camps both mean well. It’s important to build public confidence in an
alternative future and people should take the dire consequences of climate change
seriously. But there’s a deeper problem than messages not being rosy or scary
enough: most people can’t view rapid change as an easy decision because they’re
not being told what path we’re really on, nor what the fast disappearing alternative
paths involve. Instead, this is hidden from them by politicians, big business, the
media, and even well-known environmental groups.
So, few realise Australia’s contribution to climate change is on track to double in the
next decade or so thanks to fossil fuel exports, as we bank largely on imported
carbon credits to meet emission targets while local emissions don’t fall below current
levels until about 2040 (1). Few appreciate that the biggest polluting industries
effectively get most of their carbon tax refunded (2), or that by the end of this year, the
emissions the carbon price is meant to save by 2020 will be negated by additional
coal export (3). The emissions these exports create are disowned, so government
won’t calculate the consequences of phasing them out. And with no plan to make
deep emission cuts within Australia before 2050, they don’t cost that either. So, the
public has no idea of what dramatically reducing Australia’s contribution to climate
change involves. In fact, our economy would still double by the mid 2030s even if we
phased out coal exports and replace coal fired power with renewable energy (4). But
rather than useful information like that, the public gets hope and fear-laden
campaigns from both sides of politics—misrepresenting incrementalism as
something spectacularly worse or better. No wonder the public is sick of the issue.
The great worry is that while people switch off en masse, we’re on track to
experience rather than avoid the most dangerous climate scenarios, and to spend
more money adapting to climate change. What might be clean energy investment is
increasingly going towards bolstering defences against the consequences of climate
change like flood, fire, and cyclones, and to make agriculture more resilient.
Arguably, we’re well down that path—it’s just not spelt out. The 2010-11
Queensland cyclones and floods, for example, triggered a national flood levy – part
of a federally funded reconstruction package worth $5.6b – around 5 ½ times the
annual budget of the federal Department of Climate Change (5). In the US, ten times
that amount is being spent on the Hurricane Sandy relief package – quietly wiping
out all the savings Barack Obama negotiated to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff (6). Then
there’s the $30 billion worth of new dams that Tony Abbott apparently has in mind.
So, climate change spending is spiralling, but it’s increasingly about clean-up, not
prevention. Catastrophic weather events aren’t causing politicians to redouble their
efforts to cut emissions – as some assume must happen — they’re helping politicians
do what they love doing – dishing out big checks and big hugs.
So how to drive rapid change more sustainably? Well let’s be clear about one thing – changing lightbulbs, installing solar panels, and generally greening our lifestyles
won’t do the trick. It’s worthwhile but doesn’t add up to emission reductions
required – partly because relatively few people are making these changes – you need
only look at SUV and hybrid car sales to see that. But mainly because billions of
people in developing countries are buying cars, TVs, computers, fast food, soft-drink,
designer clothes and so much more for the first time – erasing many times over the
emissions we might save by doing our bit. Ultimately the deep cuts required can only
be achieved by governments insisting on a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewables.
So, by all means, do the green thing, but go beyond that into meaningful advocacy
because we can’t shop the planet green—and the most important difference we can
make as individuals is not with our wallets but with our votes and our voices. What’s
needed is a mass movement that demands change from both government and big
business. For that to happen the public first needs to grasp the path we’re on, and
understand the viable alternatives. And that can’t occur unless politicians, the media,
and many green groups address issues they’ve carefully ignored for years.
My view is that the shift required is unlikely, given where we’re at, the power of
vested interests, and the degree to which the public remains in the dark. But even if
it’s a long shot, surely we should prevent as much damage as we still can. And if we
want to engage the community in rapid large scale change, not just in relation to
climate change, but the many other aspects of sustainability, let’s not sweat the
relative merits of optimism and fear as PR tools, and focus on whether we’re
enabling public to see previously unthinkable steps to a sustainable society as an
easy decision.

Guy Pearse is an author and Research Fellow, Global Change Institute, University of Queensland


(1) See: Figure 3.1: Gross National Income with and without the carbon price, Securing a clean energy future – The Australian Government’s Climate Change Plan, 2011 p.24
(2) Under the so-called Clean Energy Future plan, ‘The most emissions-intensive and trade-exposed activities will initially be eligible for 94.5 per cent shielding from the carbon price. A second category of assistance will provide an initial shielding level of 66 per cent of the carbon price.’ Dozens of emissions intensive industries are eligible: See:, Securing a clean energy future – The Australian Government’s Climate Change Plan, 2011 p.55
See also: and and
(3) Australian coal exports are growing and projected to grow further at a rate that adds approximately l 7 million tonnes of CO2 per month – which is equivalent to adding more than 1 large new coal fired power station every month. The carbon tax and all other domestic emissions reduction programs were projected by the Gillard government to save the equivalent of 159 million tonnes of CO2 annually by 2020. The legislation introducing the carbon price passed in November 2011. Given the rate at which coal exports are growing, the benefit projected for 2020 will be negated by around October 2013. See also: See: Figure 3.1: Gross National Income with and without the carbon price, Securing a clean energy future – The Australian Government’s Climate Change Plan, 2011 p.14, 24;
20111108-1n4p1.html See also
(4) See: ‘Australia’s precious place in the coal industry’s world’ — Speech by Guy Pearse Research Fellow, Global Change Institute — University of Queensland, Climate Camp 2010, Lake Liddell Recreation Area, NSW 3 December 2010
For additional sources on the estimate see footnote xxxvii to the speech. See also: See: Pearse, GD
‘On Borrowed Carbon” chapter in Mannne/McKnight’s “Goodbye to All That”, Black Inc 2010 p.253 Sources available from Black Inc in Extended Footnotes to the chapter.

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