01.08.2011

News Of Our World

Find climate change facts out for ourselves because much is being obscured in media debate
For years many politicians and current affair programs have rehearsed and cultivated wild and unrealistic fears about the unknown. We have had alarmist claims of Aboriginal people taking your house (remember native title?), refugees being demonised and effectively silenced in case their story engenders compassion and understanding (relevant bureaucrats even prohibiting interviews with refugees to preserve their "privacy").

We have been led astray by ill informed enthusiasm - gullible excitement about going to wars in foreign parts, as if victory was as easy as a ride in a tank convoy across a desert. Now, when it comes to climate change, we have the old tobacco trick of smoke and doubt. Witness the equal space given to a few climate sceptics on one side, balanced against thousands of scientists from dozens of different disciplines on the other.

All this has been preparing the ground. Rather than a legitimate policy debate about how to deal with climate change, we find ourselves in the middle of a media dust storm, facts too great a burden, new policies requiring too much effort to understand, leaders disadvantaged for not getting their framework down to the five second sound bite when a hit-and-run opponent can get down theirs to two, and polling that people don't believe in climate change anyway.

At the heart of this is our need for democratic process in deciding a big environmental question. We need public debate. But democracy was never about the rule of the majority, although that is how we all might speak of it in a shorthand kind of way. The philosophers and thinkers who fostered democracy a few hundred years ago knew that rule of the majority alone could too easily deteriorate into mob violence and kangaroo courts. The French Revolution overthrew tyranny but ended up hunting down anyone who was different. Democracy needed, and still needs, something better than just majority rule. It also needs the protection of minority interests (so that those most vulnerable are not turned on and hurt by the majority) and it needs an informed citizenry, willing to make the effort to understand complex decisions and take full responsibility for what is decided.

By now, you may have heard amid the clatter and fury the straight facts: that there will be an impost on about 500 companies who produce huge amounts of carbon pollution.

It is a temporary charge, to be turned into an emissions trading scheme in a few years. The money raised in the process will directly dampen down any hardships to those low or middle income earners who might have to face higher electricity bills, while investment in renewables is significantly funded.

Such facts regrettably sit hidden in the dead calm of the media cyclone that's been stirred up all around it. For a start, the debate has shifted, somewhat selectively, to be about the integrity of our leaders. That's important, but when we look more closely, it brings us no further to making good policy about rising global temperatures. Much has been made of our PM, promising a few days before the last election she would not introduce a carbon tax, then going on to do just that. While I believe Julia Gillard meant it at the time, because in 2010 she wanted a market-based emissions trading scheme, subsequently she did not exclude a carbon tax from her framework, and that matters. Integrity of word matters. But it does not tell us whether her current scheme is a good one or bad one. We can deal with the PM at the ballot box, but we must still answer the question about the best way to protect the Murray-Darling, the wheatbelt, the Great Barrier Reef, and finding our place in a world (from China to California) that is turning its back on carbon.

Meanwhile, and in the other corner, we seem to hear less in the querulous media about the integrity of our Leader of the Opposition who first spoke in favour of a carbon emissions scheme, then opposed it in order to argue for a carbon tax, and now? He is against both. Such sudden changes of conviction in so many stances ought to be of as much concern as the prime minister's failure to keep her word. Integrity of word matters. This can be settled at the ballot box. It still does not tell us what ought to be done in Australia about climate change in 2011. At best, given the disarray, it tells us we need to understand the problem much better.

Watching the media closely recently, it seems the debate often seems bent on fostering an approach of hostility to reason: to criticise or downplay 150 economists (who came out in favour of the new policy) or 2000 global scientists (who continue to uphold the crushing weight of evidence pointing to global warming). When the Leader of the Opposition was asked at a public forum in Brisbane which expert economists and climate change scientists he followed, (presumably because so many economists and scientists have spoken out against the "direct action" approach) his answer was, "the public." It is a populist answer, and it is always a significant part of a democracy. But when we are faced by a new and complex problem, the answer is rarely so simple or, in the end, so helpful.

When Captain Cook sailed into Botany Bay, there were only 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide molecules. Two hundred years later, and with world temperatures steadily rising, there were 380 parts per million. A few months ago, Hawaii recorded 393 parts per million. What the runaway point is - 450ppm, 480ppm - can only be predicted, but once it takes off, that's it. For every degree the world temperature rises, Australian agriculture becomes that much more marginal, our rainfall that little more scarce. But past the tipping point, there is no guarantee that our temperate world will stay in any recognisable form. Every country needs to do its bit now, not when it's too late. Half the developed world (the European Union, 11 American states, New Zealand) have some scheme or another. Where is ours?

By some national coincidence, the carbon debate seems to have erupted at the same time as details about News Corporation, its Australian-born owner Rupert Murdoch, and unedifying details of the celebrity phone hacking in Britain. The moral decline shifted from phone hacking tabloid celebrities to targeting a 13 year old murder victim, her phone's messages deleted by News journalists aapparently in order to stop anyone else getting a scoop. Not, as the British parliamentary committee was told, all done by a rogue journalist or two. It takes something much more systematic to hack 4,000 politicians, celebrities, and we have yet to find out about 9/11 victims.

All this may seem far away, and there is no evidence that News Corporation hacked into Australian politicians' phones. But there is another kind of hacking that is going on in many corners of the Australian media. It is the deleting of messages. It is deleting experts from discussion, it is evidence excluded or put on page 32, the giving of airtime to people venting, as if that is what makes public debate.

In every column I have written since 2002 I have offered hope. In this case, all I can suggest is patience. The sound and fury, signifying nothing, probably cannot be stopped, certainly not with reason, too easily swept away. But eventually this rage must exhaust itself. Only then will we be able to debate about what happens to the planet. In the meantime, study the evidence. You will find it, but not necessarily on the front page.

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