Let’s turn down the volume to hear the climate change debate clearly

My mother use to say to us kids: stop shouting, I can’t hear you. I thought of that the other day when I was watching a news show with a panel discussing President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.

This panel, made up of those for and against, represented the wider division that defines the debate on climate change.

Go to any blog on the topic and you will see conversations that quickly lose scientific sensibility and devolve into a mix of conspiracy theories and insults about the ‘obvious stupidity’ of proponents on both sides.

A clear indicator, it seems, that climate change is no longer about facts but rather about ideology and your position on the subject defines where you stand in a political spectrum.

By way of anecdotal proof, time and again, I find that when I tell people about my background in sustainability management, particularly in the university sector, they make assumptions about my views on a range of non-environmental issues.

Not surprising then to hear both cheers and anguished cries following Mr Trump’s action. But while the decision may appear muddle headed and politically expedient to those, like me, who believe the science and in the need to act, it is not hard to understand the response of the president’s supporters.

A united voice on climate change

In many areas, the Paris agreement was (necessarily) weak to secure global consensus. Indeed Nicaragua – one of two countries along with Syria to not sign the original agreement – justified its refusal by stating it was not strong enough.

It has no penalties for non-compliance and it allows large developing economies such as India and China to grow emissions to a peak point before reducing; effectively allowing them to mirror the growth path that first world economies have already followed.

However, what critics failed to note is that despite its flaws the agreement did one thing: it showed a world united in response to climate change.

Ironically, it’s a position that even President Trump once held when he joined many celebrities and business leaders in signing a full page ad in that ‘failing newspaper’ New York Times, calling on President Obama to take action.

Despite the national self-interests reflected in the agreement, that show of unity provided the leadership needed to build the confidence of both industry and the broader communities to make the changes needed to achieve a sustainable future.

Whether America opting out will undermine that confidence is yet to be seen, though some are arguing that it may in fact be a positive development, allowing the rest of the world to take leadership.

Facing up to reality

However, for those of us working day to day in sustainability, the withdrawal makes the job a little harder.

It raises the volume of the debate and sometimes drowns out reasonable discussion on even simple actions. Corporate leaders more comfortable with predictability are less inclined to listen and within the broader community fear builds at the prospect of transition from a fossil fuel society to a future that will change industry.

Images of long lines at the unemployment office, and abandoned factories and houses cast a pall over the discussion.

The fact that industries have always changed is somehow lost as we cling to the certainty of the known.

But think about the artisans during the Industrial Revolution who were washed out by the tide of mass production, or the whalers in the 19th century who launched hundreds of ships from hundreds of ports to ‘tap’ the swimming oil wells that fuelled the American economy until someone discovered oil in the ground and refined it into kerosene.

Or think of me, a flush faced new graduate who taught himself to touch type reports on a mechanical typewriter, suddenly faced with a blinking cursor and the unintelligible language of the digital age.

Yes, jobs will be lost as the economy is decarbonised. Industries that have built towns and employed successive generations of families will disappear. But the reality is that these changes are coming anyway as automation progressively replaces millions of people.

The fear is real, as is the failure of those proposing the changes to prepare communities for the transition from a dirty economy to a green one.

There are opportunities in this economy but people need to have the belief that they can change and through that, help build a better future.

For that to happen, we need to lower the volume so everyone can hear.

Photo by Michael Vadon

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Bart Meehan

Bart Meehan

Visiting fellow and research associate, Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University

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