Hamilton: ‘Listen to the climate scientists’

September 25, 2010
Perth Walk Against Warming protest, August. Clive Hamilton says: ‘If you are not scared, you are not listening to what the sci

Prominent Australian writer and climate action advocate Clive Hamilton will speak in a feature session at the October 2-3 Sydney Festival of Dangerous Ideas on the topic: “We are all climate change deniers.”

He spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Simon Butler about climate denial, carbon pricing, population levels, and that “Oh shit” moment about climate change.

* * *

What is the more dangerous idea right now — climate denial, which says we have nothing to worry about at all, or climate pretence, which acknowledges the problem, but offers solutions that don’t deal with it?

In the end I think [it is] the pretence of our political leaders — with, it should be said, some elements of the environment movement — to introduce incremental changes that are so far from what the climate science says is necessary, that is the most dangerous in itself.

Climate denial still needs to be exposed, resisted and ridiculed at every turn because there is no doubt that climate deniers have made great strides in recent times. It’s a highly effective movement, which has shifted the political ground and also has had a large impact on public perceptions.

They have pursued an explicit strategy of sowing doubt in the minds of the public and political leaders about the validity of climate science. They are very effective in Australia, and are particularly effective in the United States.

And they have done it by persuading a significant number of people that accepting the conclusions of climate science is akin to adopting progressive political views. So those who are inclined to reject progressive political views and have an antipathy towards environmentalism put those personal feelings before the claims of climate science, which are now backed by mountains of empirical evidence.

You have described your “Oh shit” moment on climate change when you read a paper by the climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, which said that even if large emissions cuts were made we are still on target for 4°C of warming this century. How can activists avoid falling into despair once they accept the situation is so dire?

The first thing to say is that in the face of these facts, to despair is only human. If you are not scared, you are not listening to what the scientists are saying.

But the question is whether that knowledge immobilises us or drives us on.

[Philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche distinguished between what he called the “pessimism of strength” and the “pessimism of weakness”. Pessimism of weakness means succumbing to apathy in the face of overwhelming odds. Whereas pessimism of strength means facing up to the facts, acknowledging the danger fully, and making a decision about how best to act.

So I think there are three options: deeply pessimistic, strongly pessimistic or to engage in a bout of wishful thinking and pretend it’s not happening.

Public discussion in Australia about emissions trading has all but evaporated over the past six months, while calls for a “carbon” tax are growing. Are you enthusiastic about putting a price on carbon and should the climate movement campaign for it?

First of all, both emissions trading and a carbon tax would put a price on carbon. I’m broadly in favour of emissions trading because it puts an explicit, legally enforceable limit on emissions and then allows the market to set the price for carbon emissions.

A carbon price works the other way around. It sets a fixed price on carbon, and then allows the market to determine how large emissions will be.

I’d rather an emissions trading system where the environment has the certainty, and the market has the uncertainly. This is unlike a carbon tax, whereby the market has the certainty of a fixed price and the environment has to absorb the uncertainty of how much carbon will be put in the atmosphere.

What we have seen over the past couple of years has been a strong, bipartisan [agreement] in favour of emissions trading — albeit a weak system — collapse because of the political ineptitude of the Labor government.

[It collapsed] because of poor strategising, political weakness and a reluctance of some members of the Rudd government to actually pursue climate policies. In saying that, I include [Prime Minster] Julia Gillard, who was one of the first to argue the government should abandon its climate positions.

As a result of that, and the debate that happened through the press, the Labor government undermined public support for emissions trading. So we now have to start from that fact.

Now that there seems to be political momentum for a carbon tax, I think it’s time for environment groups to get behind the carbon tax push.

Bear in mind that the Greens initiated this and put it forward as a two-year plan when the carbon trading proposal fell in a heap. I think it was a very good political move by the Greens.

Once we have a carbon tax, the claims of the fearmongers like Tony Abbott will be shown to be hollow. Afterwards, it will be easier to shift towards a tax or an effective trading system that does a lot more to reduce Australia’s emissions.

Also, there’s no good [in] having a two-bob carbon tax. It has to make a real difference. It has to make fossil-intensive forms of energy uncompetitive compared with zero and low carbon forms of energy.

I suspect any carbon tax introduced in Australia in the short-to-medium term would have minimum actual impact, although it would signal to business that the world has shifted.

As for the environment movement and activist groups, a sustained campaign to close down coal-fired power plants is the best way to go because it keeps up the pressure. It sends a very strong signal to owners of these plants and potential future investors that from now on you are going to have more and more trouble winning legitimacy to generate energy from burning coal.

When I asked the US ecologist Bill McKibben if he thought the climate crisis could be contained in a free market system, his response was: “It better be possible, because in the short time we have left to act we are going to have markets.” What’s your view? Can we get to a safe climate with a capitalist economy that is fixated on growth?

In countries like Australia and the United States, I think huge reductions in emissions are possible under the normal conditions of growth.

However, over time, so long as you have some part of your economy dependent on carbon-intensive energy, the growth of the economy will sooner or later overwhelm the emissions cuts. [This is the case] until you get to a zero carbon economy.

The case of a country like China is different. Of course, the Chinese government is doing vastly more than the Australian government in terms of closing down dirty power sources and investing in renewables and so on. But the sheer growth in the size of the Chinese economy is swamping efforts to cut emissions.

So China’s greenhouse gas emissions are huge, the biggest in the world, and will keep growing for decades to come no matter what the Chinese government does.

So it’s one thing to have a debate in Australia about downsides of economic growth and making the transition to a sustainable economy where growth is not the foremost objective. But it’s quite another thing to say that’s what China should do.

It’s entirely feasible for us to make an argument about culling economic growth and reducing Australia’s emissions. But we can’t lecture China on its growth strategy. It’s up to Chinese people to grasp the dangers and take action.

In your recent book Requiem for a Species you draw attention to the danger of taking refuge in “maladaptive coping strategies” — the psychological tricks people can fall into to convince themselves there is an easy way out of the climate dilemma. Consuming “green” products is one of the most common of these. But what about the calls to cut Australia’s immigration as a response to climate change? Is this legitimate, or does it present a danger of redirecting public concern towards a conservative, “fortress Australia” response?

For many years I’ve taken the view that Australia, and all countries, should aim for zero population growth. I think we see substantial environmental damage from Australia’s growing population — both natural growth and growth from immigration.

We should have polices that aim at achieving population growth at a level not too much bigger than the current level.

The largest component of immigration to Australia is business migration. So really that migration is driven by the demands of business and governments sympathetic to the business case for higher immigration. In the Howard years, immigration ballooned out to extraordinary levels.

My view is that we should cut immigration to Australia to about 50,000 a year, from the current levels of close to 300,000. And that 50,000 should be used to expand our humanitarian efforts, to expand the number of asylum seekers coming into Australia.

[This] would help reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and help us better fulfil our humanitarian obligations.

[Visit http://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/fodi2010/festivalofdangerousideas.aspx for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas program.]

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