Peter Newman

19 December 2013 – Any climate change-related article in The Conversation, and indeed any newspaper, attracts some of the most diabolical discourse, the most offensive personal abuse and the most deeply felt rhetoric. It is not very elevating to read.

It has of course spilled over into politics and threatens to tear apart the fabric of our society. So I hesitate to contribute any more diatribe but as someone who sees the climate change challenge as central to our generation I want to make comment.

As a lead author on transport for the International Panel on Climate Change I am going to be almost certainly dismissed at this stage of my article by the climate “deniers”. So let me begin by saying that I have a certain sympathy with them as they respond endlessly to the debate by asserting that human beings are not so stupid as to wreck the planet.

I believe what the climate “deniers” are responding to is the tone of the debate. They hate “whingers” who complain about the state of the world that they alone have seen about to collapse. They deeply resent the implication that human beings are so hopeless that they just destroy and cannot intervene to fix most problems.

I sympathise with “deniers” when the sense of despair that is created with climate change rhetoric pins all the fault on a few in government or industry who “just don’t get it”. When people refuse to accept the enormity of the problem and instead choose the simple reliable truths of family, markets, churches, they must therefore be suspicious of the climate whingers and end up driven into the corner of climate deniers.

It is no wonder that Prime Minister Tony Abbott responded to the climate issue by saying it was a cancer dividing his party. The problem is it’s now a cancer in our whole society threatening to divide families and organisations, like a civil war.

So, what can we possibly say that can unlock this deeply divisive double headlock? On the one hand the climate deniers are wrong about the science – we are, incredibly, rapidly, warming the planet.  On the other hand the climate whingers are wrong that human beings cannot fix this planetary problem.

The solution is to see that there is some emerging hope. I have always found that the politics of despair on any issue leads to division and the policy decisions that result are usually, simply, wrong. On the other hand if we can see some hope emerging then the politics can grasp hold of the changes and build on them.

This is now where we stand on climate change mitigation. The first signs are now there that we are decoupling the growth in greenhouse gas emissions from the growth in wealth. When the only real solution presented by the climate whingers is poverty, there is an immediate and deep response that this cannot be right. It’s deeply felt by the poor of the world and it’s deeply felt by most parents or grandparents who want to see their offspring have a good life.

To deny a better life to future generations because of the consumption
patterns of the present generation
is not what sustainable development is about.

To deny a better life to future generations because of the consumption patterns of the present generation is not what sustainable development is about. We simply have to get off fossil fuels as the basis for this wealth.

The evidence that the power sector and the buildings sector have begun to show this decoupling has been demonstrated in the scientific literature and summarised in The Conversation.

Transport is decoupling from emissions

Now the evidence that transport is also decoupling from greenhouse emissions is an even more exciting trend, as it was not expected. Jeff Kenworthy has carefully collected the data on 42 cities in Europe, USA, Canada, Australia and Asia and has shown that between 1995 and 2005 there has been a decrease in transport greenhouse emissions per unit of GDP by 24 per cent. This is related to the phenomenon of peak car use and the rapid rise in urban rail systems (See my articles on this in The Conversation and  WTPP).

Thus there are signs that human beings are starting to make the necessary changes. The curves showing things out of control may be plateauing and some are going down. For some people in the thick of the climate issue this is difficult to accept as they have been so fixated on climate change being a rapid cause of civilisation destruction for so long it’s hard to accept that we may finally be doing something sensible.  We can stop whingeing and start being a little more hopeful, if we want.

What I find at the IPCC is a bunch of people from all over the world, all volunteers, that are certainly not climate deniers and they are also not climate whingers. They are simply wanting to get on with the job of fixing the problems of climate change, to gather the best scientific evidence for how we should be proceeding with practical and cost effective solutions.

I hope we can come through this time of climate division and find similar areas of practical and hopeful climate policy in Australia.

Peter Newman, is Professor of Sustainability, Curtin University

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  1. Peter, the debate brings into focus the fundamental division that has existed within Western society since the Renaissance. A pitched battle between those who “believe” against those who “believe” something else, and the rest, who make up their minds based on an objective analysis of the facts.

    Industry and the “1%” are well placed to use the corporate media to ensure that the vast majority of the great unwashed (either unable or disinclined to think for themselves) are led to believe there is any doubt that human activity is leading to the collapse of the eco-system.

    FFS, is there a dimension of the natural world that isn’t threatened?

  2. The general message is right but not modern, even though more and better examples and data are demonstrating the obvious decoupling between productive output, energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions. “The first signs are now there that we are decoupling the growth in greenhouse gas emissions from the growth in wealth. When the only real solution presented by the climate whingers is poverty”. The signs have been around for 40 years, perhaps first and best articulated by Amory Lovins et al, and the Brudtland Commission reported (somewhat old-hattedly to some of us) over a quarter of century ago. “Climate whinging” is a most unfortunate and inaccurate term to use to describe this work. I know of no-one working seriously in this area who has recommended poverty as a mechanism as a mechanism for greenhouse gas emission reduction – even if it is one of the vacuous and very self-interested claims made by vested interests wishing to keep their century-plus polluting rivers of gold flowing. We have had the tools to solve these problems for decades but, as we have long said not the political will – for the underlying power lies elsewhere. Meanwhile we have seen in MYEFO that the Abbott Government continues to want to shut down CEFC and increase the deficit (while still claiming renewable energy is uneconomic) and as low-income earners we’re pleased to have not paid an electricity or gas bill for several years while generating more than twice as much solar electricity as we need – but of course our reality just can’t exist can it?

  3. Thank you, Peter, for this sensible, cool-headed (pun intended!) analysis. I especially can appreciate your naming of the the divisive nature of ‘despair’.

  4. Excellent message Peter. Short, sharp and in words anybody can understand. Now is the time for both scientists and whingers to recognise the tide is turning, that they can afford to throttle back on their tired, boring, scary PR messages, and start promoting the merging positives. Imagine a positive TV news story one night saying human beings are starting to reverse climate change damage just in time. That’s a revolutionary thought!

  5. Thanks Peter,
    On one side, deniers, I think, are engaged in classic psychological resistance, protecting the certainties they have built their lives, and corporations, on. On the other hand, there’s definitely a Calvinist, self-flagellating, despairing, tendency amongst many climate change believers that does them no favours. Climate solutions should add to the sum of human certainty, comfort and dignity, not detract from them. It’s gonna take a heap of imagination. – Les

  6. Well said Peter.

    We also need to find a way to decouple the habitual negative connection the majority of the voting public have, with personal wealth and their way of life, with the cost of adaptation and mitigation of climate change.