Rudd brooks no denial

By Bryan Walker 19/11/2009

Rudd Somehow Kevin Rudd’s climate change speech to the Lowry Institute earlier this month escaped my detection systems and it took Joseph Romm’s Climate Progress post today to draw it to my attention. New Zealanders, whose political leaders avoid big statements on the issue, can welcome its unequivocal tone. There seems an air of unreality to me in the emphasis our government places on catching up with Australia economically, with never a mention of the environmental challenges faced by that country.  But Rudd meets them full on:

As one of the hottest and driest continents on earth, Australia’s environment and economy will be among the hardest and fastest hit by climate change if we do not act now. The scientific evidence from the CSIRO and other expert bodies have outlined the implications for Australia, in the absence of national and global action on climate change:

  • Temperatures in Australia rising by around five degrees by the end of the century.
  • By 2070, up to 40 per cent more drought months are projected in eastern Australia and up to 80 per cent more in south-western Australia.
  • A fall in irrigated agricultural production in the Murray Darling Basin of over 90 per cent by 2100.
  • Storm surges and rising sea levels – putting at risk over 700,000 homes and businesses around our coastlines, with insurance companies warning that preliminary estimates of the value of property in Australia exposed to the risk of land being inundated or eroded by rising sea levels range from $50 billion to $150 billion.
  • Our Gross National Product dropping by nearly two and a half per cent through the course of this century from the devastation climate change would wreak on our infrastructure alone.

He then goes on to outline the government’s plan to tackle the issue by measures which on the domestic front include renewable energy development, a large investment in energy efficiency, and the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (their ETS) which has not yet been passed by the Senate.  Internationally he speaks of participating in global technology transfers and particularly offering leadership in developing carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as well as engaging strongly towards a new post-Kyoto agreement.  There is plenty to criticise regarding the adequacy of what is proposed, and feasibility of CCS remains open to question though obviously of enormous importance to coal-exporting Australia.  But the acceptance of the seriousness of the impact of climate change is the most important aspect of what he has to say, for it provides a basis from which mitigation measures can be further tightened.

A striking feature of the speech was the assertion he went on to make about the difficulties in building international momentum and overcoming domestic political constraints.  It is made hard by the reality that

…the climate change skeptics, the climate change deniers, the opponents of climate change action are active in every country.

They are a minority. They are powerful. And invariably they are driven by vested interests.

Powerful enough to so far block domestic legislation in Australia, powerful enough to so far slow down the passage of legislation through the US Congress. And ultimately – by limiting the ambition of national climate change commitments – they are powerful enough to threaten a deal on global climate change both in Copenhagen and beyond.

He didn’t leave it at that, but went on to analyse the opposition.  The third bullet point might make uncomfortable reading for some of our politicians and economists and business leaders.

The opponents of action on climate change fall into one of three categories.

  • First, the climate science deniers.
  • Second, those that pay lip service to the science and the need to act on climate change but oppose every practicable mechanism being proposed to bring about that action.
  • Third, those in each country that believe their country should wait for others to act first.

Each of these groups in turn received close and lengthy examination in the speech. There was often a political edge to what he had to say, but since most denialism seems to be allied with right-wing politics that is perhaps understandable.

On the science deniers he goes through the history of the development of the science and concludes:

Attempts by politicians in this country and others to present what is an overwhelming global scientific consensus as little more than an unfolding debate, with two sides evenly represented in a legitimate scientific argument, are nothing short of intellectually dishonest. They are a political attempt to subvert what is now a longstanding scientific consensus, an attempt to twist the agreed science in the direction of a predetermined political agenda to kill climate change action.

After referring to the efforts of the smoking lobby decades ago to deny the link between smoking and lung cancer he has one final sentence on the sceptics:

Put more simply: these climate change sceptics around the world would be laughable if they were not so politically powerful – particularly in the ranks of conservative parties.

The second group are those who

…when push comes to shove refuse to support climate change action. In Australia, these naysayers have successfully blocked the development of an emissions trading scheme for more than a decade.

  •  Some argue that the cost is too high in terms of its impact on our economy.
  • Others argue that the cost is too high in terms of its impact on households.
  • And others object to the system of global emissions trading because they believe it will unjustifiably transfer money and power from rich countries to poor countries.

 Rudd offers a vigorous refutation of each of these points, and under the third offers comment on the ’world government’ conspiracy theorists like Monckton (and Ian Wishart in NZ, we might add).  

This gaggle of world government conspiracy theorists are so far out there on the far right, that they rub up next to the global anarchists of the far left. 

Finally, the delayers, the ’wait for others to act first’ group.  Those in New Zealand who argue so strongly that we should be followers not leaders seem to me to come perilously close to this category.  Rudd is quite clear about its result.

The inescapable logic of this approach is that if every nation makes the decision not to act until others have done so, then no nation will ever act.

The immediate and inevitable consequence of this logic – if echoed in other countries – is that there will be no global deal as each nation says to its domestic constituencies that they cannot act because others have not acted.

The result is a negotiating stalemate. A permanent standoff.

And this of course is the consistent ambition of all three groups of do-nothing climate change deniers.

I was greatly cheered by Rudd’s forthrightness.  I acknowledge that words are not deeds, but they can open the way for deeds. When the political leader of a country shows such nuanced awareness of both the scientific reality and the dangerous attempts to blunt it in the public perception one feels the battle is at least half won.  Debate can then centre where it should — on the best ways to overcome the threat. 

 Step up, John Key.