From science to ethics to action

By Bryan Walker 27/05/2011

I’ve been reading the admirably lucid report of the Australian Climate Commission which Gareth highlighted recently, and reflecting on its restrained exposition of the current state of the science. One couldn’t ask for a clearer or more accessible statement within its 70 page range.

At the same time I’ve started reading a book by philosopher Stephen Gardiner (pictured). It’s titled A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change and I’ll be reviewing it in due course. Why I mention it here is because the first proposition he sets out in his preface accorded with what was floating around in my mind as I read the Commission’s report. He notes that we are currently accelerating hard into the most serious environmental problem humanity has ever faced. Yet, after twenty years of awareness we are neither slowing down nor stabilizing, let alone reducing our output to the problem. Rather we are continuing to add more fuel to the fire, ever faster. ’This, arguably, is the most striking fact of our time.’

I concur with that judgment. The fact is all the more striking because it raises such fundamental questions about human societies. One is whether we are incapable of rational understanding of the basic science. I find that hard to believe. The Commission’s report, for example, is not a challenge to average human understanding. I remember the Climate Change Minister Nick Smith saying that the science is mind-blowingly complicated. I fail to see that. The Commission’s report can be followed with ease by any reasonably well educated person, and certainly by politicians, business leaders and journalists. Climate science stands squarely in the tradition of mainstream science on which modern societies have been built.

The fact that we are nevertheless not building on climate science means that we are…what? ’Distracted’ is the reply of forthright Australian journalist Ross Gittens as he outlines the Commission’s report and upbraids the Australian politicians and media this week. The report, he says, ’tells us nothing we didn’t already know, but everything we’ve lost sight of in our efforts to advance our personal interests at the expense of the nation’s’.

’That scientists still need to repeat these long-established truths is a measure of how much we’ve allowed short-sighted and selfish concerns to distract us from the need to respond to a clear and present danger.’

His robust accusation concludes:

’Australians are proud of their inbuilt bulldust detectors, but on this issue they seemed to have turned them off, happily believing whatever self-serving nonsense politicians, business people and media personalities serve up to them.

’The one thing humans are meant to care about above all is the survival of their young. Yet people with the highest standard of living in history are whingeing that they couldn’t possibly afford to pay a bit more for their electricity.’

The absurdity of our turning away from the challenge of climate change is well captured in his final paragraph.  Absurdity is the spectre which hovers over Gardiner’s ’most striking fact of our time’. There is something ridiculous in the spectacle of intelligent people coming up with reasons not to make the tackling of the climate crisis the pre-eminent endeavour of our governments and economies. The frenzied denial which appears to have gripped Republican Party politicians in the US is often laughable, albeit unfortunately also dangerous and threatening to the human future. Greenwash used by some politicians and businesses use to give the impression they are addressing the problem while avoiding it is usually so patent as to look silly. The contortions of the Minister of Economic Development and the CEO of Solid Energy to make the Southland lignite development appear environmentally friendly are extraordinary.

But the absurd is not merely something to be laughed at. The word also stands for meaningless. That’s the ultimate disturbing revelation at the heart of our wilful failure to engage seriously with the mitigation of climate change. It trivialises human life by endangering its future.

So we end up not with science but with ethics, as James Hansen frequently points out. The science is as clear as any that we have known and used in the development of human civilisation. It warns that we will run enormous risks if we extract and burn all the planet’s fossil fuels. Ethics must either take that baton and run with it or drop it and betray some living populations and all future generations.