Words matter: a politician tells the truth

By Bryan Walker 26/03/2012

’The land we call our home, the land owned by this sweet funny brave people is being transformed, as is the rest of the planet. And yes, since the late eighties I have been an unapologetic believer in the grim reality that human activity is changing the earth’s climate.’

These words were spoken by the new Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, in the course of his first speech to the Australian senate last week. I felt a twinge of envy as I tried to imagine a New Zealand Minister in any portfolio, let alone Foreign Affairs, speaking with such directness and entirely appropriate emphasis.  ’Grim reality’ is exactly the right description, and one from which, once uttered, there is no easy evasion.

Carr well understands the basic science of global warming and the history of its development, as is evident in a video clip of a lecture he gave in 2008 in which he called climate change deniers ’the present danger’. In his Senate speech he also made clear that his concern includes the oceans:

 ”But what if this shock, this chemical experiment with the Earth’s atmosphere is only the first of a series of shocks we might sustain?”

“What about the change in the chemical composition of the oceans as they absorb more and more of the carbon our civilisations have been emitting?”

What an Australian politician does with this clear understanding of the dangers of climate change when it comes to policy decisions related to the fossil fuel industry may prove comparatively murky, especially in a country heavily dependent on coal for energy and for export income, but it is nevertheless good to hear that in the mind of this Minister there is no diluting of the scientific message or failure to grasp the severity of its implications. Even more important is his readiness to say so publicly and without prompting. His appointment to high political responsibility has evidently not led him to soft-pedal the message that climate change is a deeply serious threat to human society.

There is a desperate need for politicians with a full appreciation of the science of climate change and a corresponding readiness to seize public opportunity to declare that we face a global crisis. If they are silent or evasive on the issue it becomes that much harder for the population at large to credit the grim reality and accept measures to address it.

President Obama’s abdication from the position he appeared to be taking when first elected has hardly helped Americans to appreciate the gravity of the issue. Bill McKibben recently predicted that Obama’s speech at Cushing on 22 March would avoid any talk of global warming in spite of the severe weather events that country has been experiencing. He was absolutely right. The speech boasted of the administration opening up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration, the quadrupling of the number of operating rigs and the addition of enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth. It reiterated Obama’s ’all of the above’ energy policy, meaning the full exploitation of oil and gas along with the development of clean energy and efficiency. Not a word on climate change.

Words matter in politics. And the absence of words matters. As the scientific evidence for climate change continues to mount and consolidate we should expect clarion calls from political leaders.  They owe it to us. I grew up during World War II and even as a child I was aware of the way the words of Churchill matched the enormity of the conflict with fascism. The challenge of climate change is different, but of no less moment. Bob Carr’s bluntness is to be applauded.