Saturday, June 27, 2009

Advances Needed in Climate Change Politics

Michael H. Smith, Visiting Fellow at the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society talked on "Overview of Key Advances in Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation - Updating the IPCC 4th Assessment 2 Years On", 25 June 2009 in Canberra. Michael outlined areas where there have been rapid advances in technology to reduce CO2 emissions and other areas where the original IPCC report had not covered adequately.

A example of a rapid advance is in the creation of low CO2 cement, which Australia leads the world in the development of. An example of an area not adequately covered in the original report is the potential for mitigation through ICT.

Michael pointed out that the service industries make a far larger contribution to the Australian economy and employ far more people than mining and agriculture. However, it is the mining and agriculture industries which get the most political attention and government funding.

While the science of climate change is reasonably clear and the economics of ways to combat it are almost as clear, the political process is unable to deal with the situation effectively. I grew up on science fiction movies where some catastrophe threatened the earth and the scientists tried to warn governments, only to be thwarted by narrow, short sighted political self interest. That scenario is now playing out in reality, on a global scale.

A more detailed IPCC report with more science and economics is not the answer. Instead the analytical skills which have been applied to the science and economics of the issue should be applied to politics. We need to have an analysis of the political effect of climate change, perhaps showing loss of votes by electorate as a result.

Science is not without ethics. Like all professionals, scientists have an overriding obligation to act in the public interest. It is not sufficient to sit back and say "we warned them in a scientific report, it is not our fault they did not understand it". Climate change reports need to be translated into the language of politics so that political decisions can be made.

In the early drafts of the Green ICT course, I emphasised the environmental benefits of reducing energy and materials use. But I found this did not motivate students to undertake the course, let alone make the changes in the workplace to help the environment. Therefore I changed the course, and its promotion, to emphasise that reduction in energy and material use can result in reduction in cost for an organisation. Being able to work out such savings can also help the individual get promoted in their organisation. It may seem distasteful to committed environmentalists to reduce saving the planet to an incidental benefit of increased profits, but it works.

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