"To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men." Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Since I have recently used a good portion of aviation fuel flying to Scotland, it's perhaps hypocritical of me to critcise the choices of others. (I flew economy class so I'm less of a hypocrite than those in first class.) But then we are all hypocrites. Every one of you out there marching against climate change are actively destroying the climate through your own choices. If you had more than 2 children, you're contributing to overpopulation. We're not farmers in the middle ages. You don't need to worry about half your offspring dying due to preventable diseases or malnourishment. If you bought a house in the outer suburbs when you work in the city, you burn tonnes of fuel each year commuting to your job. I pass you people every day while I run or ride to work, sitting in traffic. Cursing the traffic while ignorant that you ARE traffic. Obesity is a topic I've had a lot to say about which is also related to climate change. In it's simplest form, it is consuming more than you need, which is at the core of all devastating environmental impacts. Researchers had a stab at estimating the costs of overeating on the environment and put it at ten times the significant cost of food that is wasted and not consumed. And of courses there's microbeads, plastic waste, pollution of the land and waterways...
One of the most interesting things I did while in Scotland was visit museums. Who visits museums in their home country once they've finished with mandatory school excursions? It was fascinating and I particularly liked the animal exhibits. Seeing the animals which are still with us but don't inhabit Australia. And those species which have long since departed. The most impressive was the Irish Giant Deer - a 600 kilogram animal with antlers 12 feet wide weighing up to 40 kilograms. It, along with several other species, became extinct or moved further north (the Arctic fox was found in Scotland) at the end of the last ice age. Yes, there was climate change then. The earth has undergone a series of warmings and coolings. But it has never happened at the current rate and this is almost entirely due to human activity.
The most common response to friends posts calling for government action on climate change, is that it isn't up to governments, we're all responsible and it's up to us to fix it. While I agree with where the responsibility lies, here's why leaving it to individuals to fix it is flawed: humans are very poor at acting in their own best interests when the consequences are long term. They are even worse at acting morally when the consequences are not likely to be born by them or people they are close to. Humans know that smoking, overeating, drinking alcohol and doing little exercise will drastically decrease their health state and, possibly lifespan. Even if modern medicine keeps you alive, you will suffer the effects of cancer, liver disease, heart disease and having parts of your body amputated due to the end stages of diabetes. And yet most of you are still guilty of at least one, if not most of those actions. If you cannot make decisions in your own best interest now (and in the interests of our taxpayer funded health system that you're depleting), you are woefully incapable of making decisions in the interests of the planet and for future generations. This article will not speculate on why that is, but it's been explored by many behavioural scientists. Let's just accept that as individuals making long-term choices, we're a bit fucked.
Governments and other public bodies are supposed to make and enact laws which create a society in which we reach greater prosperity (not just material prosperity, but health and meaningful existence) together. When we are too stupid to save for retirement, drive safely or stop smoking, governments step in and impose the superannuation guarantee, fines for speeding and taxes to make smoking financially unattractive. The ban on smoking indoors (2004) and the 12.5% annual excise increase (2010) saw smoking rate plummet showing that price and social pressures (like protest) are effective in behaviour change. The first things I learned in economics (second attempt at uni, didn't last) was the demand curve and its relationship with price (the more expensive something is, the less people want) and the concept of externalities which Wikipedia defines as:
"...the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. Externalities often occur when a product or service's price equilibrium cannot reflect the true costs and benefits of that product or service."
Once you accept that human contribution to climate change is an externality which is not currently reflected in the cost of goods, the only reasonable proposal would be to assign a cost to that contribution. Also known as a carbon tax. As with the GST, this tax is focused on consumption which, at its extreme, is the blight of our society. The sugar tax, when imposed in the UK, lead to companies pre-emptively reducing the amount of sugar in their beverages. Whether you believe that sugar is to blame for obesity or not, you should be impressed at the power of taxes in changing the behaviour of the most immoral of institutions - companies. What if imposing a price on carbon forced companies to reduce their emissions? They do seem very desperate to keep selling us goods and willing to change their behaviour once sales are threatened. But more importantly, what are you willing to pay to reduce climate change. I'm not talking about choosing the green tariff or deciding to offset your overseas holiday. (I ran my trip through this online calculator which asked for a paltry 36.43 USD to assuage my guilt).
We live in Hobart which has a ban on high density building because it threatens heritage values and the city's 'vibe'. Are you willing to pursue high density living to prevent deforestation from urban sprawl and emissions from gridlocked roads as the hoards commute from further and further out? Will you let go of the Australian dream of the quarter acre block so your one child can have a trampoline? Will you demand apartment blocks with green space from developers so that many children can play in the one yard? If you live within 10 kilometres of the city are you willing to active commute or use public transport and vote for a car-free city and parking that is so expensive that it dissuades people from driving in (don't get between a Hobartian and their free parking!). I challenge people on their car use and hear the arguments: "But Johnny and Hannah have football after school so I have to drive them to their school then me to the office so I can drive back to their school and drive them to practice. Then I have no time to get exercise for myself..." True commitment would mean radically altering our lifestyle choices in terms of where we live, how much land we own and how we get around. What if people chose to buy homes close to where they worked, and made decisions on their kids schools based on walking distance and not perceived prestige. I see a lot of kids commuting to school by foot or on scooters and they're rarely the kids of the middle or upper class. What if they sacrificed climate control and 30 minutes of (false) efficiency to get up early and walk to school and then jump on a bus to work thereby saving the planet and getting that missing physical activity. You have those options now but you don't take them because making the choices to live far away and drive a car are not nearly expensive enough.
My partner and I are in the top 20% of earners in Australia which blows me away because I feel poor comparing myself with those around me. We can't help but balk at paying more for a kilogram of loose carrots than for a kilogram of carrots in a plastic bag. Now if my partner chooses the plastic bag (and he does have a true love of the environment), I can't help but think how the lower 80% make their decisions on environmental issues. Until the true cost of emissions is represented in the price of our goods and services, behaviour will not change. Unfortunately for Australia we are at the mercy of populist governments created by a media which has been bought by corporations and a deterioration in education regarding the function of governments and the economy in general (my experience of schooling). We cannot say we are serious about climate change when we elect governments who are not willing to impose a price on emissions. In the short time Australia had a carbon tax significant reductions in emissions were made but it was thrown out when Australians realised they had to pay more for their carbon-emitting electricity. Electricity use is the number one carbon emitter of the Australian economy. For some reason we still don't connect our own activities with climate change and we expect the path to halting the devastation to be cheap and painless.
I loved the sight of the wind farms in Scotland which provide the majority of their renewable energy. Australia's renewables contribute 23.5% to it's energy use compared to 33% in Scotland. The majority (54%) of Australia's renewable energy comes from burning bagasse, the byproduct of sugar cane harvesting as well as wood waste. Wait. Didn't we just cover the fact that burning stuff increases CO2 emissions? Not to mention that swathes of forest are cleared to grow the cane which produces a food that we now know isn't actually very good for us. Straya. While renewables are a fine objective, people need to get to grips with the reality that the real answer lies in consuming less. Less food, less fuel, less land. And the over-consumption will not stop until it's financially painful to continue.