Politicians and policymakers seem to be operating in a “post-truth”, invented reality when it comes to responding to the threat of climate change, according to Fiona Armstrong, Convenor of the Climate and Health Alliance.
The sort of magical thinking displayed by the Government in its response to the Productivity Commission’s recent inquiry into barriers to climate change adaptation is alarming, she says, given that we are on course to reach catastrophic conditions within 60 years.
Climate change adaptation: a mismanaged delusion
Fiona Armstrong writes:
The Productivity Commission was tasked last year to conduct an Inquiry into Barriers to Climate Change Adaptation. The Inquiry received 168 submissions, a small number of which highlighted the importance of health protection through effective adaptation, amid concerns this was being overlooked in Australia’s adaptation responses.
The Inquiry into barriers to climate change adaptation has however failed to highlight the importance of effective mitigation in limiting the need for adaptation.
And while there is some recognition of the need to prepare for and respond to the risks posed to human health, acknowledgement of one of the greatest challenges to effective climate policy is lacking – that of limited public understanding of the risks from climate change.
In receiving and responding to the report, the federal government too has missed an opportunity to highlight this core challenge of both adaptation and mitigation: that you can’t adapt to something you don’t accept as real i.e. the lack of understanding and acceptance of climate change in the wider community is our greatest barrier to doing anything about it.
To its credit, the Government has pointed to this, rather quaintly suggesting that the Productivity Commission’s “insight into the potential barriers in the uptake of climate change adaptation measures – in particular cognitive barriers”… “may need further development”.
But instead of demonstrating leadership by proposing to address this and other barriers, the response from the federal government is a masterful display of shifting responsibility to the states – along with the community – seen in their assertions that “local initiative and private responsibility will be at the forefront of climate change adaptation in Australia”.
Is this, in other words: “you’re on your own, Australia”?
Given the Government’s stated commitment to “ensure Australia is resilient in the face of the changes in the climate” through “taking action to avoid dangerous levels of climate change” this is somewhat paradoxical, not to mention unrealistic, as is asserting that “governments, businesses and households can all act to manage the risks associated with climate change”.
But will they, without policy to guide them to do so?
No such commitment or ability to manage risks seems likely to be realised, given the current trajectory of global emissions growth. Australia’s position of pretending we can adapt to climate change while tripling coal exports is a good example of the delusion that is gripping policymakers worldwide.
Confounded by the protestations of a public who are also unwilling to accept the evidence (and who, like policymakers, are captured by the influence of corporations with a vested interest in the status quo), Australian politicians and policymakers have retreated into the refuge of semantics and spin – all of which betrays a kind of magical thinking that if we talk about doing something, it will all somehow be ok.
There are two main points to be made here: one that is a delusion to think we can adapt to climate change if we continue to fail to implement strategies to dramatically reduce emissions in a very short time frame. Climate scientist Hans Schellnhuber isn’t optimistic about humanity’s chances of adapting to a four-degree global average temperature rise – suggesting it would be “extremely unlikely that we wouldn’t have mass death at four degrees”.
This is a scenario we are currently right on course to reach in about 60 years – about the time my teenage daughters might have expected to be become grandparents. If we don’t avoid two degrees (and the accompanying possibility of non-linear changes in the global climate system), that expectation may finish with my generation.
The other point is that made above: that you can’t ‘adapt’ to accommodate a risk you don’t accept, aren’t aware of, or if you don’t comprehend the scale and urgency of the threat.
Therefore fiddling with existing policies around energy efficiency, (or as the Government proposes, at the behest of the Business Council of Australia) to reform regulations that “impose unnecessary costs or inhibit competition or flexibility” (aka obliging businesses to clean up the costs of environmental harm), isn’t really going to cut it in terms of helping Australians adapt to climate change.
In a further display of mixed messages, the Government simultaneously asserts that public policy is needed to facilitate effective adaptation while arguing that recent moves to ‘streamline’ (aka remove) climate policies would assist effective adaptation.
A number of submissions to the PC Inquiry exhorted the Commission to ensure the health system was supported to respond to climate change and noted that there were serious gaps in the knowledge base of the sector in general, including among many health professionals about the risks posed, thereby limiting their ability to prepare and respond effectively.
The Climate and Health Alliance was blunt, asserting: “one of the key strategies for protecting health from climate change must be to enhance awareness of climate change and health among health and medical practitioners. This requires leadership from the instruments of government i.e. the public service in developing policies and programs to address this.”
Recent health and medical literature on climate risk preparedness and public health points to the importance of local communities being in the driving seat’ of prevention and recovery – but that “community knowledge deficits” pose serious obstacles to this occurring.
The authors of a 2013 paper on the topic conclude that supporting communities to develop better knowledge about climate risk is one of community health’s “most complex social justice tasks of the twenty-first century”.
However, the government’s response to the PC report in relation to health (which does note the importance of health sector preparedness) is to be completely silent on the topic.
Not. One. Word.
The proposals to shift responsibility to the states (already bearing a huge burden in meeting the costs of increasingly frequent disasters associated with extreme weather) don’t inspire confidence about the national government’s willingness to show leadership or assist the community in facing, and then managing these risks.
Recommendations to commission a (necessary) independent public review of disaster prevention and recovery arrangements are ‘noted’ – but no commitments are made.
It’s no wonder the government chose to respond to this report at the end of a stormy political week. Getting their response out ‘after dark’ would seem the best way to avoid scrutiny of this manifestly inadequate reaction to one of our most pressing public policy challenges.
The brevity of the government’s response and its flimsy relationship with the truth of the matter when it comes to climate risk doesn’t come as a surprise – we’re becoming increasingly inured to politicians, particularly those in Australia, operating in some kind of ‘post-truth’, invented reality, where facts don’t matter.
But when we are talking about an issue of health protection, on which a national government (with responsibilities as a global leader) is willing to play ‘pretend’, we should be very worried – and willing to say so.
• Fiona Armstrong is the Convenor of the Climate and Health Alliance www.caha.org.au which is leading the work of a new network of health groups in advocating for alternatives to coal and coal seam gas. She tweets for CAHA at @healthy_climate.