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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 03-Dec-2009

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 23

Wordcount: 860

Believe, deny or dither: it’s still the right time to clean up our act


OK, IT’S true. The Minchinsaurs are right. There is a left-wing plot to de-industrialise the world. It’s the Climate Change Conspiracy, or CCC, in which the Queen, the Pope and the Dalai Lama have lately joined that notorious leftie, Malcolm Turnbull.

My mum, who was otherwise preternaturally kind, would tell them brutally, as she once told me when I’d proudly helped an old lady cross the road, that principle only counts when it costs you something. You might even say it doesn’t exist till then.

Historically, of course, suffering and dying for principle was positively expected. Not just from saints and martyrs, whose flayed corpses do so much to make history a pleasure, but from the assorted intellectuals exiled, excommunicated and burnt for thought-crime, and the countless fluffy slippers who have died fighting for belief rather than loot, land or oil.

But heroism isn’t really something we do, not now, certainly not here. Principles are no longer to die for. If they annoy us we have them removed and get some shiny ceramic implants, or go without. Which is what made the last political fortnight so enthralling. I haven’t been so gripped by politics since Spycatcher – in which, coincidentally, Malcolm also starred. Did you notice how he went from hopeless to herculean between one Tuesday and the next as he decided to stand, and die, on principle? Did you see how excruciatingly close this nobility brought him to survival?

For a moment Australian politics was neither petty nor personal, large as personality loomed. Suddenly the heart of the debate, the issue that shredded the Opposition through a live feed onto our living room

carpets, was immense and urgent; an issue of principle.

Admittedly, climate change has been immense and urgent for a decade. But in Australian politics it – like Malcolm – has gone from nowhere to centre-court in five short years, and for this alone he should be remembered. To anyone hanging out for ideas, any ideas, in the public realm, this was X-treme refreshment; lemonade for the old gentleman coming home hot from church.

But ironies abound, all the same. First is that the Rudd-Turnbull ETS, which the Liberals would rather die than support, is anyway so emasculated it’ll do virtually nothing for climate change, even if by some miracle it becomes law.

Secondly, this emasculation has been achieved by hugely favouring the big polluters at the expense of the little guy, relying on the so-recently-discredited market to cut carbon while effecting a small-to-big wealth transfer that aligns wholly with Liberal Party philosophy.

But the third irony is bigger. It relates to the epistemology – the how can we know? – of climate science, and of postmodern life in general.

Our era of over-choice puts a bewildering cornucopia of decisions our way, stuff that would once have been given – religion, health, parenting, diet, housing, investment and education. This is a blessing, but brings with it the need for knowledge or, failing that, reliable information. At the same time, however, our sense of knowing, really knowing, has been steadily eroded, first by theory, then by an infinity of e-babble.

For every view there is now a counter view, for every fact a counter fact, for every scientist a counter scientist, or at least a dozen right-wing bloggers, so that all we’re left with, as facts slip through our fingers, is the shouting and hair-pulling of politics.

This is weird. The internet was heralded as the ultimate tool and guarantor of informed democracy. Yet here it is turning what passed for knowledge – the plodding, dependable carthorses, if you will, of our epistemological system – into the griffins and centaurs of belief.

Which is why we now treat climate science as a matter of belief, in which (like religion) we’re free to pick sides. As though it’s all just the tribal morass of politics. As though the planet has time to dick about.

There are facts on climate change. The trouble is we won’t know them for sure before it’s too late. Certainly Steve Fielding’s royal commission, yoking Garnaut and Plimer together like Krishna and Trishna won’t sort it. The “beyond-reasonable-doubt-certainty” that Abbott pretends to need won’t come any time soon.

Even without climate certainty, though, there are compelling reasons to clean up our act, energy-wise; compelling reasons for Australia – stable, democratic, rich but relatively powerless – to show leadership at Copenhagen. And not so Rudd can wave a piece of paper.

Think of it as risk management. If the climate-changers are wrong, and we go that way, we still end up with a clean world, free of oil-addiction, and a new industrial revolution to ride for the next millennium. And we get to stand for something, for once. Whereas if the deniers are wrong, we’ll be found, petrified, with our pants down, facing the rear view, kissing our arses goodbye.

This is what renders Phil Jones’s climate-gate treason unpardonable. In fudging the crucial facts, Professor Jones and his colleagues fed the Minchinsaur deniers steroids, strengthening their inertia and encouraging the very catastrophe they hoped to avert. I’d suggest burning at stake, but for the fossil-fuel emissions.


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