Climate change: doing what’s right

A street strewn with empty water bottles. Two men are sweeping them up while another drinks in the foreground.
Unquenchable Thirst from Flickr user stumayhew

One of the arguments that I’ve been hearing a lot as we approach the Government’s release of details about the tax on carbon is: “We shouldn’t do anything because it won’t make a difference.” I’ve heard it from family members, and it’s also a continuing theme in the political debate. The poll cited here shows that many Australians (67%) believe Australia contributes only a small percentage to global carbon dioxide emissions and “a majority (64%) believes that Australia’s proposed carbon tax will make no difference to the world’s climate”, while this article in The Age cites BHP chairman Jac Nasser as warning “against the belief that Australia’s plans for a carbon tax would be influential – environmentally or diplomatically – on a global scale”.

There are plenty of arguments against this perspective. For one thing, Australia has a far better chance of negotiating multilateral or global agreements which require other countries to take effective action on climate change if we’re taking action ourselves. But even if it didn’t make much of a difference, globally, we should do our best to take effective action on climate change because it’s the right thing to do.

We don’t teach children not to steal (but not if you won’t get caught). Or not to hurt others  (but go ahead if noone will find out). We don’t teach them to do the right thing (but not if it’s hard). We don’t tell them not to litter (but do it if other people have already done it). We, as individuals, don’t believe (I hope!) that it’s okay to do the wrong thing if everyone else is doing it. As a society, I would like to believe that we support the idea of doing what’s right even when it’s difficult and even when your peers might not support you.

Children picking up trash by the seaside
Trash pick-up from Flickr user Sustainable Coastlines, taken by Joe Dowling

Australians contribute disproportionately to the problem: we produce more carbon on average per capita than the previous most polluting nation, the USA (Lauder). That might not end up having a huge effect compared to larger economies, but it will certainly contribute.

Taking effective action on climate change will make a difference internationally. A carbon tax won’t cripple our economy (even business bodies agree). It doesn’t need to cause problems for lower-income households (learn more).

But you know what? Even if it’s hard, even if it weren’t going to make a difference internationally, we should do our best to take effective action on climate change. We made a mess, we keep making the mess, we should help clean it up. We should do the right thing because it’s what’s right. We should start acting in the way we teach our children to act.

6 thoughts on “Climate change: doing what’s right

  1. Well Sky, I, myself will agree with you on all your statements, there is a large part of Australia that is afraid of change and I must agree that on some things (for example day light saving) I’m the same. But climate change is affecting us all right now, whether we see it or not it’s here. If we can’t be a good example to other countries then is the example we are setting for our children really helping them or just turning them into spoilt children who keep consuming and not give anything back.

    1. Thank you, Michelle. Change can be scary, but sometimes we can’t avoid it: we can only manage it as best we can and do our best to find the positives.

  2. Sky, If I were a mild skeptic[1], I wouldn’t really be swayed by this tbh. The argument that we should do the right thing doesn’t hold a lot of water when there are so many right things that we could be doing. Competing priorities, opportunity cost, etc.

    I would make the following argument:

    Australia is part of a significant group of countries. If you take the group of countries who sit within a range of 1% of global emissions either way from Australia’s 1.37%[2] then they add up to 30% of the global total. Clearly, the global emissions problem cannot be solved without that bloc taking action.

    Secondly, Australia has a critical need to see effective global action on climate change. Our economy and infrastructure is spread out, with a low population and a high landmass, and we are comparatively dependent on agriculture, fisheries and forestry – which are climate dependent – and then industrial infrastructure which is thinly spread and vulnerable to disruption, and tourism which trades off vulnerable ecosystems. We’re already mostly desert and prone to further aridity interspersed with flooding. Climate change hits us harder than other industrial nations, so we need an agreement that leads to a stabilised climate, through an international carbon cap and trading system.

    Only international negotiations can deliver that agreement. When you walk into a negotiation proposing that everyone should commit to doing X, then the other parties are going to want to see that you actually have the capacity and motivation to do X before giving you the time of day. And obviously, having done some of X already is the best way to build that credibility.

    Thirdly, those who haven’t already done X need to be shown that it is possible and viable to do so. Those parties which are best placed to demonstrate the viability of X should move first, and those less well placed will then be less able to claim that X is impossible in practice and be prevailed upon to follow.

    Now, X is of course making reductions in emissions. The ‘group’ I referred to earlier consists of 28 countries:

    Canada? Korea, South? Iran United Kingdom* Saudi Arabia+ South Africa+ Mexico+ Brazil* Australia? Indonesia Italy* France* Spain* Taiwan Poland* Ukraine+ Thailand Turkey Netherlands* United Arab Emirates? Egypt Kazakhstan Argentina+ Venezuela Singapore? Malaysia Pakistan Belgium* Uzbekistan Algeria

    Of those (*), at least 8 are already taking action in carbon pricing, 7 by being part of the EU-ETS, and Brazil in setting up a carbon market linked to the UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

    A further five (?) are clearly in a position of economic development and governmental sophistication to do so, but haven’t yet. In that is included Australia. Another five (+) I have somewhat arbitrarily noted should be in a relatively good position to do so in the quite near future, quite possibly more, especially if they are able to access the CDM. That accounts for 18 of 28 countries.

    Every step that each country makes negotiating a final settlement easier by demonstrating the possibility of action and building credibility that it will be delivered. The negotiations are slow, but they aren’t going to go away. How long and painful and drawn out and inefficient they are depends on how many countries drag the chain.

    We’re clearly next up here, along with Canada and a few others. We’re in a position to demonstrate the potential of carbon pricing in a highly resources intensive economy, and it’s in Australia’s national interest that we get a climate-stabilising international agreement. That is why the Government’s carbon tax matters.


    1 By ‘mild skeptic’ I mean someone whose views are toward thinking that climate change won’t be too bad and that there’s not a lot of point in Australia doing much about it.


    1. I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said here. The argument I’m making here really has limited application. It’s only relevant for those who:
      1) Admit that climate change is real is caused by humans, and
      2) Believe that it will have serious impacts on people around the world, but
      3) Think there’s no point doing anything ourselves primarily because it “won’t make a difference”.

      I think there are plenty of other arguments for taking effective action on climate change (including the ones you’ve used here), each of which is slightly better suited to particular audiences (as Mike Hulme argued in You’ve been framed: six new ways to understand climate change).

      Essentially, this blog post is replaying a very particular discussion I had with one person. It was useful in that case, and I thought it was worth sharing in a public space where it might be useful for others. I’m very aware, though, that for many who are opposed to the carbon tax (or other actions around climate change) this just won’t meet their objections.

  3. Lets tackle pollution, the carbon tax is useless: a huge Tax with zero effect on the claimed problem. Even if the Tax successfully reduces Australia’s CO2 emissions by 5% by 2020, IPCC theoretical climate ‘cooling’ would be 0.00004 ºC; if the whole world joins in, it would be a negligible 0.0005 ºC).

    1. 1) I think it would be helpful to define what you mean by “huge”. Are you worried about the effects on the economy, on the large polluters who it targets, or on “everyday Australians”?
      2) You’re right that it’s not nearly enough on its own. But if we can’t get support for this, which is a relatively minor step and won’t have negative effects on most people’s lives, we have very little hope of getting support for something more effective.

      What alternative do you propose? I’m genuinely interested.

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