IN the space of just two months Climate Change has hit home with a bang. Virtually every news bulletin these days contains a climate story — about terrible calamities being experienced around the world or foreboding predictions about what will happen if action is not taken very quickly.

Strange to think that this story is over 100 years old. It was way, way back in 1907 that a Swedish scientist first postulated that growing levels of carbon dioxide in that atmosphere would impact on natural ecological systems.

Then, 36 years ago, the Club of Rome’s sensational book, The Limits to Growth, used scientific modelling to show that human activity, if unchecked, would bring about a collapse of civilisation as we know it. At the forefront of their predictions was the inability of the planet’s atmosphere to continuously absorb fossil fuel pollutants without disastrous consequences.

Fascinating to think that if its dire forecasts were heeded then, the course of world history would have changed and the present crises avoided. Although The Limits to Growth sold 30 million copies in more than 30 translations, political and industry leaders were far too enamoured by the unbounded promises of economic growth and wealth to take heed. The Club of Rome’s seminal treatise was debunked as scientific nonsense.

From that point it took another 25 painfully slow years for the majority of world scientists to overcome their inherent conservatism and doubt. Yet, so long as a sparse minority in the scientific community offered scepticism, it was easy for politicians to do nothing on the grounds that ‘the jury was still out’. Overcoming that step took another disappointing, time-wasting decade.

Now, as we approach the year 2007, no scientist can, with credibility, cast doubt on human-induced climate change. No layperson with average intelligence can deny the bleeding obvious.  After 102 years we have finally arrived at the critical turning point. 

This long history is important to understand, because it highlights the painstakingly long lag time between postulation, scientific proof, political acceptance, then corrective political action being taken. We have only just entered that last phase, yet we are over 100 years into the saga.

Similarly, the link between smoking and cancer was postulated over 50 years ago, scientifically proven soon after that, but such proof was legally accepted only after a 35 year protracted struggle in the courts, political remedial action being so retarded that millions of human beings died in the interval. (The saga continues still as cigarette companies vend their products to billions of customers living in the world’s most populous nations.) 

In the above two case studies, the pathway to political acceptance and action was strategically blocked and delayed by vested interests who cunningly played on the instincts of individual consumers to reject negative news.

That aside, as a rule of thumb, history shows that the lag time between a new scientific phenomenon being understood and corrective political action being taken is generally accepted to be around 40 years, on average.

Now let’s go back to the climate debate.

Prime Minister Howard and his ministers have, in a few short weeks, catapulted themselves from a position of feigned denial to acceptance. Yes, climate change is happening; yes, it is proving to be disastrous for our farmers; yes, the national economy will be seriously affected; yes, Australia has to act.

For those who have championed the cause for so long, this sudden about-face is surreal. Like freeing up a chronically blocked sewage pipe, all the pent up history of denial is being flushed past our eyes. Unbelievable!

Before we go patting our Prime Minister on the head for suffering the indignity of changing his mind, and having the courage to do so, his immediate strategic response is: ‘Don’t worry folks, the fix is technical, the problem is just a shortcoming in technology.’

Enter the second phase of denial.

50 years ago the world’s most famed scientist / philosopher, Albert Einstein, observed that: “It is not possible to solve a problem using the same consciousness that caused it in the first place.” Remember those words. In years to come, they will prove to be very prophetic.

In the short-term, nothing will stop the industrial society from trying to pursue hi-tech ‘fixes’ such as nuclear power and sequestration of carbon dioxide underground even though in the long-term they will merely add to the global pressure cooker, further breaching the limits of the planet to absorb voracious human activity. 

If we go down Howard’s chosen pathway, it would ordinarily take perhaps another two or three decades of folly before the public and political realisation dawns that society simply cannot go along as it is. Problem is, we don’t have that amount of time up our sleeves.

Howard is not alone in this state of denial. Many well meaning folk still romantically think that energy demand can be met using wind, solar and bio-diesel energy sources, not accepting that our enormous consumer footprint is the real underlying problem, and by far the number one priority to address. The real solution will amount to the greatest revolution in human history — but one that first has to occur inside our heads and hearts before it can be put into practice.

Fortunately I believe the 40-year rule has now been broken by the Internet.  There is too much knowledge and free trade of knowledge through the World-Wide-Web to keep the world’s people blinkered for years on end.

Millions of ordinary people — whether they live in Madrid, Moscow, Montreal or Moonah — have already been stunned into a realisation that unbridled consumption can no longer go along merrily as it has been in the past.  Already there is a growing acceptance that fundamental societal re-thinking and re-shaping has to happen — very quickly.

Public perception on this is changing by the minute. People, by the droves, are cottoning on that they can live far happier, more convivial and healthier lives, living comfortably with a much leaner footprint. Forget the tardiness of politics, this is where the global culture is transforming itself in leaps and bounds.

In years to come it may well be that our children’s children will look back at this historical moment and talk to their children with wonder about the ‘The Time of the Great Transformation’. The time when human beings finally took stock and came to terms with a sustainable relationship with their planetary environment.

It is truly awesome to think that we, at this critical juncture of history, are the people in the hot seat?

Forget the negative soothsayers, the onus is on us to make it happen.

Chris Harries
November, 2006

Chris Harries is a Tasmanian based writer and social advocate. He is a former adviser to Green MP, Senator Bob Brown.
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Howard’s nuclear ‘fix’ is just the next phase of denial, says Chris Harries