Meaningful action to prevent global warming requires joint action through time. In this sense, we require a focus on outcomes—the goal of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius—and what must be done to realise this. Justice, of course, requires a sharing of the burden, because only a sharing of the burden will prompt and sustain action.
Over the last few days senior members of the Australian Government have talked about fires, global emissions and what Australia can do and should do.
The Prime Minister was categorical that the emissions reductions policies of the government would protect the Australian environment. That is, the policies in place would have a tangible and positive impact on ecological systems that are stressed and shocked to breaking point.
Meanwhile, the Minister for Energy, Mr Taylor, recently wrote that because Australia is responsible for only 1.3 per cent of global emissions, ‘we can’t single-handedly have a meaningful impact without the co-operation of the largest emitters such as China and the US’.
Now, both statements cannot simultaneously be true. Either the policies of government are having a meaningful and positive impact. Or they are not.
As it turns out, Mr Taylor was right and the Prime Minister was careless.
The scrupulous, verified work of professionals and experts demonstrate that humanity cannot go on this way. We cannot expect a different outcome if policy continues exactly as before.
Certainly Australia’s emissions are relatively small compared to, say, the United States or India. In 2017, the United States emitted 4,800 MtCO2; China, 9,300 MtCO2; India, 2,200 MtCO2. Australia’s emissions totalled 385 MtCO2.
In 1977, the United States emitted 4,800 MtCO2; China, 1,200 MtCO2; India, 237 MtCO2. Australia’ emissions were 196 MtCO2.
Australian Government makes the point that we should not sacrifice our economy by cutting emissions unilaterally and in a way that results in no overall reduction in emissions.
It’s an argument based on the economic problem of the free rider—an individual who consumes resources, public goods or services but who does not pay. A lighthouse, for example, benefits all who sail under its beam, but without an explicit scheme to ensure payment, no sailor pays for its operation and maintenance. In this instance, the sailor is a rider for free on long-suffering taxpayers.
And so it follows that Australia should do no more, because to do more would damage our economy and make no difference to the environment. Time, the energy minister says, for the free riders, India and China, to do their bit—or do a lot.
Not surprising, these two countries take a different view. The life of a Chinese or Indian citizen is on average much tougher than that of an Australian. According to the World Bank, in 2018, the average Australian earned approximately USD57,000. In China, GDP per capita was USD7,755; in India, USD2,100.
Before the Prime Minister was mugged by the reality of fire at home, he was, very properly, about to embark on an official visit to India. And he would have been briefed on the words of the Prime Minister of India, Mr Narendra Modi at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015.
For Mr Modi, developed nations brought global warming down on the head of the planet and must now take responsibility. His view perhaps is coloured by the reality that the income of the average Australian is 27 times more than that of the average Indian:
We hope advanced nations will assume ambitious targets and pursue them sincerely. It is not just a question of historical responsibility. They also have the most room to make the cuts and make the strongest impact. And climate justice demands that, with the little carbon space we still have, developing countries should have enough room to grow.
From Australia, even in the middle of a firestorm, the scale and intensity of the challenges that Mr Modi has address are hard to understand. According to the National Institution for Transforming India, about 820 million people face the real problem of water scarcity; 163 million live without ready access to clean water.
The Indo-Gangetic Plain of northern India is one the largest catchments in the world. Water flows and availability are largely dependent on seasonal monsoon rains. In the north and west the Indus Basin is fed by the glaciers of the Tibetan plateau.
Global warming will change the intensity, duration and timing of monsoon rains and diminish the amount of water stored and released as glacial melt. Global warming will compromise supply at the very same time as the demand for water—for agriculture, for industry, for homes, for the environment—is increasing.
To manage water better is the test that a developing India faces. But to do so requires resources and economic growth and investment. In the short term, the solution to the problem, if nothing else were to change, is the toxic cause of the problem itself.
For Australia, slight or inadequate inaction by India—or China or the United States for that matter—dooms our hopes for change that is immediate, tangible and meaningful.
The difficulty in implementing tangible and effective measures as a global community arises because we confuse the nature of the problem, which is static, with the nature of the solution, which is dynamic.
The problem is static in that everybody perceives themselves at a moment in time to be worse off by acting unilaterally. If Australia cuts emissions then we are disadvantaged. India thinks it unconscionable that it should forgo the benefits of growth to address a problem not wholly of their making. In a static moment in time, both positions are absolutely right.
But meaningful action requires joint action through time. And in this dynamic sense, it requires a focus on outcomes—the goal of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius—and what must be done to realise this. Justice, of course, requires a sharing of the burden, because only a sharing of the burden will prompt and sustain action.
If Australia believes we have done enough then we reduce the chance of that others will act. The worm will have fully turned because others, whose agreement is essential, can take as an excuse that Australia is nothing more than a free rider, motivated by bad faith.
And come that moment, the possibility of action is lost.
Chas Savage is the Chief Executive Officer of Ethos CRS. He is interested in policy, poetry and how citizens can best solve complex problems. Trained as an agricultural scientist and economist, he is not an expert in global warming and thinks we maximise our chances by listening to those who are.