Graeme Pearman. Managing climate change: in whose interest?  

Mar 11, 2015

The role of greenhouse gases in determining the temperature of the Earth has been known since the first half of the 19th century and in recent decades observations have shown clearly that human activities are changing the levels of these gases in the atmosphere. The science community has articulated the broad consequences of this for more than three decades.

Yet in Australia the period from the late 1980s to the present has been characterised by a trend from an internationally leading and proactive approach to an approach that puts Australia in danger of incurring political and economic sanctions reflecting our growing pariah status. Maria Taylor has suggested this trend reflects a shift in cultural values including, important in the context of this volume, the demise of the ‘public interest’. Environmental leadership by the Hawke government has been overtaken by a dominant commitment to the neo liberal economic ideology. Sections of the media also played a role in communicating the new narrative about the irreplaceability of fossil fuels and a general scepticism about the science of climate change.

To some it is evident that climate-change policy was designed to promote action to support key industries. This cultural change has had enormous implications for Australian life: the sectoral balance of the economy; employment, working hours and conditions; family life; volunteerism; attention to domestic and international welfare and environmental issues; and so on. Many now question whether as a result of being ‘wealthier’ we are happier and more secure, and whether the benefits have been equitably shared in the public good. Yet rigorous examination of these wider consequences is missing.

Humans, all of us, find it necessary to have personal views of the nature of the world in order to operate on a daily basis. To a large extent we can do little more than construct this view from what our parents told us, our culture, our religion, our education, advertisements and at times from what those whom we admire have told us. These are constructed views of the world.

The problem is that these are largely based on myth and rarely formulated from rigorously determined information. President Kennedy said the ‘great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.’

A greater reliance on ideological, often mythical, imperatives has lowered attention to evidence-based decision-making, a regression towards the times prior to the Age of Enlightenment. There has been a decline of investment in science and its representation in governments, and an expansion of the mindless view that science’s role in modern society is about product development and financial reward. This ignores the substantial value of building a deeper understanding of the world we live in, the natural environment, the operation of societies and limitations of our own humanity. It ignores investment in the power to anticipate and set goals for a future world that we consciously wish to achieve.

Climate change is about modification of the global environment well beyond the strategic view of businesses. Concern for its potential impact on future generations and the natural ecosystems has limited power in the operation of the markets and market choice. Further, the impact of a changed climate may occur through largely explicable effects on agriculture, water resources and security, but also through disruption of the complex and dynamical nature of ecosystems in a way we cannot at this stage anticipate. The point is that the potential consequences have serious implications for the public good, now and into the future.

Climate change is already impacting on concerns over energy futures and policy. There are many cases where this is poorly understood in the sense of its impact on the wider public good. For example, a recently announced discovery of a Cooper Basin gas reserve suggests its exploitation would ‘result in 60 to 120 trillion cubic feet of gas’. This is equivalent to 6.6 thousand million tonnes of CO2 or 11 times the current annual release of carbon dioxide from Australia. If exploited its release might occur over a decade or more and its spread may perhaps be international. But this one enterprise would represent about 83 per cent of the estimated Australian long-term ‘allocation’ of emissions as its part in the global effort to give a 75 per cent chance of keeping climate change near to 2oC into the future (8,400 Mt CO2 from 2013-50).

Additionally, natural gas is methane that as a greenhouse gas is effectively about 34 times more powerful than CO2. Recent satellite imagery of North American tight geological formations suggests that leakage rates could be of order 10 per cent. The ‘greenhouse emissions’ advantage of gas over oil or coal is lost for any leakage of more than 3 per cent.

The point here is who is to decide whether the exploitation of such gas resources, and many have been identified, is in the public interest? There would clearly be positive impacts on energy supplies, trade and employment. On the other hand there are potential negative impacts on our contribution to the reduction of global emissions and on alternative land-uses. There are risks related to the methane leakage issue and disruption to societies related to the transient nature of the businesses. Who will bear the cost of exposure to potentially stranded assets and the downside of biased or narrowly focused risk assessment? This is to say nothing of the questions about who really owns these resources in the first place and how benefits should accrue for all. Surely these are not questions for the energy companies or the energy sector alone.

Governments have a responsibility to encourage entrepreneurialism and the economic benefits that may ensue from such resource exploitation. But we also expect governments to weigh these benefits in light of the public Interest. The federal government’s Energy Green Paper shows influences of ideological and sectoral views on energy futures that are perhaps understandable given the responsible department, but these may not be in the wider interests of the community. Thus a serious rethink is required to address how best to deal with complex, multi-factorial and strategic issues related to the public good given our modern, largely sectoralised, society.

The view that economic imperatives should not dominate policy will be no more easily ‘sold’ than the need for action on climate change. It represents a challenge to prevalent ideologies and narrow corporate interests and a broad interpretation of what constitutes human wellbeing and welfare (in time and essence) that has fallen out of favour. As recently stated in an Age Editorial, ‘…. human society is built on the idea that the many are one. This is not socialism or communism, but humanism. Too often self interest and ideology, manifested in business and political, crash against this ideal.’


Graeme Pearman AM retired from CSIRO in 2004 after 33 years of service including 10 years as Chief of the Division of Atmospheric Research. He pioneered studies of the global carbon cycle, fundamental to anticipating future climate change, and over-sighted the development of an Australian capacity in climate modelling and impact assessment. He operates a consultancy on climate science, energy futures, the impact of human and societal behaviour and sustainability. He is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at Monash University.

This article was published recently, with many others, by Australia 21. The subject of the series was ‘Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?’ 


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