Is climate change too hard for democracy?

Jan 21, 2024
Hourglass stopped flowing with planet earth - Concept of time and planet earth.

We have all heard that 2023 was the warmest year ever for the world, by some margin.

We have heard things like this before. What, on the face of it, was worthy of huge headlines got a mention but not a great amount of attention.

The IPCC and many competent authorities tell us acting resolutely against climate change is acutely urgent. The way we are going, we may miss the Paris goal of keeping global warming as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, and possibly the further-off goal of two degrees.

We can see the consequences unfolding around us, just as climate scientists have been predicting for decades. Droughts are getting worse, and so are cyclones, hurricanes and floods. Extreme fires have raged in North America and Mediterranean countries as well as Australia. Ice is melting. The sea is rising just a little, but enough that big storms are threatening coastal communities everywhere with flooding or serious erosion.

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, tries bravely to jolt the world from complacency with very strong language. Opening a UN climate conference in September, he declared: “Humanity has opened the gates to hell”.

Yet all indications are that Donald Trump will be elected once more as US President. He has announced that from Day 1 it will be “Drill, drill, drill!”. He will sweep away all sorts of regulation that protects the environment or aims to limit climate change. It would be no surprise if he withdraws the United States from the Paris Agreement once again.

Fortunately, we don’t have a Trump in Australia. Chris Bowen, Minister for Energy and Climate Change, is working diligently to cut Australian greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector and industry. But at the same time, the Albanese government has waved through a slew of new coal and gas projects. They know this is harmful to the world, but still they do it. Perhaps this is due to pressure from corporate donors and lobbyists, or from unions who covet the relatively small number of high-paying jobs.

A single new project, Santos’s Barossa gas field in the Timor Sea, is set to belch four million tonnes of carbon dioxide and equivalent greenhouse gases into the air annually by the end of the decade. Its gas comes out of the wells with a high content of carbon dioxide. Maybe Santos will capture some of this and inject it underground to help their production, but the track record of the nearby Chevron project in doing this has been far below expectations.

I have to ask, considering what is going on in Australia, America and other Western countries, whether democracy can cope with climate change. Perhaps it is just too hard. This would mean that our grandchildren and generations to come will be doomed to a desolate world.

Democratic politics is intensely competitive. It has many different forms around the world, but it always attunes itself to what voters want. Obviously, that’s how you get elected. Most politics is short-term in its focus. The next election is always front of mind, sometimes competing with besting the other lot in the next joust in Parliament.

Climate change, on the other hand, is a long-term phenomenon by human standards (if lightning fast in geological terms). It is 35 years since James Hansen made a big impact telling a US senate committee that human-induced climate change is happening already. Projections by Berkeley Earth say that, at the present rate, the trend in average global temperature will pass 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2032 and two degrees by 2057. The worst effects won’t come until the next century or beyond.

By the year 2057, we will have had at least eleven more federal elections. The USA will have had nine presidential elections and seventeen elections for Congress.

When I was doing research for my book Toast, I had to delve into psychology, unfamiliar to me as a humble engineer. The literature shows that peoples’ beliefs do not necessarily come from rational evaluation of evidence. People tend to believe things that help them cope with life. They may adopt the beliefs of some group they want to belong to, or they may stick to something that seems to reconcile contradictions.

Donald Trump is an absolute master at getting people to believe extraordinary things. Tens of millions think he will Make America Great Again. Millions apparently think he was sent by God.

Here, we have an Opposition that spruiks nuclear power, in particular small modular reactors. It is easy to find reputable sources such as CSIRO that say nuclear power is far too expensive and will take far too long to install, and that these small reactors don’t exist except as an idea. The Opposition must know their nuclear plan is rubbish, but they spread it because some of their punters want to believe there is an alternative to the renewables they have been taught to disparage.

In a world like this, I fear democratic government is not up to the challenge of climate change.

The country that emits by far the most greenhouse gases is China, which of course is not a democracy. It is building wind and solar farms at a very rapid pace, accounting for more than half of such construction in the world. Nuclear is part of its program: they probably build the least expensive nuclear power stations in the world. China is the largest producer of coal and is still building coal-fired power stations. But it is retiring some decrepit old ones and other polluting old plant. Some analysts suggest China’s emissions may have peaked already. It is well ahead of its target to triple its renewable capacity. It could beat its self-imposed target of net zero emissions by 2060. President Xi Jinping has claimed the Chinese system is superior to that of the West. It would be ironic if, after all the scientific and technical work, all the conferences and all the political argy-bargy in the West it was China and not the democracies that did the most to put a brake on climate change.

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