Stupid or cynical? How our leaders contribute to climate crisis

Nov 3, 2021
parliament house canberra politics
Our political system needs donations reform. (Image: Unsplash)

Effective leadership on climate change is in short supply. Are our leaders too stupid or too cynical to respond to the world’s greatest problem?

One of the more remarkable aspects of the debate about climate change is that something like 99 per cent of recognised climate scientists agree on the basic drivers and likely consequences of unmitigated global warming. While this is an unambiguous vindication of the scientific method, perhaps, there are still lots of people who genuinely believe that climate change is either not happening, isn’t caused by humans even if it is, or that there’s not much we can do about it anyway.

Even in democracies, where access to credible information is relatively unproblematic for those with the perseverance and skills to sift through the cacophony of voices and sources on the internet, making sense of complex scientific evidence and arguments is still a challenge. It’s a problem that is made worse by the politicisation of public policy and a consequent loss of confidence in the abilities and veracity of our elected representatives.

When many people do not have the expertise to judge the accuracy of complex arguments about both the nature of climate change or the best possible ways of trying to reduce its impact, their capacity to make informed judgements about initiatives like the Morrison government’s “Australia’s Long-term Emissions Reduction Plan” is necessarily restricted.

All of us who are not experts in the area are necessarily reliant to various degrees on those that are — or claim to be — experts to make sense of complex and competing claims.

It’s uncontroversial to suggest that the plan has been met with widespread incredulity and disappointment as it appears to deliver nothing new and relies on heroic assumptions about as yet unknown technological breakthroughs to achieve its goals. In such circumstances, it’s worth asking whether members of government are being deliberately deceitful or simply don’t understand the implications of unaddressed climate change and the implausible nature of its proposed “solutions”.

While we may not know what goes on in people’s heads or what ultimately motivates their actions, the fact that some of the most prominent supporters of the coal industry come from electorates where mining remains important is an unsurprising coincidence. The interesting question is whether the likes of Keith Pitt, Angus Taylor and Barnaby Joyce actually believe what they say about the mining or the cattle industries and their contributions to climate change.

Perhaps they really do, and are genuinely convinced that the predicted impacts of climate change are either overstated or can be addressed by as yet unknown technological innovations. But if they are cynically pedalling a narrative that serves their short-term political interests despite realising that it is actively contributing to what may be the greatest crisis the human race has ever faced then the rest of us have every right to be appalled.

So do their own children and anyone who is likely to be around at the turn of the century. What feat of psychological compartmentalisation allows them to privilege immediate political advantage over the future of their presumably beloved offspring? Being bribed to support the Coalition’s minimalist response to a national and global emergency no doubt helped. But what will they say to their children if — or more likely, when — they ask them what they did to save their futures?

Mathias Cormann is a noteworthy illustration of the genre. Having managed to secure a plumb post-retirement gig as secretary-general of the OECD, he has now declared his support for a carbon tax, having dutifully opposed it while finance minister. Cormann’s new stance is no doubt a reflection of his new role rather than a sudden epiphany about climate change, which makes his former slavish adherence to the party line and role in the downfall of Malcom Turnbull all the more inexcusable.

As for the prime minister Cormann helped to install, it remains an open question whether Scott Morrison actually believes technology will save the day and that Australia can avoid playing its part in “saving the planet”. Given that there is a growing consensus that it is probably already too late to avoid further dangerous climate-induced disasters in Australia and elsewhere, it seems difficult to believe that he and his government are driven solely by a short-term political calculus that consigns us and their own progeny to a potentially hellish future.

For those of us trying to deal with the cognitive dissonance induced by a debilitating combination of understanding and impotence, despair about the quality, intelligence, and principles of those who claim to lead us seems entirely appropriate. Unfortunately, Australia’s leaders are not the only ones who suffer from this malaise.

Joe Biden and Xi Jinping are respectively constrained by either dysfunctional domestic politics or the perceived need to keep the developmental show on the road at any cost. Others, like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, combine personal egotism, stupidity and a seemingly pathological indifference to the consequences of his actions, which seems certain to consign Brazilians and the rest of us to a grizzly fate.

It is difficult to imagine how we can transform domestic, let alone international, political systems and the people who populate them in the time available to us to do something effective about climate change, or related questions of international security, for that matter.

Ironically, COP26 may only confirm both the need and the impossibility of doing so. Thankfully, I don’t have children asking awkward questions about their likely futures, but I’d be interested to know what our God-fearing prime minister tells his.

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