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World War II effort needed on climate change

World has 20 years to take real action: Professor Robert Manne

November 13 2015The world will need a mobilisation effort equal to or greater than that seen during World War II to combat climate change, but persistent and unfounded scepticism is holding the West back, says one of Australia’s leading intellectuals.

Professor Robert Manne, speaking at a Conversations with the Archbishop forum hosted by Archbishop Freier at Deakin Edge, Federation Square, on 11 November, said that the world had “maybe 20 years to take real action” but that the large and vocal minority of climate change deniers were unlikely to allow world leaders to take the kind of action needed to prevent catastrophic damage to the planet.

He said the world needed to “become sober and serious enough, quickly enough… to do something that’s never been done before in history, which is to sacrifice current wellbeing and to go through an energy revolution which will be as large, or larger than the mobilisation that society has had to do to fight the Second World War”.

“If we don’t go through a revolution in our economy, moving entirely away from fossil fuels, we will destroy the planet.”

Dr Freier agreed that radical action was needed, saying that anyone with a “theological and principled belief that God wants everyone to flourish” needed to understand that non-renewables were causing life on this planet harm. He singled out not only the people of third world countries, as Pope Francis had, but also the prosperity of later generations here. “I think people will survive on Earth, but can we survive in the kind of numbers, with the kind of expectations of comfort and affluence that we have in our present Western society?” he asked. “I think not, so I think it is a call for radical action and some urgent change.”

Professor Manne said that despite 97 per cent of climate scientists agreeing that climate change is occurring due to human activity, “20 years of political work” by corporations and libertarian and conservative think tanks had managed to cast doubt on the science. He attributed the success of this political work to the ‘cultural cognition’ argument developed by Yale Scholar Daniel Kahan. It argues that most people know they themselves can’t determine scientific questions of risk, so they look towards commentators, politicians and others whom they trust to inform their own opinions, which in turn allows minority opinions a wider reach. Professor Manne said that this had led to an almost insurmountable division between the climate change believers and sceptics.

“I honestly think that unless a sort of catastrophe occurs, it’s going to be very difficult in these societies to break scepticism,” he said.

Dr Freier also weighed in on the issues of scepticism, suggesting that part of the issue was that our perspectives are limited by the span of our lives. “Did the people that started deforestation in sub-Saharan Africa think they were going to advance the onset of the desert in that and many other areas? Of course not, they were just going about the normal things that they thought they did to sustain their lives,” he said. “We do the things that we think and intuitively experience as beneficial.”

Professor Manne also suggested that part of the “uniquely difficult problem” of climate change was the need for countries to be altruistic in the efforts to cut carbon emissions.

“If a country acts altruistically, and it really savagely tries to cut down on its own fossil fuels, it will benefit everyone but not itself, and so the arguments of those who oppose action is ‘Australia can be utterly altruistic in its behaviour, but it won’t benefit the Australian people, it will benefit everyone in a tiny way’.” Because we lack international institutions with the authority to command national governments, he said, getting global cooperation on fossil fuel reduction becomes difficult as nations worry their reductions serve “free rider” nations at their own people’s expense.

Dr Freier agreed, saying he thought the “institutional structure of the world does not look profoundly robust” to tackle the threat posed by climate change. He asked if nations have the capacity to cooperate on such global issues, and noted that while we had seen some non-government organisations with the power to influence state activities, such as the World Bank or International Monetary Fund, they had lacked “a bigger picture moral ethic”.

“So if we don’t want to lapse into chaos, [and] much of this discussion has a looming cloud somewhere over it – either as environmental chaos, or as social chaos – we need to work I think quite intentionally to build the kind of institutions whereby some of the big questions can be tackled,” he said.

Both men agreed that Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, was important in trying to shape the debate in the lead up to the Paris Summit. Professor Manne pointed to its fundamental assertion for 200 years we’ve treated “our common home” with disregard, while Dr Freier praised the Pope for his intervention on what has largely been seen as a political rather than moral debate. “[I]t’s proper for him as a Christian leader to be really concerned about the kind of society we have,” he said. “I would welcome more engagement by people of faith in that kind of debate and contribution to society.”