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Fiddling while Rome burns – Delay follows denial, let me count the ways

by | Aug 17, 2023 | 0 comments

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By David Salt

“I’ve never met a climate denial argument that wasn’t a variant of one of these five categories, all aimed at preventing action:
1/ It’s not real
2/ It’s not us
3/ It’s not bad
4/ We can’t fix it
5/ It’s too late”

So says Professor Katharine Hayhoe, acclaimed Canadian atmospheric scientist and climate campaigner.

We’ve all witnessed various acts of climate denial in our time, many of us have probably even committed a few ourselves in an effort to cope with the growing cognitive dissonance around (and within) us, but as lists go this is a pretty good one – short, simple and covers most of the denialist cant.

Many rational minds are watching the climate disruption currently unravelling around the world and coming to the rational conclusion that humanity is finally acknowledging what is clear and self-evident:
1/ It is real
2/ It is us
3/ It is bad
4/ There are things we can and must do
5/ It’s not too late

Given this, things will happen; things are happening.

Not happening

Indeed, there’s probably not a government on this planet that isn’t telling its people they acknowledge climate change and are making ‘serious’ efforts to combat it.

However, in the parentheses at the end of every proclamation is the implicit (sometime explicit) caveat that new policies won’t change the status quo, won’t slow down economic growth, won’t bite the hand of key stakeholders (read fossil fuel sector), won’t cost the voter anything additional and likely won’t even be implemented in the current electoral cycle.

The recently defeated conservative government in Australia, whose only real competence was in crafting 3-word election slogans, probably summed it up best by proclaiming it’s all about ‘techology not taxes’. They put out pamphlets explaining how ‘net zero by 2050’ would be achieved by still to-be-developed science decades down the line. The overwhelming cynicism of their deceit against a backdrop of severe climate disruption (think Black Summer and the immolation of our forest biome right along the eastern seaboard*) contributed to their historic defeat last year.

Our new government promised action on climate change but, while the rhetoric is stronger, are still approving massive new fossil fuel developments.

What is happening?

Our current government may not use the slogan ‘technology not taxes’ but they may as well because it neatly sums up their approach – no added burden for voters, science and technology will protect our way of life while slaying the carbon dragon; we don’t need to sacrifice anything. Throw in a few accounting tricks (carbon offsets), plant a tree here or there, and Bob’s your uncle.

It may not be climate denial as Katharine Hayhoe describes it in her list but these forms of pernicious climate delay amount to the same thing.

Consider coral reefs, they are facing an existential threat because of climate warming. Experiments are underway around the world to identify heat resilient corals, projects to shade reefs, and to seed new reefs to restore those lost to past mass bleaching events. They are all driven by the noble goal of saving our coral reefs but nothing so far works at scale and without addressing the root cause of carbon pollution they are destined to fail. Worse, they give the impression we’re doing something when we’re not.

The corals around Florida are copping a hiding at the moment as sea temperatures break all records. The response has been to attempt to save some corals by lifting them from the sea and putting them in air-conditioned aquaria. Can we not see the surreal futility of such efforts?

Then there’s the push for greater efforts on Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). No scheme so far has worked at scale yet they are actively used by the fossil fuel sector to justify continued fossil fuel expansion.

What about carbon-free, reliable nuclear energy? Conservative politicians everywhere are spruiking nuclear as the solution to our climate woes ignoring its high cost and the lengthy time it would take to develop the necessary infrastructure. When taken to task on this they fall back on claims of the endless potential of small modular nuclear plants, ignoring the fact that they don’t exist as commercial entities.

But something ‘not existing’ has never stopped the climate delayers from promoting it if it means not doing anything on climate today. Listen to their invocations on ‘fusion’. The magical technology of fusion energy has been promising unlimited clean energy for the past half century. The most optimistic researchers don’t expect we’ll see anything useable for the next 20 years. That’s fine by the profit-seeking fossil fuel industries which are making unprecedented profits at the moment. That’s a death sentence for humanity if that’s our only hope.

Why not plant a tree?

What’s left if the technology that might assist us is over the horizon and no government is prepared to shake up the status quo – of course, let’s go plant a tree! Who doesn’t love a good tree planting?

Our last conservative government knew this and pledged to plant 20 million trees to combat climate change and save threatened species. Unfortunately, it turned out cheap trees were the only thing they were interested in and little consideration was given to threatened species or climate. Though it gave them a fig leaf of credibility that they were actually doing something for the planet.

But Australian conservatives are pigmies compared to the ‘ambition’ of their American counterparts. Republicans in the US want to plant a trillion trees to save the planet! That should do the trick, a trillion is so big it solves all problems. Only thing is, it seems the Earth system is bigger still. MIT researchers, found that even you could grow that many trees and they survived (two big ‘ifs’), planting a trillion trees would prevent only 0.15 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100.

And the people of Canada and Australia now know it only takes a single ‘black summer’ to literally send any number of trees up in smoke.

Restoring corals and planting trees might make us feel good in the short term but it makes little difference if the changing climate means those reefs and forests have no future.

Climate delayism, let me count the ways

Maybe we have moved beyond climate denial; that would be the rational thing to do (not that I believe we live in a rational world). But if all we’ve done is moved to a perpetual state of delayism then we haven’t come far at all:

1/ It is real (but other people in other times will solve it)
2/ It is us (and I will plant a tree in penance)
3/ It is bad (but I still have access to my air conditioner so I can weather it out)
4/ There are things we can and must do (but only if I don’t have to sacrifice anything I currently have)
5/ It’s not too late (wait, what’s the growing red glow on the horizon…

*When Australia was burning to the ground in 2019/20, our then climate-denying Prime Minister Scott Morrison was secretly on holiday in Hawaii. On return he claimed he ‘didn’t hold a hose’. These days it’s Hawaii that’s burning to the ground. You can run by you can’t hide.

Banner image: Image by Chil Vera from Pixabay

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