March 3, 2014, by ICCSR
Letter from a dry country
In the last few weeks we have seen exceptional storms and flooding affecting much of southern Britain. It therefore feels almost surreal to read about these events on the other side of the world in drought-wracked Australia. While the weather is getting wetter in the UK, it is getting dryer in Australia. Such extreme weather events around the world bear out the warnings of climate scientists, that climate change is now with us and it is likely to get a lot worse. And yet there appears almost a complete disconnect with much of the political debate surrounding climate change around the world; an inability for politicians to come clean on the scale and magnitude of the climate crisis we now face.
As an extensive body of peer-reviewed science has demonstrated, the key factor underlying our changing climate is the dramatic increase in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere that have resulted from industrial development and globalised consumption. This highlights a central contradiction underlying our response to climate change: current (and future) extreme weather events are a direct outcome of our dependence on fossil-fuel generated economic growth. It is thus not surprising that during the weeks of extreme heat in Australia, the country’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, steadfastly rejected the proposition that record-breaking heat waves’ could be linked to climate change (famously he had earlier proclaimed his view that climate change was ‘crap’!). Indeed, what strikes you in Australia is the phenomenal rush by government and business to exploit as much of the country’s fossil fuel reserves as quickly as possible. This means placing national icons such as Great Barrier Reef at risk in the drive to expand coal mines and ports and fuel export demand for coal and gas. In the recent G20 meetings in Sydney, Australia’s Treasurer Joe Hockey trumpeted the need for even greater levels of economic growth as a global panacea for social well-being. Much like Canada, in the rush to exploit fossil fuel resources the obvious elephant in the room – climate change – is noticeably absent from political discussion.
So why are we unable to respond to the climate crisis in a meaningful way? It is, of course, easy to point the finger of blame at politicians for their lack of leadership on this issue. However, in democracies we often get the politicians we deserve (and have voted for). Indeed, climate change denial among people in many western countries often outweighs their representation among politicians. Similarly, while the media has a significant impact upon public attitudes, media outlets also reflect the attitudes of their customers. For instance, a recent study by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism found that while 32% of 602 articles in 10 major Australian newspapers dismissed or questioned whether human activity was causing climate change, this editorial line also reflected the views of their readership (the same study finding that as much as 97% of readers’ comments in the conservative newspaper the Herald Sun questioned or rejected climate science). Added to this, while many businesses have played a central role in promoting climate change denial, many citizens have also rallied in support of business opposition to carbon pricing based not only on ignorance of climate science or ideological disposition, but also because of fear for their jobs and employment. So beyond the obvious ‘merchants of doubt’, the political rejection of climate change action also revolves around our own inability to deal with the inconvenient truth that our economic system and way of life in advanced developed economies is immiscible with environmental well-being.
We as voters, readers and consumers therefore share some of the blame for our current inaction in that climate change appears too big and too complex to even entertain in political discussion. Democracy is therefore currently unable to deal with the most important and urgent issue we face as a species. As Russell Brand recently proclaimed, democracy, as we currently understand it, has failed. Considering how we vote, read and consume, perhaps Lippmann was right in arguing that we have no reason to think that “the sum of individual ignorances could produce a continuous force capable of directing public affairs”. So is democracy dead?
To the contrary, the only possible solution for our current political malaise over climate change is more and better democracy. In order to do this, we must separate representative democracy from corporate capitalism. Only then can we democratically address the destruction of our environment. This is not a critique of capitalism; it is a critique of the assumption that representative democracy and corporate capitalism are identical. Using the example of climate change, here are some humble suggestions for kick-starting representative democracy.
Corporations are not the saviours of the environment. Corporations sell green products and services not to save the environment or address climate change, but to make a profit. The idea that we can buy our way out of a crisis of consumption, simply justifies further consumption. The idea that we can best exercise our democratic role by ‘voting’ with our dollars/pounds is ridiculous. We cannot leave it to business or the market to solve climate change; we need a strong representative democracy implementing regulations that mitigate carbon emissions and more equitably distribute the costs of climate change. We need to acknowledge the cognitive dissonance between our concerns about climate change and continuous consumption. Instead of identifying with the brand we are wearing, perhaps it is time to identify with our political values. Social movements are born out of identity politics. The broad support of the Occupy Movement in the financial crises gives us hope. Following an increasing frequency of extreme weather events, perhaps it is time to recognize that we occupy the environment, not the other way around.
From Daniel Nyberg, Professor of Sustainability, ICCSR, Nottingham University Business Schoo
– currently in Australia.
Image by Vicki, drought affected wetlands in South Australia. Reproduced under creative commons license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mundoo/326867719
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