The Climate Change Gamble – or what happened to the precautionary principle?

The words “climate change” are now on the lips of almost every Australian. Plug these words into Google and you get 3.3 million hits for Australian pages, nearly a million more hits than for “health care”.  Australians talk about climate change, but for a variety of reasons. Some of us are concerned, some are skeptical, some of us don’t care and some don’t know what information to believe. The issue is enormous and the challenge seems insurmountable. To make a bad thing worse, the topic has recently been blurred by email scandals involving a tricky scientist and anti-science campaigns. As a result, most Australians are left feeling confused and helpless on the topic of climate change. And I don’t blame you.  Rather than being a real environmental issue, global climate change has become something most Australians have chosen to either believe in or not believe in, almost as if it were a new religion. Taking appropriate action on climate change is hard given the conflicting information.

The purpose of this column is to look beyond the climate change debate and help you appreciate the problem at its core, and to let you draw some conclusions yourself independently of the confusion. First, let’s take a quick look at the evidence, and although I am a scientist I will not need to use science predictions, just three simple facts.  Fact 1 – we are currently pumping 8-9 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere per year. This is an accounting exercise – not science.  Fact 2 – since 1960, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by more than 30%. Again, this is a simple observation. Fact 3 – the recent decade is the warmest ever measured by instruments from more than a thousand stations around the globe. Note, simple measurements with thermometers – not complicated science that can be argued with. So, based on these three facts, I pose the question:  is it likely that the activity of people is changing the world’s atmosphere?  And perhaps a more important question – if we are likely to be the cause of this trend do we have a responsibility to do something about it?  Even if there is some doubt about just how much our carbon dioxide emissions will heat up the atmosphere and how that will affect weather, bush fires and sea level rise (the science of climate change predictions I have spared you here), should we choose to listen to the climate-change skeptics and deniers when they tell us to go pump that oil, mine that coal, drive that big car and crank up that air con?  Or should we adopt the precautionary principle?  We are good at taking precautions at the scale of individuals, families or small communities but less so on global environmental issues. Say there‘s a chance your kids will get sun burnt on a trip to the beach, you slip slap slop them with +30 and buy them hats. It’s an expense, but a good investment in the kid’s future health. If the sparky says an electrical installation needs to be repaired or else your house might burn down, you’re likely to get it fixed or you’ll be deemed irresponsible. Responsible mums and dads would not choose to listen to people who say that slip-slap-slopping is a waste of time and that the science of sun-related skin cancer may have uncertainties. We don’t gamble with our kid’s health and future. Since there’s no aggressive anti-sunscreen movement out there keeping the sunscreen experts on their toes, then why all this deep passion for defaming the climate change science?  The reason is big $$. I am not asking you to pick a side in this so-called debate, but consider another simple fact:  There is far more short-term profit to be gained from climate-change denial than from climate-change science and acceptance. Human-made climate change has its roots in the burning of fossil fuels, and multi-billion dollar industries would benefit from the continued burning of oil and coal. If individuals and governments are to adopt the precautionary principle on global climate change and not gamble with our future, then we need to be more critical about our sources and quality of information. The scientific evidence pointing to likely severe climate change during this century is overwhelming. Although there is uncertainty in the predictions of just how bad things are going to get if we don’t cut emissions, that uncertainty is not greater than the uncertainty of the health risks associated with smoking. In this analogy the World is a chain smoker. As the body of climate change evidence grows stronger, so does the ferocity and intensity of the anti-science smear campaigns. Their purpose is to prevent a clear and unanimous call for action that would result in the rapid phasing out of fossil-fuel dependent industries. As long as the climate change issue is something we can choose to believe in or not believe in, it is as real as Santa Clause, UFOs and Fairies, and people are unable to make informed choices or take guided actions. We listen to doctors when we get sick, go to dentists when our teeth fall out, take our car to the mechanic when it breaks down and call lawyers when we need legal help. Some doctors and lawyers might be dodgy, but we don’t dismiss the medical and legal systems on that account. When the global climate is showing signs of trouble, responsible governments and individuals should adopt the precautionary principle as they do at home and be guided by the clear evidence and the odds rather than by the she’ll-be-right skepticism.

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