Climate Change at the 2020 Summit. Success or Failure?

by David Shearman. A personal view

I was not at the 2020 summit, nor did I apply. Therefore my comments relate entirely to the written report, the submissions and the press comments of others who were there.

My attention was attracted by a comment from Tony Windsor, Independent member for the Federal seat of New England On AM he said “I’m glad I was here, slightly disappointed in the terms of the climate change debate. I think we could have probably done a bit more, particularly in terms of renewable energy, those sorts of issues. I think there was probably a greater expectation out there in terms of the urgency and really pushing the issue”. Then he added something about conflict between persons representing renewable energy and Extrata Mining at the meeting. The latter was excluded from the RN AM transcript and audio.

In any event the three big ideas put forward were national sustainability agenda backed by an audit; sustainable cities program; carbon neutrality for new buildings after 2020. To quote the first in full “We could adopt a National Sustainability, Population and Climate Change Agenda and develop robust institutions to support it. Australia would have a whole-of-government approach to climate change and sustainability policy, encompassing government expenditure, taxation, regulation and investment. As part of this agenda we could include an audit function to report on governments’ performance against these climate change and sustainability objectives.” The inclusion of the words “population” and “whole of government approach” are welcome if they are adopted and truly implemented

I have to express my disappointment. The only reference to the urgency of the situation was an introductory sentence that used the word ‘brief’. “We have a brief opportunity to act now to safeguard and shape our future prosperity”

As I read and analyse the literature on statements there are now two incontrovertible reasons for urgency

1. Climate change is moving faster than all predictions and there is hardening evidence on the extent of rainfall changes, sea level rise due to ice melting. The developing food crisis is accepted as part due to the consequence of climate change and the scientific evidence increasingly points to a more rapid collapse of world fisheries than predicted.
2. At the same time, Rajenda Pachauri, present head of the IPCC, has said that too many rich countries have failed to take the action needed to convince developing nations to accept a deal in Copenhagen next year that could stabilise emissions. In other words we have to establish our credibility. There are those that say we should not act without India and china ‘coming to the party’ Opinion is that they will not come to the party till they see us act.

The hundred delegates speaking on climate change have produced a document of platitudes that may or may not be implemented by 2020. They fail to identify the most important factor in impeding progress. I offer an explanation why I write this.

With a few colleagues, over the past few years, I have been analysing what mechanisms have lead to failure of important environmental mechanisms (including climate change) in democracies throughout the world. There are common factors to nearly all these failures which relate to the functioning of the principles of democracy itself. These failures didn’t matter too much as long as there were plenty of fish in the sea, more forests to chop down and more land fill. Those days are over. The first diagnostic step is for government to recognise its inherent problem before we can move forward to a cure. Liberal democracy has become impotent when dealing with complex problems.

Consider the Murray Darling Basin. Over 10 years the Murray has moved to ecological collapse, an outcome predicted by sound scientific data. Thousands of hours spent talking by commissions, committees, and governments to protect everyone’s rights, perceived or real, provide ample evidence for the failure of democratic systems to produce corrective outcomes for complex problems.

Complexity theory explains why complex systems collapse and I am referring here to governance not to river ecology! As society become more and more complex the layers of bureaucracy that balance all needs grind to a halt and become decision-less. In the failures of some ancient civilisations said to have an environmental basis, most had as a fundamental cause the failure of government to act on the signs of environmental distress; their complex and distracted systems could not recognise nor act on the problem. The US Empire is probably approaching this state.

The reform of liberal democracy must take account of two needs, the ability to comprehend complex physical and biological systems the need to act quickly and scientifically to avert fast approaching threats without waiting for years or decades for public opinion to fall into line.

I feel that the 2020 climate change proposals do not scratch the surface of our needs. Furthermore I doubt if government will succeed in implementing them for the reasons stated above.

My submission to 2020 was made to the governance section because this is where the action is needed. A Republic and Bill of Rights held sway in the report, laudable but fiddling while Rome burns. There was no consideration of the malfunction of democracy except under the cloak of improved Federation. Why? We love democracy, I love democracy, it is participatory and it gives freedom. George Monbiot, the celebrated environmental writer for the Guardian (UK) newspaper, believes that our environmental problems will be solved if we had more democracy. Heaven forbid!

To change a paradigm is like having to think in a different language and if you already speak Chinese Mandarin then you have learn to think in Urdu. That is the issue.

This article does not necessarily represent the view of DEA

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