Response to Alexander Downer: how much are we prepared to pay for our children’s future?


Alexander Downer, a former leader of the Liberal Party , Minister for Foreign Affairs and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, wrote in the Australian Financial Review  last Monday (18 Nov)  that climate leadership would be expensive “virtue signalling”, that climate change has become a highly “emotional issue”, and rational discussion has been abandoned. He describes climate change as the Rubik’s cube of politics and asks us to join with him in “connecting the squares” to understand what is going on. Dr Graeme McLeay writes: Let us look then, rationally of course, at some of the claims he makes.

Firstly Mr Downer accepts that the world is “going through an era” of global warming. The inference here is that this is something that will pass, rather than the profound disruption to the atmosphere, oceans, and cryosphere described in leading scientific journals such as Nature. 

There will be winners and losers he goes on to suggest with fewer people dying of hypothermia and “so as the weather gets warmer we may have fewer weather-based casualties”. This statement is so wildly wrong it is reckless, wilful blindness and flies in the face of all the evidence from the World Health Organization, the World Medical Association and the Australian Medical Association, amongst others. 

Between 2030 and 2050, according to the WHO, climate change alone is expected to cause approximately 250,000 extra deaths per year, from just four of possible health impacts - malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat exposure. 

This figure does not include the deaths from natural disasters, other vector-borne diseases and the more than three million who die each year as a result of fossil fuel powered pollution. Nor does it include the deaths resulting from displacement (sea level rise, drought, floods),and stress related mental illness, nor those due to conflicts over water and resources. 

During the heat wave in Europe in 2003 , 70,000 excess deaths were recorded. The heat wave which caused Black Saturday’s bushfire in Victoria resulted in a spike of 374 excess deaths during the prolonged heat wave on top of the 173 victims of the bushfire itself. The Victorian Health authorities reported on the excess emergency admissions and deaths during the 2014 heat wave  Heat can be a subtle killer, damaging kidneys and exacerbating underlying diseases of the heart, vascular and respiratory system. 

 Missing from Mr Downer’s article is any mention of the bushfires raging across Australia now. Perhaps he thinks climate change and bushfire are unrelated. The group of ex fire chiefs  ho pleaded with the government to heed the threat and who between them have hundreds of years of experience, would disagree, backed up by global evidence. The fire season is now longer and more severe and overlaps with the Northern Hemisphere fire season. The human toll in property, livelihood, and physical and mental health is clear, but the anguish, the pain, the sadness and the mental strain linger long after the cameras have gone. 

As to causes he goes on, “anthropogenic CO2 and methane emissions exacerbate any natural trend towards global warming. There are a variety of views about this and there is certainly no consensus on the detail”. Steven Pinker in his book ‘Enlightenment Now’ (pp 137-138) points to a survey of the peer reviewed scientific literature where exactly four out of 69,406 authors rejected the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming. That degree of consensus is astounding in any human endeavour and the aforementioned ‘detail’ is about how quickly it is happening. 

Former coal, oil and gas executive and former Chair of the Australian Coal Association, Ian Dunlop, and his co-author David Spratt warn of the danger of underestimating the risk of tipping points which could lead to irreversible climate change in their publication “What lies beneath”. 

Mr Downer then introduces the big bogeyman which is cost. “Some people don’t care what the costs are” he writes. He ignores the cost of failing to adapt to climate change such as not being adequately resourced for bushfires or sea level rise, the opportunity cost in failing to adopt technologies now, such as the electrification of transport which will improve air quality and reduce emissions, and the cost savings in health care. Worst of all is the cost we pass on to the next generation. How is it that we are prepared to spend billions on the defence budget for the possibility of war but are not prepared to spend on the existential threat of climate change? 

Mr Downer writes “Whatever we do in Australia, it’s not going to make any difference to global temperature”. Are we part of the community of nations? Lumped together with similar sized economies, we make up a group responsible for approximately 43% of global emissions. He says doing more than our fair share is “just highly expensive virtue signalling”. However, we are not doing our fair share, with emissions continuing to rise, and despite being a country vulnerable to the worst effects of global heating. We have the highest per capita emissions in the OECD. 

Finally, I agree with him “suggesting the NSW fires wouldn’t have happened if we had a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme is obviously untrue. It’s not science!” But failure to address the climate crisis at local, national, and global level makes these and other disasters more likely - and that is science. 

Dr Graeme McLeay is a retired anaesthetist and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia   


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