Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Let's Try Again


Sorry about the break in transmission. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I lost the password and then began attempting to log in while having a page running with another google address, etc, etc . . .

Entirely my own fault. Now I have managed to solve my little problem I will begin posting regularly again (and also make up the posts I missed).

The big issue at the moment, of course, is that we finally have a carbon tax. Although I have significant problems with it, this column is a celebration of the fact that an Australian politician has finally managed to do something. Anything.


Along with the privilege of possessing a column come certain responsibilities. If the writing forms a sheer wall, built out of bricks of fact, it will be neither interesting nor accessible. Besides, Julia Gillard has already patented this technique, and there's no point competing with an expert. Equally, no matter how enthusiastically a columnist seeks to grab the sledgehammer and use it to smash away at a chosen target, they'll allways be outclassed by Tony Abbott.

That explains why this column normally attempts a different style. It is not, sadly, always as elegiac as my readers (or editor) may desire. Hence my natural reluctance to snap back at those correspondents who write to the letters editor, pretending to finding fault with some particular aspect of an otherwise marvellous exposition of whatever the topic for that week happened to be. The preferred style Im striving for is that of the smooth, prose argument: neither abrupt nor didactic. If the column provokes thought, it's achieved its objective.

That's why it appeared relevant, last week, to mention this June was the driest in more than two decades. It was also the driest month in over a year and a half. My point was not that it has suddenly stopped raining – the downpours of the last few days would have quickly made a mockery of that assertion. The relevant issue was, rather, that the extremes are becoming normal. It was also intended to suggest that it’s extremely difficult to extrapolate worthwhile long-term predictions for the future when conflicting signals from the present surround us at every moment.

This was too much for one reader. It’s not hard to find the Bureau of Meteorology’s climate data on-line; rows and rows of hard numbers. The column was accurate . . . so the critic scrabbles around busily searching for other numbers, ones they can use to assert my numbers are meaningless. It’s a game anyone can play. Some may even find it amusing, but it’s got nothing to do with the reality of climate change or what the government’s attempting to do with the package it unveilled over the weekend.

Firstly, let’s deal with the reality of the weather. That's what civilisation is all about. Writing developed in ancient Sumer (Mesopotamia, or what is now Iraq) initially as a means of record-keeping, details of how much food was produced in different seasons, the good ones and the bad. There was no need to bother writing down stories or political discussions; they were oral skills. Facts, however, were different. That's why they needed to be recorded, to put them beyond argument. One of the first lessons learned by any journalist is that facts are sacred, and there's a sound reason for this. They form the solid base without which our society would never have been able to evolve.

In ancient times not everyone could decipher and make sense of the pictographs inscribed on the clay tablets. That was a job for the educated. Similarly, the majority of us today are not trained climate scientists. Simply attempting to comprehend the quantum of data revealed, let alone interpret it meaningfully, is a task that appears to be beyond the frail understanding of most of us. Nevertheless, when an international panel of top scientists gets together and asserts that a particular set of facts almost indisputably means that climate change is occurring, it seems sensible to accept that they're probably right.

Although, like any sensible person, I'm disinclined to believe anything a politician says, here, once again, I'm irrevocably drawn to one particular finding by the sheer weight of evidence. John Howard, Kim Beazley, Kevin Rudd, Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull and Gillard have all come to believe in the actuality of climate change. Accepting this reality is also the official position of the Liberal party. The only argument is supposedly about exactly what we should do, and how quickly we should do it, in order to act and stave off this urgent and current threat to our society.

This is simply bizarre. It's not necessary to either accept or endorse the entirety of the government's new package to deal with climate change in order to understand the breakthrough that it represents. The numbers are there. Not merely on the cuneiform tablets of the climate-scientists, but more importantly in terms of majorities in both Houses. No matter how loud the shouting, raving and complaints of those standing on the sidelines, this is going to become the new reality no matter what Tony Abbott says. The opposition took a calculated risk when it decided not to accept seats on the committee that designed the tax; now it’s been marganilised. The carbon tax will pass through Parliament.

Once it’s introduced any attempt to unravel it will be a problematic operation; resisted by business, opposed by others who would lose out financially. The best chance of witnessing magic in the modern world is to watch a Harry Potter movie, and that's probably about the only place it would be possible to conjure up a spell that is powerful enough to undo the legislation that will soon come into effect. Get used to it.

That’s the first message. The second is equally powerful for those who want to deal in fact. Perhaps the most bogus counter-argument deployed against the carbon tax is the idea that “we don’t want to get ahead of the world”, or that “we don’t want to do more than our fair share”. If anything the facts disprove both of these ridiculous assertions.

Australia, a fragile continent, faces serious threats unless other countries can be persuaded to act quickly. If we can’t be bothered shouldering even a tiny proportion of the burden, then it’s pointless expecting the serious emitters to take action. This would rebound on us far more seriously and pose a far greater threat to our future way of life than failure to act.

The people who emerged as leaders in the ancient world were ones who could interpret facts correctly. Failure to do this accurately meant extinction. There is more to life than a myopic pursuit of a few extra dollars a week. This carbon tax is not ideal, but it’s the best we’ve got. If the Liberal moderates are serious politicians they’ll be urging Abbott to accept it.

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