A CHANGING INTERNATIONAL CLIMATE
I will never see the town where my father was born. That's because Roseberry doesn't exist any more, although the old Presbyterian Church apparently still stands by the side of the highway that runs through the Mallee district. It's used today, intermittently, as a craft gallery, although there's not a lot of passing traffic in this north-western part of Victoria.
In the hopeful years following the First World War the region was carved up for soldier settlements. Although the low scrubland had always been marginal, back then there seemed no reason why modern know-how wouldn't be able to make the land productive, turning it into a new food-bowl. And, for a couple of years at any rate, the farmers did extract productivity from the infertile soil of the area. Enough goodness had been deposited over the previous few millennia to guarantee a couple of good years from the arid region. But then, during the depression, the dust returned, laughing at the ephemeral efforts of humanity attempting to struggle against the spreading desert. The sand was everywhere, conjured up by the slightest breath of wind. My father remembers shoveling it off the veranda; the gritty taste of sandwiches that seemed to have more sand than jam.
The country won. The family moved to Melbourne. The Presbyterian minister had encouraged my uncle, and then my father, to sit for scholarships to Scotch College because there was nothing to keep them on the land; my grandfather joined up to fight another war. Eventually the others walked off their land too. That's why there's nothing left today. All those bright hopes and prospects of progress were illusory. European habitation proved to be as transient as that of the aboriginal people who had earlier attempted to eke out existence. The power of the enduring earth proved itself stronger than the fragile efforts of humanity.
Today, of course, we like to think we know better, but that's what they thought back in the early 1920s, too. In those day’s automation seemed to offer limitless possibilities of productivity gains. The economic system had also developed, allowing farmers to access the finance they required to allow them to develop the land. Those myths exploded in the cataclysm of the great depression. It turned out that we didn't really know very much about economics after all, just as it was also being revealed that we didn't really understand the land, either.
We like to believe in progress, and that's probably why we like to think that our political leaders would never again be so myopic they'd be unable to discern the major threats the country faces. It's a comforting assumption, but it's not one that is justified by the facts.
Australia is at a critical juncture.
We face two threats. One is the immediate, clear and present danger. It's the one that our politics and media have been consumed by for the past weeks and months. This is the question of whether a typical household (in a marginal seat) will be $10 a week better, or worse off, as a result of the government's new Carbon Tax. The cost a coffee and croissant is supposedly an impost on our entire way of life. This is probably true if your focus is entirely consumed by the moment. There is, however, another longer-term issue for which we will, eventually, require an answer. It's a similar dilemma to the one faced by farmers in the Mallee three quarters of a century ago.
There'd been good and bad years there, as well. There was an understandable confidence that modern techniques would enable progress and that farming would triumph. After all, in 1918 the Wimmera River had overflowed, recharging groundwater and bringing the promise of many good seasons. How was anyone to know this was to be nothing more than a mirage?
The environment eventually proved more enduring than the opportunity of acquiring bargain-basement land that nobody else wanted. The government was giving away the land for virtually nothing, but it turned out that the government didn't know what it was doing. The politicians had made a mistake, just as the economists did a few years later in 1929. The optimists, those who first believed and then just hoped that something would turn up, weren't bailed out.
We face a similar situation today.
It may turn out that a majority of climate scientists don't have a clue what they're talking about (just as Tony Abbott asserts, with perhaps more plausibility, that economists don't understand the operation of society, either). Alternately, perhaps a marvelous panacea (carbon capture and storage, anyone) will suddenly be discovered that will evaporate the myriad of problems accompanying climate change. Chances are, however, that won't happen. And if temperatures do rise, even if “only" by two degrees in 2050, the impact on our society will make what happened to the farmers of the Mallee look like a picnic.
Much of the gloss has come off using so-called “Operations Research" as an applied method for improved decision-making. Originally developed for military uses, it came to the fore planning the most effective use of aircraft in World War II, in particular measuring the success of bombing missions. The theory then got a bad name after its misuse in Vietnam, but that doesn't mean all the insights it provides should be discarded. One of the key breakthroughs it permits is the rational analysis of different options by analyzing and giving weight to different alternatives.
At the moment our society is robust. The future of Australia appears assured. Our wealth as a nation appears secure – well, for as long as we can keep digging things out of the ground, anyway. Each year we also spend more than $26 billion on the defence forces and no one begrudges this money, even though there is virtually no chance another country invade us. This expenditure buys us absolute security, and it’s worth it. No one questions the need for an Air-Warfare Destroyer, rather than some more patrol boats, even though the cheaper vessels will almost certainly see more action as they patrol our waters to intercept asylum-seekers.
We choose to spend money, as we should, to combat our most dangerous possible threat. Today the most dangerous issue we face is the long-term one; the problem of climate change. That’s not to suggest the defence budget should be cut; it’s rather an attempt to think logically about these issues. The changing environment may turn out to be nothing more than a chimera, but it may also prove to be an existential danger to our entire way of life. It doesn't really seem to be worth staking everything taking a chance.