Communicating climate change is great value for money

Even when the Climate Commission was taxpayer funded it was good value. The Climate Council

Many will be relieved at today’s announcement by board members of the Climate Commission that they will be continuing their work by setting up a community-funded Climate Council.

Communicating climate change is a never-ending task. It is made difficult in Australia by a science-hostile tabloid press, and the election of a new government which is apparently split over accepting the science. Just over half of Coalition MPs made denier comments in the press prior to the election. Most LNP politicians seem to be walking a tightrope between appeasing a climate change constituency and a grow-the-economy rationalism.

The political divide has been joined by another discourse: a religious one. Politicians from all party backgrounds express their concern for climate change in terms of “belief”. The idea that one has to believe in climate change has only fuelled the ideological polarisation that we see in online news commentary.

It will doubtless be part of the talk John Howard will give to the denialist Global Warming Policy Foundation in the UK: “One religion is enough”.

The Climate Commission was an extremely effective communicator of climate science. It ran programs to help climate scientists interact with media, toured Australia giving public seminars of the latest science, and its reports had durable impacts on media agenda setting.

Defining action on climate change in terms of a “Critical Decade” had, at its core, the concept of climate inertia. It is very hard to communicate that human-forced impact on climate is so difficult to turn around, and actions taken now are key to mitigating the dangers of such inertia.

Particularly difficult is trying to communicate the unleashing of forces so vast, in time and in suffering, in the context of the pathetically short cycles of liberal-democracy. As we saw during the election, the two major parties ensured climate became buried behind dog-whistle appeals to xenophobically driven sovereignty (stop the boats), and economic individualism (cut the tax).

Australia, more that the US, is at great risk of turning itself into a neolithic backwater. The rest of the world has moved on from accepting the science and is actually trying to tackle carbon reduction.

And action on climate change has itself become subordinated to economic rationalism. Greg Hunt, the new Minister for the Environment, said he axed the Commission last Thursday as a cost cutting measure, not an ideological statement.

If we take the minister at his word, even the most hard-headed economic rationalist would struggle with his explanation. According to the Insurance Council of Australia , of the nine most costly extreme weather disasters in Australia, seven have occurred in the last 14 years. Dealing with them cost A$13.17 billion. Floods, hailstorms, cyclones, firestorms … not much economic growth is happening when these events strike.

From Peter Hannam, A Nation increasingly at risk, SMH, 9 January 2013.

You would think that, for the public, politicians and business, understanding why most of these have happened in our most recent past, and the likelihood that we may see them repeated, would be worth spending $1.6 million per year on.

According to one of its Board members, Gerry Hueston, heard on ABC Radio this morning, the new Climate Council is hoping to raise one million dollars in the first year. Through crowd-sourcing it received $160,000 in the first 13 hours.

Its new website will no doubt seek to replicate the detail of information provided by the Climate Commission, and the value of its links with the climate science community will be renewed. If it is able to offer anything approaching the value-for-money the Climate Commission gave in educating Australians about climate change, it will become one of the country’s most important community funded organisations.