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It’s ten years since Rudd’s ‘great moral challenge’, and we have failed it

Ten years ago today, Kevin Rudd spoke at the National Climate Summit at Parliament House, in Canberra, famously declaring climate change to be “the great moral challenge of our generation”.

One of Kevin Rudd’s most famous quotes.

Rudd, in alliance with Julia Gillard, had toppled Kim Beazley as Labor leader the previous December. This focus on climate change was part of Rudd’s brilliantly executed electoral assault on John Howard, who had spent his period in office kicking climate action into the long grass.

Malcolm Turnbull, then Howard’s newly minted environment minister, was underwhelmed by Rudd’s speech. “It’s all designed to promote Kevin Rudd. I mean, he doesn’t care what the summit says. He’s having his media conference at 10 o'clock. The conference delegates will have barely had their coffee and had the first session,” he sniffed.

On the same day Ross Gittins published a piece titled Carbon trading v taxes — a winner eases ahead in the Sydney Morning Herald. A decade on, it makes for painful, and eerily prescient, reading:

A key question - for advocates of action as well as politicians anxious to keep their jobs - is which instrument would be harder to introduce politically. This, I suspect, is the reason so many governments favour trading schemes. The trouble with a carbon tax is that everyone hates new taxes, whereas a trading scheme doesn’t sound as if it’s a tax.

The dizzying and stomach-churning backflips over the past ten years have been described as a “power failure” and a policy bonfire.

While hopes for bold and timely action in Australia may have bleached like the Great Barrier Reef, the question that Rudd raised - one of climate change ethics, of how we navigate “the perfect moral storm” – remains alive.

Debts to pay

From my point of view, the key questions are: what do we owe to future generations; what do we owe to other species; and how are we living up to those obligations?

The thinker and novelist Alice Walker once described activism as “my rent for living on the planet”.

The celebrated linguist and US dissident Noam Chomsky agrees. In September 1991, during an interview in which he was asked what motivated him in his tireless work decrying US foreign policy and the influence of the mass media on democratic societies, he replied: “Looking in the mirror in the morning and not being appalled.” For Chomsky, intellectuals have a responsibility, “to speak the truth and to expose lies”.

But of course some would say that this is not enough - the point is not to describe the world but to change it.

There are costs, however. Consider this passage from Marge Piercy’s extraordinary novel Vida, about a Vietnam War-era activist on the run from the FBI:

Yet she had no feeling of accomplishment, because every morning in the Times, every evening on television, the war was stronger, and she was closer to exhaustion. They had not done enough, they had not risked enough, they had not tried everything, they had not fought hard enough, they had not, because the proof was before her every morning and every evening the war went on. It was raining blood outside whether she looked out the window or not; the blood was splattering down, and the hot wind that blew across the city smelled of ashes, of burning flesh. Obviously they had not tried hard enough if the war still went on.

Personally, I have tried activism (and usually done it badly, if persistently). I found that if I stopped altogether I felt worse and “acted out” in silly ways, so now I do just enough to avoid that, but with zero expectation that anything will change

In 2003 the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht combined the Latin word solacium (comfort) with the Greek root –algia (pain) to create the word solastalgia, which he defined as:

The psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change, such as mining or climate change.

That grief and anxiety is catching up with many of us. For a psychoanalytic perspective, see this interview with Rosemary Randall.

What should we do?

So, reader, I’m interested in finding out your coping strategies, since mine are often inadequate and maladaptive. I’ve a few questions:

  • Where do you think your environmental concern came from?

  • How many of you spent significant time in unstructured play in natural environments before the age of 11 (so-called “significant life experiences”), as I did?

  • How do you who try to stay active on this mother of all issues cope with the seemingly uninterrupted flow of ever greater defeats?

  • How do you cope with the guilt of having failed (thus far) to have done enough?

  • How do you cope with the grief for the things we are definitely going to lose, no matter what (starting with coral on the Great Barrier Reef)?

  • And for the climatologists and climate writers out there, how do you cope with the anxiety of knowing that conveying the end of human civilisation is your day job?

Over to you – answers in the comments.

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