As we head into an election, you’d be justified in asking what your local member is basing their climate change decisions on.
If your MP says “I don’t support policies to prevent dangerous climate change” because “I don’t believe climate change is occurring” or “I’m not sure climate change is human caused” is this position justifiable simply because it’s his or her personal opinion?
While everyone may be entitled to their own opinion, are our elected leaders being ethically responsible when they justify inaction on climate change based on personal opinions? Sustainability ethicist Donald A. Brown, from Widener University School of Law, emphatically argues, “no” – they are not.
In a recent widely republished blog post on ethicsandclimate.org, Brown argues government officials have an ethical responsibility to understand the state of climate change science. Politicians hold crucial leadership positions where they can enact policies that can prevent or minimise great harm. These policies, to put it bluntly, affect millions, if not billions, of people around the world.
Governments and elected officials cannot ethically choose to rely on their own uninformed opinion or ideology instead of the scientific consensus.
The long-standing consensus of climate scientists and the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence warn us that constituents and governments are causing great harm through greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, Brown says, politicians may not appeal to their personal opinions on climate science. They are not justification for not taking action.
Brown refers to a number of US politicians who hold the position that they don’t support climate policies because they are not convinced by the science. Brown argues that the media has largely failed to hold them accountable.
The same issue afflicts many Australian politicians - and the Australian media. Very rarely have politicians who reject climate science in Australia been asked to explain their justifications on scientific grounds.
According to the Political Leaders and Climate Change Index (PLCCI) published in 2010 by the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, the number of politicians in the parliament who either don’t or won’t accept the science of climate change in Australia is significant.
Of course, this can change over time. Recently the new Federal Minister for Resources and Energy Gary Gray renounced his previous position that climate science was “pop science” and a “middle-class conspiracy to frighten schoolchildren”.
However, there are many other politicians who have not changed their opinions as Gray has done. In 2010 around 40% of Liberal/National politicians held the view the world could warm by 3-4 degrees Celsius before the situation became dangerous. The actual scientific consensus is a mere 2 degrees. Another 40% professed not to know what a safe global average temperature increase might be.
The likelihood of a Coalition government winning in 2013 makes the public statement of personal opinions on human induced climate change an issue of national and global importance.
The risks posed to the Australian and international communities by the uninformed opinions of our national leaders are significant. They cannot ethically choose to rely on their own uniformed opinion or ideology instead of science. Because of those risks, the role of responsible and well-informed media is crucial. The media has the civic and moral obligation to be a watchdog on society and its institutions.
Journalists have a duty to question politicians who oppose action based on uninformed opinions. The public has a right to be informed, and to question, a politician’s justification for putting current and future generations at risk.
Following Brown, we propose a series of questions that journalists (and the public) should be asking politicians on global warming, and how governments should respond to it.
Are you aware that over 97% of climate scientists globally, the CSIRO, the Australian Academy of Science and every major national science academy in the industrialised world (whose membership includes climate scientists) agree that the planet is warming, that the observed climate change is mostly human caused, and that if we continue with business as usual, harsh impacts and irreversible changes to the climate system will occur?
Do you accept that climate change is occurring? If not, what specific scientific sources and references do you rely on to justify rejecting the scientific consensus?
Do you accept that the human population is making a substantial contribution to climate change via our greenhouse gas emissions? If not, what specific scientific sources and references do you rely on to justify going against the scientific consensus?
Is it your position that Australia and the rest of the world need to urgently adopt policies to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in line with scientific recommendations? If not, what specific scientific sources and references do you rely on to justify rejecting the scientific consensus?
Are you aware that the impacts of climate change in terms of increased risks to human health and climate change related deaths is already being measured by medical and public health professionals worldwide?
Do you accept that anyone who argues that we continue with business as usual and emit greenhouse gases beyond levels that the consensus of climate scientists says is dangerous for humanity (and the ecological system on which humans depend) should bear the burden of proof to show that this is safe?
Do you accept that, in light of the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence and the long-standing consensus of climate scientists, politicians have a responsibility to immediately implement strategies to prevent dangerous climate change?
Given that climate scientists have been advising the urgent reduction of greenhouse gases for decades, do you accept that politicians who fail to implement policies to prevent dangerous climate change should be held responsible for harm that results from this inaction?
We might ask politicians a few of these ourselves. Have a go yourself – and let us know how you get on. We’d be pleased to write about it.