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A carbon tax is good for Australia’s mental health

Facing up to our carbon responsibilities might make Australians happier. the waving cat/Flickr

Let’s face it; we just don’t like the word “tax”, do we? Such a brouhaha, such a fuss. But let’s just take a break from the group hysteria to look at the carbon tax from a few different points of view and think about why, in the end, we can’t help but love the carbon tax.

It’ll cost either way: let’s take the cheap option

First, let’s get it into perspective.

Unmitigated climate change will be a lot more expensive and the cause of much more anxiety and financial loss than a carbon tax.

The twin impacts of climate change and peak oil will drive up prices of food, water, petrol, electricity, transport, housing and telecommunications, not to mention the huge unexpected costs incurred by increasingly intense and frequent extreme weather events.

A number of authoritative resources (including the Stern Review and the Garnaut Review) have shown the costs of inaction far outweigh the costs of action now.

Perhaps we could see the carbon tax as training wheels, getting us incrementally used to the rise in the cost of living and accompanying lifestyle adjustments that climate change will inevitably demand.

Will a carbon tax make us as sick as climate change?

So much for the financial costs; but what are the health costs? Of a carbon tax? Negligible. Of climate change? Huge.

Costello and colleagues writing in the Lancet, found that climate change is regarded as the biggest health threat of the 21st Century.

Climate change impacts on health in multiple ways: directly, through acute or traumatic effects of extreme weather events and a changed environment; indirectly through distress, anxiety about future risks; and psychosocially (that is, chronic social and community effects of heat, drought, migrations, climate-related conflicts, and post-disaster adjustment). Doherty and Clayton summarise this well.

Ultimately, there is no health on a dead planet.

Perhaps we could see the carbon tax as one small but necessary effort towards reducing the human contribution to the emissions driving climate changes that are already having such significant physical and psychosocial impacts around the world.

Acknowledging the truth and taking action is good for your mental health

This is the leadership that so many Australians have been waiting for: the political will to acknowledge the reality of climate change, start to take responsibility for cutting the fat off our own shamefully high per capita emissions, take a proportionate part in an effective global agreement, and join the pioneering countries in global efforts to reduce climate risks and protect the most vulnerable people and environments around the planet.

Psychologically, this goes some way towards lifting the morale of the Australian people. For many Australians, our past pitiful performance on global climate change has been an embarrassment. Over the last few years, on the global scale, Australia has contributed little or nothing to global efforts to mitigate against climate change.

Now, finally, we have a counter to the dread, anxiety, and overwhelming helplessness that so many Australians experience when they face the realities of climate change.

Psychologically, it is very hard to face the fear if we have no way of reducing the threat. Individual efforts go only so far; deep down, we all know that we have no chance unless governments and big businesses adopt pro-environmental policies and behaviours.

So perhaps we should really be jumping for joy at the proposed carbon tax - finally, a genuine effort by our own government to reduce the pollution that big businesses contribute to our national emissions.

Perhaps, marginally, this effort can reduce our anxiety, and stop some of us from turning away and denying the climate change problems. Behaviourally, it supports our own individual efforts to reduce emissions.

An extra $3 on airfares, an extra $9.90 a week on living expenses for some of us: let’s not forget that Australians spend an average of $4000 a year on alcohol. It won’t kill us. It won’t even threaten our way of life.

So let’s not sweat the small stuff. A climate tax will have a very small financial effect on householders, and the less energy we consume, the less it will cost. It might even act as an incentive to begin transferring to zero carbon services and products, an urgent and necessary change we must all make if we are to limit global greenhouse gas emissions in the hope of avoiding the worst impacts of runaway climate change.

Let’s let the carbon tax afford us a glimmer of hope that maybe, together, we can limit climate change to a degree where the planet can still sustain life in all its wild and wonderful forms. Gotta love that carbon tax!

This article was co-authored by Dr Susie Burke, who is Senior Psychologist, Public Interest, Environment and Disaster Response at the Australian Psychological Society.

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