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A clean energy future should be about more than money

Money is the key theme across the climate change debate: what happened to sustainability? louisa catlover/flickr

The Government’s equation for creating a prosperous and sustainable Australia includes four key factors: carbon price, renewable energy, energy efficiency and land use efficiency. But it is evident that the government is selling its response to climate change by focussing on the risk to Australia’s economic prosperity.

It is ironic that money is the key theme linking all sides of the climate change debate. Prime Minister Gillard sees it as the main driver to change behaviour. Opposition leader Tony Abbott reiterates how Australians and Australia’s economy will be worse off. The Australian media predominantly tries to make sense of how the carbon-tax will hit the hip-pocket of Australians.

Concepts such as sustainability, biodiversity, ecosystems, rising temperatures, acidity levels and human-induced climate change are taking a back seat to terms such as prices, taxes, tax-cheats and compensation.

So are different agendas being pursued?

IPCC scientists agree that human-induced warming over recent decades is already affecting many physical and biological processes on every continent. If strategies are implemented quickly, they say, global warming can be reined in to avoid the most severe consequences for human and planet survival. And yet politicians continue to focus on economic security as the key factor for why and how to rein in carbon-emissions.

In 2008, CSIRO was contracted by the Garnaut Climate Change Review team to evaluate recent studies examining Australians’ views of climate change. They found that most Australians believe the climate is changing, but fewer believe that it is attributable to human activity.

They also found that most Australians believe that Australia should take action on climate change without waiting for global consensus. There was no clear consensus of what policy actions Australians prefer, be it setting a carbon price, an emissions trading scheme, or a carbon pollution reduction scheme.

Given the electorate’s uncertainty about key issues related to climate change, will an economic approach to climate action bring the nation on board with such a significant global phenomenon?

What does such an approach say about what motivates us and how governments perceive what we are motivated by?

Economists Wagner and Zeckhauser argue that universal ethics, not economic argument, must influence climate policy.

They say that, “forward thinking politicians must also create what we call pockets of certainty’: steps with clear local, immediate benefits like more jobs, or direct monetary and nonmonetary payoffs … Some might be skeptical about climate science but clearly understand the need to conserve energy for the sake of ‘energy independence’, or other morality tales like frugality as a virtue (p. 16).”

Is it unrealistic to think that we can start again, adopting a pure values-based approach to climate policy? Can we persuade the electorate of the ethical, moral and social basis for taking action?

Given that the Gillard Government has already taken an economic approach, is it too late for key proponents of this policy and the media to shift their framing of this policy in how they communicate it?

Organisational Positive Psychology says workplaces can promote conditions for optimal functioning of humans and still improve productivity for the organisation. Can these ideas be extended to how we run the country? Can the arguments for optimal conditions for our planet be made within the context of economic productivity for the nation?

If we avoid making these links it reduces the discussion to monetary and lifestyle concerns. Ironically, this takes us to the starting point of why we are in this situation.

It narrowly considers what we need and want now without considerations of what future generations might need, just to sustain life. In other words, without an optimally functioning planet, economic productivity is unsustainable.

However, for a planet to be optimally functioning, it needs several things that are unrelated to economic productivity. The planet needs water resources, coastal systems, ecosystems, global biogeochemical cycles, ice sheets and modes of oceanic and atmospheric circulation.

These dimensions need to be more visible. If we are to make informed decisions, they should be forerunners in our conversations about climate action.

It is apparent that certain sectors of the community do support Gillard’s policy; this is indicated by the recent survey by the Economic Society of Australia. But can we think of these issues less as questions about money and individuals, and more as questions about the greater good for all, valuing all life and our relationship with the planet?

In doing this, driving change will not be linked to money, but to values. Leading the electorate in this issue will be transformational rather than transactional.

Australia’s leadership will not be about a nation losing its competitive advantage, but about inspiring us to take steps to secure the planet before it is too late.

As Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber advocated, in appreciating “human dignity” we must ensure it is “extended to future generations as well”.

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