In shooting for the political mainstream, the climate movement has shot itself in the foot, argue David Spratt and Philip Sutton

Global warming is an emergency, and “for emergency situations we need
emergency action,” UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon told the world in
November 2007.

Why, then, has climate policy moved in such a painfully slow manner?
How can the impasse be resolved between what needs doing quickly,
based on the science, and what seems a “reasonable” thing to do in the
current political environment?

It seems as if there are two great tectonic plates — scientific
necessity and political pragmatism — that meet very uneasily at a
fault line.

For example, in 2007, under Kevin Rudd, the Australian Labor Party’s
pre-election climate policy statement effectively supported a policy
of allowing global warming to run as high as a 3-degree Celsius (= 5.4
degree Fahrenheit) increase on pre-industrial temperatures, despite
data quoted in the statement itself that unequivocally demanded a much
lower target.

A number of other examples illustrate the tensions and compromises
that result from trying to balance the scientific and political

The British Government’s Stern Review identified a need, based on its
reading of the science, for a 2-degree Celsius (= 3.6 degrees
Fahrenheit) cap, but then said that this would be too difficult to
achieve and advocated a 3-degree cap instead.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has not called
for climate modelling for stabilisation of temperatures at less than 2
degrees C., despite the evidence that the climate safe zone is much
lower. Although the IPCC says its role is to simply represent the
science, not to advocate policy, this seems to be a case of the IPCC
allowing political norms to limit the scope of the research that it
encourages or reports.

Many climate and policy researchers, while privately expressing the
view that the 2-degree C. cap is too high for a safe-climate world,
have nevertheless publicly advocated less effective goals, because
they perceive those to be more acceptable. Their argument is that they
“wouldn’t be listened to” if they said what they really thought.

As well, some environment group advocates speak of the need to occupy
the “middle ground”, or to be at least “heading in the right
direction”, because “it is always possible to go further later on”.
This stance turns risk aversion on its head by failing to consider
worst possible outcomes. At the same time, it is politically
advantageous because it obviates the need to talk about preventive
actions that are currently perceived to be “extreme”. As a result,
advocacy is often for a direction-setting minimum, rather than
demanding a clear statement of what is required.

During 2007 the position of the Australian Conservation Foundation was
that emissions should be cut “60 to 90 per cent” by 2050 (a 60 per
cent cut would leave emissions in 2050 at four times the level
required of a 90 per cent reduction). Yet in his preliminary report
economist Ross Garnaut told the Rudd government that a 90 per cent cut
may be necessary and 60 per cent was far from enough.

In all these examples, we see reluctance on the part of organisations
and people to go beyond the bounds of perceived acceptability. This
results in the advocacy of solutions that, even if fully implemented,
would not actually solve the problem. There is a sense that many of
the climate policy professionals — in government, research, community
organisations and advocacy — have established boundaries around their
public discourse that are guided by a primary concern for
“reasonableness”, rather than by a concern for achieving environmental
and social sustainability.

Many people whose work centres on climate change have been struggling
for so long to gain recognition for the issue — having had to cope
with a lack of awareness, conservatism and climate deniers — that
now have deeply ingrained habits of self-censorship. They are
concerned to avoid being dismissed and marginalised as “alarmist” and
“crazy”. Now that the science is showing the situation to be far worse
than most scientists expected only a short while ago, this ingrained
reticence is adding to the problem.

A pragmatic interdependency links many of these players in a cycle of
low expectations and poor outcomes. Here is an outline of the concerns
of some of these key players, based on actual conversations and
correspondence. The cycle is a merry-go-round, so it matters little
where it starts.

Under pressure to stick to the science and avoid opinion, a climate
scientist may take the view that society needs to make the judgement
about what it determines to be dangerous climate change: “It’s not for
me, as a scientist, to tell you what’s dangerous or what the political
target ought to be. I try to inform the debate by explaining what the
risks actually are at these various levels, and by offering policy
options that society could consider.”

Community-based climate action groups, often lacking detailed
technical knowledge, will respond by saying that they are not about to
doubt the views put forward by the science professionals, which they
hear from the media and from the IPCC: “We have to trust in their
abilities to lead us. They are the ones who know — we can’t say
that they haven’t, and we can’t speculate on what a few scientists
might be saying, if it isn’t in the IPCC reports.”

Large climate-group and environment managers often join the
conversation, suggesting that they agree with strong goals and urgent
action, but that they are worried that if they promote them, their
lobbying wouldn’t be taken seriously: “It is more important to agree
and campaign on targets that are heading in the right direction, than
that we have discussions about what the targets should be. It is
always possible to go further, or call for more, later on.”

The consequence is that even those politicians who are climate
friendly feel constrained: “I can’t go further than the environment
movement. I’d look extreme if I did.” And: “I know our party’s
position will have to be strengthened because the science has changed,
but that can’t happen until after the next election. Our policy is now
set. I wish we could go further, but some people are worried that I
will look too extreme in the electorate.”

Deep inside public administration, where climate policy is processed,
there is an avoidance of the political: “Although our climate-science
manager agrees with your targets… she has to stick to using
scientists, not lobbyists, and science, not policy. She needs to be
persuaded that setting targets and trajectories is fundamentally a
climate-science issue, not a political one. If, on the other hand, we
can find a scientist to make the case for real targets that you have
made, this would help a lot, but the scientists say that target-
setting is political, and outside their terrain.”

Businesses, meanwhile, remain constrained by their commercial
interests: “You might well be right that 60 per cent by 2050 is not
enough, but the people I talk to wouldn’t believe anything tougher.
Our business is one of the good ones — we know that this is a big
problem, but if we are going to engage the wider business community,
we can only go so far.”

It seems that everyone is waiting for someone else to break the cycle;
but how can this be done? Part of the problem seems to be fear: those
who are the first to move to a tougher position are worried about
becoming isolated or losing credibility.

Reticence on the part of advocates to push for serious action also
stems from the pervasive view in politics that everything is subject
to compromise, and that trade-offs are the norm: argue less for what
you really want than for what seems “reasonable” in the give-and-take
of normal political society. And when some brash advocates do argue
for what really needs to be done, it is simply assumed they are making
an ambit claim: an initial demand put forward in the expectation that
the negotiations will prompt a lesser counter-offer and end in

While this mindset is widespread, there are domains from which it has
been banished. When it comes to public safety, society knows that
compromise and negotiable trade-offs cannot apply. Bridges, buildings,
planes, large machines and the like must be built to risk-averse, high
standards, which are applied rigorously. When standards are not met
and structures fail, corporations, governments and regulatory bodies
are held to account. We have learned from trial and error that a “no
major trade-off” policy in public safety is necessary to avoid the
killing and maiming of citizens.

With global warming, however, we do not have the luxury of learning by
trial and error. We have left the climate problem unattended for so
long that we now have just one chance to get things right by applying
a “no major trade-off” approach without a trial run. It will be a
particular challenge for decision-makers, who have grown up in a
political culture of compromise.

Past government inaction has also habituated an acceptance of lowered
expectations, which has continued to hinder serious climate action. A
non-government organisation staff member, reflecting on her
experiences, said that it has become increasingly clear to her how
constrained the environmental organisations are: “It’s a legacy of 11
years of [the] Howard [government] — they’ve all come to expect so
little environmental responsibility from government, so they don’t ask
for much in the hope of a small gain. [It’s] a very unfortunate

Generally, timidity, constraint and incrementalism have characterised
recent national and state government approaches to environment issues,
and the consequence is that low expectations have become embedded in
the relationship between lobbyists and government. When opportunity
knocks, or changing evidence demands urgent and new responses,
imaginative and bold leadership does not always emerge with solutions
that fully face up to the challenge. When, in late 2007, evidence
emerged of accelerated climate change, it appeared to have little
impact on the climate targets advocated by most of the peak green
organisations, which said that their position was “locked in” until
after the election.

Ken Ward, an environmental and communications strategist and former
deputy executive director of Greenpeace in the USA, believes that the
people who lead environmental foundations and organisations play a
critical part in reconstructing the issue as a climate and
sustainability emergency — one that takes us beyond the politics of
failure-inducing compromise.

With the rapid loss of the Arctic summer ice cover, Ward says that the
opportunity for these leaders to adjust their position is narrow, and
this is due, in some part, to the deliberate decision, a decade ago,
by environment organisations to downplay climate change risk.

He says: “[They did so] in the interests of presenting a sober,
optimistic image to potential donors, maintaining access to decision-
makers, and operating within the constraints of private foundations,
which has blown back on us. By emphasising specific solutions and
avoiding definitions that might appear alarmist, we inadvertently fed
a dumbed-down, Readers Digest version of climate change to our staff
and environmentalist core. Now, as we scramble to keep up with climate
scientists, we discover that we have paid a hefty price.”

For those who have, in the past, downplayed the risks, changing
position is now a matter of urgency, because what now needs to be done
is not incrementally reasonable. The desperate measures required to
advance a functional climate-change solution at this late date, says
Ward, “can only be conceived and advanced by individuals who accept
climate change realities and [who] take the less than 10-year
timeframe seriously”.

He believes that we will need to actually confront the terror of the
situation before we can come to a real solution.

“We are not acting like people and organisations who genuinely believe
that the world is at risk. Therefore, we cannot take the measures
required, nor can we be effective leaders.”

This is an edited extract from Climate Code Red: The Case for
Emergency Action, published by Scribe.


David Spratt is a Melbourne businessman, climate-policy analyst, and
co-founder of Carbon Equity, which advocates personal carbon
allowances as the most fair and equitable means of rapidly reducing
carbon emissions. He has extensive advocacy experience in the peace
movement, and in developing community-campaign communication and
marketing strategies.

Philip Sutton is the convener of the Greenleap Strategic Institute, a
non-profit environmental-strategy think tank and advisory organisation
promoting the very rapid achievement of global and local ecological
sustainability. He is also the founder and director of strategy for
Green Innovations, and an occasional university lecturer on global
warming science and strategies for sustainability.


Posted on 8 August, 2008, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on THE PERILS OF PLAYING NICE.

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