Andrew Charlton, Man-Made World: Choosing between progress and planet (Quarterly Essay No 44, 2011)
Andrew Charlton has a good eye for a quote. He was in the room at the Copenhagen Climate Conference when Barack Obama arrived, late, at the meeting of world leaders that had been hastily convened to avert a complete breakdown of the conference. It was definitely a behind-the-scenes gathering: the leaders, Charlton tells us, ‘hunched in plastic chairs around a rectangle of contiguous small tables’. When Obama arrived, Hilary Clinton said, ‘Mr President, this is the worst meeting I’ve been to since the eighth-grade student council.’ Apart from flaunting the teller’s insider status, the anecdote’s clear subtext is that the insiders, the powerful elite, are just as flummoxed by global warming as the rest of us. More than anything else in the essay, it drives home the point that the planet’s current environmental crisis will be resolved, if at all, by human beings bumbling forward as human beings have always done.
The other stand-out quote, which Charlton says is famous, is from Sheikh Yamani, former head of OPEC. When someone asked him when he believed the world would run out of oil, he replied, ‘The Stone Age didn’t end because the world ran out of stone,’ memorably encapsulating a key point of this essay, namely that technological innovation and the discovery of new materials and sources of energy have led to great leaps in human progress in the past, and we can hope will do so again.
Charlton argues that the failure of Copenhagen was caused not by non-cooperation from the US or Europe or muscle-flexing sabotage by China, but by a failure to address ‘the central dilemma of our century: the choice between progress and planet’, the apparently intransigent conflict of interest between the world’s rich minority who can afford to talk about scaling back consumption and the vast majority for whom increased consumption means emerging from grinding poverty:
These two global challenges –poverty and the environment – are the twin imperatives of the twenty-first century. One ravages billions of people alive today; the other threatens billions yet unborn.
Because of this conflict of interest, he argues, ‘our global approach ot climate change has failed:
we have failed to establish a globally binding treaty, we have failed to effectively bring the developing countries into a global solution, and we have failed to develop new technologies sufficient to reduce emissions rapidly.
Like everybody else in the known universe, he doesn’t hold out much hope that ‘market mechanisms’, such as Australia’s price on carbon and further down the track emissions trading scheme, will achieve the necessary targets, and that’s even if they survive assault from Tony Abbott and his buddies.
He calls for a Plan B, which has thee elements: to rethink the key goal, from raising the cost of fossil fuel energy to making clean power cheap; to reverse the relationship between rich and poor countries, so that rather than trying to persuade the developing world to reduce emissions the west works with them to develop breakthrough technology to deliver cheaper energy to the world'; to pay a lot more attention to back-up plans in case of disaster.
The essay is well worth reading, but I don’t know if it moves us forward significantly. At times Charlton’s experience as senior economic adviser to the Australian Prime Minister works against him, as he moves into polemic mode when the subject calls for careful persuasion: his figures occasionally slip from comparative to absolute when the argument requires it, he sometimes jeers at an opposing argument when engagement is needed. This background may also account for the fact that while he argues that reducing Australia’s emissions by even 5 per cent by 2020 is ‘all but unachievable through domestic efforts’, he ignores grassroots, science-based initiatives such as Beyond Zero Emissions, a detailed plan to reduce emissions to zero by 2020 using existing technology, or Zero Carbon Britain, a similar plan for Britain (the link is to a YouTube talk by the eminently persuasive Peter Harper of the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales). I can’t tell whether he would see these plans as examples of his Plan B or whether he includes them in the ‘glib rhetoric’ he attributes to ‘green groups’.
But this is all good and necessary argument, recognising that there’s a real problem and searching for a solution, which is immensely refreshing compared to the fake debate set up by those who believe – or pretend to believe – that ‘science is crap’.
Speaking of which, I’ve already had my tuppence worth about the correspondence about Robert Manne’s essay on the Australian at the back of this Quarterly Essay.
(Posted during the Wikipedia blackout over the PIPA/SOPA legislation but by no means in opposition to it.)