Climate warnings falling on deaf ears

There are some ideas so complex the human mind has a way of avoiding them rather than engaging their difficulties. There are some facts so dooming, so overwhelming, that they are easier ignored.

Periodically, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change contributes to debate such facts and ideas.

This week, the panel produced its Fifth Assessment Report – a major work on the science of climate change, based on seven years’ work by hundreds of scientists. The report warns of various ills connected to climate change: rising sea levels, greater scarcity of food, slowed economic growth and greater poverty. In Australia, it highlights the threat of significant damage to the Great Barrier Reef and the likelihood of native animal extinctions.

Taken in full, it is the most alarming warning yet issued by the panel. As Michel Jarraud of the World Meteorological Organisation told the ABC after the report’s release: “Now we are at a point where we have so much information, so much evidence, we can no longer plead ignorance.”

The IPCC has been issuing reports like this since it was established in 1988 as an initiative of the United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organisation. They are works of staggering co-operation and deep importance. By their own measure, they intend to “provide policymakers with regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation … [to] provide a scientific basis for governments at all levels to develop climate-related policies”.

But something strange is happening with these reports. The more troubling they become, the less either policymakers or laypeople seem troubled by them.

Polling in Australia has people less likely to want urgent action on climate change than they were a handful of years ago. 

Tony Abbott’s government was elected in no small part for its willingness to dismantle a system that showed a strong mechanism to cut emissions. His response is a scheme even conservatives argue will cost more and see less improvement – a program with a target for spending rather than a target for emission reductions.

His government made certain that among its first steps would be the dismantling of the Climate Commission established to inform the public on climate science. Cuts would be made everywhere from the Environmental Defenders Office to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. And all of this is, broadly, popular.

As the most worrying pages of the IPCC report were being written, Australia was situating itself to be in a position least able to effectively respond to them.

The human mind, it seems, would rather avoid certain crushing facts than face them.

“The IPCC has been telling us for many years now that we needed to do more,” Abbott said after the latest report, somewhat world-weary at all this science.

“I’m very happy to do what this government pledged to do before the election, which was to take strong and effective action to deal with the climate change.”

The difference between a threat and a pledge gets more blurred each day.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 5, 2014 as "Climate warnings falling on deaf ears".

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