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Kyoto: One tiny step for humanity

By David Shearman - posted Friday, 4 March 2005


Last month has seen a celebration of the commencement of the Kyoto Agreement to reduce greenhouse emissions. It would be equally appropriate to have a wake for the past decade of argument needed to introduce this tiny step. Its target is a few per cent reduction compared to the scientific consensus of a 60 per cent reduction needed if greenhouse emissions are to be stabilised.

Apart from Kyoto there was an important, barely reported announcement. Tony Blair said at the Economic Forum in Davos, “If we were to put forward a solution to climate change something that would involve drastic cuts in economic growth or standards of living, it would not matter how justified it was, it would simply not be agreed to”. This article will explain why this statement is a revelation and why it questions the tenets of democracy.

In democratic countries, Tony Blair has led the charge in recognising the threat to civilisation from climate change. He has had detailed briefings from his scientists, including his chief scientist, Sir David King, who states that this is the most serious problem we face today, more serious than the threat of terrorism. He recognises the importance of the data from thousands of scientists, who have co-operated to produce the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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Blair understands that the existing 0.7C rise in temperature has produced widespread global effects, with rise in sea level melting of ice caps, increase in drought and storm and loss of species. Yet we seem certain to have a rise of 2C sometime this century and perhaps in a few decades, and this may be the limit to which we can safely go. Some models of future change indicate rises of up to 6C. With this it is doubtful if civilisation could exist in its present form. There is now more urgency because of evidence that climate change is occurring more quickly than predicted and might become self perpetuating. Many of the scientists who have absorbed this data have nights disturbed by the bleak future for their children.

Climate change is a health issue, indeed it will affect every aspect of our society. The World Health Association indicated that more than 160,000 people died worldwide last year as a result of climate change. They died in heat waves, from an increase in storms, infectious diseases and malnutrition from destruction of crops. The health impacts in Australia are complex and Doctors for the Environment lists them on their website under "Policy".

The health implications of climate change are one of the priority issues for Doctors for the Environment Australia, a non-government organisation of practising doctors from all states and territories, incorporated and run from South Australia. Its role is to brief, educate and assist governments, politicians and industry to make an impact on this problem.

One impediment to progress is denial, a common human response to huge problems. Each person and sometimes each government feels they can do so little. Our role is also to motivate our medical colleagues. When we try to motivate them with the effects of climate change on the future lives of their children, a common response is “that’s their problem”. However our philosophy, in a world of space travel, gene technology and ability to conquer disease, is that human ingenuity can alleviate this and other national and global environmental health problems. We encourage any doctor who thinks like us to join us.

With this background let us return to Blair’s “landmark” sentence. It is political doublespeak saying that the problem cannot be solved under the present economic system, which depends on economic growth to eternity. Treasurers salivate about economic growth, it is their testosterone boost. Most would be satisfied with 3 per cent per annum and recognise that this means that the size of the economy is 3 per cent greater than the previous year. On this basis the size of the economy doubles every 23 years. Now in 23 years let us suppose that energy needs will also double in order to run this economy. (This is not strictly true for in Western economies energy efficiency for producing goods is increasing but unfortunately this gain is swamped by economic growth). Therefore if greenhouse emissions are to remain at today’s level, then up to half the energy requirements in 23 years time will have to be alternative energy.

Is this possible? The burgeoning energy requirements of the developing countries have not yet been included in these considerations. These countries have refused to consider greenhouse reductions saying that they have a right to develop without hindrance. Add to this the sabotage of future greenhouse negotiations by the world’s greatest polluter. It is not difficult to calculate that there is no future for civilisation in the present cultural maladaptation to the growth economy. (Cultural maladaptation is an important concept used by Stephen Boyden in his book The Biology of Civilisation)

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Yes, even the motivated countries including the UK are missing their greenhouse targets and in large part this is due to economic growth. Now looking at the other aspect of Blair’s landmark sentence, “… drastic cuts in economic growth or standard of living would not be agreed to”. Here Blair is recognising that democracy now functions by seeking to deliver what people want. He knows  people could have a healthy fulfilled life without some of the baubles they are convinced they must have, the production of which pollutes the earth. He knows that there is no point in filling one’s house for eternity with goods and chattels when the foundations are rotting. Yet he is saying that in his liberal democracy he cannot deliver what is necessary for the future of his and our children.

The implication is that if democracy cannot offer leadership and action on this issue, its survival must come under question. Hopefully Blair’s kite will bring into public debate a subject that has been taboo and will expose the schizophrenic thinking of all governments. In that debate the doctors will be putting forward a prescription and a strategy for recovery.

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First published in the The Independent Weekly February 13-19, 2005.



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About the Author

David Shearman is Emeritus Professor of Medicine and Hon Visiting Fellow, Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, University of Adelaide and Hon Secretary, Doctors for the Environment Australia. He is coauthor , with Joseph Wayne Smith, of two books: The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, Praeger, Davenport, Connecticut 2007, a series from the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy; and Climate Change Litigation. Analysing the law, scientific evidence and impacts on the environment, health and property Presidian Legal Publications, October 2006.

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