Few outside the contrarian redoubts (www.cis.org.au; www.ipa.org.au) now deny that our environment is in trouble. Or that this is in large part a result of human activity.
To take only the most recent evidence: the 2008 Environmental Performance Index (produced by Yale and Columbia Universities) puts Australia 47th out of 149 countries, 42 behind New Zealand. This follows last year’s UN Human Development Report (PDF 893KB) which ranked Australia third in per capita carbon emissions, after the United States and Canada. Clearly we must do something about this - decisively, comprehensively and now.
In one not very helpful sense we are all to blame and share the responsibility for cleaning up the mess. Environmental damage is, after all, the counterpoint to human well-being. From plastic bags to sophisticated air-conditioning, cheap electronic geegaws to luxury vehicles, our convenience and self-indulgence come at the cost of a natural despoilment that most of us, by choice or indifference, casually ignore.
But the wretched state of the environment is also the counterpoint to much human misery. Those who do not enjoy the material advantages of affluence also pay for it. As the UN report makes clear, while rich countries are largely responsible for causing climate change, those who stand to be hardest hit will be the already worst off:
The effect that increased droughts, extreme weather events, tropical storms and sea level rises will have on large parts of Africa, on many small island states and coastal zones will be inflicted in our lifetimes. In terms of aggregate world GDP, these short term effects may not be large. But for some of the world’s poorest people, the consequences could be apocalyptic. In the long run climate change is a massive threat to human development and in some places it is already undermining the international community’s efforts to reduce extreme poverty.
On the international scene, as we saw in the Bali convention, this leads to the understandable accusation of hypocrisy in Western calls for parallel global action on greenhouse gas reductions and other measures to promote ecological sustainability. Peak oil may be about to hit us, if it has not already, but why should India, China, Latin America and (most of all) Africa be denied comparable opportunities to those which countries like Australia enjoyed in the era of cheap energy?
It is a strong case. But not the whole one. Inequality occurs not only between nations but also within them. Anglicare Australia’s primary concern is with those who are already vulnerable in our own society. They too are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation and climate change, but stand to be even more disadvantaged by whatever measures we take to counter them. Like the public service, austerity is an unequal opportunity employer.
We may be all to blame. And we may be all in this together. But on very different terms.
Poorer Australians feel the effects of climate change disproportionately. To give obvious examples: rising costs in food (due to the drought), utilities and petrol take up a greater percentage of a smaller budget. Anglicare services across the country are reporting more families accessing emergency relief as these prices rise.
We have seen increased wild weather events. Those on low incomes are less able to protect themselves. Only some 45 per cent of clients of community services are able to afford home contents insurance - compared with 78 per cent of the general community.
Not only are Australians on lower incomes more disadvantaged by the effects of climate change, they are also less able to inoculate themselves against it. People with adequate disposable cash will simply turn up their air conditioners (in itself causing more carbon emissions); they can afford anti asthmatic drugs if their children are affected by excessive dust from mining emissions; they can more easily upgrade to more energy-efficient equipment. They can, if necessary, make a geographical escape - even trading in their SUVs for an environmentally friendly Lexus Hybrid sedan to make the move.
In short, such people can buy their way out of the effects of climate change - at any rate, in the short term.