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The great global warming debate, Phase 2

By Peter McMahon - posted Friday, 15 May 2009


Although the Rudd Government has been shifting ground in its response to global warming, no one is seriously suggesting that nothing at all should be done. The issue is just what, how and when.

In the last two years the high probability of anthropogenic global warming has become accepted by most world governments. In part this has been due to some spectacular media successes, notably Al Gore’s movie and the well-received Stern Report. This growing awareness has also been due to the increasingly urgent concerns of scientists in regards to observable changes, and everyday experience by ordinary people of increasingly extreme weather conditions.

We are now moving into the second phase of the great global warming debate; the debate has shifted from whether global warming is happening to what should be done about it. More specifically, the debate is polarising around two viewpoints.

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One view is that the current socio-economic system basically works and just needs tweaking to deal with global warming. The other is that global warming is indicative of underlying problems with that socio-economic system, and so it has to be radically transformed.

The first view sees the rise of mass industrial society and its expansion across the globe, a process recently known as globalisation, as a good thing. According to this view it has enabled sustained wealth generation even as population continued to grow. Furthermore, it has tended to promote democracy and relatively harmonious international relations.

According to this viewpoint, global warming is just a hiccup, and given a simple adjustment that makes carbon production more expensive, the system will soon return to something like normality. Global warming is not so much a serious limitation as an indicator that remedial fine tuning is required. This remedial action demands no real change in the distribution of wealth and power.

The second view is that global warming represents a fundamental challenge to the viability of the world socio-economic system, and that solving the problem demands radical transformation of that system. It sees the problem as being due to the emphasis on economic growth and the associated profligate use of energy, specifically fossil fuels.

This position then splits into two variations. In the first variation it is argued that the mass-industrial system has always been wrong, because it is both unsustainable and unfair. It was always a mistake, and now global warming proves it was a mistake and the whole thing should be transformed. The core institutions and practices, especially those that determine wealth and power distribution, need fundamental transformation.

The milder view is that whatever its value up until recent times, the incapacity of current arrangements to respond to the threat of global warming shows that its use-by date is up. Global warming is a basic problem because it revolves around energy use, which has been one of the main drivers of mass-industrial expansion, and responding to such a basic problem demands radical change in the whole system.

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While it is dangerous to over-generalise, we can see some tendencies in the support for the various positions. The young, who are less invested in the prevailing arrangements of wealth and power, are more open to the idea of radical change in the overall political and economic structures. Similarly, less-developed nations are more prone to favour transformation of the global politico-economic system. This is not just because they have less to lose but also because they will be most affected, at least initially. The “business as usual, but with a tweak” position is most strongly put by the established economic and political interests.

So far, despite the growing intensity of the debate, almost nothing has been done to effect change in response to the growing evidence of global warming. In this sense, the existing power arrangements have prevailed. However, events are moving against them.

First, as the scientific evidence emerges, the models improve and doubt diminishes, the overall pressure to do something will increase. Second, as various interests begin to seriously consider possible remedies, the realisation of what can actually be achieved will grow. Third, as new leaders appear who do not carry the baggage of past allegiances they will promote further research and remedial policies. Fourth, as resources shift into remediation new vested interests will arise to support further action.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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