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Beyond greed

By Peter Doherty - posted Friday, 12 May 2006

Is this whole global warming scenario real or, as some newspaper columnists like to suggest, a massive conspiracy by self-serving scientists and self-appointed environmentalists who are trying to maximise their own resources, influence and power? Interestingly, we are starting to see both prominent political figures of the “right”, and even some of the international energy companies, moving to the “left” of the more reactionary media on this issue.

Maybe some of those organisations have the recent legal histories of the tobacco and asbestos industries in mind. Maybe they are also realising that they must diversify and adapt if they are to survive in the long term. After all, there can’t be an infinite future in marketing a dwindling, natural resource. Other energy companies, though, are in denial and do their best to frustrate debate.

At least for the politicians, my guess is that they are reacting to a real shift in public perceptions of global warming. The Federal Environment Minister, Senator Ian Campbell, is an appealing personality who certainly “talks the talk”, but we shall see in the longer term whether the emphasis of the administration he represents on voluntary controls will prove an effective way to “walk the walk”.


Any newspaper editor will tell you: bad news sells. My sense is that many, if not most, of us are buying into the idea that global warming is real. Television presents us with an endless catalogue of disasters: the frogs are dying, the bushfires getting worse, reports of the hottest day on record.

The problem is not so much to convince people that we have a problem as to work out how to do something about it. Living in Memphis, Tennessee, I had to have my car exhaust checked annually at a municipal testing station. If your car doesn’t pass, then it costs money to make it comply.

Also in Memphis, the double-hung windows of our 1903 house were made more energy-efficient by the addition of external, triple-track storm windows fitted by the previous owner as part of a government-supported initiative. The triple glass-flyscreen windows represent a simple, relatively cheap and effective “bolt on” technology available in all big United States hardware stores, but I can’t find them in Australia.

We could do a lot to conserve energy in the way we build and utilise our living spaces but, because it costs money, it will take a carrot-or-stick approach to make most of us react. Every individual has a part to play. We need to focus as much on “me” as “them and they” when it comes to climate change.

A little history: beginning less than 300 years ago with the Industrial Revolution, we have been releasing the stored energy of forests that compacted over millions of years with ever-increasing speed. The Earth itself is billions of years old, the adaptive immune system that I study first emerged in the bony fishes about 350 million years ago, humans (Homo sapiens) have been around for 100,000 to (at most) 200,000 years, we have had mining and agriculture for less than 10,000 years and cars for about a century.

The “prosperity” in terms of access to consumer durables, international travel and so forth that most middle-class Australians and Americans now enjoy certainly wasn’t the reality for other than a very small minority only 50 years ago. There is nothing immutable about our current lifestyle, and no divine right that it can or should continue. Even so-called “conservative” politicians, though, can run enormous risks if they try to introduce just the smallest element of a reality check. Look at what the 1980 oil crunch did to US President Jimmy Carter who, as a born-again Christian from the American South, is hardly a radical.


President George W. Bush tried to make the point in his 2006 State of the Union address that it’s past time for the US to kick its dependence on Middle East oil. Many of us had hoped to hear that from him immediately after September 11, 2001, but better late than never. His statement went down like a lead balloon.

Conspicuous, mindless consumption of this nonrenewable resource is broadly seen as an entitlement. The possibility that the couple of thousand American boys and girls from towns in rural “middle” America, the south and the Hispanic communities of the big cities who have died (many more have been maimed) in Iraq might in some way be connected to patterns of domestic oil consumption doesn’t seem to have crossed into the wider US national consciousness.

The lesson is that, no matter how pervasive the global-warming argument, no matter how good the evidence, the only thing that will persuade many human beings to moderate their behaviour is to make environmentally damaging practices either expensive or illegal.

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First published by the Griffith REVIEW Edition 12 – "Hot Air: How nigh’s the end?"

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About the Author

Professor Peter C. Doherty won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Medicine. He is the Michael F. Tamer Chair of Biomedical Research at St Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee.

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