It’s a good thing hot air - the metaphorical product of heated argument - cannot heat the planet. If it were an agent of climate change, the polar ice caps would long ago have melted as a result of fractious international arguments over climate, assertions of human agency in overheating it, the exquisite imprecision of science and especially computer science, and whether taxing carbon emissions is an environmental policy or a revenue grab.
Debate has polarised - a delicious analogy in the circumstances - since the Bali Climate Conference of 2007 over what we can do to reverse climate change, and further heated up as we approach the Copenhagen conference, being held from December 7-18, and all the other peripheral chattering associated with it, including lately in Bali. But none of the arguments have been to the point, on either side.
Science can tell us what has happened, in historical terms. We know the globe has always had eon-length cycles of warming and cooling. That’s what the ice ages and the carboniferous period were all about, after all.
Science can record what is happening. But it can only make inexact assumptions from this data as to what might occur as a result. It cannot dump all its data into a computer, input further - human - assumptions, and tell us anything much at all. Scientists actually know this. They just don’t want us to know that they know.
Similarly, so-called climate change deniers - they’re not, actually; no one rational could possibly argue that climate (or climates, regionally speaking) do not change - have done themselves a huge injustice by allying themselves with politicians who want to win votes by arguing against taxation.
It’s true, in a way, that if the answer is more tax, the question it purports to answer must be a stupid one. But at the same time science is taking us rapidly into the post-fossil fuel era. And we must go there. It will impose a cost - the so-called change costs for which politicians, established industries and rent-seekers possess a condign hatred because they threaten their welfare - but this must be met.
Julia Gillard, who seems to have spent more time as acting prime minister of Australia than the serially peripatetic Kevin Rudd has spent being actual prime minister, said a very sensible thing last weekend: this is not about climate change or carbon reduction - it’s about the future. (She was talking in the context of Australia’s own political debate, something of largely academic interest anywhere else, but her comment was right to the point.)
In the chaos theory that rules the world it is of course the political class that generates the heat, cops the flak, and generally muffs the answer. Not least on climate change. In America, President Obama has been having an 11th-hour battle with a querulous legislature to get something through that he can carry with him to Denmark on Air Force One.
In China, those who are guiding the giant country’s mega-polluting economy have at last cobbled together a Copenhagen policy: it addresses their own political concerns but not much else. No one should be surprised.
In Australia - peripheral to the world in so many senses and specifically in terms of its real impact on global warming - the debate has led to the fracturing not of the government, over which Prime Minister Kevin Rudd still exercises mandarin-like control, but the opposition which next year must try to persuade the electorate that it is electable.
In all the other developed economies, politics has pedalled back the ambit of greenhouse and carbon reduction proposals. Canada, among the least offensive (and least noticeable) of nations, even got into the headlines last weekend because, at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in the West Indies, it was suggested it should be suspended for its lacklustre climate response.
So, as we head into the last few days before the world as we know will not come to an end in Copenhagen, let’s take a moment to reflect on some essential points:
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