by Dr Graeme Pearman, former head of CSIRO Atmospheric Research
We’ve known for more than 150 years that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere influence the temperature of the earth. Last century it became clear that human activities were changing the level of these gases primarily as a result of the use of fossil-fuel energy. Concern about this was conveyed to successive Prime Ministers, starting with the Hawke Government in the late 1980s. Hawke, Graham Richardson and Barry Jones saw Australia take a leadership role in responding to the climate-change issue.
Since that time, successive governments have failed to live up to those earlier commitments. Maria Taylor’s book carefully unravels the developments that took place that now leave Australia in danger of international sanctions because of its pariah status to say nothing the impacts of climate change itself. Maria points out that there has been a cultural shift that has resulted in a new storyline associated with the climate-change issue. It’s more about denial, sectoral protection and avoidance than responsible risk management.
Her convincing description of this cultural change reaches beyond response to climate change to the way we live our lives now. We need to assess the value of what are accepted but ideologically-driven views about directions in society [ like the opposition of economy and environment].
Science communication challenges
Communicating scientific issues such as climate change to public and private sector policymakers is a complex process, from the informal personal contact between scientist and Minister/CEO to the formal processes such as IPCC reporting and the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council. There is also the indirect approach via the media; the impact on public awareness and how this affects policy development. Each of these avenues has formal and unwritten rules of engagement that can enhance or act as barriers to effective communication.
My earlier involvement was through personal contact and invited presentations, and via media exposure. I made presentations to successive Prime Ministers; Hawke , Keating and Howard. These early presentations were about the specifics of my own discipline, climate science, but by necessity extrapolated into areas of adaptation and mitigation in the absence of wider science-community involvement in these areas.
Today we have experts who can address all of these areas. The call on my expertise ended dramatically with the Government intervention into my role at CSIRO and ultimately my resignation. Whilst the private sector continued to seek my advice, the public sector and some others became reluctant to do so.
Today, because of this change of culture, there’s is a much greater polarisation of attitudes towards the climate-change issue, and a much greater reluctance to accept independent advice in policy development – if it does not support ideological directions. This makes the role of the expert in contributing to policy development more difficult but in many ways, more important than ever.
My overall impression has been that industry has been far more open to expert advice about the climate-change issue than certain parts of the three tiers of government. Whilst the same ideological bent resides within these companies, they seem to be more genuinely concerned in establishing for themselves the potential risks associated either directly with climate change or from the ultimate effects of managing emissions.
But I deal with mainly large companies. In general SMEs spend very little resources on assessing their exposure to risk related to climate change. By and large it has been the trends in government policy-making – described so clearly in Maria’s book – that have made me feel at times there is more chance that the drivers of change will come out of the private sector.
We are seeing some signs of this in the relatively recent phenomenon of incorporating climate change risk into the assessment of the value of resource stocks. If this continues, there is the potential for, dare I say, a market-driven response that will in turn drive government action. Perhaps this is wishful thinking?