Will other world leaders take a cue from US President who is making climate change action a question of ethics and morals?
President Barack Obama wipes perspiration from his face as he speaks about climate change in Washington. Photograph: Charles Dharapak/AP
THERE are a lot of decisions in life that are easier because we know the difference between right and wrong – it’s why we wouldn’t steal a biscuit from a poor homeless orphan or kick away a pensioner’s walking stick as they’re about to step on to a pedestrian crossing.
For these reasons, stealing stuff that’s not yours or assaulting pensioners (or anyone else for that matter) is considered by the community at large to be ethically or morally wrong as well as being against the law.
Recent rhetorical flourishes from father-of-two Barack Obama, the President of the United States, have tossed climate change into this same bucket of ethical decisions.
Obama has tugged at the needle of our moral compasses several times with soundbites loaded with ethical ordnance. Take these examples from his recent climate change speech in Washington and his weekly White House address.
Some day our children and our children’s children will look us in eye they and they will ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer and more stable world? I want to be able to say, yes we did… Decades of carefully reviewed science tells us our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on the world we leave to our children… those of us in positions of responsibility will need to be less concerned with the judgment of special interests and well-connected donors, and more concerned with the judgment of our children… The question is not whether we need to act. The question is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late…. We will be judged – as a people, as a society, and as a country – on where we go from here… power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That’s not right, that’s not safe, and it needs to stop.
It’s not the first time the President has asked us to look into the eyes of our kids for a reason to act on climate change. In his second term victory speech in November 2012, he said “we want our children to live in an an America… that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”
During his State of the Union address in February, he said that “for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change”.
Looking at the words alone, Obama is simplifying the climate change issue down to a question of right and wrong. Cutting the use of fossil fuels = right. Not cutting the use of fossil fuels = wrong.
Climate campaigners will point to a mismatch between the words and his ongoing support for fracked gas, but taking such an emotive position on the issue hands a very large metaphorical stick to campaigners with which they can beat their President if and when his actions fail to match the words. When Obama says he wants to lead the world on the issue, the stick gets handed around to everyone else.
But this strong ethical position on the issue may give other leaders cause to stop and think about how they justify action on climate change to their citizenry.
Alongside arguments made on an economic basis (we’ll fall behind in the Clean Industrial Revolution or we’ll get slugged with massive clean up bills from fires, floods and storm surges), a health basis (prolonged heat waves can kill) or a survival basis (we’ve still got to find food when extreme weather decimates crops), how many other leaders will simply say – as Obama now is – that strong action is ethically the right thing to do?
Australia, for example, is a relatively small contributor to the global problem when it comes to its own emissions – roughly three per cent of global emissions if you count greenhouse gases emitted domestically and those dug up and sent overseas to be burned elsewhere. Emissions from the likes of China, India and the US eclipse those of Australia.
Yet in per capita terms, Australia is one of the worst offenders. Then there’s the country’s world leading position on coal exports, its soon-to-be world leading position on exports of Liquified Natural Gas and, as I’ve already written here, the ongoing support for further expansion of fossil fuel mining and exports.
Just as President Obama prefaced his speech on the decades of scientific research into the impacts of burning coal, oil and gas on the climate, Australia’s Climate Commission recently laid out the issue clearly for all concerned.
Looking at what needs to happen to have a decent chance of staying beneath 2C of global warming and the real-life impacts that come with that benign-sounding number, the commission said:
It is clear that most fossil fuels must be left in the ground and cannot be burned.
But some watchers might question the wisdom of that 2C guardrail, given the kind of extreme weather events being delivered now after only 1C of global warming.
A new study just released has looked at Australia’s record melting summer heatwave of 2012/13.
Chart showing maximum temperatures reached across Australia during 2012/13 summer heatwave
As the Bureau of Meteorology has recorded, the heatwave gave Australia its hottest day on record – 40.3C (104.5F). For seven days straight, the average maximum temperature across the country was 39C (102F).
During the heatwave, a maximum temperature of 45C (113F) or more was recorded at least once for 46.9 per cent of the country.
Thongs (aka flip-flops) melted and petrol pumps were turned off to stop fuel vaporising. Hundreds of bush fires destroyed properties and livelihoods.
The study in the leading journal Geophysical Research Letters found that the extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere put there by human activity had increased the risk of the heatwave happening by a factor of between two-and-a-half and five.
So are decisions made now and into the future to increase these risks by digging up and burning more fossil fuels ethically questionable? If you take your cue from Obama’s words, then the answer may be yes.