The heart of the matter

This article was written back in 2010 and was published online on The Climate Spectator. Nearly three years on it still makes fascinating reading as the rhetoric ramps up ahead of the federal election.

rocky shore NSWRecently the NSW Natural Resources Commissioner, Dr John Williams, hosted a workshop in Canberra on resilience thinking that was attended by a platoon of scientists, agency staffers and consultants, all concerned about the environment.

In his opening remarks, the Commissioner urged the participants to consider a simple enough question: What matters most?

A ripple went around the room as things that matter jostled for space in everyone’s head. No doubt thoughts of happiness, love, friendship, the mortgage and a few thoughts we don’t usually admit to arrived, and it was clear that there was not just one thought. The one thing that mattered did not appear instantly to everyone.

Caught as we are in the policy vacuum on climate change, with backflips and peculiar ideological positions to frustrate us, it might be useful to ask the same question of the climate change debate: What matters most?

Those representing heavy emitters will cry that exposure, unnecessary liability and uncertainty matter. Few of us like threats to business as usual. However, some exposed businesses have used climate change as an opportunity. We have all been offered the option to offset a flight or visit a carbon neutral office, where the most important thing is to be seen to be doing something good. Catastrophe can make for great PR, and so matters most, but for very different reasons.

Unless you install roofing insulation, climate change is of little consequence to small business. There is not much beyond the upward creep in the quarterly energy bill to keep your attention away from more pressing issues of cashflow, customers and the late arrival of a key staffer.

A couple of years ago, the general public in Australia thought climate change itself mattered most. They even elected a new government with a Prime Minister who claimed it was “the biggest moral challenge of our time”. Today polling suggests the majority see climate change as just another opportunity for politicians to renege on a promise. And a third of them think we should not pay a cent to fix it.

Climate scientists, at least those gathered under the banner of the IPCC, reached a consensus that greenhouse gas emissions matter most. Concentrations of gases that absorb reflected radiation, the atmospheric blanket that makes life as we understand it possible, were the key regulators of climate. Human activity was upsetting the delicate balance of greenhouse gas composition and we needed to stop that or risk catastrophic warming.

Emissions matter most because they lead to warming that puts more energy into the cyclical systems of atmosphere and ocean, changing the pattern of circulation, making it wetter, drier, and perhaps more stormy on an increasingly voluminous ocean. In short, having some very specific local climate effects.

The diplomats at the UNFCCC thought this mattered too, but not as much as the necessary diplomacy. So they negotiated at length to agree that net emission reductions matter, but that we need to negotiate some more to agree on the reduction targets and how to achieve them. Clearly, among the policy makers, it is debate that matters most.

Ask residents on the beach front at Byron Bay the question and it’s all about saving their homes from storms. They may not even know that warming will raise sea levels and may make some storm surges more acute, for it has always mattered that the ocean was only a wave away from your beachfront retreat. Save a thought for the 200 million citizens of Bangladesh on the Ganges delta who don’t even know that sea level rise matters most to them.

Irrigators along the Murray River in NSW who, despite having a legal license to extract water, have not seen any reach them for a long time, have another answer. What matters most to them is the real prospect of losing their livelihood altogether.

Clearly, there are as many things that matter most about climate change as if we had asked the question without the qualifier. Climate change is a threat and an opportunity, a challenge and a risk. For some it is real, but for most of us it is not the most important thought in our heads. So perhaps what matters most is not climate change at all.

Perhaps we have missed the real risk, the real challenge that we face, and the hint of what that is comes from all these specific concerns. What matters most is that we have the capacity to adapt and transform to a changing world.

It is critical that we give ourselves the flexibility to make our food production more efficient, ensure our environments will deliver all the services we take for granted and that our economic and social structures remain viable as they transition.

It also matters that we act on that capacity now, for the world is changing rapidly. The shifting climate just makes some of the inevitable the changes more acute and immediate. None of this should be a surprise, given that there are now close to seven billion souls trying to fix what matters most to them.

———

Here in April 2013 I am not sure if the timelessness of the sentiment in this article is what matters most.

Perhaps we should get our arses in gear.

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