Is climate 'the' issue, or is it just one of many?

We sat in chairs dipping down towards the river, facing a Yarra obscured by a geometric lattice-work of steel and glass amid the winter gloom of a late afternoon in Melbourne. The motion to be argued in the recent Deakin Debate at Federation Square was “that climate change is the only issue”.

The stark framing of the motion was clearly chosen to provoke strong argument, even among those members of the audience inclined to endorse quick action on climate change but unwilling to grant the issue primacy among such pressing candidates as armed conflict and global poverty.

An audience pre-poll showed majority resistance to the motion, with the ABC's Peter Mares noting that another poll after the debate would test the persuasiveness of the arguments to be presented.

He introduced the speakers by noting a recent report in The Age quoting Professor Barry Brook's suggestion at a Canberra conference that we are heading towards atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of 600 parts per million (ppm) with up to 6C warming.

Among a range of effects, Professor Brook suggested warming of 3C could threaten the collapse of the Amazon, four degrees the extinction of up to half of the earth's species, and 5C, sea-level rises of 80 metres. If Brook was right and climate change was happening much faster than expected, Mares suggested it might in fact be "the" issue. The debate would decide.

Don Henry, Director of the Australian Conservation Foundation, began the case for the motion with some telling facts. Carbon emissions data retrieved that day from the website of Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory showed current levels at 387 parts per million of the earth's atmosphere, compared with 315ppm in 1958 - an increase of 23 per cent in only 50 years.

With many climate scientists now urging stabilisation well below 450ppm to decrease the risk of dangerous climate change, if not guarantee its avoidance, the Mauna Loa data presented by Henry indicate a rise in atmospheric carbon concentrations that, without action, may well exceed stabilisation levels that seem to lower with every new study. Indeed, NASA's James Hansen has already suggested a "target" of 350ppm that we have already exceeded, pressing the case for drastic remedial action on emissions.

For Henry, climate was “the” issue because its “impacts ... are so pervasive across every sector of every society on earth”.

Domestically, he asked who wanted more drought and bush fire, who wanted to lose the Great Barrier Reef and the wet tropical rainforests. Global warming could mean Dengue Fever surviving south of Sydney, Malaria existing "pervasively" in northern Australia, and thousands of older Australians dying of heat stress. Because the effects would be felt globally, the world needed to come together to "tackle the issue, to reach global agreements, to move forward".

Henry presented a two-year window of opportunity for action - domestic decisions based on the Garnaut Review this year, and the negotiation of a new international agreement on climate change in December 2009. This brief window was reinforced in its urgency by climate “feedback loops” that Larissa Brown, the second speaker for the motion, told the audience scientists had already begun to observe.

Brown, who is Founder and Executive Director of the Centre for Sustainability Leadership, noted the diminishing capacity of the world's rapidly melting ice sheets to reflect sunlight that is otherwise absorbed by the earth's surface and radiated as heat.

As Brown explained, when heat is trapped by greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere, yet more ice melts, further reducing reflected sunlight and increasing the radiation of heat and consequent melting. Together, this and other feedback mechanisms threatened to render warming irreversible and beyond our control.

Global crisis points such as Dafur strengthened the case for climate change being “the” issue, with Brown noting the UN's conclusion that conflict there had been exacerbated by competition for resources arising from drought related to climate change. The emerging theme was climate change as a fundamental, common feature not only of environmental decline, but of many social and economic problems around the world.

Against this, Austin Williams, Director of the Future Cities Program, and the first speaker against the motion, contrasted Bangladesh and Holland, two countries challenged by rising sea levels but, Williams argued, best distinguished in their divergent fortunes by their levels of development.

For Williams, author of The Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability, development and human creativity were the answers, with climate change seeming to struggle for status as “an” issue, let alone “the” issue confronting the world. When it came to argument, he said there was a presumption that climate change “trumps everything”.

He likened the climate debate to an “assault on free enquiry”, claiming that in America five state climatologists were "being threatened with the sack for actually challenging the idea of anthropogenic climate change".

This line was echoed by Dr Norman Lewis, who said that scientists warning of climate change had exceeded their brief in stepping beyond presentation of the science to make recommendations for action. The world had entered a “new backward-looking, dark age of fatalism” emphasising human culpability.

Lewis, the Chief Strategy Officer of Wireless Grids Corporation (USA), responded to Don Henry's invitation to “take a breath” and consider the rise in carbon emissions by saying that the focus on climate change as “the” issue was really about telling us all to “take a deep breath ... but don't breathe it out, because you're the problem”. “We're a blight upon the earth.” Characterised thus, arguments for climate change action are somehow anti-human: if the impact of humans upon the planet is a natural phenomenon, the rejection of that impact amounts to a rejection of humanity.

The trouble with that argument is that it collapses the available choices in dealing with climate change to the single, impossible choice of holding our collective breath. Yet it is clear that by choosing renewable energy sources, by adopting more sustainable patterns of consumption, and especially by acting collaboratively through the Kyoto agreement and its successor, we can work to ensure sustainable development for the planet and its teeming populations.

Energy consumption isn't a monolith. Indeed, it is the scrutiny of the divisions and patterns of consumption that will inevitably prove “inconvenient” for those who have garnered an inequitable share of resources while contributing disproportionately to emissions - corporations and countries alike.

Speaking against the motion, Dr Leela Ghandi, Professor of English at the University of Chicago, reflected just such an argument in a powerful appeal for altruism beyond the mere “survivalism” she thought evident in arguments about climate change. Survival alone was not enough in the face of persistent inequality.

Unlike Lewis, who questioned the evidence, Ghandi robustly acknowledged the validity of the science and the urgent need for climate action, but appealed in favour of a fairer distribution of resources and a “wider ecology” through which we could “once again hope for better weather”.

With a gentle rhetorical nudge she could easily have drifted to the other side, as the panel arguing for the motion clearly saw the challenge of climate change as a challenge for social justice.

And maybe that was part of the problem in this debate. When such critical issues are inextricably bound together, is there really a need to determine the winner in a photo-finish, when what is more important is the relation between them?

In arguing for the primacy of climate change, no one would argue that it should be addressed at the expense of efforts to eradicate world poverty - averting dangerous climate change is a precondition of those efforts. Indeed, climate change threatens global food and water supplies, as well as the spread of disease and extreme weather events. Its impacts will disproportionately affect the poor and of necessity call on our collective will for a more just planet.

Chris Turner, author of The Geography of Hope, captured this argument as third speaker for the motion when he described climate change as “the issue that subsumes all others”, as the “big tent in which they all dance”. Climate change threatened “a fundamental change in the basic conditions of life”. To take his example, like fish in an ocean unaware they are surrounded by water, we argue about issues while missing the bigger picture of the earth's warming atmosphere. And yes, Austin Williams, through sheer weight of evidence, that bigger picture “trumps” them all.

It had grown dark outside by the time of the second vote, which revealed a reversal of the audience's initial response to the motion and clear majority recognition of climate change as “the” issue. Peter Mares declared the debate had shown people could be persuaded by argument. Beyond the steel and glass shell of Fed Square's BMW Edge, a river of our stricken waterways flowed into a common sea, towards our common oceans.

Darren Lewin-Hill is a Melbourne writer. He blogs at Northcote Independent, participated in the YouDecide2007 citizen journalism project, and ran as an independent for Northcote at the 2006 Victorian State election.

Note: "The Deakin Debate: that climate change is the only issue" took place at 4.30pm Saturday, June 14, 2008 at the BMW Edge, Federation Square as part of the Alfred Deakin Lectures 2008. More information is available on the website. Speaker biographies are available here. Edited audio of the debate was broadcast on Radio National's The National Interest program on Friday June 20. Full audio of the debate is available here.

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