A guide to pragmatic climate action



Tony Abbott observed on the night of the federal election that 'Where climate change is a moral issue we Liberals do it tough. Where climate change is an economic issue ... we do very, very well.' Former Labor Premier Bob Carr urged subsequently that the ALP abandon ambitious carbon emission targets and look to business to drive action on climate change.

Chris Johnston cartoon shows proponents of coal and renewable energy both desperately bailing water out of the same boat.The challenge for Catholics, even those who lean conservative, is that there must be a moral dimension and even imperative to policy debate on climate change. Pope Francis in his encyclical letter of 2015, Laudato Si', made this abundantly clear, and in the Jesuit world the recently released Universal Apostolic Preferences for Jesuit mission include 'Caring for our common home', a commitment to the environment that must be seen in all Jesuit works.  

Central to Catholic social teaching, to the Catholic world view, is the primacy of the common good. Pope Francis wrote that 'the climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all' and that 'our earth is essentially a shared inheritance'. Francis applies the biblical ideal of stewardship to our responsibility for an environment that is of God and is entrusted to our care. There is also an Ignatian view of the world, in that God can be found in all things, which carries an implication as to how we are called to regard the created order.

Francis also reminded us that our commitment to the poor as those most in need must have a priority in shaping our response to the environment. Pollution, loss of biodiversity, the issue of the world's water resources, the impact of development on human life and society, and global inequality, are issues with a moral dimension, especially as they impact on the poor.

'There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus,' Francis noted. 'Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.'

Where to then in Australia? The issue will not go away. Many young people are genuinely concerned about climate change, and political parties, not to mention churches or educational institutions, ignore this at their own peril. The simple fact is that there is a broad scientific consensus that climate change, which in part is influenced by human activity, does pose a threat to our future; that there are economic realities tied to environmental issues; and that there are serious environmental challenges that need to be addressed, irrespective of our views on climate change.

In 2002 the influential American conservative commentator and then dominating voice on Fox News, Bill O'Reilly, observed that 'America needs to stop arguing over the cause of global warming and begin a disciplined ten-year plan to use fewer polluting agents, more conservation, and tons more innovation.'


"We should focus on a whole raft of measures that have clear benefits in their own right, make sense economically on their own merits, and will contribute to environmental wellbeing and drive change."


In light of the polarised context in Australia, perhaps we need to bring together more intentionally the moral and economic dimensions. We should fulfil our Paris commitments to carbon emission reductions (as both sides roughly agree on), and accept any other future actions, as long as they are worldwide and include our trading partners and rivals. But we should not set more ambitious arbitrary targets per se or take primarily symbolic stands (as rejected in recent elections).

Rather we should focus on a whole raft of measures that have clear benefits in their own right, make sense economically on their own merits, and will contribute to environmental wellbeing and drive change. Whatever one's views on climate change, cleaning up our mess, addressing issues of energy security and independence, and protecting the environment as our home, would all seem logical goals that should unite rather than divide.

What might this look like? First, we accept that coal must be part of the immediate future in terms of Australian and world economic security, that Australian coal is cleaner, and that we can maximise efficient and cleaner use of energy like this. With this comes an acceptance that one part of our Australian community must not bear a disproportionate share of the pain of change (especially if it is already adversely affected economically and socially by isolation).

What else? Promote renewable energy sources in terms of their economic benefits and using the power of market forces. Move towards every Australian house having solar power and water storage capabilities. Invest significantly in infrastructure and research around water security, land conservation and reforestation, and remove feral animals. This will be of real benefit for rural and regional Australians. Ensure that we protect the Great Barrier Reef to the best of our ability.

Focus on changes in transport, using all the technology that we can to both more efficiently use our energy resources and also reduce emissions. Reduce our plastic consumption, make other packaging reforms, and do our part in cleaning up the oceans. Adopt meaningful recycling processes and address wastage such as with food. Discourage through tax policy the throwaway products and planned redundancy in production of consumer goods. Increase our foreign aid so as to encourage better environmental outcomes.

In addressing the above or other specific issues as priorities, I would argue for not focusing on big ideological statements or on a one-size fits all climate policy, but rather invest in the resilience and adaptability of a capitalist/consumer system to meet our environmental concerns. Similarly, I suspect, we need to harness better the power of technological innovation as a way to address environmental challenges, and build a consensus about what is possible, in ways that mobilises our idealism.



Chris MiddletonFr Chris Middleton SJ is the rector of Xavier College in Melbourne. This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the College's newsletter.

Main image credit: shakzu / Getty Creative

Topic tags: Chris Middleton, climate change, Tony Abbott



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Existing comments

Thanks Chris. This is a thoughtful piece, thank you. It's worth correcting a few points, though. If you are referring to Labor and Liberal, both sides don't agree on Paris targets. The Liberals target is in line with three degrees of warming and well below our 'fair share' as a wealthy developed country. We are among the highest emitters per person - I think only Saudi Arabi is worse. So from any ethical stance we need to do much more. Labor went to the election with a higher target that is closer to what the science demands and I think that is still their position. Regarding use of coal, we have to remember this problem can only be solved by collective action. That requires mutual agreement among nations not to burn fuels that will push our climate beyond temperatures that our civilisation can tolerate. If Australia breaks this, then it sends a message to other countries to do the same ...particularly because we are already such big polluters. So our choices in using coal, or opening new coal mines, has an impact on the likelihood of a binding global agreement. Finally, the union movement's work on Just Transition is a good starting point for supporting regional communities as we shift away from coal and gas.
Greg Foyster | 08 July 2019

The voice of reason!
Patricia Taylor | 08 July 2019

"First, we accept that coal must be part of the immediate future in terms of Australian and world economic security, that Australian coal is cleaner," Where does this comment come from? A school principal no less. Did he consult his science faculty or his RE department? No 'could be' of 'maybe' but rather 'must'. Such a comment needs examination. According to his Jesuit brother coal needs to go and go quickly. Australia can provide all the jobs coal provides with renewable jobs. The health costs of mining coal in Australia runs into the millions, not to mention the lost lives. No, we need to shift from coal immediately. The science is clear.
Tom Kingston | 08 July 2019

I agree with Greg Foyster's comments but I stress the need for Government to be fully involved with the union movement on bringing about Just Transition. A Just Transition requires that people adversely affected by phasing out of fossil fuels can move to other employment without delay. This must be achieved well in advance of any foreseen disruption and will require substantial planning.
Colin Apelt | 08 July 2019

Five years ago, I halved my CO2 emissions by using solar panels (3kW). I also purchased a plug-in hybrid vehicle which saved me $1300 annually because I cut my petrol costs by 90%. (In Victoria, my emissions from petrol became emissions from coal). Having given up control of the natural monopolies of electricity and gas, governments no longer have the power to change the supply of energy in Australia. The focus is now on demand. So, many of us, needing a new car, will seriously consider an electric vehicle to go with those solar panels. Such actions will require a re-engineering of the electricity grid in a time of falling demand. It is not clear how this will happen in these days of government confusion and obfuscation. But, the changes on the demand side are inevitable. The non-renewable suppliers will die a death by a thousand price cuts if they do nothing now.
Peter Horan | 08 July 2019

As with other comments here, I appreciate this thoughtful piece but disagree with the statement that we accept that coal "must" be part of the immediate future, especially as it is not stated how long this "immediate future" would last. If it means years, then this is completely at odds with the recent IPCC report that indicates that our window to act decisively is around 10-12 years (at best) if we start now, before certain tipping points are pushed, which would mean that no human action will be able to stop a worsening climate. We can make the changes needed in this 10 year timeframe but it requires swift, bold action. I would refer readers to an article from April (https://electrek.co/2019/04/15/renewable-energy-2050-solar/) summarising a study by Energy Watch and LUT University of Finland outlining how the world could be powered by 100% renewable energy by 2050. A key part of achieving this is political will. Unfortunately in Australia, political will is tied up with a very powerful media influence that minimises the reality of the climate crisis or dismisses it altogether. In this article, Fr Chris Middleton quotes Pope Francis saying, I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good." Unfortunately in Australia, the honesty of the debate is often undermined by deliberate misinformation published in the media, leading to inaction. In yesterday's Australian, one such article gave a prime example of the way this is done, "Climate Change a Cold Fact of Life - the fact is that our Earth has ice in its veins" effectively convinces readers that we should do nothing about climate change. It even goes so far as to accuse those who warn of the imminent perils we all face from 2 degrees extra warming as "mischief-making." I would argue that it is the Australian itself that is making mischief, especially when 5 minutes of Googling the author of the article (David Shelley, who once lectured in geology at New Zealand's Canterbury University) shows that most of his articles were published in the late 60's, 70's and early 80's in the area of petrology, not climatology. Interestingly, petrologists are most often employed by private mining companies although nothing came up about the author's employment, except that he is now retired from Canterbury University. The point is that this article uses a non-expert, to give what looks like expert opinion. It also makes an "opinion" or "commentary" article look like fact, especially by using the word "fact" in the headline. This is not surprising as the Australian uses these tactics routinely to create confusion around climate science. What is frustrating is that this confusion causes "good people to do nothing." I can verify this by observing family members - good people - (including daily mass-goers!) who accept narratives like the one in the Australian as "fact" and so effectively sit on their hands when they could be using their voting power, getting active in their communities or workplaces, being more motivated in their own lives etc, if only they knew that what they are reading as "news" is in fact, deliberate misinformation. I completely agree with Chris' other suggestions to promote solar uptake, waste initiatives etc, but we won't be able to "harness better the power of technological innovations" until our government stops subsidising fossil fuels and instead redirects that kind of funding into clean technology and the just transition of employment from old tech like coal and oil to new clean tech.
Kate Hook | 09 July 2019

With respect, what some respondents are missing is ‘pragmatic ‘. My position does not claim to be ideal or morally superior. Rather, it focuses on what can be achieved in the light of the last three Federal elections. There seems to me that there is some common ground where progress on the environment can be made, with real benefits in terms of combating climate change. To achieve some progress, in my view, given the Australian context of a resources-rich and trading nation and the important differences between regional and urban Australia, then absolutist positions such as banning coal have no chance of being implemented, and therefore making such policies as priorities, and even as prerequisites, are obstacles to positive changes in other areas.
Chris Middleton | 09 July 2019

The spark in Chris Middleton's fervorino lies in his last paragraph. Climate change and saving the planet have become such extremely ideologised discourses that almost any shift towards a mix and match of policies, even some seemingly contradictory and self-defeating, in the interests of building a good common to all, is better than doing nothing. To add to that, his plea to operationalise our idealism is a canny reminder that words without practical action to support them reinforce division, jaundice and hopelessness. Meanwhile the clock ticks!
Michael Furtado | 10 July 2019

One can also observe over generations how old fossil fuel and related have cleverly used PR techniques to influence govt. policy on energy, environment etc. directly, while simultaneously influencing voters and society through mainstream media and various deflections. These deflections have included astro turfing using a facade of being 'liberal and environmental' and a thin academic veneer to deny climate action due to fossil fuels but blame 'immigrants' and 'population growth'. Now appears ZPG Zero Population Growth in the US, supported by Rockefeller (Standard Oil/Exxon, Planned Parenthood, Population Council etc.) and Ford Foundations, was informed by Club of Rome pseudo science and eugenics, has also influenced 'sustainable population' types in Oz. Alarming was to hear both Abbott and Morrison use language of the same, direct from the eugenics movement e.g. 'carrying capacity' (other constructs are 'limits to growth', 'tipping point', 'sustainability' etc.) to question levels of 'immigration' and infrastructure. Meanwhile Australians can blame 'immigrants' for perceived traffic congestion, environmental degradation etc. maintaining status quo of no or limited climate action.
Andrew J Smith | 13 July 2019

So Tony Abbott said ’Where climate change is a moral issue we Liberals do it tough. Where climate change is an economic issue ... we do very, very well.' That suggests to me the following broad political strategy: (1) Amp up the moral aspects of human induced climate change. (2) Confront the climate science denial by never letting them forget that in terms of Megawatts per Dollar, energy generation expansion by installing solar farms is now cheaper than new coal fired power. Indeed it has been for several years now. And remember that all of this political angst, and campaign of lies and disinformation, is driven by fossil fuel Self Interest.
John McKeon | 13 July 2019


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