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Climate change foes need to adapt


'Climate Foes' by Chris Johnston features a miner facing fires with a shovel and an environmentalist facing rising sea levels with a hose as these natural disasters encroach on Australian shoresIn the middle of the last parliamentary brawl over pricing carbon emissions in Australia, a Liberal-voting friend pointed out to me that we should be paying more attention to adaptation. He was referring to strategies that address vulnerability to climate change, such as poverty reduction, education and building institutional capacity. Adaptation includes infrastructure such as sea-walls, drainage systems and early warning protocols.

At the time, I took it as an irresponsible deflection. It didn't make sense to talk about adapting when we had not even taken steps to circumvent the things to which we would adapt. It felt like a defeatist position to take when a legislative window had opened to mitigate climate change.

But with Prime Minister Tony Abbott prioritising the repeal of the carbon price legislation, it is starting to feel like we are dancing over the watery graves of our Pacific neighbours.

The debate over climate change, like most international debates, is a thoroughly Western, developed world privilege. We need only consider the prospects facing the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Kiribati to realise this. People living on such island-states do not have the luxury of wondering whether climate change is 'natural' or induced by human activity. They do not get to have protracted internal brawls over which mechanism would effectively restrain the speed and impact of climate change.

'The Pacific is fighting for its survival,' said Marshall Islands president Christopher Loeak in the lead-up to the annual Pacific islands summit last September. 'Climate change has already arrived.' He and other island-state leaders have been saying so for years — while we have tinkered with questions around scientific consensus, and pointed at China and the United States to justify our inertia.

Part of this inertia of course relates to the problem of persuasion. We have not been able to substantively persuade people about basic aspects of climate change, much less frame it as a problem to care enough about that it constitutes political suicide for our leaders to do nothing.

Moralistic harangues about debts to our grandchildren have not worked, nor have emotive appeals about disappearing polar bears. There is no room for persuasion anyway when arguments are pre-empted by the view that someone who disagrees with you is a bad person or just doesn't 'get' it.

As it turns out, facts are not persuasive, either. As former political adviser Marcus Priest recently pointed out, it is not the solidity or volume of climate science that is the problem, it is political ideology. This is not to say that characterising people based on their ideology helps, either, especially when there is a cross-political spectrum of opinion on climate change policy.

Perhaps the key problem with persuasion is that, in a postmodern world characterised by individualist hyper-scepticism, including (sometimes well-founded) distrust of government, everyone is an expert. This lends any claim some patina of fact. Let's face it, the overabundance of content on the internet — including the glorious rabbit hole that is Wikipedia — helps legitimise any position under the sun.

So where does that leave us? The bases of our arguments over climate change have been trodden so much that a moat has formed around us, leaving us stuck in our little island fortresses. We know thoroughly by now the content of our disagreement. But what are the things that do not require persuasion? Is it possible that we have values and interests that intersect?

Adaptation may be that intersection. It will depend on the extent to which the nature of bushfires in recent years is perceived as 'normal'. It will depend on whether, without resolving climate change links, citizens expect their government to be well-versed in risk assessment, the way the insurance industry already is on climate change. These are only a few possible points of convergence.

Of course it goes without saying that the effectiveness of adaptation hinges on genuine acceptance of climate change impacts. But those on the frontline underline the point that our disagreement over causes and mitigation cannot be at the expense of adaptation.

For the Maldives, which established a sovereign fund to assist the relocation of its people, and Kiribati, which has purchased agricultural land in Fiji to compensate for its saline-contaminated soil, there is no such thing as prolonging the inevitable.


Fatima Measham headshotFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator who contributes regularly to Eureka Street. Her work has also appeared in The Drum, ABC Religion & Ethics, and National Times. She is a recipient of the Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship in 2013. She tweets as @foomeister.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, climate change, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Maldives



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Existing comments

If the low-lying Maldives are so terrified of sea-level rise, why did its government build four new airports in 2012, and why is it planning to build five new airports, and open up tourist resorts on 13 virgin islands? And how come the main islands in Kiribati have grown in size over the past 50 years, as recent studies show (I've often referred to them here.) It's about time some ES columnists ceased from moralistic and pseudo-psychological analyses and faced the facts ... like the Maldive govt is doing, despite its rent-seeking rhetoric.

HH | 01 November 2013  

A thought-provoking article from Fatima. When there is significant disagreement over a particular issue finding common ground, no matter how miniscule, is important. There would be a number of our voluntary firefighters, landcare volunteers and householders who take the environmentally-friendly option in their day-to-day lives, who don't necessarily think a great deal about 'climate change'. I think emphasising that we only have one planet and if we want our quality of life to continue then hard work and commitment are not options, but necessities.

Pam | 02 November 2013  

Fatima presents a well-argued fork in the road from supporting attempts to slow climate change to planning adaptation to minimise the challenges of the warming earth. This is the pragmatic re-direction needed to enable progress, which will otherwise remain stalled by the economic challenges of significantly reducing human dependence on fossil fuels. Such adaptation is theoretically easier because it doesn't have to be achieved by 2020 or any other arbitrarily set end-date. The major challenge for countries like Australia and New Zealand will be to welcome Polynesian and Melanesian communities forced to leave their homelands because of rising sea level and the resultant salination of agricultural and horticultural land.

Ian Fraser | 04 November 2013  

I accept that climate change is real and that human behaviour is contributing to it. But...that does not mean that Australia should make futile gestures that will do no good and yet greatly damage our economy i.e. Green/Labour policies of the last 6 years. Joining the European carbon-trading system, OK; doing what we can diplomatically to change world behaviour as at Copenhagen, enthusiastically YES. But acting alone with locally-acting carbon taxes and extraordinarily expensive "alternative"energy sources that will do nothing for overall climate change, absolutely NOT.

Eugene | 04 November 2013  

Unfortunately there is no life that is everlasting. This planet Earth is a living thing and also highly unlikely to be everlasting. It is time to recognise this and abandon the quest for immortality both for ourselves and the planet. But you are correct, Fatima, in the mean time we need to adapt to and cope with the inevitable aging of Earth. That is where we need to spend money not on some scheme such as trading carbon. If there is any truth in the existence of a creator God, perhaps climate change is part of the grander scheme of things.

john frawley | 04 November 2013  

Thank you Fatima for a very worthwhile article.

Jim Jones | 04 November 2013  

Atols are formed by sinking mountains which once stood high above the sea. Check sea level change by looking at the Netherlands with 70% not much above sea level. Get the facts correctly in this whole debate. PLEASE!

Theo Verbeek | 04 November 2013  

Well, we'll need to plan for adaption, because we're not doing prevention. But while we can work together on adaption - if that's possible - I think it's still worth trying to persuade people that evidence and expert opinion is better than ideology. All the world's major scientific organisations are unanimous on the need for URGENT action to reduce carbon emissions. People who choose to believe otherwise need educating about how to make public policy decisions.

Russell | 04 November 2013  

Thanks for your comments. I should have mentioned that Climate Change Adaptation was and is still part of government policy so far: http://www.climatechange.gov.au/climate-change/adapting-climate-change/climate-change-adaptation-program We may of course ask whether the funding is adequate, well-targeted and secure. My argument is that adaptation needs to be part of the mainstream discourse on climate change (as it is in places like The Netherlands) rather than an afterthought. I take Russell's point that mitigation should still be on the table, but at the same time it is obvious that we need a circuit breaker. We might have better leverage if we framed climate change in terms of current realities rather than the future (over which many people are still in denial).

Fatima Measham | 06 November 2013  

In 2005 the UN predicted that by 2010 there would be 50 million climate refugees fleeing environmental catastrophes such as sea-level rises, desert expansion and flooding. Where are they? Read "The Limits To Growth" by the Club of Rome & Prof Paul Ehrlic's book "the Population Bomb". These doomsday prophesies have ALL failed.

Michael Donoghue | 07 November 2013  

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