Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Greatest Moral Challenge of our Time: One Progressive Response to Climate Change.

Can we please stop talking about the facts?

I know that seems odd: today as many of you will know was the National Day of Action on Climate Change. Lovely turn out, nice speeches, representation by a lot of progressives and activists, including my local ALP member, Senator and many party colleagues.

And of course, facts and evidence are prevalent at these gatherings, as they often are when the ALP and Greens and general activists talk about climate change.

But when we talk about facts, or the evidence, then the facts themselves because the centre of the debate. Who commissioned them; whether scientists have vested interest in seeking grant money; whether definitions are correct and comparable; what anyone means by 'global', 'climate' and 'warming'. The debate becomes heavy and ripe with a lot of confusion, and arguing with someone for twenty minutes on The Drum about how they don't understand the evidence doesn't exactly demonstrate the sort of clarity the debate needs. Focussing on the evidence brings the evidence into question; makes it contestable.

Fundamentally, climate activism has relied on everyone being rational, which is generally speaking not a great assumption to make about humanity. (See also mainstream economics, homo economicus and how we fucked that up.)

Facts don't convince the people who need to be convinced - if they did, we'd have convinced them. And the actions of conservatives have cleverly called the facts into question, essentially through the use of value propositions to create an emotional connection with the populace.

"The weather is always variable" is a values statement; so is the proposition that "we shouldn't do anything to harm growth" - and that's doubly problematic as we still often define 'growth' as productivity created through extractive processes. So we're caught in not being able to clearly articulate and conceive of what a post-coal world looks like, and thereby people in Gippsland and in the Hunter fall prey to scare campaigns and fears and who can blame them?  They have a job now digging stuff up; sure it'll end, but not now, not now - it will definitely end if the coal fired station shuts down and there's no alternative for them that guarantees them a job.

Climate anti-activism isn't denial of the evidence; it's based on values which regard the evidence as either flawed or irrelevant, or views the potential harm to our current economic structures as too great. (How great a harm is too great?  Well that's a value proposition too.)

In 2007, one man had the political nous to make climate change a clarion call, a moral issue. Building up expectations, Kevin Rudd was felled by those same expectations - it can't be that much of a moral issue if you completely fuck it up - but there was briefly the chance there for a new narrative, not bogged down in 'what the science says' or disputes over facts.

It's that clarity, that sense of moral purpose that progressives must return to if we want to succeed in making the argument. Pollution should be prevented not because of the wealth of evidence about climate change but because in and of itself polluting is a bad thing.

I'm not asking progressives to ignore the science; I'm saying the argument we have fundamentally drags us down into the science, when what we need is not facts at the core of our purpose, but a genuinely moral stance. Keep it simple, stupid.

And until we make that shift, conservatives will be appealing to doubters by muddying the waters; a contested argument cannot convince information-poor and swinging voters. Only clarity can - and conservatives can muddy the facts all they want, but they cannot contest a clear sense of morality.

So please, lay off the facts, tone down the evidence and be absolutist. Say something like this at the rallies:

We come here because we know that this planet is ours for stewardship and for care. We come here because what we have done to our planet is poor, and badly done. We have seen it in oil spills; we have seen it in the ozone layer; we have seen it in the way our chemicals have seeped into the lifeblood of this world, changed the life around us, and not for the better. We cannot trust that we will muddle a way through this time, as we have muddled our way through other problems in older times; we act to curb pollution now because we must and because it is the right thing to do.

We have treated this world too often as one big rubbish tip, and this must stop.

We have not asked what damage we cause, by pouring into the air and sea the refuse of our lives, and this must stop.

We have all too often assumed that what this world is just there for the taking, and the using, and this too must stop.

There are some who say this change is too great or too costly; that it is not needed, that the world is not changing too quickly or too badly. I say - we say - that through this work we will have cleaner air, better water, a richer realm to leave for our children and more sustainable energy sources for a brighter world. If the world is not at risk, then we will still have all those things - cleaner air, better water, a more bountiful world with greater diversity, richer soil and cheaper energy and how are these things not good?

It will not be easy; we will have to change our ways, change the way we think about sourcing our energy and disposing of our garbage. But it will not be too hard; already many people have the opportunity to think; to pause, and to consider. We recycle. We use water-hardy plants in our gardens. We use energy efficient appliances, and much renewable energy is already being used in our grids, to power our homes, without cause for complaint.

It is these little things we do together; all the little steps we take that help - Government has a role to ensure that we can take those steps, by investing in renewable energy, by setting standards and goals, by ensuring that those who pollute greatly will pay.

It is this cause that we all support: after all, there's a common saying - "Don't shit where you eat." I think it's time we started making that a reality.

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