14 November 2010

Climate change: Ross Garnaut’s Cunningham Lecture

On the evening of 9 November 2010 Professor Ross Garnaut delivered the 2010 Cunningham Lecture to the Academy of Social Sciences. In it, he laid out an update case for action on climate change.

Most of the paper is a technical economic discussion about discount rates and their interaction with uncertainty and with the relationship between Australian and global mitigation. As such it is not an easy read, but it well repays close study.

Garnaut concludes his lecture by asking in very persuasive terms, “What if the mainstream science is right?”

I will conclude the lecture by answering briefly a simple question: what if the mainstream science is right? What if the science supported by the overwhelming majority of scientists who are qualified in the various disciplines related to climate, is broadly right? What if all of the Academies of Science in all of the countries of scientific achievement, are not deluded, or enticed into error by the availability to their members of certain types of research grants?

If they are broadly right, we would probably see a threat to our prosperity rather larger than any of the issues that do the rounds of public discourse on long-run economic development. The threats would manifest themselves in large problems in a few decades, and as the dominant problem well before the end of this century. The challenges beyond this century are difficult to reconcile with continuity in modern human civilisation.

If the mainstream science is broadly right, later in this century we will probably not be squabbling about whether a 37 per cent reduction in allocations to Murray-Darling irrigators is too much; but rather working hard to improve the chance of there being any water at all to allocate.

If the mainstream science is broadly right, defence and immigration would probably have radically different contexts. Probably, because there is uncertainty. It may be worse than this, or better. There is no reason to think the chances of better are higher than the chances of worse.

We should think about it, because there’s a chance that the mainstream science is right. When we think about it, those of us who are not climate scientists would need reasons beyond the current state of knowledge to think anything except that they are probably right. Certainly more likely to be right than people who have not spent the months and years and decades learning the subtleties of this complex area of knowledge. I hope that we here at least — members of this other learned academy that takes seriously the development and testing and accumulation of knowledge — can agree that there is enough of a chance that the mainstream physical and biological science is broadly right, to invest in understanding the implications for human society. After all, ours is the Academy that Australians look to for knowledge on how the immense pressures that we are in the process of placing on our societies may change human life on earth.

If we thought about the respective credentials of those who line up with the mainstream science, and those who are prepared to take their chances with information from other places, we would think that this issue was at least one of the fateful public policy matters of our time.

Nevertheless, as Professor Garnaut observes earlier in the lecture, notwithstanding the strong basis of community understanding and support, when push came to shove, the private interests seeking to block, blunt or slow down action prevailed over well developed community views. As he observes in the concluding phase of his remarks:

If there is to be success in the second attempt to introduce efficient, economywide approaches to substantial reduction in emissions, there will need to be a stronger and clearer message from the independent centre of the polity. 

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