The Australian public keeps changing its mind on climate change. No wonder our leaders don’t know where to step.
Most Australians say they don’t want a carbon tax. So what do they want? After all, over the past year, Australians have transformed themselves from a citizenry worried about global warming, and asking for something to be done, into an outraged mob indignant to discover that their noble desire to protect the future means they must pay a bit more for petrol and power.
How easily the public’s penny-pinching is exploited by a handful of ranting shock jocks. “The carbon tax is a terrible injustice, foisted on the battlers by out-of-touch elites,” they fulminate, before turning off their spittle-flecked microphones to return to their harbour-side penthouses.
What is so dispiriting about the scare campaign is that the deployment of infantile and transparently manipulative phrases such as “a great big new tax” can work so well on the Australian public.
The shock jocks’ more restrained media colleagues have joined the feeding frenzy, querulously grilling any carbon tax proponent to expose chinks in the policy armour. “What about the pensioners?” they demand. “What about job losses? What about self-funded retirees?” On and on they go. “Just doing my job, protecting the ordinary consumers from those too remote to understand their daily cares,” they tell themselves, but in truth happy to stoke public anxieties while massaging their own egos as the voice of the “silent majority”.
Our political leaders don’t know which way to jump. There we were, a year ago, convinced that a prime minister who capitulated to pressure from the fossil-fuel lobby by abandoning his plans for an emissions trading scheme was no longer fit to lead us. The man we had elected on a promise to do something about global warming lost our trust when he crumbled under pressure.
So Labor elected a new leader who, alert to public demands, introduces a carbon tax. But the public has changed its mind.
What do Australians want? The answer is clear. We want symbols of action but not action itself. We want to hear words that make us feel good about ourselves but none that ask us to make any sacrifice. We care about climate change, but we hate the idea of having to do anything about it.
Give us leaders, says the great Australian public, as long as they do not ask us to follow. So the public gets what it wants – hollow leaders who will go through the motions, massaging their sense of entitlement to make them feel secure.
In the face of an overwhelming threat to all we treasure, to our very future, we repudiate action and instead retreat into wishful thinking. Yet hope without action is just a vapour. We have outsourced our fate to a phantom – maybe a bit of technological magic will save us, or a god will take pity on us. Or something, we don’t know what, will just happen.
We are a people condemned by hope. We wait, buoyed by baseless optimism, cocooned in our complacency, trying all the while to suppress a niggling fear that the scientists will turn out to have been right all along. Tragically, only disasters can break the spell of these delusions. Those disasters will come, but they will come too late. So we may safely write the epitaph of this sad and flabby nation: “Built by resolve and stoicism; destroyed by self-indulgence and timidity.”
All the while, in the midst of the tax panic and civic indignation, the planet burns. The climate scientists patiently go about their work, adding one new piece of evidence after another to the mountain of facts that foretell our fate, if only we were brave enough to look.
But perhaps this is all too harsh, and we cannot expect the public to embrace the science and plan for the future. After all, our national institutions have become infested with climate deniers who seek to erode public faith in four centuries of scientific progress – people such as the chairman of the ABC, the leader of the Catholic Church, the editor-in-chief of the national broadsheet, and the alternative prime minister – climate deniers all.
No wonder others are rattled. Even the chief of the CSIRO has welcomed the “debate” over climate science, which prompts the question: which other sectional campaign that repudiates a well-established body of science, trashes the reputations of eminent scientists, mobilises primitive fears, and promotes outlandish conspiracy theories would be welcomed by the leader of our foremost science body?
Poor old Joe Public; no wonder he is confused.
But there is one group that has no sympathy, a group that has too much at stake to believe the shock jocks, the conspiracy theorists and the anti-science big shots. Young people. They get it. They are scared and can see through the selfishness, the money-grubbing and the ego-tripping. They know they are going to have to live with the consequences of the want-it-all vacillation of the great Australian public. It’s down to them: do something.
Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University and author of Requiem for a Species.