The huge crowds that attended each of the public forums held by Professor Ross Garnaut after the recent release of his draft report were quite astonishing, but also very reassuring. I went along to the Brisbane meeting last Friday. It was held in the main auditorium in City Hall. It seats over 1000 people and was pretty much full.
Given how hard it is to get large numbers of people along to public meetings on just about any topic, it was amazing to see people streaming in in such numbers just to hear an economist talk about how emissions trading might work. Professor Garnaut showed that he certainly knows his topic well, but I’d have to say when he comes to public oration, he’s not exactly Barack Obama. He fact that most people stayed for the majority of the 90 or so minutes shows the level of interest and the desire of people to engage with the issue.
His opening comments went for about 45 minutes, which I think was too long given the generality of what he had to say. The far more interesting segment was the question and answer session. (A podcast of this should be available fairly soon). There was nothing earth shatteringly new in his responses, but he certainly demonstrated that he knows his stuff and had thought through all the issues.
I asked a question about whether the impact of methane needed to be given more weight as some people suggest, and whether the large impacts of methane and livestock more broadly would be left to get worse due to the initial exemption of agriculture from the emissions trading scheme. He basically responded by saying the debate about how methane should be assessed was continuing, and agriculture would be in the emissions trading mix soon enough.
Probably the most important response he gave – which I think is the point that needs most emphasis – was in response to a question from a local economist, asking whether we basically needed governments to declare a national and global emergency to get the sort of levels of rapid response needed. The Professor’s understated but none the less fairly blunt reply was that it was a matter of politics, and governments could only move so fast without risking losing support of the public.
This is a truism, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to blame politicians or governments. It should be repeatedly pointed to by way of reminding all of us that we need to demand more action and build public support for such moves.
It is a shame the current level of community concern and interest too so long to develop, but it is still a very important component in making sure that adequate action is taken by governments and people at community level if we are to have any hope of avoiding serious and rapid climate change.
Putting in place an effective mechanism for pricing greenhouse emissions is important, but it won’t all be done by market forces. The key part that is missing from the public and political debate at the moment is the emphasis on changing our behaviours. Many people rightly point to the rapid change in water consumption behaviours in south-east Queensland in the last year or two as a way of showing that we can do something similar in response to the threat of climate change. Whilst the changes in behaviour need to be more widespread than just reducing water consumption, I have no doubt it could be done. But the key point is that water consumption changes occurred almost entirely through a combination of public education campaigns and some targeted financial incentives. It wasn’t done through market forces. Water shortages and consumption are easier to see and understand than greenhouse emissions, and I think using market mechanisms is an important part of the solution. But there is no way that will be enough. We need to be directly encouraged to change our diet, our energy usage and our travel habits – which means changing parts of our culture along with it.
It will be interesting to see if the Rudd government’s climate change discussion paper, due to be released tomorrow, contains much recognition of this fact.