'We all contribute to climate change and we can all do something to help solve it'

Mick Le Moignan

By Mick Le Moignan

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

The originator of this brilliant riposte was John Maynard Keynes, the nimble-minded economist who guided the British economy through the challenges of the 1920s and 30s. It is not a precise quotation, because Keynes and his many admirers, including Winston Churchill, used the same idea in several different formats, but the heart of the idea remains a plea for an open mind and intellectual flexibility.

Keynes first coined the concept in his 1924 essay on Investment Policy for Insurance Companies. Recommending constant vigilance, he advised them to be ready to revise their preconceived ideas in the light of any changes in external situations. Interestingly, 100 years later, it is the insurance companies who are taking the lead in demanding more radical responses to human-caused climate change: they are starting to pay huge financial penalties for our failure to act sooner to deal with this probable global catastrophe.

I was interested to read about a dispute in Jersey, earlier this year, where it was argued that “both sides of the debate on climate change” should be presented. As Jersey’s past Environment Minister, Deputy Jonathan Renouf, pointed out in a recent letter to the Editor, “the science of anthropogenic global warming has been settled for decades”.

Climate-change denial is not “one side of the debate”: it is simply nonsense, like arguing that the earth is flat. And it is dangerous nonsense, because it seeks to distract us from this most lethal threat to our way of life and the survival of our own and many other species.

Thirty-six years ago, the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization were so concerned about the unprecedentedly rapid changes in climate that they united to launch the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Since 1988, IPCC has conducted assiduous research and gathered evidence in every corner of the globe; it has published six increasingly alarming Assessment Reports (1990, 1995, 2001, 2007, 2013-4, 2023) and a range of Methodology Reports, Special Reports and Technical Papers in response to requests for information on specific matters.

No issue has ever been subjected to such close and meticulous scrutiny, by hundreds of thousands of scientists from every nation. All this work led first to the 1990 UN international agreement “to reduce global warming and cope with the consequences of climate change”, then the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the post-Kyoto Agreement and the Paris Agreement of 2015, a legally binding, international treaty signed by 196 nations, “to limit global warming to well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels” and to “pursue efforts” to limit that increase to below 1.5ºC.

A UN panel of experts has calculated that developing nations, with rapidly escalating energy demand, will need to invest $US2.4 trillion each year for the world to meet its 1.5ºC warming target. It’s an eye-watering sum, but the alternative is too appalling to contemplate: as vast swathes of land become uninhabitable, wars over diminishing resources will wipe out nations and decimate humanity, making today’s conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza seem like playground skirmishes.

Wealthy and well-educated communities such as Jersey and Australia must lead the way, rather than turning a blind eye and leaving others to deal with the problem. If you see a house on fire, you don’t look the other way. Well, our planet is about to burn: nothing matters more than doing whatever we can to avert the catastrophe.

The old line “we’ll do something about it when China does” no longer holds water. China’s investment in wind, solar and other alternative power is colossal, not only because they understand the dangers of global heating, but because they rightly see sustainable energy as the economic engine of the future.

The fossil fuel companies continue to drag their heels and fund political parties prepared to promote them, but their stranglehold is loosening. For decades, they have avoided paying for the damage they have done to our environment, but their greed has now been exposed. Research by the Australia Institute shows that five prominent members of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (including US companies Chevron and Exxon/Mobil) paid no income tax at all on revenue of A$138 billion in the seven years to 2020. A sixth company, Santos, paid just A$6 million on A28.9 billion of income.

The current Australian Opposition has stopped talking about “a gas-led recovery” and seized upon the entirely impracticable idea of “small-scale nuclear power stations” replacing coal-fed electricity generators. Experts have pointed out that the technology they recommend will not be available for many years.

There are some hopeful signs of growing awareness. Last week, 2,400 Swiss women (average age 73) successfully sued their government in the European Court of Human Rights for a climate policy that has failed to protect their right to life and health. Australia’s Climate Change Authority has advised the Labor government that national greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by up to 75% by 2035, “if additional action is taken by governments, business, investors and households”.

Nobody is excused from this duty: every man, woman and child on the planet contributes to the problem and we can all do something to help solve it. Schoolchildren often understand better than adults. The younger we are, the more likely we are to suffer the ravages of an increasingly hostile environment. Inaction is unforgivable – but so is playing down the threat, pretending it’s not real or leaving it to someone else to deal with it. We know the facts: it’s time to face them.

I’m sorry if my dire warnings have clouded your day. I’ll close with a delightful exchange between Churchill and Keynes. From a meeting with US President F D Roosevelt in Canada, Churchill sent Keynes a telegram: “Am coming around to your point of view.” Keynes replied: “Sorry to hear it. Am starting to change my mind.”

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