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Values: The Critical Element in Securing a Safe Climate. Speech delivered to National Conference of Catholic School Principals, Hobart, April 2010.

CaSPA

Good Morning. Thank you for the opportunity to address you today on the most critical issue facing us all and that is climate change and how we respond to it. I have been an environmentalist for most of my life having been part of national campaigns to save the Franklin River, the Tasmanian forests, the farmlands of Wesley Vale, Jabiluka, the Great Barrier Reef and global campaigns for species survival and world heritage listing around the world. But I realised some years ago that all those conservation gains will count for little unless we act on climate change: The whole planet is at stake.
I am here because you are critical to that action. As Catholic School principals you are central to helping our young people not only understand the science of climate change but more importantly to develop an ethical framework in which to decide what is right and wrong in solving the problem from the individual to the societal level. At its core this is an equity and justice issue, a matter of personal responsibility for now and for future generations and every decision that is made in relation to it, is values laden.
First I want to acknowledge the indigenous people on whose land we are meeting, the Mouheneener people and to recognise that the people most affected globally by climate change, by ill considered climate change responses and unsustainable development to date are indigenous people. The poor and marginalised suffer as extreme weather events such as droughts flood and sea level rise ravage their communities, displace them and generate conflict as they try to move.
In Bangladesh as we sit here today there are people who wait for the tides each day to see if they still have shelter. It is estimated that 17% of Bangladesh would be flooded by a one metre sea level rise reducing its rice growing land by 50% and leaving millions with nowhere to go except drift to the cities or try for the Indian border where the Indian government is building a 4000 kilometre barbed wire and concrete fence, three metres high to prevent illegal migration.
When in the next decades, people inevitably die attempting to cross that fence because they had to leave their community and their country because of sea level rise, who should be held to account?
In Nepal, the Sherpas sit in their villages, wondering when the lakes formed by melting glaciers will burst their banks and wipe out the valleys and their villages. Meanwhile some of the tourists who fly in give little thought to the emissions from their travel whilst others offset or decide to make their next trip a volunteer experience. Meanwhile at the University in Newcastle a wind turbine blade made from radiata pine is being designed for village scale use in Nepal. Tourism and technology are values laden in a climate changing world.
One billion people live in the four great river valleys of Asia, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Yellow and the Yangtse. They all depend on the melt from the Himalayan glaciers for fresh water in the dry season. If the glaciers are lost so too is their fresh water. Who will feed them? What reaction will we have to the food riots that ensue?
In Tuvalu, Kiribus and many in the small island states, the leaders are preparing for relocation but to where as they pose the question, who will take my people? One million people live in the coral triangle to our north and what is their fate as the sea rises? Will their boats be classified as illegal entry vessels? Should there be a definition of environmental refugee in the Human Rights Convention? Will we invest in a larger defence force to drive them back or larger detention centres to imprison them? In our Australian population debate when will we hear that it is not just about us?
Is regionalism the answer in terms of education, population, food security and workforce arrangements?
In Indonesia, indigenous people are displaced and orangutans sent closer to extinction as forests are converted to palm oil plantations to meet Europe's ill conceived 10% biofuels directive and China's increasingly affluent middle class's growing demand for cooking oil.
At the same time Australia says that if we don't mine and export coal someone else will; that jobs will be lost in coal and logging communities if we transform our economy to renewables and stop logging the carbon stores in our native forests, that a 5% cut in greenhouse gas emissions is as much as we are prepared to do in spite of the science and the global community agreeing in Bali in 2007 that developed countries needed to cut greenhouse gases at an average of 40% by 2020 to avoid catastrophic climate change.
I would love to be able to stand here to day and say that the hope embedded in the Earth Charter,
"Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life. Let ours be a time of firm resolve to achieve sustainability. Let ours be a time of quickening of the struggle for justice and peace and the joyful celebration of life in all its diversity."
had come to pass.
But I cannot because it is not true. For all the talk of reverence for life, for achievement of sustainability, for justice and peace and the celebration of life in its diversity, for all the millions spent on ecological sustainability programmes and environmental awareness education, the opposite is true; in this United nations year of Biodiversity, we are losing the struggle for ecosystems. We might all talk the talk as world leaders did in Copenhagen where every one of them talked about the importance of tackling climate change but we as a species are walking with our eyes wide open on a path towards an impoverished planet, species extinction, ecosystem collapse, food, water and energy riots and armed conflict and uncertainty about the future.
If we continue as we are with business as usual and marginal change, we will be the first generation to leave to our children and grandchildren not only fewer opportunities for a quality of life better than we experienced, but we will bequeath them the struggle just to survive.
Why? What is the matter with us that we find every excuse not to act? What is it about the facts that we do not understand?
We live on a finite planet. The most famous photograph of the 20th century taken by Apollo astronauts in 1972 was the image of Earth from space, a beautiful blue planet, a complex system of feedback loops and interconnections of oceans, rivers and icecaps and mountains deserts and forests. We saw for the first time that the environment has no boundaries, that this planet has physical limitations, is finite and interconnected in supporting life. We saw that the political lines on maps creating nation states were totally irrelevant to planetary climate, ecosystems and survival. It inspired awe and wonder in us all but not the change that was required.
It confronted us with the idea that six billion of us live on this planet with no where else to go and by 2050 there will be 9.5 billion of us not only competing amongst ourselves for water, land and food but also with our fellow creatures. It made seeking ecological sustainability a common cause of humanity and a moral imperative, born of global interdependence and universal responsibility.
As Gorbachev said at that time,
"For all the contradictions of the present day world, for all the diversity of social and political systems in it, for all the different choices made by the nations in different times, the Earth is nevertheless one whole. We are all passengers aboard one ship, the Earth, and we must not allow it to be wrecked. "
That was 38 years ago and the wrecking has gone on unabated.
So six billion of us living on one finite planet growing to nine billion using up resources at an unsustainable rate are now confronted with new evidence based information that not only can the earth not sustain our insatiable appetite for resources but it cannot absorb our wastes. The atmosphere and oceans cannot absorb the greenhouse gases generated from burning fossil fuels and maintain a safe climate at the same time.
So what ought we to do? A question posed by Socrates. Not what we in Australia can we afford to do, not what do we want to do or is expedient or popular to do but what ought we to do?
The Australian bishops in 1992 in their statement, Common wealth for the Common Good, partly answered the question when they said,
"An authentic concept of development cannot ignore the use of the elements of nature, the renewability of resources and the consequence of haphazard industrialisation- three considerations which alert us to the moral dimension of development.
In a sense sustainability is good stewardship through time and in effect a matter of intergenerational justice. It means the Earth's resources are to be used with future needs always in mind."
I do not propose to discuss the science. All of the nations of the world have accepted that climate change is real and urgent based on a consensus of climate scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It is indisputable that as a result of greenhouse gas emissions the world has warmed significantly over the last century and continues to warm; that the heat content of the oceans is increasing and sea levels are rising; the extent of Arctic sea ice is declining and the extent of glaciers around the world is decreasing including in the Antarctic. It is also clear that that the oceans are becoming more acid with appalling consequences for coral reefs and communities that depend upon them .It is also clear that there are tipping points in ecological systems such that if you go beyond them then there is no going back, in that case, we are in runaway climate change. 450 parts per million for example is the tipping point for ocean acidification. Beyond that creatures that depend on calcified shells cannot form them with catastrophic consequences for the ocean food chain
So the logical consequence should be that we as a global community decide to save ourselves; we start acting as one world, More so than at any other time in human history we have information transfer so that from one end of the Earth to the other, the scientific information is available to decision makers and individuals alike at the same time. We have a United Nations as an institutional structure.
We should immediately reduce our carbon footprint, reuse and recycle resources, stop burning fossil fuels, cut greenhouse gases hard and fast so that we don't destroy the climate while we work out how to share what resources we have left across the planet in a fair and equitable way, thus avoiding resource wars.
Or so you would think.
We have the scientific information on which to act. Every nation agrees with the science. But it is clearly not enough. I came to understand this when I was chairing a meeting of the global Biodiversity forum in the Cook Islands in 2002. After the scientists had presented their evidence of climate impacts on the Pacific and the need to act, the local climate campaigner stood up and said that the people would not act because they believed that the extreme weather events were the beginning of the second coming and as a religious people, they wanted it to proceed and not be stopped. It was then that I realised that you can give people information but if it does not correlate with their values then they will not act on it.
Instead of acting as a global community of global citizens with a common interest, every nation and every interest group within nations is responding through their own values lens, dominated by the notion of national sovereignty and national self interest. The United Nations has proved inadequate for the task of building a holistic view. In the case of developed countries they are making a judgement that climate action is needed in the best interests of their people in the long term but that climate action to reduce emissions will damage their political, electoral or economic prospects in some way in the short term so they spend money on adaptation. Short term adaptation objectives are jeopardising long term mitigation imperatives.
The Kyoto Protocol clearly set out the principle that developed nations would act first consistent with their responsibility for causing the problem and accept legally binding targets and once achieved the developing countries would come on board. That bargain was breached and set in train the failure of Copenhagen. It was a breach of trust and responsibility.
That is why I have said that Values and not Science is the critical element in a safe climate.
The problem we now have is that we are running out of time while blame for lack of action between developed and developing countries dominates the talks. Instead of talking about equitably sharing the remaining carbon budget in a process of contraction and convergence...which brings the population debate into real focus. Imagine if we were allocated a fixed carbon budget and had to live within it regardless of how many people we had subsequently. What would that do to the big Australia to develop the economy concept?
In international fora, everyone asks in various diplomatic speak, who should do the heavy lifting, who should be worse off now so that we can all be better off later? Answer: Not I.
The people who have framed it in this way are the old fossil fuel economy players and many in politics and the media who have put vast amounts of effort and money into spreading doubt, placing media stories to influence public opinion, making political donations and lobbying. The so called sceptics are part of this brigade. They are organised but never say by whom or who pays. Who did the hacking at University of East Anglia? Who organised the echo chamber that saw the story blown out of all proportion around the world? What they do is what Machiavelli recognised in the 15th Century
"And one should bear in mind that there is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dubious of success, nor more dangerous to administer than to introduce a new order to things; for he who introduces it has all those who profit from the old order as his enemies; and he has only lukewarm allies in all those who might profit from the new. This lukewarmness partly stems from fear of their adversaries, who have the law on their side, and partly from the scepticism of men, who do not truly believe in new things unless they have personal experience in them." -- Niccolò Machiavelli
The same debates take place in homes, offices, board rooms and communities as people discuss investing in renewable energy, ending logging or coal fired generation, investing in new coal mines or buying a new car or bike or even whether to take one job over another. There is the constant tension between what is perceived to be good for me now and what is good for the world; good for me is viewed from one side as "self interested individualism or vested interest" and good for the world as "altruistic and egalitarian" and others say that is all very well but a view few can afford
This is where acting on climate and resource depletion becomes hard. It requires courage. Taking up the cause of planetary sustainability is challenging even more so than poverty alleviation. You can give away excess cash as aid and donations but saving ecosystems or the climate affects someone's job or someone's capacity to develop or expand their business. Take the Hunter valley or the Latrobe valley or the Huon Valley for example. Governments need to redirect resources away from ecologically unsustainable industries and practices towards employment restructuring, education and training and towards promoting employment in the new fields relating to renewables, efficiency and technology transfer. Moral imperatives are on a collision course in these circumstances, the right of every person to the dignity of work, the right of ecosystems and species to exist and the right of future generations to experience and benefit from the diversity of nature and a safe climate. Schools and faith communities have a major role in assisting communities to work through the anger and frustration that arises when protecting ecosystems comes into conflict with current industrial practices and employment patterns that are driving climate change. It is cowardice to describe the situation as political and not for discussion. It is a values debate.
Inherent in all this is the value judgement that acting on climate change will make those of us who live in developed countries, especially resource rich countries worse off and in developing countries better off at our expense. Hence the political insistence that we will all be worse off by assisting China which pollutes more and has more money than we have but isn't doing enough
Action on climate change is seen as a metaphor for turning out the lights. As a former Tasmanian Premier once said to me,
"If the Greens had their way we would all be back living in the caves, drinking nettle broth and whittling Huon pine condoms."
Herein is the key to changing everything around. We need to realign personal and planetary aspirations and the values that underpin achieving them. We need to go from lukewarm to red hot. We need to campaign like partisans in an upfront and vigorous values debate about what better off or worse off means and what makes us better or worse off as individuals and as a global community in the 21st century and whether these are inconsistent. This elevates the debate above the pro or anti development, jobs or no jobs, Australia versus the rest debate. Values: the critical element in climate action.
We need to start with planetary well being underpinning human wellbeing. We cannot be better off if we destroy our home and we must be worse off if we put more people to work harder and faster at destroying it.
Pope John Paul 11 in a consistent series of statements on the environment promoted the need for ecological conversion
"It is immediately evident that humanity has disappointed divine expectations...humiliating....the Earth, our home. It is necessary therefore to stimulate and sustain ecological conversion."
And where better to start than in schools?
The Earth Charter provides the basis for discussion in the curriculum and action in the school and community as it has been derived from the most comprehensive global consultation ever attempted and incorporates the values of all the great religions and humanist traditions. Its mission is to promote the transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework that includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy and a culture of peace.
If schools embrace the Earth Charter they will have a comprehensive holistic values framework consistent with Christian principles and Catholic teaching in which to create a safe space for discussion of the question: What ought one to do? Regardless of the specific circumstances.
If schools are to begin this process then the first thing we need to do is redefine "better off" and begin to live "better off" in our schools and communities.
We will have succeeded when people begin demanding to live like we do because they have seen that we are better off and happier. .
Better off means everything from solar panels and energy efficient lighting and heating, to reuse and recycling, to cycle-ways and public transport or walking to school or walking school buses, to school gardens producing food and habitat together with healthy eating policies, to career discussions based on achieving to one's full potential and promoting the opportunities that innovation and moving to a low carbon world bring in both the NGO and for profit sectors, to the concept of responsibility as a global citizen, for ecological integrity, social justice and happiness based on leading a worthwhile life.
Better off means experiencing more joy from giving than receiving, i.e.; sister schools in developing countries, goats or latrines for Christmas, "better off" means having the courage to stand up for ecological integrity at home and abroad in the face of often divisive debates; better off means not crossing to the other side of the street but helping out at a soup kitchen.
Communities are already embracing these changes and are happier for it. Transition towns are developing everywhere and they are leading to people knowing their neighbours, campaigning together for better transport and services, sharing rides and swapping food they have grown themselves. The op shop ball held in Hobart last winter was great fun, raised money and was totally inclusive as people from all walks of life joined in.
Action on climate change is rebuilding community in a way that has been lost, growing your own food is now the new black and the yearning for it is so great that real estate prices have risen in those areas where you can walk to work and be part of a community developing a sustainable lifestyle.
Acting on climate change is already making people better off, opening new doors to being more. In Copenhagen the Australian youth climate coalition was inspiring. Not only did they do great things for the planet but they did great things for themselves meeting new people gaining more confidence and skills. There is no doubt that in helping others or in pursuing a cause greater then yourself you will create a life you never imagined. Kids need to have experience of that.
As long as we allow climate action to be framed as a nightmare of hair shirt actions that is dutiful and "do gooder" for someone else's benefit and which makes us all miserable and worse off, we will not generate the momentum for change that will drive political will and change fast enough. Nor will we be happy.
We need to show that what is described or accepted as being well off or better off is not.
And that it will not and is not making us happy and is a never ending, meaningless treadmill.
We need to show that by defining ourselves by what we have and what we look like instead of who we are or what we contribute, we are making ourselves miserable and in constant competition with everyone to have more in order to be more. We are constantly worried that if we lose it all then we will have no value. It is a major reason why we have such high rates of depression and mental illness and substance abuse in our community.
We must ask our children what they are worried about and listen to the answers because from my experience there is a growing background level of anxiety about climate change and whether or not they will ever have children of their own or what the world they will be bringing them up in will be like. Ask them how they feel about 150-200 species becoming extinct every day such that if the current rate of destruction is maintained, 50% of plant and animal species will be gone by the end of the 21st century? Is that "better off"
Ask them whether they think that self esteem generated from Botox, clothes, makeup and stuff is a recipe for happiness?
The reality is that we have to work long hours to consume more stuff to destroy nature faster; we have to turn our homes into fortresses to protect that stuff; we are lonely and isolated and do not know our neighbours; our relationships are failing as we do not spend enough time with our families and have to sit in traffic for hours; we are unfit and unhealthy as we no longer exercise or know where our food comes from or where it is grown. We are suffering from fatigue, depression. We are missing the solace of nature and feel guilty about our children's future. We worry that wars will be inevitable as we fight over the resources to produce more stuff and fight off those who might try to come and take what we have.
Is that a definition of well off?
In conclusion, the Earth Charter points out that the well being of humanity depends upon preserving a healthy biosphere with all its systems, a rich variety of plants and animals, fertile soils, pure waters, and clean air. The global environment with its finite resources is a common concern of all people's. The protection of the earth's vitality, diversity and beauty is a sacred trust.
To uphold that sacred trust we have to inculcate values that make acting on climate change so "feel good" at a personal and planetary level that woe betide a politician or a principal who comes between a constituent or a pupil's desire to quicken the pace of the struggle for justice and the joyful celebration of life and their ability to do so
Thank You.

 

 

 

 

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