Obligations to the world’s children in the climate emergency

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(Image courtesy Imogen Bunting)

This government is not fit to govern on the climate change emergency because of its incapacity to grasp the imminent danger to Australia, our neighbours and indeed the world.

FOR 30 or more years’ science has modelled the consequences of steadily rising greenhouse emissions and their expected trajectories of warming have been correct — as a result, current predictions have a high degree of confidence.

The latest review of these predictions from David Spratt and Ian Dunlop summarises the latest 4°C statements from esteemed scientific institutions, commencing with the Royal Society in 2011 and followed in 2013 by a comprehensive report from the Potsdam Institute and World Bank predicting 4ºC before the end of this century.

This was confirmed by a study from Chinese scientists in the Journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences,  which estimated there is a 74 per cent chance of exceeding a rise of 4°C by the turn of the century. 

Admiral Chris Barrie, in his foreword to the Spratt and Dunlop review, states:

'My colleague Professor Will Steffen has said of the climate challenge: “It’s not a technological or a scientific problem, it’s a question of humanities’ socio-political values...we need a social tipping point that flips our thinking before we reach a tipping point in the climate system” The question is “what thinking needs flipping”.'

The determination and statements of the thousands of young people marching for action on climate change have given us an answer, for in their early teens they are not yet fully inculcated in today’s mindset. Their understanding comes from two gifts: firstly, the different mind processes of their leader Greta Thunberg, which render her far less susceptible to current ideology.

Greta says:

"I see the world a bit different, from another perspective ... I have a special interest. It’s very common that people on the autism spectrum have a special interest."

Secondly, most young minds have not yet completed their absorption into this creed of neo-liberalism, which, as sociologist Löic Wacquant puts it, is an 'articulation of state, market and citizenship that harnesses the first to impose the stamp of the second onto the third.'

As an aside, it is relevant that those ministers pontificating most against the children’s marches and time off school were those in the “Right” captured most by the market imperative — a childhood has to be moulded in their image.

This branding by neoliberal thought begins in early childhood education, when the seeds of competition and self importance subsume those of collectivism. This is followed by educational subjects that ready them to join the striving economic world of commerce and industry, which has captured much of university endeavour — to say you are studying the liberal arts or philosophy is met with a questioning look of “drop-out”. 

The marching children are likely to understand more than we credit. 

As a child of five or six, I recall my fascination with two middle aged men marching the streets of our town carrying placards which proclaimed 'The End is Nigh'. "Mum, what are they doing?”, I asked. Mother, who had religious inclinations replied “Never mind, dear, they are doing their best”. To a child suffering the privations, bombs and poverty of war, I had followed the daily BBC bulletins; the placard said to me: Hitler was nigh!  When at age seven, I heard the BBC bulletin of the landing in France, but continued to see the men with placards, further searching questions had to be answered in detail.

The writings of political philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy are relevant to this discussion. His search for a new political and moral vision for our times is described in his 2009 book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism. He describes a relationship between the fragmentation of international collectivism and cooperation, leading to the loss of a sense of purpose and time — a time that previously offered a sense of future that may be better, however bad the present. Since the beginning of history, there was always a time when no one could suspect that time could end except in metaphysical terms. Not any more, it is impending.

Children are capable of understanding the end game can be in their lifetime. It can certainly be recognised by those who understand the 4°C rise scenario, such as scientists and intelligentsia who are reluctant to have children and in community movements such as BirthStrike. There is also a sense of desperation in renewed discussion over the risks of geo-engineering

The endgame of neoliberal minds is the catastrophe of financial collapse.

It is imbued by Margaret’s Thatcher’s statement:

Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”

This all-consuming ideology has enabled a brain to compartmentalise many other more important issues in an exceedingly complex world.

The brain denies them when they clash with the primacy of neo-liberalism, for they are, Joel Millward-Hopkins says:

'... devoid of notions such as duty, compassion and solidarity with an artificial sense of separation from other people and from the ecology that supports all life, to seek fulfilment in increased wealth and consumption.'

If you were the leader of a country receiving a pay rise of 2 per cent when you earned over $500,000 per annum, could you accept it when seeing homeless on the streets? The psychological studies of Lasana Harris have illustrated this compartmentalisation or shutting off of empathy to homeless people.

Nor is there empathy for the soon to be homeless Pacific Islanders 

Current management of the world economy sees greenhouse emissions increase with economic activity and decrease in recessions. Despite government claims of good economic management, they are not decoupling our economy. Continuing economic growth is impossible in a finite world. These are inconvenient truths in their mantra of jobs and growth, and they are suppressed and denied by the neoliberal brain.

The children of today have grown up in a world of fragmentation of politics and failure of international cooperation. Levy relates the nihilism demonstrated by the Yellow Vests and the destructive Right movements in many countries to loss of hope for a meaningful future; children sense this insecurity without understanding its full implications.

Many in the legal and medical professions have moved to emphasise intergenerational justice. There are legal cases against inactive governments with children as plaintiffs and in the No Time for Games campaign Doctors for the Environment Australia works to provide a safe and healthy planet for children. Instead of a ministerial statement advising striking children to learn to drill for oil and gas, the Government should establish a national dialogue with children age 13 and over and enhance their knowledge of climate change issues and send a signal to the community that they wish to move forward.

In the words of Andrew Glickson:

“Only the children seem to know.”


Michael Bloomberg wrote:

'I believe that we are living in a similar moment (the moon landing). But this time, our most important and pressing mission is not to explore deep space. It’s to save our planet, the one we’re living on, from climate change. And unlike 1962, the primary challenge is not scientific or technological. It’s political.'

In Australia, we cannot wait another three years to fulfill a grossly inadequate target in a dubious "canter" if we are to meet our obligations as a rich, secure country able to do much more for itself and world humanity.

Churchill may have been wrong when he said:

“Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms.”

Some practical democratic reforms for the next three years will be described in future articles, which could be driven by the concerned united voices of business, scientific and technological expertise and the professions.

Dr David Shearman AM FRACP is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University and the author or co-author of many articles and several books on reforming several aspects of democracy, including 'The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy’. This article was originally published in Pearls and Irritations and has been republished with permission.

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