Jul 18

EDITORIAL: Climate debate heats up

THE coal dug from the Hunter Valley over the past decade or two, if piled into a column a metre square at the base, would reach to the moon and back with plenty more to spare, as this newspaper has reported more than once.

That’s a lot of matter to be extracted from one small valley, and a lot to be burned and transformed into energy and waste byproducts – both solid and gas.

When one contemplates the scale of this transformation of fossil fuel matter on a global scale since the start of the industrial revolution, one might begin to recognise why many have long argued that the addition of such volumes of man-made waste gas to the atmosphere could affect the climate.

It is, however, an irritating and – some might say – inconvenient subject for us to consider.

Our present economic system is predicated on infinite growth, and this requires not only constant increases in the human population, but also ever-greater production of material goods and tradeable services. That means rising demand for energy which, without big changes in technology, implies pouring increasing volumes of waste gas into the thin film of atmosphere that makes our planet habitable for life as we know it.

For decades most reputable scientists have been warning that this course is unsustainable.

Those scientists have spoken again, in their thousands, through the latest report issued through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon sombrely noted: ‘‘Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in the message. Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.’’

The leaders of some nations are acting, pouring research dollars into renewable energy and enacting carbon taxes and carbon trading schemes to use economic punishments and incentives to force the private sector to change course.

Others, like Australia, are running in the opposite direction, presumably because they fear the consequences for their national economies if markets take energy reform and carbon emission reduction seriously.

It is not surprising that certain industry sectors are fighting with all the money and influence at their disposal to play down the climate threat.

Tobacco companies insisted there was no link between smoking and cancer long after that position became a ludicrous self-parody, and the vast fortunes at stake in the energy sector predict an equally long and dangerous rear-guard action against meaningful energy reform.

The pity is that, with so little time to spare, the naked self-interest of this industry sector should be such an effective brake on sensible behaviour by governments around the world.