Observations on an unedifying spectacle

Vic Wright

The intensity of community debate about climate change that emerged a few years ago encouraged many to hope, if not expect, that meaningful policy debate and decision would follow in Australia. It hasn’t. In Garnaut’s (2009) view the “whole process of policy making over the ETS [Emissions Trading Scheme] has been one of the worst examples of policy making we have seen on major issues in Australia.” There are many plausible origins to this mess. One of them, ironically, may be the level of public interest in, and contest over, the issue and the irresistible temptation this provides for ignoble political exploitation.

A less obvious contribution to the policy non-solution to which Australia seems to be headed is the framing of the problem to be solved. There are several dimensions to this and they can be argued to worsen the principal consequence of poor framing: partial analysis.

The problem at hand has generally been characterised as “dealing with climate change”. This most likely results from the emphasis, from the beginning of popular concern, on “the science”. A consequence of the characterisation is that many people assume that there is a standing question as to whether there is a problem and that this will persist, and be a reason to hesitate to respond, until the science is settled. The shrill, irrelevant debates as to whether the planet is definitely warming and whether the warming definitely has any human origins has encouraged this perception. These are irrelevant because there is zero probability of timely disproof and mere confirmation would not resolve the debates.

Their shrillness is testimony to the extent to which many people, independent of either intelligence or position on the matter, have a low tolerance of ambiguity. Apocalyptic visions, and threats of “tipping points”, reinforce the religious fervour of those who most struggle psychologically to accommodate doubt. More importantly, attention is diverted from the real issue. The more serious a potential threat, the more casually we seem to abandon relevant analytical technique.

Climate change, much less CO2 levels, is not a problem. It is a salient change in multiple environments bound up with society’s welfare. It is a change of widespread relevance. No change in a relevant environment is intrinsically a problem. “Problems” are shortfalls, current or projected, in performance relative to desired performance; in this case, in economic/social outcomes.

Change plays into problems via its forecastability and the relevant capacity of agents to adapt to it. Problems are a residual: the impact on performance of change net of the offset from adaptation. The policy requirement is not to counter climate change. It is to identify the scale of the problems, as distinct from the change, and deal with them. A priori, the latter may or may not involve mitigating climate change.

All of this, as is usual in life, occurs in a probabilistic context.

For all the concern abroad in the community, one could argue that there has been a degree of policy laziness or, to describe it more generously, misdirected effort. Useful policy requires a good understanding of the economic and social impacts of global warming, and adaptation capacity, to a much greater extent than it requires maximum confidence in “the science”. The real dimensionality and extent of climate change (which is endemic, of course) will only be known historically. Thus far, the effects of climate change on the economy and society have been defined helpfully as “bad, really bad and maybe worse than that”.

The focus on climate change, and on mitigating it, has led to widespread maintenance of a ludicrous, if implicit, point of view: that the structure of the policy decision problem varies with the science.

Some specific consequences of the absence of any coherent structuring, much less widespread communication, of the decision problems facing society are as follows.

First, the likely inevitable residual change to economic and social outcomes to which societies will have to adjust are not in the public mind because the focus on manipulating the change in climate encourages optimism. There is widespread horror at the notion that Australia may “lose” the Great Barrier Reef, bespeaking a touching faith that its loss can be halted and indicating the limited grasp many have of remorseless natural processes on Earth. Thinking here is a long way from notions of opportunity costs; it is absolutist – the Reef must not be lost!

Second, and related to the comprehensive vagueness of the economic/social threats arising from climate change, the range of unattractive policy options in public discourse is small and coarsely defined. There has been a complete failure to carry into public discourse the reality of plausible income increases over future decades and the impact of alternative policies on incomes. Protagonists who are dishonest, ignorant or both have used public ignorance in this arena to contaminate the policy process. The most important contextual base for contemplation of options is missing in action.

Third, public attention is being wasted. Attention is a scarce resource and the (redundant) focus on “the science” is very likely at the expense of contemplation of the possible consequences of warming and plausible responses to them. It even seems possible that the ranting surrounding the science has reduced public interest, and attention. (This may be helpful, in fact, given the failure effectively to harness attention so far.) Arguably, some of the hysteria from some scientists and the trenchant nature of the spat have created both the incentive and permission for the public to engage in denial. The fact that the proposition that warming is real but not anthropogenic is much more scary than the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) proposition seems not to have registered with the public. Partly, I believe, this is because the consequences and possible responses are not centre stage.

It can be argued that the power of formal decision analysis declines with increasing uncertainty; that decision analysis is most useful where it is least valuable. The shambles unfolding before us involving global warming serves to remind that confusion can be maximised if problems are not analysed structurally properly before solutions are considered, or even promulgated. Poor structuring of this policy problem, as a decision problem, is surprising since this is such a basic step in analysis and this just might be a species-threatening change.

Instead, the response to a high probability climate shock, embedded in very long lead times, is to focus on shrinking it. Inevitably, many of the salient dimensions surrounding the consequences of climate change surface in the chaotic, fitful process of addressing the source of the problems. The unfortunate aspect is the shambolic way they enter analysis because the source is just the source.

The hallmarks of poor analysis are everywhere. Always a most telling one is the appeal to values to “move us all towards a solution”. (This does have the merit of flushing out those amongst us who possess sufficient social moronism to make the Tragedy of the Commons plausible: the ‘we’ll move after’ brigade.)

Another is fundamentalism in the valuation of costs and benefits, typically the former near zero and the latter (like preservation of the Reef) near infinity. A third hallmark is a deal-denying variety of perceptions of welfare issues, notably between those nations that are still awaiting intragenerational equity and those focused on intergenerational equity (at a lofty per capita level). How extraordinary that the former should distrust the motives, and reach of concern, of the latter.

It seems clear that we are, at least, not poised to do a wonderful job of solving the wrong problem; we are not poised to do anything much. Perhaps what seems to be our muddling is Nature’s way of making us slow down in our response to the global warming threat. Or perhaps our hubris has caught up with us.


Garnaut, Ross 2009, “Ross Garnaut joins the 7.30 Report”, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 12 October, accessed on 17 October at http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2009/s2712070.htm