The greatest moral challenge of our time … is not climate change

By Andrew L. Urban

The uncomfortable truth is that Al Gore got it wrong. His urgent call for action on global warming (now it’s called climate change) was turbo-charged with the political slogan that tackling it was the greatest moral challenge of our time. I got it first hand when I sat down and talked to him about his famous, consciousness raising film, An Inconvenient Truth at the Cannes Film Festival (2006): as  he said during our interview: “it’s not a political issue, but a moral issue”. [1]

Campaigning for Prime Ministership, Australia’s Kevin Rudd in 2007 echoed Gore. But it’s not a moral issue at all. It is a matter of practical politics and economic management – and above all, clear, insightful, innovative thinking.

It is a sad indictment of the poverty of vision and imagination in Australian politics that the climate change debate is conducted on such shallow and risible terms as pro or con a carbon tax. Australia is a world leader in coal exports and one of the highest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita – although we contribute less than 1.5% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing this by even 50% with the objective of making a difference is akin to hacking off your little toe with a blunt razor in order to lose weight.

Australia has a natural position as the leader on climate change policies but we have managed to ignore this opportunity and continue to think as small as possible.

It should be within Australia’s grasp – on every level – to inspire and provide leadership to the world with a visionary approach that embraces wide ranging international action with a well thought-out strategy. For example, Australia could establish a dedicated international research organisation that seeks to explore every possible abatement scheme and research every possible renewable fuel option. Australia would be the ‘lead scientist’ using the many brilliant brains at our disposal.

Australia’s contribution to its funding could come from an economically responsible carbon tax (say $5 – $8 per tonne) implemented with care so that it not damage the economy nor impact on cost of living, but raise earmarked funds for research. The world community would be invited to participate and each participating country would share proportionally in the financial benefits of any breakthrough discovery.

Such a policy would be relatively easy to explain and is likely to be supported by citizens, even those who are not convinced that man is contributing to global warming (but are prepared to give the planet the benefit of the doubt, as Rupert Murdoch put it); it has a positive framework and a clear set of objectives.

Ideas from relevant thinkers from around the world, including the likes of Bjron Lomborg, should be incorporated into the overall strategic planning, to broaden the ambit of the organisation. Lomborg’s view, inter alia, is that it is harder and vastly more expensive to try and change climate than it is to apply measures that alleviate its effects as it changes.

Gore did the world a disservice framing the issue in moral terms and the downside consequences have been flowing ever since. Some of those consequences have badly damaged democratic debate, with ‘believers’ and ‘deniers’ taking up opposing positions, like Christians and heretics in the Middle Ages, when heresy, departure from the authorised view, was doctrinal error to be punished.

That is not the basis for informed, enlightened and genuine debate, as has been proven by countless examples of exaggeration, scientific scuffling and attempts to create a climate of fear in order to frighten politicians into action. The primary reason for the topic having descended into such simplistic form is the enormous complexity of the science, combined with the alarming scenario Gore painted, a combination that quickly fuelled the fires of panic – and the bad decisions across a broad range of stakeholders (from scientists and bureaucrats to politicians and citizens) based on that panic.

By suggesting that we face a moral challenge, Gore did democracy a disservice when he kick started the debate on the wrong footing, encouraging moral outrage, which in turn generated grandstanding and finally irrational reactions with elements of ‘group hate’.

The greatest moral challenge of our time for democracies is surely the abatement of abuses of human rights around the world. Millions of people are denied their human rights, oppressed, mistreated, tortured, raped, killed on a daily basis right now. If long term solutions to easing greenhouse gas emissions is urgent, how much more urgent is the defence of human rights around the world. If abating emissions is a moral imperative of the highest, most urgent order, where does that leave the fight for respect for human rights. Clearly, calling global warming the greatest moral challenge of our times is hyperbole of the first order, and the notion has overshadowed the human rights agenda, a primary ambition of democracies – just when the Arab Spring gave rise to hopes that sweeping improvements were possible.


This article was posted on June 27, 2011. On July 11, 2011, Bjorn Lomborg’s article “A carbon tax can’t save the planet” appeared in The Australian. Some extracts:

The main climate economic models show that to achieve the much discussed goal of keeping temperature increases under 2C, we would need a global tax on carbon emissions that would start at nearly $100 per tonne and increase to more than $3700 per tonne by the end of the century.

This would cost the world $40 trillion a year by 2100, according to calculations by noted climate economist Richard Tol. But all in all, this spending would be 50 times more expensive than the climate damage it seeks to prevent, according to mainstream calculations of expected damage.

In other words, a carbon tax that is set high enough to meaningfully rein in temperatures would cause widespread economic damage. This is because non-carbon-based alternative energy sources are not ready to take over from fossil fuels.

What is required instead is a transformation in our energy infrastructure to make low-carbon energy sources cheaper than fossil fuels.

Australia could lead the world on climate change by pursuing a policy based on the creation of a research and development fund. This would unleash entrepreneurship and creativity.

Lomborg’s article in full:


Eminent physicist Freeman Dyson quoted in The Civil Herectic, by Nicholas Dawidoff, The New York Times, March 25, 2009

My objections to the global warming propaganda are not so much over the technical facts, about which I do not know much, but it’s rather against the way those people behave and the kind of intolerance to criticism that a lot of them have. I think that’s what upsets me.

… the five reservoirs of carbon all are in close contact — the atmosphere, the upper level of the ocean, the land vegetation, the topsoil, and the fossil fuels. They are all about equal in size. They all interact with each other strongly. So you can’t understand any of them unless you understand all of them. Essentially that was the conclusion. It’s a problem of very complicated ecology, and to isolate the atmosphere and the ocean just as a hydrodynamics problem makes no sense.

You sit in front of a computer screen for 10 years and you start to think of your model as being real. It is also true that the whole livelihood of all these people depends on people being scared. Really, just psychologically, it would be very difficult for them to come out and say, “Don’t worry, there isn’t a problem.” It’s sort of natural, since their whole life depends on it being a problem. I don’t say that they’re dishonest. But I think it’s just a normal human reaction.

Dyson has been particularly dismissive of Al Gore, whom Dyson calls climate change’s “chief propagandist,” and James Hansen, the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and an adviser to Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Dyson accuses them of relying too heavily on computer-generated climate models that foresee a Grand Guignol of imminent world devastation as icecaps melt, oceans rise and storms and plagues sweep the earth, and he blames the pair’s “lousy science” for “distracting public attention” from “more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet.”

Climate-change specialists often speak of global warming as a matter of moral conscience. Dyson says he thinks they sound presumptuous.


[1] An Inconvenient Truth – Al Gore interviewed by Andrew L. Urban, published September 14, 2006

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