The Australian Elites Have Failed Us On Climate Change

The recent utterances of Maurice Newman, Chair of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council, suggesting that climate change is nothing more than an attempt to establish “a new world order under the UN”, engendered some hilarity. They should not, because his comments highlight a fundamental failure of leadership on the part of Australia’s elites which is potentially disastrous.

The Business Advisory Council comprises some of the great and the good of Australia: Chairs of our leading mining, manufacturing, communications and construction companies and banks, ex-heads of the Prime Minister’s Department, Treasury and the Productivity Commission.

Whilst Maurice Newman’s writing is prefaced with the disclaimer that his views are his own, they clearly carry great weight in setting government policy. Whether it be the removal of carbon pricing, the pretence that Direct Action is serious climate policy, an ideological anti-science agenda reminiscent of the Dark Ages, or the charade of cutting the RET to reduce consumer costs when its own advice demonstrated exactly the opposite, the Federal Government’s actions have made it abundantly clear that it has no intention of taking climate change seriously.

In the real world, human-induced climate change is accelerating. It presents risks that humanity has never previously experienced, as evidence mounts that extremely dangerous “tipping points” in the Arctic, Antarctic, the Oceans and elsewhere are being activated, probably irreversibly.  Current government policies would lead to a temperature increase of 4-60C before 2100, a world where population would drop from 7 billion today toward 1 billion or less.   Even meeting the “official” target of a 20C temperature increase would halt population growth.

Due to lag in the climate system, the dangerous warming impact of fossil-fuel investments made today only becomes fully evident decades hence. Nonetheless, governments, investors and business are irresponsibly accelerating such investment, ignoring the risks. Waiting for catastrophe to happen before acting, which is in effect what Maurice Newman, and even “lukewarmers” such as Dick Warburton, Bjorn Lomborg and Nigel Lawson advocate, means that it is too late to act. It is precisely this scenario that sensible risk management is designed to avoid. Indeed, given the implications of passing “tipping points”, even greater precautions should be taken.

What are we to make then, of the deathly silence from other members of the PM’s Business Advisory Council in response to Newman’s very public stance? For example: Jac Nasser, chair of BHP Billiton which claims global leadership on climate change, Catherine Livingstone, former chair of CSIRO, one of the world’s leading climate change research organisations, now chair of the Business Council of Australia, Michael Chaney, former chair of NAB, another corporate sustainability leader, now chair of Wesfarmers. They will be well aware of climate risk; if not, as corporate directors they should be.

Perhaps there are whispered conversations in the corridors of power suggesting that Maurice might be wrong; if so they are singularly ineffective. The only conclusion is that the Council is comfortable with the charade of current climate policy despite the glaring contradiction with individual member’s corporate views. If not, given the risk we face, and the missed opportunities, they should be saying so, loudly and publicly; for disclaimer notwithstanding, the public perception is that Maurice Newman represents Australian business’s attitude to climate change.

This is reinforced by the fact that not a single Chair or CEO of a major company, bank or investment manager has spoken out against the Federal Government’s blatant climate denialism, and in particular, the government’s undermining of the new low-carbon industries on which Australia’s future depends. No comment on the lack of any strategic vision in the flood of Green and White papers on energy, defence, agriculture, immigration and infrastructure, all of which totally ignore the single biggest issue which should be driving policy – climate change.

Not that our elites shrink from taking a public position; witness the speed and anger of the big iron ore miners when our free market government proposed a Senate inquiry to explain how the free market works. A pity the same energy is not devoted to demanding sensible climate policy.

In 2008, with the Global Financial Crisis rapidly accelerating, Queen Elizabeth, in discussion with experts at the London School of Economics asked: “Why did no one foresee the timing, extent and severity of the GFC ?”. After some time, the British Academy responded that “A psychology of denial gripped the financial and political world, —— The failure of the collective imagination of many bright people to understand the risks to the system as a whole.”

 Just so with climate change, as the same denial grips the elite of Australia, only the risks now are far greater. Quite simply, the future of humanity.

Remuneration is a major factor: “It is hard to get a man to understand a problem if his salary depends upon him not understanding it”. At present, our elites are being paid an obscene amount of money to, in effect, destroy the planet. They now need to lead and publicly take up the climate change challenge. We have solutions, but not if the elites hide in the shadow of Maurice Newman. Our grandchildren deserve better.

Ian Dunlop was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chair of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is a Member of the Club of Rome

An edited version of this article appeared in the Melbourne”Age” on 21st June 2015: