Reading Howard's sceptic mind

John Howard’s speech overnight justifying his commitment to emissions trading as a mostly political move should not serve as a moment to disparage the former PM, rather to think like him.

In reading about John Howard’s speech delivered yesterday that downplayed the threat of dangerous global warming, entitled 'One religion is enough', one has to despair about the politics surrounding the issue.

As the title of the speech implies, Howard suggests that those advocating decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are akin to religious zealots. He suggests the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change incorporated “nakedly political agendas” in its advice. And the former prime minister states that his decision to proceed with an emissions trading scheme was driven by political imperatives to respond to a perfect storm of public concern about global warming, rather than any genuine belief of his own that it was the right thing to do.

For those concerned that unmitigated global warming poses unacceptable risks to human welfare, it might be tempting to launch a tirade of abuse against Howard. But it will get you nowhere and will, in fact, be counterproductive.

John Howard is a hero to a large section of Coalition MPs and their supporter base. 

To make meaningful progress on reducing Australia’s emissions we need policy that can support power generation investments lasting multiple decades. That means policy that will last through changes in government, between Labor and Liberal.

So it’s not so much about belittling Howard as getting into his head and those of his supporters to understand what it is that makes him, and them, dismissive of the risks of global warming.

There were a few things I found interesting from his speech in trying to understand where he’s coming from.

Firstly, he sees addressing global warming as being opposed to economic growth, and that it would hinder the alleviation of poverty in the developing world.

Secondly, he said the first book he’d read about global warming was one written by a former Thatcher government minister with no qualifications in climate science that was dismissive of the threat. It's reported by the The Sydney Morning Herald that he said: “I don’t know whether all of the warnings about global warming are true or not ... (yet) I instinctively feel that some of the claims are exaggerated.”

This seems to suggest to me that his views, like those of most people, are not based on a detailed and dispassionate review of the balance of evidence. Most of us, and particularly a former prime minister, are too busy to thoroughly inform ourselves about the nature of a complex issue such as global warming. Instead, we are partly driven in essence to ‘instinctively’ select sources of information which fit with our pre-existing beliefs. A source of information we tend to agree with on other issues is probably viewed as more credible and trustworthy than someone we’ve disagreed with in the past.

Thirdly, he made the following revealing statement:

"I have never rejected, totally, the multiple expressions of concern from many eminent scientists, but the history  of  mankind  has told  me of his infinite capacity to adapt to the changing circumstances of the environment in which he lives. Most in this room with recall the apocalyptic warnings of the Club of Rome, more than 40 years ago. They were experts; they predicted that the world would run out of resources to sustain itself. They were wrong."

And he concludes with a point which I find profoundly important to this debate:

"Always bear in mind that technology will continue to surprise us."

Looking through Howard’s points I am struck by the fact that while I strongly disagree with Howard on the degree of threat posed by global warming, I am completely in accordance with him on:

– the importance of relieving poverty in the developing world; and

– the infinite capacity for human ingenuity to invent technologies that get us not just out of a bind but, overall, leaving us much better off. I – just like Howard – am not particularly worried about peak oil or running out of resources because I think humans can come up with substitutes and means of being much more efficient in our use of resources.

The thing is, I think that John Howard actually underestimates the capacity for technological surprise. He has been drawn to believe that only with the use of lots more coal and lots more gas will the masses be dragged out of poverty.

It seems that Howard and many of his conservative peers have come to see the debate surrounding global warming through the prism of older battles led by left-leaning hippies for us to retreat from technology.

Yet many of the people who are most passionate about addressing global warming, are also some of the most enthusiastic about the wonders of technology. These people will revel in different technological features of our energy options and enthusiastically tell you about which scientific advances are in the pipeline. Yes, some of these options cost more, but these technological enthusiasts will point at mobile phones and computers and explain how they used to be expensive, too. Through the wonders of economies of scale and ongoing innovation, they explain how these products could be even cheaper than the low-tech, high carbon option dominant today.

I suspect that to shift the current political impasse it is not scientists, environmentalists or even economists and bankers we need to hear from. Instead, it is optimistic and innovative engineers that could be the most persuasive.