I have not had the opportunity as yet to completely digest the draft Garnaut Report [PDF from SMH], although I have had time to be annoyed that the government feels comfortable basing decisions on predictions of the distant future when it seemingly does not have the ability to predict the demand for downloading a report from its website now. As I type the Garnaut Review website is completely out of commission and seemingly accepting no traffic. One wonders if the entire domain is being relocated to a different network or provider. Whatever is going on, it is a hardly acceptable level of service. People should not be prevented from viewing information disseminated by the government because it did not adequately predict demand for that information.
But on to more material matters. What I have read of the report so far certainly provides food for thought, and by the looks of things, there are quite insightful nuggets of wisdom embedded throughout. What I appreciate about Garnaut’s analysis is his intellectual pragmatism. I have little doubt that his blue-blooded contrarian streak questions whether the devastating potential consequences of climate change will come to fruition. I have little doubt that the imposition of government controls that could serve to damage the economy in the short-term run counter to his natural intuition. Despite all of this, like most of the rest of us who do not immerse themselves in the climate change science literature full-time, Garnaut knows that he has little recourse given the available evidence but to presume that the scientific mainstream is right, or in the very least, not far from. He therefore respects the need for potential short-term pain in order to reduce the likelihood of severe long-term pain. This is an entirely rational approach under the circumstances.This characterisation of the political problem facing the nations of the world from the draft report sums things up fairly well (pp. 12-13):
Effective international action is necessary if the risks of dangerous climate change are to be held to acceptable levels, but deeply problematic. International cooperation is essential for a solution to a global problem. However, such a solution requires the resolution of a genuine prisoners’ dilemma. Each country benefits from a national point of view if it does less of the mitigation itself, and others do more. If all countries act on this basis, without forethought and cooperation, there will be no resolution of the dilemma. We will all judge the outcome, in the fullness of time, to be insufficient and unsatisfactory.
Resolution of the international prisoner’s dilemma takes time—possibly more time than we have. The world has squandered the time that it did have in the 1990s to experiment with various approaches to mitigation.
Climate change is a diabolical policy problem. It is harder than any other issue of high importance that has come before our polity in living memory.
The prisoners’ dilemma, of course, is a well known logical problem that has important applications in mathematics, economics, computing and psychology. In raw economic terms, Australia would be best served in the short-term if all other nations on the planet cut emissions multilaterally, and we were allowed to continue emitting as much carbon as we pleased. Of course, this is not a tack that every nation can afford to take with respect to climate change. If all other nations decide to cut emissions only when the largest polluters except them cut emissions, the world will remain in a state of emission cut deadlock perpetually. This is a scenario that calls out for leaders; for a few select nations to put their hands up and show the rest of the world how it is done.
Brendan Nelson’s populist response to the draft report indicates that he either does not understand this point, does not really accept mainstream scientific opinion, or otherwise (most probably) has decided that there is more to gain politically from opposing any climate change policy that might involve short-term economic pain:
“It will be an act of environmental suicide, an act of economic suicide, if Australia were to be so far in front of the world implementing an ill-considered, not yet properly developed and tested emissions trading scheme if we haven’t got a genuinely global response,” he [Nelson] told journalists.
It would seem that the leader of the Opposition, cast as prisoner in the apocryphal dilemma, would rat on his fellow prisoner in an instant in a ruthless and foolish attempt to try and stay ahead of the pack. Given what we know about the mainstream climate science, Nelson seems to be risking a lot more than five years imprisonment by refusing to give an inch until some of the other nations of the world give a mile. This approach is a continuation of the willingly ignorant purposelessness that characterised the Howard Government’s approach to environmental issues, and I think that most people who give a fig about what is going to happen on this planet over the next few decades will see that.