Thursday, August 23, 2012

INTERVIEW: Christine Milne: The Economy Must Serve People and Nature, Not Vice-Versa

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 13:  Newly appoint...
Newly appointed Greens leader, Christine Milne (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
by Professor David Bowman, Professor, Environmental Change Biology at University of Tasmania, The Conversation:

Christine Milne, Senator for Tasmania and leader of the Australian Greens, was a crucial part of the Multiparty Climate Change Committee that designed Australia’s Clean Energy Future package.

Since taking over from long-time leader Bob Brown earlier this year, Senator Milne has focused on business and on rural and regional communities - not the Greens' traditional strong points.

David Bowman, Professor of Environmental Change Biology at the University of Tasmania, spoke with Senator Milne about climate change, the triple bottom line, a new economy and whether there is really any point to the Greens.

David Bowman: In two years time, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be about 400 ppm. According to the Greens' policy documents, the world should have an atmosphere with 350ppm. Many scientists think that we now probably have crossed very major thresholds which will have all sorts of unforeseen and possibly unforeseeable consequences. So really the question for a politician is, how do you prosecute your case if your opponents don’t believe in that?

Christine Milne: Well, we continue to do so, but it is extremely frustrating to know what you do know and to take the science seriously and to have people say to you that it’s wildly exaggerated, it’s not true, and so on, when they haven’t even tried to read the science. They’ve made a decision to reject or ignore the science because it suits their world view.

Denialism has much more to do about values and world view than it has to do with actually understanding the science. So we should have been using the social sciences a lot sooner than we have been to work out ways of talking to people’s value systems rather than to their intellectual capacity.

I went through a period where I became deeply despondent about the consequences of what’s going on with global warming, and my rational mind said to me, it’s too late, that we’re on a trajectory for four to six degrees of warming.

But 350ppm is much better than 450; we argued the point through the Multiparty Climate Committee, because the $23 price is based on a 550ppm trajectory. If we’d gone with 450, the price would have been over $50, and they wouldn’t even countenance the idea of doing any Treasury modelling around what a price would need to be to deliver 350.

So I went through a very bleak phase of thinking we’re just not going to make it as a planet - well, the planet will make it, but how humans survive and how ecosystems survive is another thing.

And I’ve gotten through that by just simply taking the view that one has to keep arguing for it and doing everything we can, because it will be better than it otherwise would have been. Your optimism has to be there. Maybe we will gain momentum if enough people get to that point.

David Bowman: How do you articulate a vision when, as far as I can tell, everything at the moment is about the fear of debt, the fear of costs, and - because it’s rained - it seems in Australia that climate change has just disappeared? You’re trying to take on two almost impossibly difficult arguments at once. One is to convince people of the seriousness of the global change problem. [The other is] an alternative economic model which just doesn’t seem to have any political support from anybody out there.

Christine Milne: In terms of the new economy, the problem in Australia is that it’s almost impossible to bring about a change in the order of things when the vested interests fight like partisans to keep their vested interests in place. Those who believe in the new order are only lukewarm in their support of the new order. [As Machiavelli says], humankind doesn’t believe in new things until they’re actually delivered.

When I took over the leadership, one thing I wanted to do was to build a constituency in progressive business. For the first time in Australia we now have a critical mass of businesses - most of them small and medium-scale businesses but nevertheless a critical mass - which depend collectively on embracing a low-to-zero carbon economy: everything from architects designing green buildings, new building product, town planners, energy efficiency, the renewables space to environmental health.

But they are terrified to speak out. They’re all terrified that if they speak out, and there is a change of government, that they will be punished accordingly, and that they will fail to gain access. That the government programs which benefit them - for example, the renewable energy target or the like - will be significantly changed to their detriment.

The full transcript of David and Christine’s interview is available here. In addition to what you’ve read, they discuss: genetically modified crops; land grabs in the developing world; how locally based agriculture can provide food security; uranium mining and nuclear waste disposal; how Tasmania could have (and maybe still can) provided a model for a post-resource Australia based on brains and high-quality products; how the tax arrangements from the clean energy bills are funding green buildings; the Coalition’s quiet backdown on the NBN; and how convening a panel of experts can help a government change its mind while saving face.
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