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Climate change emergency cannot be solved by disintegrating democracies

President Joe Biden
Associated Press - Carolyn Kaster

President Biden’s climate agenda was launched with hopes, prayers and the expectation of leadership to all world democracies, like a glorious ship set on a maiden voyage: the SS Biden. There is now deep concern that in stormy seas it has been driven onto rocks, still intact but in need of a high tide to free it.

The SS (Steam Ship) Biden by definition is fuelled by coal or oil. One is reminded of the disregard for the safety of passengers on the Titanic highlighted by several of the company’s questionable decisions, including to sail when a fire due to spontaneous combustion in coal was burning in a bunker, likely contributing to the ship’s untimely end.

Despite the world’s climate heating crisis, the Biden ship is still powered by fossil fuels and the U.S. liquefied natural gas export capacity will be the world’s largest by end of 2022 closely followed by Australia and Qatar.

Yes, this gas is burned by other countries and the three wealthy exporting countries do not have to account for these emissions domestically. The degree of responsibility for these Scope 3 emissions is a vexed issue. In some countries their import and use will impair development of clean energy and its necessary decentralization. Indeed, Solar household systems are the healthy and affordable answer in Africa, Bangladesh and some other Asian countries.

The U.S. could certainly provide leadership to the world by accepting responsibility for half the emissions from exported gas and coal and pressure other wealthy exporters to follow.

I have detailed the imminent dangers of gas to the control of climate change previously, including dangers accepted by the U.S. in its pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

Nevertheless, the burning of oil and gas extracted from the U.S. over the next decade is predicted to consume 10 percent of the entire world’s remaining carbon budget, which cannot be exceeded if global warming is to be kept below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Australia may well add another 10 percent.

How can this be accepted by the U.S. government and public when modelling by the UN shows that even if all countries deliver their COP26 climate summit pledges, warming by the end of the century is likely to be about 2.5 degrees Celsius? Currently, with 1.1 degrees Celsius of  warming there are terrible impacts from extreme weather including the recent ferocious Colorado wildfires. These are just a taste of future devastations leading to national economies being totally consumed by constant reparations of infrastructure.

Clearly, President Biden placed great reliance on reducing domestic emissions by a range of measures in a Build Back Better initiative, which was grounded on the rocks of a democratic congressman who appears to accept climate change and yet opposes constraints on fossil fuel production. The president now has to resort to executive orders and to a range of other measures, which do not require legislation.

This brings us to the crux of the problem. Our western democracies can no longer deliver consensus and action on issues that threaten the continued existence of humanity, not least the most powerful democracy in the world.

A recent article in the Economist on threats to American democracy places the blame on extreme partisanship with each major party focussing on voting reform, which means different things to each side. This fails to understand that the threat to democracy resides in its inherent inadequacy to deal with today’s urgent and overwhelming world issues.

In the U.S., there are 109 members of the House of Representatives and 30 senators who refuse to acknowledge the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change. These members have received more than $61 million in lifetime contributions from the oil, gas and coal industries.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, many elected officials did not accept the science of vaccination and the need to recommend simple preventative measures, such as mask-wearing.

Many amazed observers in the international community liken these climate and COVID positions to a reversion to pre-enlightenment times by elected representatives and their followers. The definitions of facts and the truth have been usurped and the scientific consensus on climate change has become a hoax to many in the United States. Is this the same country with the scientific brains to put a man on the moon and deliver countless scientific advances for humanity? 

The U.S. is not alone in democratic disintegration. Climate denial and anti-vaccination sentiment exist in many countries but have not become as debilitating as they appear to have done in the United States.

Over the past four decades, the failures of liberal democracies to address environmental issues and particularly climate change have become increasingly apparent. In 2007, these failures were detailed and today we find they remain unaddressed. Indeed, one failure has become the salient problem, the need to separate governance from corporate capitalism. 

The common denominator in current democratic failure is government unwillingness to accept that many of the problems we now confront are so complex and urgent as to be beyond the comprehension and abilities of elected officials. The issue of climate emergency is compounded by two additional interrelated issues: Elected officials place their political survival before collective needs and many defer to an overwhelmingly powerful fossil fuel industry for personal gain. 

To become relevant today, elected governments have to be prepared to accept advice and guidance from independent commissions of scientists and other relevant experts selected by their peers — and not by political appointment. The details of this guidance need to be available to all parties and to the public. A starting model for the U.S. and many other countries might be a strengthened U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with appointees selected by peers and not politically appointed. 

Currently, the SS Biden continues sailing to its doom. When the iceberg ripped a hole in the “unsinkable” Titanic the orchestra continued playing “Nearer my God to Thee” while the ship sank. The passengers from the upper social crust, the rich bankers and industrialists who resided on the upper decks were soon seated in lifeboats, while the working poor on the lower decks went to their watery grave. 

Today, the upper crust, the moneyed titans, seem secure in their gated communities and there is speculation that they have already constructed their own space lifeboats, ahead of the world’s Titanic moment, to journey to a liveable planet in an abundant universe awaiting exploitation.

David Shearman (AM, Ph.D., FRACP, FRCPE) is a professor of medicine at the University of Adelaide, South Australia and co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia. He is co-author of “The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy” (2007) commissioned by the Pell Centre for International Relations and Public Policy.

Tags Climate change Coal COP26 David Shearman Democracy extreme weather Fossil fuels Global warming Joe Biden wildfires

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