Words matter: a politician tells the truth

“The land we call our home, the land owned by this sweet funny brave people is being transformed, as is the rest of the planet. And yes, since the late eighties I have been an unapologetic believer in the grim reality that human activity is changing the earth’s climate.”

These words were spoken by the new Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, in the course of his first speech to the Australian senate last week. I felt a twinge of envy as I tried to imagine a New Zealand Minister in any portfolio, let alone Foreign Affairs, speaking with such directness and entirely appropriate emphasis.  “Grim reality” is exactly the right description, and one from which, once uttered, there is no easy evasion.

Carr well understands the basic science of global warming and the history of its development, as is evident in a video clip of a lecture he gave in 2008 in which he called climate change deniers “the present danger”. In his Senate speech he also made clear that his concern includes the oceans:

 “But what if this shock, this chemical experiment with the Earth’s atmosphere is only the first of a series of shocks we might sustain?”

“What about the change in the chemical composition of the oceans as they absorb more and more of the carbon our civilisations have been emitting?”

What an Australian politician does with this clear understanding of the dangers of climate change when it comes to policy decisions related to the fossil fuel industry may prove comparatively murky, especially in a country heavily dependent on coal for energy and for export income, but it is nevertheless good to hear that in the mind of this Minister there is no diluting of the scientific message or failure to grasp the severity of its implications. Even more important is his readiness to say so publicly and without prompting. His appointment to high political responsibility has evidently not led him to soft-pedal the message that climate change is a deeply serious threat to human society.

There is a desperate need for politicians with a full appreciation of the science of climate change and a corresponding readiness to seize public opportunity to declare that we face a global crisis. If they are silent or evasive on the issue it becomes that much harder for the population at large to credit the grim reality and accept measures to address it.

President Obama’s abdication from the position he appeared to be taking when first elected has hardly helped Americans to appreciate the gravity of the issue. Bill McKibben recently predicted that Obama’s speech at Cushing on 22 March would avoid any talk of global warming in spite of the severe weather events that country has been experiencing. He was absolutely right. The speech boasted of the administration opening up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration, the quadrupling of the number of operating rigs and the addition of enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth. It reiterated Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy, meaning the full exploitation of oil and gas along with the development of clean energy and efficiency. Not a word on climate change.

Words matter in politics. And the absence of words matters. As the scientific evidence for climate change continues to mount and consolidate we should expect clarion calls from political leaders.  They owe it to us. I grew up during World War II and even as a child I was aware of the way the words of Churchill matched the enormity of the conflict with fascism. The challenge of climate change is different, but of no less moment. Bob Carr’s bluntness is to be applauded.

7 thoughts on “Words matter: a politician tells the truth”

  1. Do we know how MP’s weely, weely feel about climate change??
    I understand Nick Smith was one minister who “understood”. It may be convienient he is no longer a minister. David Farrar seems to have changed his tune and I’m not sure if he thinks independantly but he is percieved by many as being (you use the word) spin meister for National; I use the word bell wether (not that I’m all that familiar with that word, but he seems to be an early testing ground for ideas and direction)?
    I notice an endorsement of the libertarian approach to urban planning where “land supply” is the be all and end all trumpeted by prominent property developers (oops: “researchers”) who hold a set of ideas that doesn’t allow for any interference by mother nature

  2. That is one thing about Nick Smith’s departure that is sad. Although this is faint praise, he was arguably the most environmentally conscious National minister and Craig Foss is not likely to be an improvement on National’s response to Climate Change…

    Really, though it doesn’t matter who gets that portfolio. the National Party have a very strong commitment to making sure New Zealand doesn’t do anything of substance to reduce our Carbon footprint, whatever they might say about it.

  3. As John Dewey once said, nommo:

    “…politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.”

    The National Party know this very well, and there is no bigger business in NZ than agriculture, which they pander to shamelessly.

  4. I’m actually pleased that former NSW Premier (95-05) Bob Carr has been parachuted into the Cabinet (replacing Kevin Rudd, a man who really should learn that the Canberra Press Galley is not running the nation, nor is it the Labor Caucus), and would like to thank that same Canberra Press Gallery for assuring this outcome by the simple expedient of insisting that Gillard wouldn’t do it.

    Here we have an remarkably articulate man who ‘gets it’ (and I’m always happy to see a Foreign Minister who won’t project an image of us as a nation of arrogant bumpkins!)

    What results we shall see, but it certainly could have been much worse…

    1. Yes, as bill has pointed out, Foreign Minister Carr is no spring chicken when it comes to politics. He is one of Australia’s longest-serving Premiers and while in charge of NSW introduced the world’s first carbon pricing scheme (for all their potential and actual faults), as well as creating 342 new national parks (a total area increase of 65%), tripling the area designated as wilderness and largely stopping old growth logging in the state. He also oversaw NSW becoming debt-free and a significant inquiry into and subsequent reduction in police corruption.

      He also had numerous down sides, but his long tenure and various achievements ensured that he has now become something of a mentor to and senior statesman of the Labor Party in Oz. His appointment as Foreign Minister was probably quite an adept move for a Prime Minister struggling with very low approval ratings.

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