At Senate Estimates on 1 June, 2017, the Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel AO, asserted that, were the world to reduce its carbon emissions by 1.3 per cent, which is approximately Australia’s rate of emissions, the impact on the changing climate of the world would be ‘virtually nothing’. He then argued that ‘doing nothing is not a position that we can responsibly take because emissions reductions is a little bit like voting, in that if everyone took the attitude that their vote does not count and no one voted, we would not have a democracy…We’ve never been a nation to shy away from a challenge, or from shouldering our fair share of the responsibility for solving global issues. Sitting on our hands while expecting the rest of the world to do their part is simply not acceptable.’
Because there has been widespread articulation of similar moral claims, including using the voting analogy, they need examination.
Australia is not ‘doing nothing’. At Paris, Australia agreed to reduce its CO2 emissions; and there were counterpart commitments from a significant number of other nations. Subsequently, unlike Australia, some have resiled from their commitments or have not been making sufficient efforts to meet them. Also, the IPCC has concluded that the Paris commitments, even if fully met, would be insufficient to confine the rise in temperature below the IPCC target of +1.5 degrees Celsius. So, what is the argument for going beyond Paris, unilaterally?
Finkel’s moral case starts with the first challenge of ‘everyday Kantianism’: ‘What if everyone did as I do?’ The inference is that I am morally bound to contribute to the general good because, if no one contributed, then the general good would not be achieved. However, this truism offers little practical moral guidance and, moreover, in hinting at a catastrophe, its proponents employ a rhetorical device in an attempt to distract from that weakness.
My not voting would indeed be a great moral evil if it caused such vast numbers not to vote, that our democracy was effectively destroyed. However, it seems almost certain that my not voting would only trivially increase the probability of such a catastrophe and thus, on that account, would at worst be a minor moral matter. (There may be other moral bases for the ‘duty to vote’.)
Similarly, it would be a great moral evil if Australia’s not pursuing more ambitious emission reductions itself caused so many other countries to increase or fail to reduce their emissions that a climate disaster ensues, one which would not have occurred otherwise; but it would be at worst a minor moral lapse if not much was expected to happen, consequential to Australia’s failure to cut emissions beyond Paris.
Thus, the validity of the moral claim requires that Australia’s actions induce a significant set of countries to cut their emissions, so that global emissions fall significantly below what they would have been — otherwise, the Chief Scientist’s ‘virtually nothing’ applies.
Despite the moral fervour of the ‘Extinction Rebellion’, it is hardly likely that prohibiting Australian coal exports would reduce global emissions. More likely is that the absent Australian exports would be substantially replaced by coal mined in China, India, Indonesia or USA, with a much higher ratio of emissions to energy, thus more than offsetting the price effect on emissions. (China’s coal output is six times Australia’s and even Europe’s is higher.)
The remaining challenges of everyday Kantianism are ‘If not me, then who?’ and ‘If not now, then when?’
In response, I would first claim that if a person’s contribution would have a trivial direct effect, then there may still be a moral obligation to contribute, but only when the person can be reasonably confident that a sufficient proportion of relevant others will also contribute, so as to achieve a worthwhile collective outcome. That is, the relevant and effective moral or legal structure is or will be in place to provide that confidence.
Second, the weight of any moral obligation depends on not only how general the voluntary acceptance or legal imposition of the obligation is, but also on the extent to which the burden is being reasonably fairly shared.
In the current circumstances, Australia has a very weak, if any, moral obligation to go beyond its Paris commitments, and unilaterally pursue more aggressive emissions reductions. However, any obligation vanishes unless there is a reasonable probability that its example will stimulate a sizeable mass of other countries to follow suit.
In a recent Guardian post, Malcolm Turnbull suggested how Australia could induce a change in beliefs about the economic costs and benefits of emission reductions, sufficient to cause other countries to follow:
‘Our priority this decade should be our own green new deal in which we generate, as soon as possible, all of our electricity from zero emission sources. If we do, Australia will become a leader in the fight against global warming. And we can do it.’
If the nation would pursue the energy policies of his government, National Energy Guarantee and all, it would ‘keep energy affordable and reliable as we make the transition’ to zero emission sources for electricity generation. Then, motivated by Australia’s success at making an almost costless change, other countries would move in the same direction.
Even putting aside that the NEG modelling showed no such two-fold benefit in energy affordability and reliability, such followership seems highly implausible. Rich and middle-income countries are spending huge amounts on research into and development of low-carbon processes, especially as they relate to the country’s own particular circumstances. What additional crucial information would Australia’s case provide?
This leaves only the moral example for others to follow. In this context, it is hard to think of any major diplomatic victories of Australia at international forums in recent decades, in which a strong Australian stance has changed the material actions of significant others. Australia’s moral and political standing seem quite insufficient for Australians to have any confidence that other nations – especially the three large emitters, USA, China and India – would follow suit on further emission reductions. To believe otherwise is magical thinking.
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