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Climate change and the art of the possible

The Big Oxmox advised her not to do so, because there were thousands of bad Commas, wild Question Marks and devious Semikoli.

A small river named Duden flows by their place and supplies it with the necessary regelialia. It is a paradisematic country, in which roasted parts of sentences fly into your mouth. Even the all-powerful Pointing has no control about the blind texts it is an almost unorthographic life One day however a small line of blind text by the name of Lorem Ipsum decided to leave for the far World of Grammar.

The Big Oxmox advised her not to do so, because there were thousands of bad Commas, wild Question Marks and devious Semikoli, but the Little Blind Text didn’t listen. She packed her seven versalia, put her initial into the belt and made herself on the way. When she reached the first hills of the Italic Mountains, she had a last view back on the skyline of her hometown Bookmarksgrove, the headline of Alphabet Village and the subline of her own road, the Line Lane.

The copy warned the Little Blind Text, that where it came from it would have been rewritten a thousand times and everything that was left from its origin would be the word “and” and the Little Blind Text. Warned the Little Blind Text, that where it came from it would have been rewritten a thousand times and everything that was left from its origin would be the word “and” and the Little Blind Text should turn around and return to its own, safe country.

The recent release of the Climate Change Authority report holds a vital message for those of us concerned about global warming. But it’s not “hey look, Tony Abbott is wrong about something again.” The message is that, if politics is the art of the possible, our most important job is to change what is possible.

As I wrote over at The Grauniad after their draft report was released last October, the Authority’s great service in blowing out of the water the comfortable political consensus between Labor, Liberals and the press gallery around 5% pollution cuts is matched by an equally great disservice in hugely understating the task we face. By giving their imprimatur to a carbon budget which is scientifically and geopolitically inadequate, the Authority effectively narrows the terms of the debate, limiting “what is possible” from our politics.

One of the defining features of late 20th and early 21st century liberal democracy has been that ‘The Right’ has been much faster than ‘The Left’ to understand, embrace and use the power of language. In a society which on the whole has set aside the use of brute force to exercise coercive power, it is through language that social and political control can most effectively be exercised.

If an idea cannot be said – or, if said, cannot be understood – then it cannot be implemented. It becomes, effectively, impossible. And, when politics is the art of the possible, that is the key to power.

The Right, having recognised that power is in the hands of those who control the story, those who set the boundaries of our discourse, has now spent a generation redefining “what is possible”. And many of the Left have ceded that ground on the basis of a failure to understand that “what is possible” is changeable.

For years, this has played out in environment groups, unions and social organisations campaigning for what they think they can achieve rather than what is necessary, governments being unwilling to even attempt major reforms, let alone succeed, and a media both critical of this failure and equally unwilling to contemplate change. Combined with the culture of speed inherent in the twenty-four-hour news cycle, government and media work hard to narrow the scope of problems and promote simple, quick-fix solutions that can be digested in a seven-second news grab, regardless of whether or not they match the problems at hand.

Indeed, our post-Fukuyama End of History politics has reached the point where those who advocate change on any substantial scale are dismissed as naïve and childish while those who want to indefinitely extend the status quo are seen as realists. This extends as far as serious journalists telling advocates of 100% renewable energy or science based carbon budgets to “grow up” and join the “serious players”.

What this version of the world fails to understand is that our socio-political reality is not as solid as it seems, and it is utterly mercurial and malleable when set against the laws of physics and chemistry which govern our universe.

Climate change is an area in which ‘politically possible’ clashes most uncomfortably with what is ‘actually possible’. We still operate based on business-as-usual projections and assumptions which cannot come to pass. We compare the costs of moving to zero emissions against an imaginary reality in which global warming doesn’t exist, rather than against the enormous costs of climate disruption. The idea inherent in our ‘possible politics’, that we can keep burning coal, oil and gas, maybe make a few reductions here and there, and just muddle on through – this is what is a truly naïve and childish fantasy.

It’s important to realise that the Climate Change Authority did not say that deeper pollution cuts than 15% by 2020 are impossible to achieve. Far from it. They simply said they would cost more. But by giving primacy once again to the dominant frame – that reducing financial costs in the short term is the key political aim – and by couching their report around the figure of 15%, the Authority has made it much less possible to achieve the 35-40% cuts we need to aim for.

As I said in October, I don’t blame the Climate Change Authority. They are hardly the first institution to temper their independent advice with their belief in what is politically possible, and their desire not to be seen as too radical. Professor Garnaut did the same, as do many environment groups. Even Lord Stern, as he has since acknowledged, understated the challenge.

But the problem with the idea that you have to appear ‘reasonable’ to play a role in mainstream debate is that, by doing so, you narrow the debate. And in narrowing the debate, you reduce what is possible.

In the face of climate change, if we accept the limits of what is currently possible, we will fail. We will never succeed in driving the scale of change necessary to prevent catastrophic disruption. That is not to say we need to set out to do the ‘impossible’. Rather we need to set out to change ‘what is possible’.

Picture Copyright Handoko Tjung, published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence

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