18 November 2009

Climate change in Australia vs healthcare in the US

I’ve spent the last month in Australia, working on the role of forests in combating climate change. It’s hard to avoid noticing that Australia is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide per head. Relying on coal for power and an energy-intensive lifestyle lead to emissions of 27 tonnes per person per year, higher even than the US. Australians have dragged their feet over climate change for years: they only signed the Kyoto Protocol in 2008 and while Prime Minister Kevin Rudd travels the world drumming up support for ‘global deal’, at home he is struggling to force through Australia’s first ever emissions trading scheme without watering it down to meaninglessness. Large chunks of the Liberal Party are oppose any kind of emissions trading and some of them happily proclaim they “don’t believe” in climate change.

There is a paradox here. Australians are among the most ecologically stressed people in the world. Every year, wild bushfires lay waste to coastal forests, but the fires in Victoria last year were the worst in living memory. The antipodean climate is harsh and unreliable: a decade of drought may be followed by torrential floods as the warm waters of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation wallow back and forth across the Pacific. European invaders cleared swathes of inland forest to make farms and pasture, but much of the thin soil is exhausted and the land has reverted to bush. Even the once-rich agricultural lands of the Murray-Darling basin are being abandoned as there just isn’t enough water to feed the fruits, vines and Adelaide at the same time. So how can any reasonable Australian doubt that climate change is a serious threat to their beautiful country and way of life? After all, most forecasts suggest that a warmer world will exacerbate the fluctuations of their climate even further.

Some of the people who should lose the most from climate change are therefore among its stoutest deniers – while the population of certain European countries, whose idea of a heat wave is a week above 30 degrees, are up in arms. Why this self-defeating short-sightedness? Are the people in the pockets of BHP Billiton?

The healthcare system in the USA is even more perplexing. The strongest opponents of healthcare reform in the US include many who should benefit from it: middle-class white people, whose employee-linked health benefits are more precarious than ever thanks to the recession, mass unemployment and spiralling costs. Almost any American, veterans excepted, risks losing their healthcare if they lose their job. Yet the right spent much of 2009 creating the impression that universal healthcare meant “losing your healthcare” – which is a bit like saying that a programme to end famine will make your family go hungry. I would love to find an unemployed Republican who cannot get insurance her- or himself, but continues to protest against the “government takeover” of healthcare.

Is this behaviour economically explicable? Selfishness does not explain why, in effect, people vote to increase the risk of bushfires or their chances of being undiagnosed with a disease for lack of insurance. Is it short-sightedness, a fear of uncertainty or simply a contrary instinct, one that assumes it is best to the opposite of whatever the government is advising? My current best guess is that it is to do with a long and tangled chain of causation. The link between burning coal in Australia and bush fires is evident, but as long as China opens two new power stations every week, an Australian might be rational in continuing to burn coal, as long as China does. How about Greenpeace stop trying to shut down nuclear power plants and blockade the port of Newcastle, the source of much of China’s coal, instead?

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