Today I’d like to pose a scenario to think about. Imagine you live with your family in an enormous 5 bedroom house in a small, mostly self-sufficient development. There are 3 other properties in the development. There’s an apartment block with 12 small apartments. There’s a little complex of 12 luxury townhouse villas. And there’s 20 families living in a commune, growing their own food. It’s an eclectic community but everyone gets on well.
As part of its self-sufficient nature, the development isn’t connected to town sewerage. Instead there’s a large septic tank that breaks down sewage so it can be safely used as fertiliser on the farm and water for gardens.
But there’s a looming problem. The septic tank is almost at capacity. Within a couple of years at current usage, it’s going to reach capacity and regularly start overflowing raw sewage, mainly onto your property and the commune. A new tank is prohibitively expensive. And usage is set to increase: a couple of new villas are being built and the commune has plans to expand.
The residents convene a meeting and start by looking at everyone’s sewage levels. The 12 families in the luxury villas use an enormous amount of water and contribute correspondingly enormous amounts of sewage to the tank. The 12 families in the apartment block contribute only about half as much and the 20 families in the commune even less. Your family doesn’t contribute very much in the scheme of things, but with a huge house and garden, still contributes more than any other family in the whole place – even the rapacious villa dwellers.
The residents agree that, to start with, the two biggest contributors – the luxury villas and the apartments – will reduce their contributions by 10%. Your family won’t have to reduce its sewage but you agree not to increase it by more than a very small amount. Everyone agrees that the commune, which doesn’t produce much sewage anyway and is considerably poorer than everyone else, won’t have to do anything just yet but will monitor its sewage.
No doubt you can see where I’m going with this, but let’s continue.
You don’t want to be wallowing in sewage within the next couple of years, so you sit down with your family and work out a plan.
One member of the family has talked to a plumber and reckons that total sewage inflows have to be cut by at least 60% to keep the tank operating pretty much within capacity with only maybe an occasional spill. She suggests that the family aims to get its sewage down to 60% below its current level, by taking shorter showers, diverting some of the shower water to use on the garden and getting more efficient appliances.
Another family member reckons this will be way too hard and way too expensive. He’s had a chat to the owners of the luxury villas and they reckon it’s too expensive too. He reckons the best option is to go along with the villa owners and not do anything right now.
Now, it’s obvious that neither of these is going to solve the problem we face. Both will lead to our backyard being inundated with sewage in short time.
Of course, what we’re really talking about in this crude allegory is climate change. Australia is the wealthy family with a big house. The US is the complex of luxury villas. Europe is the apartment block and the developing countries are the commune. The two family members’ approaches represent the dominant approaches from political parties (and green groups) in Australia. Green groups focus way too much on domestic emission reductions and ignore Prime Minister Howard’s valid point that our domestic emissions are but a small part of the problem. The Liberal Government though has been grossly irresponsible: it has done its best to undermine any international solution to the problem and has let the US off the hook. This, rather than failing to set a domestic target or not doing enough to reduce emissions, is its biggest policy failing in my view. It hasn't recognised the precarious position that we’re in, as both a wealthy contributor to the problem but also (unlike the US and Europe) a country that is going to be disproportionately affected by climate change.
Australia should be forcibly arguing for action in the international sphere. And we should take substantial action domestically: not because that will itself make a huge dent in the problem but because it’s the right thing to do and, perhaps more importantly, it’s an absolute prerequisite to arguing strongly (as we must) for other, bigger, countries to take action that will make a big impact.
Most of our neighbours are showing a remarkable level of neighbourliness in being prepared to make big sacrifices for a problem that affects us a lot more than it affects them. It’s time to get on board and get the neighbours all pulling in the same direction.