We owe it to our kids
Ihave a simple attitude when it comes to the issue of climate change. And that is: it’s not my field of expertise, and not one that lends itself to amateur conjecture. It is prudent to take the advice of experts. I therefore accept that there is a need to take corrective action now in order to avoid environmental catastrophe in the future. I understand some do not agree that the science is settled; however, the overwhelming scientific consensus seems to be that we need to act now.
I get this. I am on board. I am ready to make sacrifices now in order to secure the future. It seems like the right thing to do. Plus, even if the denialists were right, I quite like the idea of a cleaner planet, and that of a nation, or nations, pulling together to achieve a common goal. Nothing like a perceived external threat to unite a humanity otherwise predisposed to petty squabbling.
What I admire about the environmental movement is the way the cause is now being inserted into every aspect of life. It is almost impossible to read a company’s annual report or a government report without encountering terms such as sustainability and climate change. It is the common lens through which the intelligentsia interprets the future. And rightly so: this is an important issue.
But the philosophy of being prudent with resources, of mending our ways, of sharing the burden of sacrifice in order to deliver future sustainability shouldn’t be limited to environmental matters. Surely everyone who is concerned about the future habitability of our planet should be also concerned about the concept of economic sustainability? We should not be living beyond our means either from an environmental or budgetary perspective. And if we are, it’s only a matter of time until there is a day of reckoning. The planet, and creditors, are not endless sources of benevolence; there are physical limits to the withdrawal of resources.
A decade ago this nation had no net debt. Today, depending on how it is measured, this figure is estimated at about $380 billion, which is roughly 20 per cent of GDP. We have been living a fiscally unsustainable lifestyle for a decade and, as far as I can make out, we have only just got to the point where we’ve stopped adding to the debt level.
If you are concerned about passing on an environmental liability to the next generation, surely you will also be concerned about passing on debt. I know there are denialists who say we can live permanently with debt, or maybe they think creditor nations in the future will say, “Oh, those Australians are pretty special people, so we’ll go easy on repayment terms”.
The problem with intergenerational debt is a lot like the problem of climate change. One generation – perhaps due to naivety, perhaps due to greed, perhaps a bit of both – racks up a debt that is passed on to future generations all because too many people have an interest in enabling the existing system to continue unchecked and unchanged.
To significantly and immediately reduce carbon emissions imposes financial pain on vested interests. To significantly reduce our national debt imposes a level of pain that today’s electorate is unlikely to accept. What we need is for the environmental movement to share its playbook so that every public report, business meeting, school project and celebrity utterance comments on the future through the lens of both environmental and fiscal sustainability. No point saving the planet if in the interim social cohesion disintegrates because debt levels were never addressed by a people too afraid or too selfish or too greedy to make the required sacrifices.