Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Climate change and the indictment of democracy.

Download WordDownload Word



This transcript has been prepared by a source external to the Parliamentary Library.


It may not have been checked against the broadcast or in an y other way. Freedom from error, omissions or misunderstandings cannot be guaranteed.


For the purposes of quoting verbatim from a transcript, it is advisable to verify the transcript against the broadcast.

_________________________________________________ ____________________________________________________________




Tuesday 16 October 2007

David Shearman, emeritus professor of medicine, University of Adelaide


Climate Change and the indictment of democracy

It seems that some of the best brains in society have given up on an effective response to climate change. Stephen Hawking infers that we should colonize distant planets. James Lovelock thinks that the remnants of humanity will seek refuge on the tropical shores of the Arctic.

Read all the scientific literature from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Look at the steadily rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Even countries expressing commitment are having little impact compared to the huge task in hand. Reflect that governments, yes even in Australia, are busy approving projects that will make reductions difficult if not impossible. And recognise that the scientific data now suggests that decisive reductions in greenhouse emissions are urgent. Even the most devoted optimist must falter.

Now hold onto your seat. Do you believe that climate change can be arrested under our sacrosanct system of liberal democracy? The so called progress of humanity is now accompanied by scarcity of water and other natural resources such as forests, decline in food production and availability, soil erosion, desertification and pollution.

Our analysis sheets home these problems to the functioning of liberal democracy. This system gives individual freedom and by and large we love it. But with this comes freedoms to exploit and pollute. The balance is to individual need, some would say greed, than to collective need. The continuity of liberal democracy depends on the populace receiving what it needs, preferably in surfeit. Climate change suffers from the same defects in the functioning of democracy. It's more of the same.

If you accept this, what are we to do about it? The system has to be changed or mended or democracy may be just one moment in history.

Change is difficult. Imagine yourself a peasant working in the feudal fields of England. A friend comes along and says "Hey Fred, we are changing to democracy, it'll suit us better". Would you be able to imagine the future? NO. Can you imagine what system will supersede democracy? NO, you are locked into an attractive paradigm of freedom just as the peasant was in a feudal cage.

To question democracy is heresy. One eminent publisher responded to our analysis with "attacks on democracy will not be published by us". Colleagues accuse us of Marxism and inform us knowingly that the environment suffered worse under communism. This leads us only to Churchill's maxim "democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others,"

Today many security experts predict that the social chaos of climate change will lead to authoritarian regimes, indeed most democracies move naturally to authoritarianism. Better the authoritarianism of the scientific elites than those who want power. This was recommended by Plato who saw democracy bowing to the needs of the populace-the savage beasts. Today most democratic leaders do not have the capacity to deal with the complexities of global collapse.

Let me ask does the track record of liberal democracy suggest the Murray Darling can be saved? Surely your answer is NO. If ten years ago, states and Commonwealth had handed absolute power to reform the Murray to a distinguished scientific expert, let's say Peter Cullen, do you think the river would be better or worse off today? If you were a patient in the intensive care unit would you wish each decision made authoritatively by a medical expert or by a democratic committee? Science tells us that the earth is moving to intensive care, perhaps it is already there

Tony Blair said that If we were to put forward a solution to climate change, something that would involve drastic cuts in economic growth or standards of living, it would not matter how justified it was, it would simply not be agreed to. This condemns democracy, for absolute liberty cannot be preferable to life.


David Shearman  

Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide 

Honorary Secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia,  

practicing physician