Saturday 13 July 2019

Climate change policy in an era of uncertainty

Published as ‘Pollution is nothing new’, Geelong Advertiser, Wednesday 6 August 2008, p. 00.

The debate on climate change policy is becomingly increasingly strident and certainly baffling to many Australians who seem to be well disposed to the idea that we ought to do something about it. They remain puzzled about the science and confused as to policy. The scientists themselves are still arguing about fundamental issues, so uncertainties remain at that level too.

Perhaps a look back to an earlier era when some similar issues occurred might be instructive. In the early to mid-nineteenth century in England, at the height of the industrial revolution, people were dying in thousands from cholera, and pollution was choking the atmosphere and the waterways of the industrial shock cities like Manchester. Technological change was occurring very rapidly, disrupting traditional forms of employment and replacing them with new ones, often in different parts of the country. Urban squalor was probably at its absolute and relative worst. Congestion, overcrowding and poverty was the lot of the mass of the people in cities and the death rate there was far higher than in the countryside from where many of the people had come in search of a better standard of living.

A series of shocking reports on urban conditions by political radicals like Frederick Engels, the sponsor of Karl Marx, and social investigators like Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth, brought the evils to light. But what to do about them?

The science and medicine of the causes of disease was in its infancy. Connections between water-borne and interpersonal transmission of the vectors of epidemics was not understood. The notion that a miasma of ill vapours rather than bacilli caused or transmitted plagues was argued strongly by some medical people.

Those who could afford to move, left the urban centres and migrated into suburbs where the air was clearer and the streets were cleaner. But they remained vulnerable as long as drinking water was polluted by sewage and food was contaminated by uncleanliness. So cleaning up the environment was critical.

This was the era in which the United Kingdom was as close to the laissez-faire model of government so beloved of the Des Moore and the current members of the Institute of Public Affairs, who believe that everything should be left to the market. But as Oliver MacDonagh and Tony Dingle, two fine economic historians who made a close study of the pattern of government growth and the reform of the urban environment in the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century showed, the actions of a dedicated group of public servants and political activists instituted a series of policies which tackled urban pollution, the ‘monster nuisance of all’, effectively for that generation. In doing so these pioneers helped create the statistical and quantitative basis for research which underpinned the development of knowledge in the next era.

No one would claim that all the reforms mentioned were driven by this relatively small cadre of individuals. Some of the improvements were environmental rather than medical. For example, the replacement of earth floors in houses by wood or stone helped reduce dirt-borne diseases. Some demographers argue that this had a greater impact on mortality rates than medical improvements per se.

Now I am aware that this is an argument by analogy and one from history, but what it shows is that policy changes to deal with acknowledged issues need not wait until the science is incontrovertible. If we hang around until the climate change science is settled once and for all we may be reminded of the saying of another economic historian, John Maynard Keynes—‘in the long run we are all dead’.

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