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'Climate change is like Y2k!' - Oz senator

Yes, but not the way you think

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The Australian government's debate about climate change and carbon pricing has taken a turn for the silly.

The government's bill to repeal the country's price on carbon is stalled in the senate, to the frustration of the government, which led to this (as reported by AAP via the Murdoch press):

“Liberal senator Ian Macdonald has railed against the carbon tax and the stated threats of climate change, comparing it with the dire Y2K warnings before 2000.

“'I'm sure in years to come people will look back on history and say, yep, remember global warming ... we're still going,' he told the chamber on Monday.”

As memories fade, a common thread among climate deniers has become the notion that the Y2k bug was a fraud perpetrated by computer scientists to make money for vendors and consultants.

And there's no doubt that a certain amount of profiteering happened at the time. As the clock counted down, the unready – which probably meant “most of the world” – were charged plenty for their last-minute fixes.

And there's also no doubt that a certain amount of “disaster porn” was being touted among the media, because it was such a “sellable” story: aircraft falling out of the sky was a persistent theme at the time, and needed Global Hack Terror Threats to re-appropriate as a new scare story (thanks so much, Richard A Clarke).

But the parallels between the real narratives of Y2k and climate change are even more striking than the parallels between the fake narratives.

The problem was/is real – Even if the “disaster porn” stories were exaggerated, Y2k was a real problem. Left unfixed, its likely outcomes were unpredictable (which is one reason “end of the world” stories were hard to counter). Climate change also has real but unpredictable outcomes, which leave room for both “disaster porn” and “stay calm and carry on” narratives.

The knowledge gap – Experts understood the Y2k problem, and experts understand the climate change problem. Both are subject to attacks on their expertise by non-experts – the very people they tried, or are trying, to help.

The longer you wait, the worse the pain – it was easier and cheaper to fix programs incrementally over a long period, than to commission a “big bang” project at the end. The end-of-decade rush helped turn software in India from a cottage industry into a giant. Economists looking at climate change warn that delaying action will escalate the costs.

Disaster is avoidable – The Y2k issue was averted because people took the advice of experts and acted (admittedly with lots of money imminently at stake). If there's to be any chance of averting even some of the effects of climate change, the same thing is needed.

That's where the “similarity narrative” ends. Unfortunately, there are two differences that leave people like senator Macdonald room to speak nonsense.

Deadline – Y2k had a hard deadline: fix your software by December 31, 1999, or risk the crash. Climate science cannot offer a hard deadline, making it much harder to sell to people with money.

Vested interests – nobody had an interest in letting their computers crash on December 31, 1999. Alas, there are plenty of interests fighting to protect their business from any action whatever to reduce atmospheric pollution.

That's how it's always been, whether it was lead in petrol or CFCs in refrigerators. ®

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