Is Australia Too Small to Act on Climate Change?

“Australia’s population is so insignificant,” he hurls at me over his beer, “that if we were to reach carbon neutral the effect on global warming would be only a fraction of a degree! Why the hell should we ruin our economy for that?”

The particular slant of his smirk tells me that he thinks he has me stumped.

“How un-Australian,” I start. “By your logic, we shouldn’t even bother investing and competing in international sports, such as cricket, soccer, the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics because our population is too small to cause a ripple.

“Yet, I bet you’re among the first to get goosebumps when you see Australia’s finest walk out to greet the international audience and can’t help but come over all patriotic when they break records and earn the respect of the wider world.

Little Eco on her second Clean Up Australia Day. Tricia, Little eco footprints.

“And what about ‘Clean Up Australia day’? I have no doubt that the type of person most likely to take part is the same person least likely to litter. Why do they do it? Because it’s the right thing to do. Because it sets a valuable example for their children. Because they care about the beauty of this wonderful country. They don’t turn their back on the problem because they’re not the biggest contributor, but face it because they’re better than that.

“What about the Anzacs? The Aussies and New Zealanders who fight for freedom, not because they had the biggest and best armies, but because they knew it was the right thing to do in the face of oppression. Do you simply use the public holiday for another excuse to get pissed and spend the minute of silence with one finger up your nose digging for treasure or do you realise just how lucky you are for the actions of a minority fighting for the betterment of everyone?

“You’re kind of defeatism is appalling, it’s short-sighted and it ignores the best qualities of being an Aussie. When each one of us has a larger personal carbon foot print than pretty much any other person from most other countries, we have a personal obligation to set a good example or risk losing the best iconic Aussie qualities.

“Who knows, if just one political leader demonstrated any substance, it could be a damn good investment – a new wave of cleaner technology to overtake the increasingly outdated fossil fuel dependent tech which we could then sell to the world. Creating jobs. Creating wealth.”

All of this, I said to myself. Not as outspoken in person as I am online, I refrain from such a reply.

“I challenge you,” I instead reply, “to visit a busy mall over the coming Christmas season. Hold out both arms and run.

“One person can make a hell of a difference through the amount of room and resources they take up. We’re among the worst polluters per capita and living on such an arid landscape, we are also more vulnerable than many in a warming world. The money and security is in the inevitable change and we’d be stupid to leave it until we’re buying the tech from someone else.”

It didn’t have the same flare as the internal monolog – probably further evidence that thinking small is detrimental – which I was later kicking myself about.


15 thoughts on “Is Australia Too Small to Act on Climate Change?

  1. I know such an objection. That even if first world countries were to be effective in reducing CO2, the 3rd world countries will just undo their work, either by burning fuel or by populating their countries.

    There is no easy, painless solution if we believe there’s going to be a problem. We cannot want it both ways. We cannot say we want the world to be full of people, AND we want them all to be rich and comfortable. (that’s exactly what communists believe)

    If questions such as “Why don’t we try to cause global warming if it’s a good thing?” or “Why don’t we rely 100% on fossil fuels if it’s abundant and cheap” sound like stupid questions, then the answer is obvious : consequences are real and something’s got to give sooner or later.

    By the way, I’m not an idiot who thinks AGW will make humans extinct. But if we’re unwilling to pay a carbon tax and reduce our standard of living, why should we expect we’ll like it IF we were to face hurricanes, droughts, floods? (surviving is easy, but comfort isn’t cheap)


    1. I agree – we will not become extinct. You’re very right also that comfort is expensive.
      I personally feel that we can improve the standard of living of all of our species, but mindless personal wealth accumulation cannot be part of the plan. Thinking that we’re individually too small to act or Australia is too small to act or the developed world is too small to act when we look at the population of the developing world (esp. China and India) is pathetic defeatism and ignores the inherent avenues for innovation and opportunity in acting.


  2. Coming from a small country myself (Finland) I know numbers don’t make the difference. It’s a mixture of culture, education and exposure to different kinds of impulses that does. And stamina to just keep going.

    See the Dutch, who essentially invented the modern corporate structure in the 1600’s. They had to, pushed from all sides by Spanish, French etc. – that causes genuine innovation (well, I guess we could call that need for survival just as well). So be it: need for survival triggers innovation. 🙂

    Also, I’ve noticed remote areas in the U.S. (s.a. Arizona) being rather green in their current approaches (sorry, no facts to back this up). This is because of the same reason – need for survival.

    Now, would something set you apart from AZ, USA?

    One reason why Australia *should* be in the forefront of sustainable innovation is the abundant resources you have. Sun = energy. Minerals. In-built respect for biodiversity in the Aboriginal culture. The Great Barrier Reef.

    A sample I noticed here lately is water-less car wash. From Australia. Now – if that really works, haven’t tested it on my car yet ‘ – that can really be called Innovative. Well done! 🙂

    No Wet – okay sorry it says it’s originally a US product. But still.


    1. As expressed in the article; thinking, “we’re too small to bother acting” is simply un-Australian.

      More than those reasons you’ve mentioned (personally, I don’t think, for the most part, indigenous respect for the land has transferred to most euro-Aussies) we’re on arguably the most fragile landscape of the developed world and will be hit hardest from a changing climate – with peak oil, even more so with the increase transport cost (both domestic – our cities are far apart – and international). There are no sensible objections to early mitigation and adaption and while we have some examples of industrial and local governance initiatives (similar to that you provide an example of in the US and the example of innovation with waterless car washing), there is little in the way of coordinated leadership (at best, federally funded departments who, from the wider perspective, seem to do little but provide pamphlets).

      A few of us are hoping to develop a “Hub” called ‘Generation Adaptation’ (see here and here), which we hope provides a great resource and meeting place for the already engaged individuals to improve this lack of direction. We’ve had a number of problems getting it up, but with any luck, it will happen soon.


  3. Didn’t save it, but loved this comment elsewhere. The ‘too small to make a difference’ argument is exactly the same as the shoplifter’s defence.

    Who’ll notice just one chocolate bar/ pair of earrings/ bottle of oil?

    Answer: Wrong question.

    The question is – what happens if everyone behaves like this? Bankruptcy for the economy. Moral wasteland for the society.


    1. The “cheater” in the games situation… Personally, it really bugs me; nothing is more counter-social than such an attitude and yet we all seem to want to live in societies. If we want free societies, we also need to adhere to basic ethics – counter to such an attitude being an imperative.


  4. Well written, and the sporting analogy is a good one.

    And the military – I mean we’re too small to make a difference in Afghanistan right?

    On that logic, pull out the troops. Oh wait replies the right-wing conservative, its about the symbolism.


    1. I held on to posting this for about a week – I was hoping my Dad would scan a photo his has of my great-grandfather who was a light horseman. As much as I’m a pacifist, I’m proud of his efforts – it’s the hard-yakka Aussie attitude we often hear about, but the attitude I encountered in the piece above demonstrates the opposite. We should be leading the way, not putting together groups to gauge how the public feel about climate change..


  5. There isn’t much doubt the false perception that coming last in this respect counts as winning is alive and doing well. The corrollary to the argument that “imposing costs on carbon when others don’t will hurt us to no benefit”, is less often articulated as it more clearly indicates a cheating attitude but is still a potent one… “if others have a cost on emissions we will be more competitive if we don’t: if our fossil fuels are going to get slugged with a carbon cost later, digging up and selling as much as we can before then will make us better off” etc. All rely on ignoring the costs of the consequences of collective failure – pretty much impossible to put hard numbers to, true, but those costs will include a big loss of environmental capital that will be effectively impossible to recover. Positioning Australia that way increases the likelihood other nations will adopt the same position and undermine a global effort – and I suspect an unspoken agreement between those with that view here and those with that view elsewhere aims to do just that; each can point to the other and say ‘we won’t until they do’ and claim to be acting in the best interest of their nation whilst doing so.


  6. Love this post, Moth! “Why do they do it? Because it’s the right thing to do.” You basically sum up why I write about the environment and do what I can to protect it. I also like Adelady’s response: flip the question. Better yet, make an analogy to an everyday thing, and flip the question!


    1. I liked yours more so regarding the carbon tax. I had to walk away, however, when roger turned up – I simply won’t feed the trolls more – it’s like adding water to gremlins, leading you to waste time on what could’ve easily been avoided.
      Adeladys point is good. A bloke who used to work with us did an excellent presentation on the subject – about the small changes making significant difference and how much of a dead-end path it is to think business-as-usual can continue. I should see if I’m allowed to post the podcast.


  7. Great analogies Moth, hope you don’t mind if I completely plagiarize them?

    Another one I often like to say is when people say:

    “Our emissions are only 1%, they are nothing!”.

    I say, “yes it’s good isn’t it? It means we don’t have to do much really compared to the rest of the world to meet our targets. So what are people getting worked up over?”


    1. Plagiarise away, mate! Preferably referencing back being my only hope.

      Everything that I write, I hope gets around to a big enough audience. Not that I think I’m necessarily correct, but we should be talking, rather than letting the do nothings demonise the science, scientists and proactive thinkers.

      My angle to that common meme is that it’s fundamentally wrong. We’re one of the highest personal emitters on the planet. We have the obligation and the finance to be the trend setters and besides, whoever leads the way is likely to make the most money out of new low emission technology so we’d be silly not investing in R&D in tomorrow’s tech


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