Published by ABC’s The Drum.

Climate change is a wicked problem. It will take an unparalleled amount of human effort to address.

While it’s important for the public to be aware of the risks of runaway climate change, focusing narrowly on threats and evoking apocalyptic rhetoric, as Melbourne writer Doug Hendrie did yesterday, is not helpful. It might be good for scaring the general public senseless, but does not create the conditions needed to deliver action on climate change. For that we need a positive vision of our future.

The effect of Hendrie’s apocalyptic rhetoric is to disempower the community, encourage scepticism, and relegate climate change to the too-hard basket. Recent research published by the University of California Berkeley supports this assessment: “Dire messages warning of the severity of global warming and its presumed dangers can backfire, paradoxically increasing skepticism about global warming by contradicting individuals’ deeply-held beliefs that the world is fundamentally just” (PDF).

The defeatist polemic offered by Hendrie details the nightmare of climate change, but what about the dream? In their 2007 book Break Through, post-environmentalist thinkers Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger argue that the absence of a positive vision is partly to blame for the lack of progress on climate change in the United States. They also argue that social values are a key factor in determining the types of policies that public will accept. Individuals must first feel secure and prosperous, and posses a sense of gratitude to be open to political and economic change. These insights help us understand the Australian situation.

Apocalyptic rhetoric does nothing to cultivate the aforementioned values or promote a vision of a better future. Fortunately, efforts are now underway to demonstrate that climate change is a solvable problem: A crisis that presents us with opportunities.

In 2010, Beyond Zero Emissions published the Banksia Award-winning research, the Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy plan with the University of Melbourne Energy Institute. The report sets out a roadmap for powering Australia with 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020. It contains a carefully-considered analysis of the energy technologies, industrial capacity, and investment required to repower Australia.

Our researchers explain that a 60/40 mix of concentrating solar thermal power and large-scale wind developments, combined with an upgraded grid and comprehensive energy efficiency measures, can reliably supply Australia’s electricity needs. Rolling out such a plan would help create new jobs, revive stressed industries, and boost our exports.

The work of Beyond Zero Emissions helps Australians see opportunities in climate action. This is a fact that some other nations have already caught on to.

South Korea is now investing in a massive ‘green new deal’ to increase its clean technology competitiveness. Korea’s green stimulus invests about $85 billion over five years (2 per cent of GDP per year) in renewable energy; LEDs; hybrid vehicles; and new smart grid infrastructure will help it capture a share of nascent clean technology markets. To put this into context, Korea’s green investment is double what the Labor Government will invest in the National Broadband Network.

China clean technology investments are even bigger. The nation has pledged to invest a whopping $743 billion over the next decade to meet ambitious renewable energy deployment targets. These massive government investments have helped China emerge as the world’s leading clean technology powerhouse. China has rapidly built its domestic manufacturing capacity over the past several years and is on track to make 43 per cent of solar panels and 39 per cent of the wind turbines sold worldwide in 2010. As a result of this concerted effort, Ernst & Young now rank China as the most attractive destination for private investment in renewable energy.

A positive vision is at the heart of South Korea and China’s climate change strategy. Their approach has another purpose: It reshapes their economies so they benefit from decarbonisation. It is in this stroke of genius that we find the key to addressing what Hendrie correctly identifies as a major barrier to action: entrenched fossil fuel interests.

To overcome the powerful fossil fuel interests that benefit from business as usual, Australia needs a growing clean technology industry that can argue forcefully for policies that are good for our economy and our climate. Large-scale investments in renewable energy, clean technology and sustainable infrastructure can drive a vibrant clean technology sector in Australia.

This investment-centred climate policy can win the hearts and minds of Australians. The Coalition and fossil fuel interests, and perhaps even a few Labor MPs, might argue against investment. But by doing so they will position themselves as opposing job creation and critically important industries and infrastructure. These status quo forces will have a tough time arguing against nation-building investments. Indeed, this has been the case with the Labor Government’s National Broadband Network that enjoys popular support in the electorate.

Vision is important. It guides us towards the future. Doug Hendrie presents a vision of climate apocalypse. Beyond Zero Emissions present a vision where climate action is part of a prosperous and sustainable future. So where do you want to end up?