Australia faces its own Brexit experience

The coming election will reflect a lot of the same frustrations that drove the Brexit vote.

Boris Johnson and the “Leave” campaign bus, when it all seemed so simple. PHOTO Reuters/Peter Nicholls

Boris Johnson and the “Leave” campaign bus, when it all seemed so simple. PHOTO Reuters/Peter Nicholls

The Paris climate summit last year was a ray of sunshine for global climate policy, getting nations to commit to tightening targets and an aspirational 1.5C warming limit.

Credit for that success must go to the host nation, France, to the community of nations that supported it to the hilt, the European Union, and to the (once) United Kingdom.

Many Australian conservative politicians would have been perplexed at Britain’s leadership of Europe’s “Green Growth Group” of nations and its push – against strong objections from some EU members – for much stronger low-carbon policies in Europe.

On the basis of scientific advice that 2C of warming would bring yet more extreme, highly destructive weather, the UK under David Cameron led the argument for European policies to target the much safer limit of 1.5C of warming.

This was Britain at its best, working within a complex, unwieldy system to achieve advances weighty enough to shape world politics. Last week, less uplifting British qualities were on show.

Brexit was a victory for age over youth, which has most to lose from climate change. Where their elders saw danger in open borders and opted to put up the shutters, Britons aged from 18 to 24 saw opportunity in an open Europe and voted three to one against leaving.

The new Little Britain looks like it might have to do without its Scottish and Irish electorate, which voted overwhelmingly to stay in Europe. Disgruntled Scotland has now renewed its campaign to leave the UK, and a reunion of Ulster with republican Ireland is firmly on the table.

How Brexit will affect the global effort to mitigate climate change will take years to play out, but it’s a near-certainty that Europe will now stick with its 40 per cent 2030 target (against Australia’s 26 to 28 per cent) instead of the 50 per cent that the UK was pushing.

Any sustained economic slump arising from Brexit will help bring emissions down. But more significantly it will also diminish resources to develop clean energy, helped along by the fact that nationalist sentiment has more than a little in common with climate-change denial.

Britain’s new leader may be Cameron’s chief Brexit opponent, Boris Johnson, who once voiced scepticism about human-induced warming on the basis of a string of snowy British winters. That same shallow, ill-considered thinking surfaced repeatedly during the campaign.

I almost forgot – we have our own poll coming up. It too involves pent-up frustration with political and financial authority in an increasingly unequal Australia. Major parties are on the nose, as in Britain, and it’s likely that what divides us now will still divide us afterwards.

Climate policy is one of those divides, revealed in an admirably independent and thorough analysis of parties’ pre-election climate policies by Australia’s Climate Institute.

All were found wanting. The Greens and (surprisingly) the Glenn Lazarus Team came out best, but Green inflexibility and the GLT’s lack of detail were negatives. The Nick Xenophon Team scored well on ambition but also lacked detail.

The Climate Institute assessment didn’t include recent arrivals like the Renewable Energy Party or independents like Denison MP Andrew Wilkie. Both, I think, would have scored highly.

Applied globally, says the Climate Institute, Labor’s policies still wouldn’t keep warming below the dangerous 2C threshold, while the Coalition’s would leave us a disastrous 3C to 4C warmer.

Former Liberal leader John Hewson is having none of it. He absented himself from Malcolm Turnbull’s campaign launch on Sunday to tell a rally in Turnbull’s Sydney electorate that the need for bipartisan leadership on climate is “more than urgent”.

Many electors, seeing Australian emissions still rising while hearing false claims to the contrary, share Hewson’s concern. While time ticks away our political masters choose to talk of other things.

But however frustrated you are with the established order, don’t opt out. Our main game has to be a decarbonised economy. On Saturday vote for those who will work for it and avoid those who won’t.

“Lofty ambitions, great expectations and achieving carbon neutrality” is the title of the 24th Richard Jones Memorial Lecture in Hobart tonight (Stanley Burbury Theatre, 7pm), to be delivered by this year’s Tasmanian Australian of the Year, Jane Hutchinson.

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The ghost rats of Bramble Cay

Climate change has sealed the fate of a unique Barrier Reef rodent.

The tiny islet of Bramble Cay, in the NE Torres Strait. PHOTO Natalie Waller/The Conversation

The tiny islet of Bramble Cay, in the NE Torres Strait. PHOTO Natalie Waller/The Conversation

Life in the wild is a rough, tough affair, a battle against the elements and each other. Nature leaves no room for sentiment.

The same is true for science, but in the life sciences it’s hard to keep sentiment at bay because we humans are part of the story, both as living organisms ourselves and as important agents of change. Inevitably, the study of species extinction carries a lot of human baggage.

We’ve worked out roughly how species evolve and interact, yet this knowledge remains fragmented and incomplete. Estimates of the number of species vary from 1.5 million at the low end (nearly all identified) to as high as 100 million (nearly all unidentified).

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature requires conclusive evidence before it records a species as extinct. It lists about 800 extinctions since about 1600 – less than 0.1 per cent of species identified over this time, or about two per year.

Extrapolating from their own field of expertise, most ecologists believe the present global extinction rate is much higher. Some put it as high as one or more species every hour.

Unlike the naturalist’s specimen, living things can’t be pinned down, and though we’re slowly getting a better handle on species extinction we’ll never know the full story.

But an extinction that was confirmed this month stands out from the crowd – a species that was confined to one of the Torres Strait Islands, the tiny but not insignificant Bramble Cay.

Not much bigger than a football oval, Bramble Cay marks the northern extremity of the Great Barrier Reef. At nine degrees of latitude south of the Equator and only 50 km off the Papuan coast, it’s also the northernmost bit of Australian dirt.

Seawater flooding on many islands in Torres Strait is a regular event these days because the past 20 years have seen waters rise by 6 mm a year, well above the global average of 3.2 mm. By 2100 they’re projected to be between half and one metre higher.

Excluding a 17 metre light tower, the cay’s highest point is just 3 metres above high tide. In an archipelago of low-lying islands, Bramble Cay is one of the most vulnerable.

A Queensland government report released early this month said that the island’s recent history had been marked by “anthropogenic climate change-induced impacts of sea-level rise” caused by “damaging storm surges and extreme high water levels”, more frequent and more intense than previously.

It was this, said the report, which sealed the fate of the Bramble Cay melomys, a rodent species that appears to have evolved to its present form on the island, having been found nowhere else. It was the only mammal species endemic to the Reef.

A Bramble Cay melomys. PHOTO Queensland Government

A Bramble Cay melomys. PHOTO Queensland Government

So Bramble Cay has given Australia the melancholy distinction of recording the first mammal extinction in the world known to have been caused by human-induced climate change.

There were several hundred Bramble Cay melomys back in the 1970s. A 2004 survey found just a dozen. Two University of Queensland surveys in 2014, the last one involving multiple camera traps and intensive daytime searches, failed to find a single individual.

A fisherman who often visits the island says he last saw a melomys – just one – in late 2009. This solitary animal may have been the endling of the Bramble Cay melomys, the last of its line.

This extinction leaves just a tiny gap in the list of over 2200 rodent species – about 40 per cent of all mammal species – in an order of animals represented on every continent except Antarctica. There’s no point in being sentimental over it.

No point, but I can’t suppress a feeling of loss and a twinge of regret that after surviving for centuries on one tiny island, this little animal has now fallen victim to humanity’s excesses.

We could mark its demise with something solid – an engraved headstone on the island, say – but its time would be limited. Like the departed melomys, Bramble Cay itself is headed for a watery grave.

But we shouldn’t forget, so here’s the record for posterity: Bramble Cay mosaic-tailed rat, Melomys rubicola; first described by Oldfield Thomas 1924; extinct 2016. R.I.P.

Posted in Australian politics, biodiversity, biological resources, changes to climate, climate system, ecology, environmental degradation, extinction, marine sciences, science, sea level, wildlife management | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Orlando shows why reform is so hard

The trouble with terrorism is that it’s an excuse for not doing the hard stuff.

Where 50 people died: The Pulse Nightclub, Orlando, Florida. PHOTO Jake Ryan

Where 50 people died: The Pulse Nightclub, Orlando, Florida. PHOTO Jake Ryan

The president said so, the presidential candidates said so, the FBI said so. It must be true.

Orlando was an act of terror, a political crime, akin to the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the Paris massacre in November last year, and the shootings in San Bernadino, California, three weeks later.

The US-born shooter’s Afghan descent and an alleged prior declaration of allegiance to ISIS – the self-styled Islamic State – underlines the terror motive. The praise for his act from ISIS sympathizers in some Islamist forums says that for some he’s already a hero.

We have much still to learn about this mass murder and we won’t ever know much about the gunman’s psychological disposition because he’s dead.

But we can already confidently say that besides the above, this was also a hate crime, a crime against difference. The targeting of a gay nightclub says the shooter had a problem with people of alternative sexual orientation, and maybe with people just out having a good time.

I don’t see this as a religious act, but it does involve a mindset often linked to religion, in which puritanical people see themselves on a plane above those with different beliefs, and see people living secular lives as the pits, the bottom of the heap.

More important than any of this is what Orlando does to the rest of us.

At the turn of this century we had reason to think we were making progress with the big global environmental issues. We’d acted to curb ozone depletion and acid rain. We’d launched the UN climate change convention and negotiated the flawed but still remarkable Kyoto Protocol.

There was still room for hope even when George Bush repudiated Kyoto in mid-2001. But then came 9/11 and all bets were off. Suddenly we had a war on our hands, which in 2003 became two wars. Now there are countless squabbles in many countries, with no end in sight.

Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth broke through in 2006, followed by the landmark fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (each achievement winning a Nobel Prize).

That progress seemed to be halted by global financial crisis and the failure of the Copenhagen climate conference. But we did manage to keep moving, buoyed in Australia by the Gillard government’s greatest achievement, a comprehensive carbon price scheme.

Throughout this time other jurisdictions – national, regional and local – along with individuals and groups of people were steadily building on growing scientific knowledge about climate change and its impact, taking innovative actions that set an example for others.

But always there were setbacks, some bigger than others.

In Australia, Tony Abbott’s rise to prominence saw bipartisanship on climate policy disappear. In the lead-up to his 2013 election win, the long-haul climate challenge with its built-in reform and innovation agenda disappeared from public debate, replaced by the security agenda.

John Howard had shown in 2001 how border protection could swing electoral fortunes his way. With the acquiescence of a hapless Labor party Abbott took this to new levels, forcing boats back to Indonesia and leaving “successful” boat people to rot or go mad on Nauru and Manus Island.

Europe – the long-time global leader of comprehensive climate action – has now begun to unravel. The unprecedented refugee pressure arising out of the Syrian war gives new impetus to separatists in the UK, Hungary, Spain and practically every other European country.

And now Orlando. Donald Trump is in a league of his own and his reaction to the shootings – radical Islam is our enemy, our leaders are weak, we must hunker down, it’s going to get worse – is doubtless all his own work, but it isn’t so far removed from what Abbott might have said.

These are the rocks on which our great work to build a better future comes to grief. Our challenge now, as always, is to raise our eyes above the distractions and remain true to that noble goal.

• In Hobart tonight (6.30, Dechaineaux Lecture Theatre, Hunter St.) Oxfam is hosting a climate policy forum, with guest speaker Paul Gilding of Cambridge University’s Sustainability Leadership Institute, and candidates Andrew Wilkie (Independent MP), John Short (Labor), Jen Brown (Greens), Nicky Cohen (Xenophon) and Hans Willink (Science Party).

Posted in Australian politics, carbon pricing scheme, carbon tax, climate politics, community action, emissions trading, international politics, leadership, psychology, religion, social and personal issues, social mindsets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment