With paralysis at the top, local action is the go

As new paradigms re-align global politics, local government is gearing up to act.

The damage that a changing climate is inflicting on our natural and human worlds is challenging everyone involved, from the global down to the local level, to cast off old world views and embrace wholly new ones.

As national delegations gathered in Madrid last week for the 25th UN climate convention (COP 25), southern Tasmanian councils embarked on a climate initiative of their own to deal with what Huon mayor Bec Enders calls “the most significant crisis of our time”.

In both cases participants are having to deal with paradigm shifts that would have been unthinkable not so long ago.

In Madrid, with the United States effectively sidelined after pulling out of the Paris Agreement, Europe is trying its own “Green New Deal” to raise the accord from its sickbed. Meanwhile gas began flowing into China courtesy of the 3000 km “Power of Siberia” pipeline, resulting from an agreement between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.

These two scenarios emphasise that the old North Atlantic centre of global influence is no longer what it was. Asia is the new centre, and Russia’s moribund economy may yet be revived courtesy of its huge reserves of natural gas and the emerging superpower to its south-east.

One other paradigm shift involves Australia. Under attack for building new coal power stations, China would always favour gas as a cleaner alternative. Now it has the option of converting coal-fired generators to gas, even brand new ones. More gas from Siberia implies less coal from us.

Climate change is helping to drive this fundamental shift in the global political balance, but its cutting edge is local. We will feel the impact of global warming most keenly in the places where we live our lives, in our countless encounters with daily weather and how it affects our own backyard.

The Climate Action Collaboration, an new initiative by the University of Tasmania and a coalition of southern Tasmanian councils, recognises the impact local changes in climate will have on local regions, and that old ways of administering them are no longer viable.

The Southern Tasmanian Councils Authority came to see a decade ago that collaboration would enable economies of scale in providing relevant knowledge and cost-effective responses to climate risks, taking in extreme heat, wildfires, drought, storms and flooding of coasts and rivers.

Back then, STCA sought help from the Climate Futures Tasmania research program, and the result was a broad analysis of climate risk for each of Tasmania’s 29 municipalities. As the need to respond to climate change becomes clearer and more pressing, the focus is now sharper.

Now based in the University of Tasmania’s geography and spatial sciences department, Climate Futures Tasmania is working on raising the resolution of global climate models to provide each local council with a fine-grained analysis of what it can expect from climate change.

The newly-formed coalition between the university and STCA will use that analysis to identify problem areas and solutions, and embed these within councils’ everyday activities, including planning and building approvals, waste management and community services.

Professor Jason Byrne, an urban planning scholar who leads the university’s school of technology, environments and design, sees the program’s main challenge as developing a “decision-making support template” for councils.

Tasmania’s rural councils are the smallest in Australia. Individually, they have limited resources and skills available to deal with what climate change is going to do to them.

A regional approach enables small councils to learn from each other in a new and complex policy environment, jointly devising ways to reduce carbon footprints and respond to changing climate in more streamlined and targeted ways.

One important lesson from past climate initiatives is that local government needs to deal with public anxiety about climate change, and the best medicine for this is action and participation. So practical outcomes will be the basis of the southern Tasmanian program.

The local projects emerging from this work are in the cause of climate mitigation or adaptation, and projects like tree plantings, dune revegetation, urban gardening or energy-efficient homes are all good for the climate. But their practical benefits are what will get people involved.

Higher levels of government have responded to multiple signals of dangerous climate change with silence and policy paralysis. That leaves councils now to pick up the baton and marshal their own limited resources to meet the challenge.

They will need help, which means us. Ordinary people are now fired up with the need to act. With councils now prepared to take initiatives, we might all be surprised at how quickly local projects can be realised.

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Our future in the hands of simpletons

The Morrison government is going after people objecting to its failed climate policies.

As the saying goes, for every complex problem there’s a well-known solution that is neat, plausible and wrong.

Political leaders grab hold of simple solutions and make them seem plausible. But running the country is complex, so our democratic systems include checks and balances to limit what politicians can directly control. We don’t let them run classrooms and hospital wards, for instance.

Nor our courts, though some would like to. Because justice is complicated, legal professionals administer the judicial system based on centuries of collective wisdom. Politicians seeking the simple solution of mandatory minimum sentences are telling us they know better. They don’t.

The same applies, but even more so, to the natural world. To understand the workings of this most complex of systems we turn to science, which has long-established and trusted methods for working out what is happening around us.

Science has been telling us since the 1970s that human activities are seriously damaging Earth’s natural systems. Politicians in power tend to find this unpalatable. Donald Trump and others like him attack it as “fake news”. Other governments, like ours, choose to ignore it.

The release last week of two scientific reports, from the World Meteorological Organisation and the United Nations Environment Program, should have stopped leaders in their tracks. But neither the Morrison government nor any state administration, including Tasmania, took any notice.

It’s self-evident that ignoring such reports is a monumental political failure. The UNEP report pointed out the heavy – and rising – price we are paying for the failure of governments to act early on advice about curbing carbon dioxide concentrations.

Serious climate action from 2010 would have enabled the world to meet a 1.5C target with annual emission cuts of just 3.3 per cent. Since this didn’t happen, says the report, we now need an average cut of 7.6 per cent each year for the next decade.

While PM Scott Morrison says Australia is doing its bit, the UNEP says that all 2015 Paris pledges are far too weak. It says they need to be at least three times stronger to achieve warming of less than 2C and more than five times stronger to stay below the much safer 1.5C of warming.

Paris targets must be reviewed every five years, and next year is crunch time. The UNEP report warns that if we wait until 2025 it will be too late to close the 2030 emissions gap, resulting in an increasingly unstable climate and a damaged global economy unable to fund adaptation measures or protect biodiversity and food supply.

Last week’s WMO report only added to the general anxiety about how we’re travelling. In a nutshell, it says that greenhouse warming has increased by 43 per cent since 1990 and that greenhouse gases, now at record high levels, are rising faster than the average of the past decade.

Around four million years ago, when Earth last experienced this level of carbon dioxide in the air, it was 2C to 3C warmer than now and sea level was at least 10 meters higher. That’s what we should now anticipate, and perhaps sooner than anyone presently thinks.

A paper in Nature last week by seven world-leading scientists, including Will Steffen of the Australian National University, concluded that we are already on the verge of passing “hothouse” tipping points leading to irreversible climate change and “an existential threat to civilisation”.

None of this will surprise anyone tracking the science debate. Over decades, scientists have been meticulously gathering evidence, like doing an unimaginably large jigsaw, and analysing it in their professional journals. Seeing calamity ahead, they are now desperate to get our attention.

While our political leaders find this unpalatable and ignore it, people who do follow the science are understandably distressed and angry. Public protest is their response of last resort.

In targeting protests that disrupt business, the federal and Tasmanian governments miss the mark by 180 degrees. By far the darkest cloud over our future is carbon pollution driven by fossil fuel businesses – supported by government subsidies which add up to $500 billion globally each year.

The climate crisis needs leaders with the intelligence to recognise complexity, the courage to make hard decisions, and enough determination and empathy to bring people with them on a long journey.

Instead, our governments have gone for the simple, empty answer. “Lock ’em up” is their response to crime and civil disobedience. The mantra for climate change is “We are meeting our targets”.

Simpletons are in charge. God help us.

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Preparing for a new transport future

We need electric transport, and we need everyone to be involved. Good government requires comprehensive planning for a just transition.

An affluent society like ours is full of technologies that delude us into thinking we’re in charge of our lives, and the example that first comes to mind is the car. For most Australians, life without one would be unthinkable.

The advertising hype – fingertip mastery over the universe in a sleek, shiny capsule – conceals the fact that people’s passion for cars contributes significantly to global warming. In Australia cars and light commercial vehicles produce over 60 per cent of transport emissions.

With the US and Canada, we are among the three biggest car-users in the world, and one of the worst performers in transport efficiency, or distance covered per person per litre of fuel burned, behind countries like Indonesia, Russia and Mexico.

Tasmania’s clean hydro electricity means that road transport makes up a higher proportion of total emissions than any other state. But while the cars on our roads have become more fuel-efficient over the past decade, our transport emissions have been virtually unchanged for many years.

This year Climate Tasmania, a small voluntary group of which I am a member, has developed a legislative framework for a strong Tasmanian climate change response. It is seeking a non-partisan parliamentary process to transform this into workable, effective legislation.

Prominent in our proposal is a mechanism for managing the changeover to clean transport. This is no trivial matter. A car is one of the most expensive items in any household inventory. If half the population ends up stranded with a fossil-fuelled clunker, we’re all in trouble.

We are proposing that an energy transition authority be set up to manage the shift to a clean economy. It would regulate public reporting of fossil fuel use by bigger industry players, reduce adverse impacts and identify business opportunities, while also safeguarding equity.

We envisage that government will lead this process by facilitating take-up of electric vehicles, encouraging a second-hand EV market and supporting the rollout of recharging stations.

For all its ultimate benefits including much cheaper transport, the inevitable transition to clean transport will be a massive economic disruption for our island state. Without a firm government hand on the tiller, this will be too much for some to handle.

The Hodgman government was notably absent from this scene until recently, but the latest report released by its Climate Change Office last week shows promising signs that it’s starting to respond.

The government’s “Charge Smart” program offers over $500,000 in grants for 26 new strategic charging stations in a state-wide EV network. It is also offering funding to help government (state and local) and commercial vehicle fleets reduce emissions and costs while preparing for EV uptake.

No doubt aware of potential government support, others are already acting. Gerry White, a veteran sustainability activist in Kingborough and Huon municipalities, reported “a good level of interest” from Upper House MPs this month on proposals by Circular Economy Huon for ride-sharing and other measures to combat traffic congestion.

The CEH submission highlighted the futility of increasing road space in the face of ever-rising car numbers and the high cost of rural public transport. It revives the idea of car-pooling, tried in 2008 in Georgi Marshall’s innovative CoolPool Tasmania, but this time with government incentives.

Car-pooling is a good idea regardless of the kind of vehicle used, but moving to an electric car in the absence of a transition plan is another level of commitment altogether. New EVs cost a minimum of around $45,000. I’ve never been able to afford one.

Tasmanian-based Good Car Company is aiming to break that impasse by offering used EVs at a relatively affordable price. Now it’s teaming up with groups like Circular Economy Huon and the South Hobart Sustainable Community to offer second-hand vehicles, acquired in bulk from Japan, at around half their original price.

Between two and six years old, these cars are not exactly for the highway– the longest range you can get out of their fully-charged batteries is 159 km – but they are ideal commuter vehicles. Unlike petrol and diesel cars, EVs are most economical in stop-start city traffic.

Savings increase over time. Energy for EVs costs well under half that for fossil-fuelled equivalents, a 2019 Victorian study found, and with almost no moving parts EVs are very cheap to maintain. Longer-range batteries and more fast-charge stations will secure their place in our transport future.

Many Tasmanians are primed and ready to go, but if this is to happen at scale it must have clear and strong support from government. That surely can’t be far away.

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