Everyone’s talking about climate – except the government

Canberra’s silence in the face of mounting public concern can no longer be justified.

Every nation identifies itself through stories – some true, some dodgy, some entirely mythical. Ours are about settlers coming around the world, about fighting battles far from our shores, about bushrangers, troopers, squatters, drovers, indigenous people and immigrants.

A thread running through all these stories is that in this harsh, unforgiving land whose moods can turn lives upside down, people have to be physically tough, resourceful, purposeful, plain-speaking and courageous.

With wildfire in the news, our Australian heroes of the moment, with all those qualities and more, are the ones putting themselves in harm’s way to keep flames at bay and save lives and property.

Early in April this year a group of 23 of these people, former chiefs of fire and emergency services in all states and territories – many still active volunteers in local fire brigades – signed a letter to prime minister Scott Morrison seeking an urgent meeting to tell him about their critical concerns.

They wrote of increasingly extreme weather events overwhelming emergency services and putting lives, properties and livelihoods at risk, and asked for a federal parliamentary inquiry into the resourcing and equipping of the nation’s emergency services.

The group, which calls itself Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, sought an urgent review of fire-fighting aircraft, pointing out that access to large helicopters and fixed-wing planes leased from the northern hemisphere was restricted because of an increasing overlap of fire seasons.

The PM was in the midst of an election campaign when the letter was sent, so it was no surprise that he didn’t reply. It was re-sent after the Morrison victory. Two months later the PM replied proposing that the group meet with energy minister Angus Taylor.

As spokesperson Greg Mullins, a former NSW fire chief, told the story last week, the group wanted ministers with finance and emergency responsibilities to be in the discussion, but Taylor declined to help get them to a meeting. They again sought help from the PM, but got no response.

As the fire chiefs had foreshadowed in their letter, the present Queensland fire season started early, in August, when the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre warned it was shaping up to be a bad one.

In 2003 the Howard government agreed to meet states halfway in a cost-sharing lease of fire-fighting aircraft. Leasing or buying these aircraft now costs far more than in 2003. But Canberra’s contribution has barely moved from that time, leaving states carrying 90 per cent of the burden.

With “unprecedented” NSW and Queensland fires raging and with angry insults between Nationals and Greens MPs adding to the general din, David Littleproud, whose agriculture and water portfolio also covers emergency services, has now agreed to meet with the group next month.

The political fracas is no surprise. Climate change comes up every time there has been a fire or weather emergency, and the standard response is that “now is not the time” to discuss it. Aware of the perils of raising it in fraught times, people tend to say nothing.

But between emergencies, too, the Morrison government actively discourages discussion of climate change impacts and mitigation. Ministers quickly brush off questions on the topic, and we continue to have to nurse their political sensitivities by treading carefully around it.

Global warming doesn’t cause fires, but it does make them worse. Scientific study of the connection finds that the way climate change alters rainfall, wind and evaporation patterns causes many places to dry more quickly, making fires more likely to ignite and spread, and far more intense.

Mullins pointed out danger signals: autumn-winter rain in south-eastern Australia now 20 per cent below average, fire seasons up to two months longer than before, and windows narrowing for hazard reduction burning. We face the prospect of 12-month fire seasons, as now happens in California.

A growing chorus – yesterday the insurance industry added its considerable voice – is urging the government to engage with genuine public concerns and develop a national wildfire strategy to deal with a changing climate. Its silence on this subject cannot be justified.

There is a silver lining. Drought creeps up on you, but wildfire makes a big noise. If the warning from these heroes about ever-worsening fire seasons doesn’t push the Morrison government into taking climate change seriously, nothing will.

• LOCAL initiatives to help the push to lower emissions are a vital counter to national inaction. Circular Economy Huon is conducting an EV recharging seminar for tourism operators at Willie Smith’s Apple Shed, 2064 Huon Highway, from 9 till 11 am today. • And at the South Hobart community’s annual meeting tomorrow (7pm, SH Primary School Hall) residents will hear about a bulk purchase of electric vehicles.

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Climate leadership is alive and well across the ditch

But in this week of wildfires the PM is much too busy to think about such things.

Last week, in an island nation to our east, we got a glimpse of a better future. With bipartisan support, a bill mandating dramatic action to curb carbon emissions passed the New Zealand parliament.

Three days after Donald Trump turned his back on the climate crisis by formally announcing US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, New Zealand’s Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill was voted into law.

It was welcome relief from Trump’s bad news. The US is the only nation to withdraw from the deal reached in Paris in 2015, when every developed country agreed to cut emissions and help poor countries deal with a warming climate. It’s far from perfect, but it’s all we have.

The US withdrawal is still subject to a formal 12-month cooling-off period, but that doesn’t lessen the pain of Trump’s decision. For all its many faults, the world’s most powerful democracy sets standards which others tend to follow. Its withdrawal makes progress a lot harder.

Trump’s rambling 30-minute announcement of the Paris decision said little except that he was “fighting every day for the great people of this country”. As he’s supposed to do, except that pulling out of Paris is as much a blow to his country and its people as it is to the rest of us.

He claimed, without naming sources, that the Paris Agreement would cost “close to $3 trillion in lost GDP and 6½ million industrial jobs”, forcing the US to cut production of resources including coal (“and I happen to love the coal mines”).

While asserting his own country was “the world’s leader in environmental protection”, Trump also said the agreement imposed “no meaningful obligation on the world’s leading polluters”, naming China and India as “leading polluters”.

[Fact check: As developing countries under UN rules, China and India don’t have to cut carbon emissions but agreed to do so on a longer timeframe when the US pledged to act. The US is a higher emitter than India, second behind China, and several times higher per person than either.]

The most important thing about Trump’s statement is what he didn’t say. His 2500-word speech contained not a single mention of the reason the treaty exists in the first place – climate change.

Contrast all that with New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern’s address to her parliament last week. Extreme weather, ecological impacts, spread of diseases, and rising sea levels making fresh water in island nations undrinkable were indicators that “our world is warming – undeniably”, she said.

“Therefore the question for all of us is, what side of history will we choose to sit on in this moment in time? I absolutely believe and continue to stand by the statement that climate change is the biggest challenge of our time.”

The new law, which passed by 119 votes to one, will be the basis for the country’s effort to meet its Paris 2050 commitment of cutting all greenhouse emissions to net zero by 2050. Using a carbon price, the country aims for an 80 per cent cut in methane emitted from animals and decaying plants.

New Zealand has pledged to reach 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2035, to have a “green hydrogen” plant operating next year, to stop offshore oil and gas exploration, to make low-emission vehicles cheaper, and to invest in rail, cycling and walking. It is well on the way to planting a billion trees.

The country will seek to end all tariffs on green technologies, fight to end government subsidies of fossil fuels costing $US500 billion globally, and will put $300 million into the Green Climate Fund for developing countries – contrary to Australia and the US, which have pulled out of the fund.

The Ardern government consulted extensively with Green and opposition National MPs as well as business and resource sectors, which were won over by investment prospects in a clean economy. To use our own PM’s favourite word, miracles can happen when people talk to each other.

Ardern pointedly rejected the idea that her country should act only when others do. She said that NZ food producers needed climate action because their product depended on a high level of environmental responsibility.

New Zealand has set a standard for the rest of the world, not least its next-door neighbour. With our worst East Coast wildfires in memory taking full toll in the midst of the worst drought in our history, it’s surely an example that Australia should take a good hard look at.

But this government has already declared its hand. In multilateral forums we’re a laggard, not a leader. We’re not yet following Trump, but pulling out of Paris will sound a much more harmonious chord in Canberra than Ardern’s great achievement.

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Tasmanian climate leadership? Not yet, but…

The Tasmanian government’s claim to lead the world doesn’t stack up, but that can be rectified.

“Tasmania is a genuine leader in responding to climate change.” That is the State government’s bold claim in the blurb promoting its “Climate Action 21” strategic plan, but it’s simply not true.

In fairness to the Hodgman government, from the day in 2007 when Paul Lennon released a draft climate strategy, no Tasmanian administration has produced any climate measure of consequence, despite strategies released every two or three years, in 2008, 2011, 2014, 2016 and 2017.

A strategy ought to be a plan to reach a desired goal, but these climate strategies seem to be devices for going nowhere, for preserving the status quo. They seem to be designed not to be read, but to serve as props for ministers, for holding up in parliament to show they’ve done something.

Assuming the primary goal of Tasmania’s climate strategies is lower greenhouse emissions, the data would indicate we’re anything but a global leader.

The federal government is notoriously slow to release data, but the latest available full year (2017) shows Tasmanian emissions more than a million tonnes above the figure for 2016, with rises in every sector: land use, agriculture, industry, energy and waste. If Tasmania was a country, its emissions per person in 2017 would have put us in the top 10 per cent of developed nations.

That’s not to say nothing is being done about climate change. The government’s Climate Change Office is a valuable source of information and advice, and local government, with Hobart City leading the way, is taking steps to reduce environmental impact and adapt to changing conditions.

But our institutions of government were designed in an age when time was of little consequence. Neither our bureaucracies nor their political masters seem to have adjusted to the fact that those days have gone. Climate change demands urgent action.

Our claims to leadership were based on paradigms that simply don’t stack up – on a hydro system built many decades ago and a rate of forest regrowth that is unsustainable. But we can build on our island’s advantages to become the leader we claim to be.

The first thing to do is stop messing around with disposable strategies and develop an action plan that is mandated through legislation. The fact that we don’t have one – that we have never had one, under any administration – is a killer-blow to any government’s credibility.

So far our only climate legislation is the Lennon government’s Climate Change (State Action) Act of 2008, which specified no action but did set up an advisory committee. Parliament has revisited this legislation just once, in 2014, to abolish the advisory committee – hardly an advance.

The record is dismal, but it can be rectified. The Hodgman government can start claiming leadership when it puts in place a comprehensive Climate Change Act that spells out actions to make our island home more sustainable and more equitable.

In doing so, it will do well to bear in mind that we are no longer just a speck at the bottom of the world, but an integral part of a nation and a planet whose future is the responsibility of every human community.

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