Margaret Steadman and other nation-builders

The Australian of the Year awards reflect our nation at its best

Margaret Steadman, 2017 Senior Tasmanian of the Year

Margaret Steadman, 2017 Senior Tasmanian of the Year

I thought I knew something about living more sustainably when I started advocating for stronger climate action. Then I met Margaret Steadman.

At that time Margaret managed the Tasmanian Environment Centre on the cramped upper floor of a quaint old stone building in Bathurst Street, Hobart, where the TEC had operated since it was first set up as a resource for environmental education in the 1970s.

In the late 1990s Margaret and her small, hard-working team of staff and volunteers saw something that many environmentalists didn’t: that in the great battle to conserve Earth’s natural values, the big issue wasn’t wilderness, but how people lived, worked and played.

Under Margaret, the TEC was transformed into SLT – Sustainable Living Tasmania – with a focus on urban life and how we make it work better for the planet. Tasmanians were able to see how this might work in a new annual expo, now called the Sustainable Living Festival.

Margaret moved SLT into roomier premises at 71 Murray Street, where it has gone from strength to strength promoting energy efficiency under another exceptional leader, Todd Houstein. That success didn’t come easily; SLT has always had to battle for every cent of its limited funding.

Since retiring a few years ago Margaret has applied her teaching and advocacy skills to helping people live more sustainably while lobbying government and galvanising public support for more effective climate action.

She does it without fuss and with no expectation of reward. For Margaret, sustainability has never been just something to be thought and talked about, but an integral part of daily life. She prefers walking, cycling or catching a bus to using a car, buys second-hand whenever possible, and uses local food including her own garden produce.

Although she has much to be proud of, Margaret remains refreshingly free of that holier-than-thou attitude sometimes found in people who strive for a better life. She’s one of us, and she’s for us – a proud humanist and humanitarian.

Now she has been recognised by her adopted home state. Named 2017 Senior Tasmanian of the Year, she will stand with other state and territory champions in Canberra tomorrow night for the announcement of the 2017 Australians of the Year.

With her will be speech pathologist Rosalie Martin, named 2017 Tasmanian of the Year for her ground-breaking work as a volunteer at Risdon Prison – a pilot project aptly called Just Sentences which is opening doors for prisoners with low literacy skills.

Young Tasmanian of the Year Mitch McPherson will be there too. He responded to his brother Ty’s death from suicide by setting up a hugely successful suicide prevention charity, Speak Up – Stay ChatTY.

And Anthony Edler, who was awarded Tasmania’s Local Hero of the Year for developing the Risdon Vale Bike Collective, serving not just young Tasmanians but others in less developed places.

Rosalie, Margaret, Mitch and Anthony join 28 other outstanding Australians, young, old and somewhere in the middle, who have unselfishly given their time, energy and talent to improve the lives of people in their communities.

Whatever we may think of Australia Day (and I believe the date should be changed), the Australian of the Year awards is where our celebration of the nation really gets it right.

Of the many ways of commemorating our nationhood, none is as important as the achievements of people like these. They richly deserve our applause.

They are the tip of a very big iceberg. For every person who is recognised in this way there are thousands of others toiling just as hard for the benefit of those around them.

Some of them may benefit financially while others necessarily live very frugal lives, but their motivation isn’t money. It’s a sense of belonging and a passionate desire to make things better.

I invite you to tune in to the Australian of the Year awards on ABC television, radio and online services at 7.30 tomorrow night, and celebrate with the rest of us the achievements of these nation-builders. This is Australia at its best.

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Warming record gets the cold shoulder

Those who govern us are alarmingly indifferent to warming extremes


More heat = less ice: 2016 data from NASA and the US National Snow and Ice Data Center

More heat = less ice: 2016 data from NASA and the US National Snow and Ice Data Center GRAPHS courtesy OpenMind

As I write this, climate monitoring organisations around the world including our own Bureau of Meteorology are assessing where 2016 sits on Earth’s 136-year temperature record.

Very soon the various conclusions will be out. Monthly year-to-date data indicate that 2016 will be the third successive record-warm year, after 2014 and 2015 had each set new highs.

This amazing run of record-breaking global warming is likely to end in 2017, in the absence of the powerful El Niño weather event that dominated conditions in 2015-16. But any lull will be temporary as high greenhouse gas levels continue to drive a relentless upward trend.

Temperature wasn’t the only bad news from 2016. The average extent of sea ice globally – taking in both northern and southern polar regions – was the lowest on record, driven by near-record lows in the Arctic and a dramatic drop in Antarctic sea ice cover from August onward.

We keep hearing about government progress in cutting emissions, but data from air monitoring stations, including Tasmania’s Cape Grim, tell a different story – not just a record high level of CO2 at the end of the year, but a record rate of increase. That’s truly disturbing.

Veteran US physicist James Hansen told an interviewer for the magazine Rolling Stone last month that our only chance of stabilising climate is to reverse the present emissions trend by making deep emission cuts year-on-year, beginning now.

The last time Earth experienced today’s mean temperature, around 120,000 years ago, said Hansen, sea level was six to nine metres higher than now. He added that if warming gets to 2C above pre-industrial levels, seas will eventually rise even higher than that and weather will be dangerously unstable.

Yet our current trajectory has us headed for 3C to 4C of warming, possibly more. Hansen believes the point where an unstable climate causes the global economy to collapse and the world to become ungovernable isn’t far away.

In 1988 Hansen testified before congress about the danger of greenhouse warming. Many scientists consider his projections to be on the high side, but while they sometimes chide him for going out on a limb they don’t reject what he says out of hand. He knows too much for that.

Here’s the thing. A few thousand people on the planet have taken the trouble to develop the tools and skills necessary to work out what’s happening to the climate. Unlike everyone else, they’ve done the sums – and they say that if we don’t change things, we’re cooked.

Most people with power and influence know nothing about the science but feel threatened by the message and pretend they didn’t hear it. Others even declare the message to be wrong, and try to undermine scientists’ credibility. Unfortunately for us all, those tactics are working.

In May 1940, when Nazi Germany had Britain on its knees, Winston Churchill spoke of “an ordeal of the most grievous kind” ahead, for which he could offer only “blood, toil, tears and sweat”.

If we had leaders able to articulate the climate challenge with that kind of courage and honesty we just might secure what is needed: an agreement crossing the full political and social spectrum to do whatever it takes to achieve real, substantial, permanent emission cuts.

But to articulate the challenge you first must understand something about science and its method, and that is in alarmingly short supply among our political and opinion leaders. Instead, we’ve had to put up with wimps and charlatans unprepared to call this for the crisis that it is.

Above all we must end the silence. More dangerous than the outright deniers in political ranks are those who pretend to be on the side of the science and then ignore it, turn away and do nothing.

In Australia, while our political masters see, hear and say nothing, the crazies bang at the gates demanding to be let in. In America the crazies are in already and about to take over the whole show.

The hard-won achievements of science and learning can be all too easily lost. Maybe a short, sharp dose of madness at the top will teach us to appreciate anew the value of sanity, knowledge, thoughtfulness and sweet reason, and commit ourselves to a science-driven regime.

Maybe, but why are we even countenancing such a thing? Why has it come to this?

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A government at a crossroads

It’s time Tasmanian leaders accepted responsibility for mitigating climate change.

Matthew Groom’s first draft of a climate strategy, “Embracing the Climate Challenge”, released in December 2015.

Matthew Groom’s claim in December 2015 to be “embracing the climate challenge” rings hollow in light of subsequent inaction.

Will Hodgman’s government is nothing if not busy when it comes to getting the message out.

In the past month it has put out 126 media releases – over four every day including weekends. The long list includes worthy initiatives in infrastructure, job training, gender equality, suicide, cyber-bullying, domestic violence and Aboriginal recognition.

Some media releases touch on energy and environment issues, including the big winter floods, energy security and bushfire preparation. Just one of them mentions climate change, in the context of the review of last summer’s wilderness fires led by environmental scientist Tony Press.

Press’s December report warns that climate change is causing summers to extend into autumn and increasing the incidence of fires sparked by lightning, especially since 2000. That in turn is raising wilderness fire risk and will make fire management more challenging as this century progresses.

Environment minister Matthew Groom made no mention of that rising challenge in his long media release on Press’s review, but he did say that wilderness fires weren’t unique to 2016 and had been recorded as far back as the 1930s. What’s that about? Is he saying that Press exaggerates future climate change?

In 2014 Groom disbanded the Tasmanian Climate Action Council, which for six years had advised government on climate change, on grounds that it didn’t justify its cost. In its last full year that cost amounted to $152,000. By my reckoning it would have been one of the cheapest advisory bodies.

In late 2014 former TCAC members re-assembled in a new voluntary group called Climate Tasmania. Today its numbers include climate scientists, lawyers, economists and others with something to offer public policy on climate change. I have been a member since January 2016.

Last week the co-convener of Climate Tasmania, economist Phillip Harrington, challenged the government “to make 2017 the year to re-set the clock on the state’s climate change strategies, to protect Tasmania from further economic harm”.

Harrington pointed out that weather events last year were the direct cause of a costly energy crisis, devastating wildfires, road and rail damage and loss of agricultural soils. This, he said, showed the fallacy of decision-makers’ attitude that Tasmania was a low-risk part of the world.

He lamented the failure of successive governments to implement any effective climate strategy for Tasmania and called for leaders to jointly enter a “fresh dialogue” and acknowledge the crucial place of climate action in Tasmania’s future economic and social well-being.

The annual Bureau of Meteorology climate report issued last week underlined Harrington’s words. 2016 was the state’s warmest year and included two notable extremes: the wettest eight months on record (May to December) immediately after the driest eight months on record.

Approaching three years into the Hodgman government, having dumped the policy work of his predecessors, Groom has again put off finalising a climate change strategy. It’s as if he harbours a vain hope that delaying the process will cause this difficult problem to go away.

Besides risk, this is about responsibility. Every jurisdiction, no matter how small, has a duty to its people and the world to do all it can to reduce carbon emissions. Inaction up the pecking order, which is true for Australia at present, makes the responsibility that much greater.

The Hodgman government isn’t the first to shirk its responsibility. Since the first climate legislation was passed under Paul Lennon, successive Labor governments – and the present opposition – have like their opposite numbers treated climate change as “non-core” business.

That attitude will not be favoured by history. Despite the protests of self-styled “sceptics”, our scientific understanding of climate change and the human actions that have driven it are steadily building, and with that inexorable progress will come increasing electoral support for action.

The Hodgman government is at a crossroads. It can continue to avoid climate action under the delusion that this will not be a future electoral issue. If that happens it will join history’s also-rans.

Or it can seek agreement across parliament and community to make climate change a top public priority, and act accordingly. If it succeeds in that, it will become a government for the ages.

Posted in Australian politics, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, climate politics, community action, contrarians, future climate, leadership, public opinion, science, social and personal issues, Tasmanian politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment