Tasmania stakes a claim to leadership

The new Tasmanian climate change strategy is a huge advance on the 2011 version. Does it give us bragging rights? [3 December 2013 | Peter Boyer]

What does it mean to be a Tasmanian? What is our place in the scheme of things, here on this island at land’s end, where the great sweep of Earth’s continental land masses finally yields to the ocean?

What we usually hear in response to such questions is that we’re too small to matter, a tiny eddy far removed from the global mainstream. But two publications released last week say otherwise.

Del Weston’s book The Political Economy of Global Warming, recently published in London by Routledge, was launched at a health symposium in Hobart by Dora Marinova, professor of sustainability at Curtin University, Perth, and Weston’s PhD supervisor.

The mind of Del Weston, who died with her partner Gavin Mooney when attacked in her home at Mountain River a year ago this month, reached far beyond our shores to encompass corporate excess, poverty and exploitation in Africa, and the overarching big issue, global climate change.

With Mooney, a greatly-admired health economist and social justice advocate, Weston chose Tasmania as the place in which she would bring to a conclusion her powerful study of the physical impact of global warming and humanity’s response to it.

Driven by Weston’s personal passion for social justice and environmental responsibility, this highly original work describes the huge challenge presented by climate change and the obstacles to success thrown up by the injustices and inequities in our economic and governance systems.

Weston’s parting gift, a vision of a transnational movement for equitable and sustainable lives “rooted in local cultures and economies” resonates in another publication released a week ago by the Tasmanian government. Climate Smart Tasmania is the response of the climate change minister Cassy O’Connor to harsh criticism of the government’s first inadequate attempt at a climate strategy, the 2011 Action Plan to Reduce Emissions.

I was one of many critics of that plan, saying at the time that Tasmania’s parlous state finances should not preclude creative thinking and cooperative endeavour, and that wider public consultation could achieve a much better result.

Apparently O’Connor agreed, because that’s what happened. The first issues paper in a two-stage policy development, on adapting to climate change, was released in October 2012, and another on mitigating emissions in April this year. In May the Tasmanian Climate Action Council released a long list of measures in its Blueprint for Action.

A good public response to the issues papers was followed by a huge consultation effort by staff of the Tasmanian Climate Change Office. In all, over 200 stakeholders within government, in business circles and in the wider community were contacted and their views recorded.

Of special interest to me was the consultation within government. Since state climate legislation was enacted in 2008, government agencies’ uptake of mitigation measures has been notoriously slow, indicating widespread scepticism among senior public servants about the measures’ value.

TCCO staff had one-on-one meetings with key departmental officers in all agencies, including deputy secretaries of all but one department, securing their commitment to apply practical emission-reduction and adaptation measures within their area of responsibility.

O’Connor believes that just as Tasmania should lead other states, the government must lead other sectors. Government operations are at the head of the nine categories of actions, with departments required to undertake 13 actions to cut emissions and develop adaptation capacity.

Detailed in the plan’s 142 pages are 81 mitigation and adaptation actions covering natural ecosystems, rural land use, energy and economics, settlements and infrastructure, transport, emergency management, homes and communities and waste and resource efficiency.

Through a combination of effort and economic downturns (mainly the latter), Tasmania has already managed to cut its net emissions by over 3.8 million tonnes since 1990, bringing it close to the strategy’s overall mitigation target of 7.3 million tonnes by 2020.

But it will not have been lost on State Cabinet that the kind of economic growth that the government aspires to looks likely to blow that target, forcing emissions above 8 million tonnes by 2020. That may be why premier Lara Giddings hasn’t exactly embraced the strategy.

Critics of Climate Smart Tasmania will argue that the lack of specific policies and mandated carbon abatement will ensure that it remains aspirational only, but this ignores the reality of cabinet government and the current political environment.

Recalcitrant ministers and bureaucrats – and they’re still out there – would ensure that a harder-edged approach fell at the first hurdle. Instead, the strategy seeks a broad cultural change such that climate awareness becomes a natural, intuitive part of the way things are done.

Opposition climate spokesman Matthew Groom’s only criticism of the strategy was the timing of its release, late in the electoral cycle with only three months or so remaining before the next poll. But he made no comment on its content.

That’s better than the denialism permeating conservative ranks elsewhere in Australia, but it’s a concern that Groom and his party remain mute about climate. Unless something changes over the next few months, should they win office, Climate Smart Tasmania looks destined for the bin.

I think O’Connor is right to claim that implementing Climate Smart Tasmania strategies would justify climate leadership status for Tasmania. We need her to convince Matthew Groom and his leader Will Hodgman of that. I trust she’ll get a good hearing.

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