A plea to politicians: find the common ground on climate

Australia won’t achieve its emissions goals without cross-party effort

Paris’s Eiffel Tower displays the aspirational target of 1.5C, now fast becoming an unachievable goal. PHOTO The Guardian

Paris’s Eiffel Tower displays the aspirational global goal of 1.5C of warming, now fast becoming unachievable. PHOTO The Guardian

Last Friday’s entry into force of the 2016 Paris Agreement raises the pressure on all Australian governments to put in place long-term plans to cut carbon emissions.

That comes on top of compelling evidence, released a fortnight ago by Australia’s two main climate agencies, CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, that a rising global carbon dioxide level has already pushed the nation’s climate into extreme territory.

The day after that report came out, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull held a crisis Council of Australian Governments meeting with state and territory leaders. After the meeting, sitting with state leaders including a grave-faced Tasmanian premier Will Hodgman, he said this:

“I think this issue is beyond politics, frankly. It’s beyond partisan politics. It is something we are all committed to addressing. The challenge is, of course, finding the policies and the methods that are most effective.”

How eminently sensible – except for one thing. Turnbull was actually talking about domestic violence, not climate. By contrast, the CSIRO-BOM State of the Climate report was met with a wall of silence from government leaders.

The scourge of domestic violence has been ignored for too many years and richly deserves leaders’ attention. We must now hope that this will last long enough to make a difference.

COAG leaders understood the need for cross-party support to achieve good working policies on domestic violence. The same approach is needed for climate change.

All major parties and a large majority of Australians accept that human-caused climate change is a real threat that will affect everybody now and into the indefinite future. But we have failed miserably to come up with an effective and enduring response.

The failure is conspicuous at a national level. Responsibility for setting and meeting international commitments resides in Canberra, which is also where the money is. No broad-scale mitigation measure will succeed without federal involvement.

Australia’s Paris commitment to have emissions at least 26 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 is one of the least demanding among developed countries, yet we don’t have a clue how we’re going to get there. The post-2020 outlook is a vacant space until a scheduled policy review next year.

Climate policy failure extends to state governments, including my home state, Tasmania. The Hodgman government’s stated commitment to climate action, which it repeated in last December’s draft action plan Embracing the Climate Challenge, has so far come to nought.

After receiving 88 group and individual submissions in March, the government undertook to release the final plan in September. It now seems we’ll have to wait till next year, 12 months or less ahead of another election. t’s fair to conclude that climate strategy is low on the government agenda.

In 2007, when both John Howard’s Coalition and Labor under Kevin Rudd embraced emissions trading, and Paul Lennon’s Tasmanian government began drafting its own climate legislation, things had looked ready to go.

Then the fossil-fuel lobby got to work to sow doubt and division, and it worked. The deadening hand of partisan politics has since seen all efforts to mould a lasting climate response come to nought.

In Canberra we lost carbon pricing. In Tasmania, a change of government turned a promising climate strategy into a blank slate. It remains blank 2½ years later.

There are a thousand things we can do as a nation and as states to get our carbon emissions moving downward. Major parties agree that we need to act, but they haven’t been able to resist the temptation to use it for political advantage. We need to find common ground, quickly.

Tasmania is well-placed to lead that quest, with its economic fortune built largely around delivery of renewable energy. But first we need political leaders to understand that like domestic violence, climate change has to be beyond the reach of party politics.

My plea to all party leaders is this: Set an example to the nation by putting aside your party differences on this critical issue. Together, identify actions that you can all agree on, and as quickly as humanly possible put them into effect. For all our sakes.

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