This is an emergency, and we need to say so

“Nothing to see here” is the response of Tasmania’s political establishment to the most pressing issue of our age

The rising line indicates accelerating global carbon dioxide emissions. [DATA NOAA, Global Carbon Project; GRAPH SouthWind]

In separate debates last week, the Tasmanian parliament and Hobart City Council were challenged to declare a climate emergency. In each case the challenge was declined.

In both debates, opponents of an emergency declaration said that we must respond with due care, incrementally, to avoid causing undue alarm. But is that really the appropriate response?

A generation has passed since Australia and 196 other nations pledged in Rio de Janeiro in to lower carbon emissions “to protect the climate system for present and future generations”.

Things looked bad in 1992, but in the most recent full year of available data, 2017, Australia’s annual carbon dioxide emissions were 23 per cent higher than back then – trending upwards.

Since Rio, use of fossil fuels has added about 800 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the air. 2018 emissions were at an all-time high, rising faster than ever, and the UN’s scientific panel has advised that if the annual figure is not a billion tonnes lower in a decade we will have passed a point of no return.

Science and the insurance industry confirm that an emissions-fuelled, destabilised climate has caused more extreme heat, rain and wind events, droughts and firestorms, melting icecaps and coastal floods than ever recorded, and left broken infrastructure, food and energy scarcity, conflict, disease and refugees.

In Tasmania, since early 2016 we have had two record-breaking flood events, successive East Coast marine heatwaves that severely stressed fisheries, aquaculture and marine biodiversity, and a major energy crisis caused partly by a prolonged drought.

We have also suffered two major bushfire emergencies, which besides exacting a huge economic cost have led two former Tasmania Fire Service chief officers to say they are frightened about what the future may hold.

To paraphrase Hobart councillor Bill Harvey, if this isn’t an emergency, what on earth is?

Harvey’s motion for the city to declare an emergency ought to have passed. It was supported by five of the nine councillors at the meeting, including lord mayor Anna Reynolds who said it would be a “leadership statement”. No-one expressed any strong opposition.

But Jeff Briscoe, Damon Thomas, Simon Behrakis and Peter Sexton said the motion should first be thrashed out in committee. Then when a vote was about to be taken, Briscoe, Thomas and Behrakis abruptly stood up and walked out, denying the required quorum of seven and ending the debate.

A similar scenario played out in the Tasmanian parliament two days later when Greens MPs Cassy O’Connor and Rosalie Woodruff moved that parliament declare a climate emergency and call for a stronger government effort to cut emissions and help people adapt to a different climate.

The debate proceeded along predictable lines: Greens attack government inaction; environment minister Elise Archer says the government’s doing fine; Labor acknowledges a climate emergency but attacks “political stunts” like Bob Brown’s Adani car convoy.

The final outcome was not so predictable. It hinged on speaker Sue Hickey, who said she regretted that “this extremely serious issue” got such a brief airing. Then she voted against “an unnecessary sense of fear, panic and alarm” in favour of the government’s “calm and measured” response.

Panic, a word used to deride people who lose control, also describes an instinctive response to a dire threat. As many have pointed out, when the house is on fire you don’t respond in a calm and measured way. You get up and get moving. Quickly.

Hickey’s independence as speaker is to be admired and encouraged, but last week was a backward step. Contrary to what she said, alarm is exactly the right response. If she wants to prevent that from turning into blind panic she should be prodding her party into an emergency declaration.

Next day premier Will Hodgman laid into the Greens’ “attempts to sensationalise, alarm and frighten people by extreme language [for] your own political purposes”, while health minister Michael Ferguson said the Greens should be called to account for causing distress in young people.

The premier and his ministers have their pride, and will not be lectured to by despised Green politicians, let alone by children who wag school to march in the streets. But their bland assurances reveal that they know little about this crisis and how to respond.

I don’t speak for the Greens nor any other party, and I certainly don’t claim to have the answers. But I do know that we are all – politicians and the rest of us – immersed in a global crisis, that time is our enemy, and that every jurisdiction must make some hard decisions to get emissions down.

The Hodgman government rejects the “emergency” description in part because that raises expectations that its present strategy needs strengthening. But if it could wear that and seek help in the wider world, it might be surprised at how cooperative and supportive people can be.

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