Letter urges MPs to unite on climate policy

Tasmania’s parliament must unite and legislate to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Letter sent to all Tasmanian state MPs last week.

Letter sent to all Tasmanian state MPs last week.

To Tasmanians, last week’s weather on the US east coast was a local affair, not our business. But what that weather says about our climate is very much our business.

The astonishing story of Hurricane Florence, which is still unfolding, will be remembered not for wind but water. It dumped 30 cubic kilometres of water on North Carolina alone, with rainfall in some local areas amounting to a one-in-1000 year event.

Last year Hurricane Harvey, which inundated much of the southern US with over a metre of rain, was also called a one-in-1000 year event, and in 2016 Hurricane Matthew broke flood records in the Carolinas.

We hear about what happened in the US because it has a loud voice, but this year alone unprecedented rainfall has afflicted millions of others across east Africa, Japan and southern India.

Big rain events are key markers of a warming climate. Basic physics tells us that air can hold seven per cent more water for every degree it warms, so it follows that the current 1C of warming since pre-industrial times will deliver heavier rain and bigger floods.

We don’t need to look far afield to see results. In 2016 huge floods devastated farms and infrastructure in northern Tasmania, and a record-breaking one-day rain event four months ago caused a spectacular, damaging and costly flash flood in Hobart.

Add to that impact the threat posed by another strong indicator of climate change, sea level rise, and you have, as they say, a perfect storm. With sea levels now rising at double the average rate last century, the chance of coastal flooding at any time of year is increasing at an accelerating pace.

Flooding of the magnitude experienced in Africa, Asia and North America this year is a sign of things to come. Poor countries will be worst hit, partly because national self-interest in the richer world has denied them promised funding to help them prepare for their climate future.

This help serves rich countries as much as poor ones. Floods, rising seas, excessive heat and drought will drive people to migrate from vulnerable poor countries to places less vulnerable, which is in no-one’s interest.

But it isn’t just the poor parts of the world that will suffer damage from climate change. We’re all in this together. Some governments, including our own, don’t seem to understand this.

River and coastal flooding is near the top of Tasmania’s list of climate impacts. Planning to minimise that risk, including strengthening coastal defences and banning development in vulnerable areas, has to be high on the to-do list for state and local authorities. But that’s just the start.

Warmer conditions increase the risk of catastrophic wildfire on our already-vulnerable island. Extreme, more erratic weather will disrupt food production, and a warming sea will do the same for fish farms, not to mention its impact on natural fisheries.

Rising temperatures will irreparably damage natural ecosystems including ancient rainforest, and cause snowfields to disappear from Tasmania by mid-century. New disease vectors and deaths from extreme weather will put public health under growing pressure.

Our electoral cycle is just four years; these developments will unfold over time periods much longer than that. But we rightly expect our leaders to plan for developments well beyond the next election.

After a brief debate, a parliamentary vote abolished the government’s Tasmanian Climate Action Council in 2014. The same year former members set up Climate Tasmania to provide independent advice on climate change and policy responses.

In 2016 this small but authoritative group asked me to join it, which I did. Its expertise takes in science (three members are climate scientists), farming, the law, public health, engineering, youth activism and administration. I think I’m the least qualified member.

Last week, Climate Tasmania sent a letter to all members of the Tasmanian parliament offering its help to frame new climate change legislation and strategies in response to “unprecedented challenges and huge opportunities in preparing our community for a very different future.”

It’s past time to end the silence. It is categorically wrong that Australia continues to avoid strong action on grounds that we produce a small proportion of global greenhouse pollution (not so small really – around 1.5 per cent), and it’s equally wrong for Tasmania to sit on its hands.

Not just morally wrong – our per-capita emissions are high by global standards – but self-defeating as well. What does it say about us when we can’t do anything until others have acted? What kind of leadership is that, and what kind of future would we have if everyone did the same?

Tasmania can lead Australia’s climate response by phasing out imported fuels and transitioning to clean, home-grown electrical energy. We just need our politicians to get serious and put aside partisan differences for the greater good. This is surely not too much to ask.

To read the letter to MPs, go to the Climate Tasmania website.

Posted in Adaptation, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, economic restructuring, economic threat from climate, fossil fuels, leadership, Tasmanian politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A new generation tackles climate change

With the final nail in the climate policy coffin driven home, younger Australians take up the battle

Toby Thorpe in Abu Dhabi in January last year, where his school, Huonville High, won the Oceania award for the Zayed Future Energy Prize for Global High Schools. PHOTO Peter Hannam, Sydney Morning Herald

Toby Thorpe in Abu Dhabi in January last year, where his school, Huonville High, won the Oceania award for the Zayed Future Energy Prize for Global High Schools. PHOTO Peter Hannam, Sydney Morning Herald

Former CSIRO climate scientist John Church is now free of the constraints of government service and able to speak his mind. He did not mince his words in a Hobart Town Hall public meeting last week.

“It is clear that unabated emissions will wreak havoc on the lives of many hundreds of millions of people… and subsequent generations. There will be devastating, and in many cases irreversible, consequences for food and water security, human health and the natural environment,” he said.

Church warned that if carbon emissions remain high the loss of polar ice will see sea levels rise by at least a metre within a lifetime. In our part of the world we can expect to see many millions of displaced people causing emergencies that will dwarf today’s refugee crises.

Multiple attempts over the years to break climate policy deadlocks have all fallen at the hurdle of party politics. The Coalition’s rejection of Malcolm Turnbull’s National Energy Guarantee signals a dead-end in this long, exhausting political struggle.

Despite what has been implied in the political debate, Australians are firmly behind strong action to curb emissions. I earlier reported a 2018 Lowy poll finding that 59 per cent of all Australians and 70 per cent of adults under 45 want government to act now even at significant cost.

Last week the Australia Institute’s annual “Climate of the Nation” poll put the proportion of concerned Australians at 73 per cent, a rise of 7 per cent in just one year. The gap between Australians’ perceptions about climate change and the response of government is widening.

Church’s assessment was a sobering start for the Town Hall meeting. It might have been a miserable event, but there’s something about people coming together that defies negative attitudes. And while there are reasons for despair, there are just as many reasons to take heart.

Evan Franklin of the University of Tasmania’s Centre for Renewable Energy and Power Systems spoke of innovations in technology and business that are helping fill the energy policy void while also making electricity more affordable.

Hobart alderman Bill Harvey listed a dozen or more ways in which local governments are stepping into the breach left by national policy gridlock, listing his own administration’s solid successes over two decades in cutting energy use and carbon emissions.

Australian Conservation Foundation community organiser Bethany Koch was even upbeat about the NEG’s failure, which she said clarified the policy debate. She is leading a push in marginal seats aimed at making the next federal poll our first “climate election”.

Strong presentations by school and university students indicated a radical transformation in future policymaking led by a generation well and truly awake to the dangers described by Church.

One of the presenters, Huonville High student Toby Thorpe, was also a leading light at another event last week, the Climate Leaders Conference at the Mt Nelson Sustainability Learning Centre.

Secondary and primary students from southern Tasmanian schools spent the day planning projects under the umbrella of two key UN Sustainable Development Goals, climate action and the health of marine and aquatic habitats.

I had the pleasure of hearing and seeing the students, showing a level of understanding and maturity beyond their years, discuss initiatives they had led in their schools ranging from plant carbon science to waste management.

The projects being rolled out and the leaders’ program more broadly will be discussed by Toby Thorpe in the Asia-Pacific 2018 Virtual Youth Summit next week, an online meeting in which youth representatives share their projects and hopes for the future.

In November he will be taking thoughts and ideas from Tasmanian schools to an international audience at the 14th global Conference of Youth in the lead-up to the annual UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, southern Poland.

This is generational change at work. Younger students learning about the global system, energy, resilience and sustainability are carrying a rising awareness of climate change from primary to secondary and beyond. All of it filters steadily into the wider community.

Generational change spells danger for politicians and political parties failing to grasp the level of concern felt by young Australians over climate change, and the frustration and anger they feel over the clear failure of government to address it.

The state of the economy usually determines elections, and it takes a big issue and some focused campaigning to supplant that. But young people are key to what Bethany Koch is aiming for in the next federal poll: our first true climate change election.

That poll will almost certainly be in autumn 2019. If our summer is anything like the record-breaking scorcher experienced this year in large parts of North America, Europe, Asia and North Africa, it’s a fair bet that climate will be a significant, if not defining, issue.

Posted in Adaptation, Australian politics, Australian Youth Climate Coalition, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, education, future climate, leadership, local government, public opinion, science, sea level, social mindsets | Leave a comment

Morrison’s wrong turn on climate policy

Scott Morrison seems to think Australians don’t care about climate change. He couldn’t be more wrong.

Scott Morrison and entourage on the ground near Quilpie. PHOTO SBS

Scott Morrison and entourage inspect the damage near Quilpie. PHOTO AAP

It’s hard to know what went through the mind of newly-minted PM Scott Morrison late last month when asked by a reporter whether he thought the current drought was linked to man-made climate change.

Morrison, who has mastered the art of talking through awkward moments, shot back: “The climate is changing. Everybody knows that… I’m not terribly interested in engaging in those sorts of debates at this point.… I understand the arguments… the positions that are held.”

I doubt that. He can have a laugh at people opposed to coal mining – “don’t be scared; it won’t hurt you,” he told parliament last year while holding up a lump of coal – but I can find no evidence that he really grasps why they’re bothered about the black stuff.

Morrison’s choice of Quilpie, in far southwest Queensland, as the venue for his first prime ministerial visit to drought territory was curious. In this near-desert region, rivers rarely flow and green pasture is more the exception than the rule.

That may explain why Stephen Tully, whose sheep and cattle farm he visited, was able to tell reporters that “what’s happened here, so far” fits within his property’s 100-year rainfall record.

The PM could have visited any number of farms east and southeast of Quilpie, across southern Queensland and most of NSW, where some say they can’t remember a worse drought. That fits with climate modelling showing increasing evaporation rates with a warming atmosphere.

The threat from climate change was front and centre on Nauru last week at the annual Pacific Islands Forum, whose final communiqué said climate change was “the single greatest threat” to livelihoods, security and wellbeing in the Pacific.

Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne signed on to the communiqué, but only after insisting that a stronger message calling on countries to “urgently accelerate” cuts to carbon emissions was deleted. Such a commitment would have drawn attention to her own government’s failings.

Australia does not contest the fact that global emissions remain way above levels for a safe climate future. It claims to be on target to meet its Paris target (at least 26 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030), but there is independent analysis to show it will fall well short.

Malcolm Turnbull’s plan to cement the Paris target in National Energy Guarantee legislation is “dead”, the PM has told the Weekend Australian, leaving a bare climate policy cupboard. That may have been what he promised MPs in the leadership contest, but it will cost him dearly at the polls.

Meanwhile, at a UN climate meeting in Bangkok last week, Australia sided with the US and Japan seeking less stringent rules for reporting financial aid to poorer countries in their shift to low-emission technologies, effectively weakening our Paris obligations.

The thread running through those events in Quilpie, Nauru and Bangkok is that however weak the Turnbull administration’s climate policies were, those under Scott Morrison will be weaker still.

When Morrison has chosen to join this debate it is to play the clown with a lump of coal. He has not explicitly denied human-induced climate change, or withdrawn from Paris or sought to eliminate emission constraints, as has Donald Trump. But we can’t be confident that he wouldn’t.

There’s a prevalent political narrative that blames “toxic” climate policy for leadership changes and electoral shifts in the past decade, implying all climate measures are anathema to the electorate.

This seemed true in 2013, when Tony Abbott won power on the back of a fierce campaign against carbon pricing and the annual Lowy Institute public opinion poll found only 36 per cent of Australians favoured strong, immediate climate action. But it’s definitely false in 2018.

Since 2006, annual Lowy polls have proven to be professional and reliable guides to public policy. This year’s poll showed that 59 per cent of Australians and 70 per cent of adults under 45 see global warming as “serious and pressing” and say we should act now even at significant cost.

It also found that 84 per cent of people – up from 81 per cent last year – want the government to focus on renewable energy and infrastructure to make the system more reliable. Just 14 per cent opted for a focus on coal and gas.

That is a huge majority in favour of renewables, and it has happened despite concerted government efforts to boost fossil fuel energy. It’s a clear win for commonsense.

By contrast, the crazy debate over Liberal leadership assumed that no-one cares about climate change. It has already cost the Coalition dearly, and Scott Morrison’s cavalier attitude to cutting emissions will only make matters worse.

“WHERE TO NOW?” is the question posed at a public forum tonight (starting 5.30, Hobart Town Hall) to discuss climate policy, action and ideas. Speakers include eminent climate scientist John Church, climate policy expert Evan Franklin and conservationist Bethany Koch.

Posted in agriculture and farming, Australian politics, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, coal-fired, economic threat from climate, energy, extreme events, fossil fuels, land use, renewable energy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment