A tale of two speeches

Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist, and PM Scott Morrison both spoke at the UN last week. Their speeches are chalk and cheese.

Greta Thunberg at the UN Climate Action Summit. Scott Morrison addressed the General Assembly two days later.

Could a slip of a girl from Stockholm have lifted the climate debate into a place where good things could happen? Our prime minister’s response would suggest not, but you never know.

With the full weight of science behind her, schoolgirl Greta Thunberg has directed the world’s most powerful adults to do what they should have been doing for decades: simply get their heads around what science says about climate change and then get to work to fix things.

In doing so, Thunberg and her young acolytes around the globe have cut through the mess of half-truths (that is, half-lies) that are the stuff of politics and diplomacy. Her words reflect badly on leaders and adult frailties generally. But all of us grownups must wear them, because they’re true.

A couple of days ahead of the huge global rallies inspired by her solitary “school strike for the climate” (first taken up collectively by young Australians last November), Thunberg was asked to testify before a US House of Representatives committee.

She told them that instead of seeking her view they should unite behind the science and then take action. They should first consult last year’s UN report on 1.5C of warming. She’s done that, but evidence would suggest many of them haven’t. Who’s the educated one here?

At UN headquarters in New York last week her audience included the heavy lifters of the community of nations: world leaders who pledged to do more to lower emissions. But she spared no-one.

“How dare you!” she told her elders, her voice trembling with anger. “How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight. …You are not mature enough to tell it like it is.” If leaders continued to “choose to fail”, young people “will never forgive you.”

This is not what we are used to. Much more familiar is what Scott Morrison had to say in the same venue three days later: “Australia is… taking real action on climate change, and we’re getting results.” In a speech five times longer than Thunberg’s, the PM also had these things to say:

“Having met – and we will exceed – our Kyoto targets, Australia will also meet our Paris commitments as well, and we stand by them…This is a credible, fair, responsible and achievable contribution to global climate change action.”

“At the centre of our domestic efforts is a $3½ billion climate solutions plan that I successfully took as prime minister to our recent national election, supporting practical projects like capturing methane from waste, revegetation of degraded land and soil carbon.”

“We welcome the contributions and leadership from business and the private sector to address these challenges, including… industry-led mechanisms for investing in new recycling technologies and mitigating plastic waste.”

“Our Great Barrier Reef remains one of the world’s most pristine areas of natural beauty. Feel free to visit. Our reef is vibrant, and resilient, and protected under the world’s most comprehensive reef management plan.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, these are all discredited half-truths. The “climate solutions plan”, using public money to buy abatement from business, is crude and ineffectual. Australia exceeds targets by using mechanisms that others have disavowed; our emissions have been rising for years. And private investment is not an alternative to strong public policy.

Finally, the Great Barrier Reef is not pristine, but has been damaged by pollution and, crucially, by a warming and increasingly acidic ocean. The reef’s Marine Park Authority recently found its future outlook to be very poor. And the day after the PM spoke, the IPCC described the state of oceans generally as “catastrophic”.

One other line of argument by the PM deserves special mention. He said he welcomed the passion of Australian children concerned about their future. “My impulse is always to seek to respond positively, and to encourage them; to provide context, perspective, and particularly… hope.”

He went on: “We must guard against others who would seek to compound, or worse, baselessly exploit, their anxieties for other agendas… Above all, we must… let our kids be kids, let our teenagers be teenagers, while we… deliver the practical solutions for them and their future.”

The power of Thunberg’s words could not have been completely lost on him. But saying that young people should be doing kids’ stuff while proper grownups dole out the hope, or that they’re being exploited by those with “other agendas”, is clear evidence that he hasn’t taken in what she’s saying.

Thunberg focuses on the political dimension because in this climate emergency that is where our greatest weakness lies, a weakness on clear view in the prime minister’s shallow, self-promotional UN speech. Which poses the obvious question: who was the adult in that room?


Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN is on YouTube. This is the full text, beginning with her response to a question about a message to world leaders:

My message is that we’ll be watching you.

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight!

You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.

The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50 per cent chance of staying below 1.5 C, and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.

Fifty per cent may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.

So a 50 per cent risk is simply not acceptable to us, we who have to live with the consequences.

To have a 67 per cent chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise – the best odds given by the IPCC – the world had 420 gigatonnes of CO2 left to emit back on January 1, 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatonnes.

How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just “business as usual” and some technical solutions! With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8½ years.

There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.

You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.

We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not. Thank you.

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Towards a just transition for Tasmania

Scott Morrison copped a hammering in Tasmanian protests last week, but we also must attend to our own back yard.

Last Friday’s climate rally may have been Hobart’s biggest-ever street protest. Estimates varied from 15,000 to upwards of 22,000. PHOTO Richard Jupe/Mercury

The millions of voices on the world’s streets last week were loud, defiant, angry – and mostly young. They will continue to resonate for decades to come, something their countries’ adult leaders would do well to reflect on.

Those leaders who took the stilted view that young people would learn more studying in their classrooms than shouting in the streets completely missed the point of this rebellion: when no-one is listening while the house is burning, you have no choice but to make a big noise.

Placards, chants and speeches in the 100-odd rallies around Australia demanded a ban on new coal mines, fully-renewable energy by 2030 and a just transition for workers and communities. All the anger and frustration was directed squarely at Scott Morrison’s government.

But the backdrop for the Hobart rally was Tasmania’s Parliament House, where Morrison doesn’t hold sway. Will Hodgman and his ministers were notably absent; more to the point they rated barely a mention in the proceedings. But they too have responsibilities in this space.

Last year the government sought the views of Tasmanians on the state’s climate legislation. Given what’s happened over the Act’s 11-year lifetime – the Paris Agreement, some big global science reports and a lot more data on creating a low-carbon economy – it badly needs updating.

Twenty-four submissions were received, most seeking stronger climate mitigation measures. One of the respondents was Climate Tasmania, a group offering scientific, technical, legal and other expertise. I am a non-specialist member of that group.

The Climate Tasmania submission highlighted the unflattering history of Tasmanian climate action since the Act was passed in 2008. Six strategies under five ministers have been written but with no substantial outcome. Each of the first five was shelved with a change of government or minister.

All governments are prone to make dubious claims for credit. In that tradition, the Hodgman government has pronounced itself a world leader in cutting emissions. It hasn’t explained that this “success” is due entirely to a decline in native forest harvesting, or that the most recent data show a rise in emissions across all sectors.

Climate Tasmania’s submission sought much stronger draft legislation than that proposed by the government. It advocated independently reviewed, five-year emission targets, a holistic, whole-of-government approach, and sound, science-based decision-making and risk management.

It put a high priority on equity, community engagement and the concept of a “just transition”. This year it has fleshed this out in drafting instructions for new laws to prepare Tasmania for the shift to a carbon-free economy.

We propose that an energy transition authority be set up to regulate processes and help companies, associations, councils and communities achieve a just transition. It would be expected to work itself out of a job, disbanding when Tasmania no longer uses fossil fuels.

The basis of our concern is that people are making financial decisions right now that will have an impact well into the future. A big one for Tasmanians would be buying a car or some other fossil-fuelled machine which will rapidly lose value in a transition to a low-carbon economy.

Seeking cross-parliamentary cooperation, over the past year or so we have approached all members of the Tasmanian parliament, in both houses and regardless of political ties. We have asked them to hear our concerns about transition planning and discuss how new laws should deal with this.

Some upper house MPs showed early interest, along with opposition leader Rebecca White and other Labor and Green MPs with climate change responsibilities. We also had useful meetings with the speaker, Sue Hickey, and staff of the former environment minister Elise Archer.

This month two of our members met with Peter Gutwein, who in a recent cabinet reshuffle was allocated environment on top of his treasury responsibilities. I wasn’t present, but I was told that the minister had prepared well and gave our proposals a fair hearing, which is good to hear.

Quite reasonably he asked about the cost of what we are proposing. We weren’t able to help – the economic modelling needed for this is way beyond our voluntary organisation’s resources – but this raises a question about how the whole matter of climate change is being handled.

Governments routinely consult specialist expertise in economics, security, defence and such like. But they haven’t made a practice of consulting the experts on global warming, climate scientists, and as a result have little understanding of the risks and imperatives involved.

Our proposal is not without cost, but nothing worthwhile comes free. And a far bigger price is attached to the growing threat that fired up the people in the streets last week. The longer we delay planning, the greater that price will be.

• TOMORROW at 5.30 pm, at the IMAS lecture theatre on Hobart’s Castray Esplanade, David Hamilton of Climate Tasmania will give a public briefing on Tasmania’s transition to a low-carbon economy. All are welcome.

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Mad as hell, and not prepared to take it any more

Friday’s Global Climate Strike is a chance to shake the complacency of leaders and governments who refuse to take climate change seriously

Greta Thunberg has her say at a rally outside the White House in Washington last week. PHOTO Gulf Today

All governments, knowing that fossil-fuelled economies damage the climate and threaten our future, have pledged to lower carbon emissions. But most have taken no effective action.

Called to account, they respond with evasion, concealment, and downright lies. That applies in Australia, at both federal and state levels, and it’s been the situation since the 1980s. All those years of false dawns and dashed hopes.

It happens because voters allow it to, accepting the narrative that climate change is a second-order issue. But mounting evidence and cranky weather are making people nervous.

Since 2009, the Climate of the Nation survey has been mapping public attitudes around climate. The 2019 survey reveals that around four in five Australians are now seriously bothered about droughts, floods, water shortages and species extinction. Over half of us think there should be a moratorium on new coal mines.

The Bureau of Meteorology reports that in the first eight months of 2019 – with national rainfall the fifth-lowest on record – Australia’s mean temperature was the second highest in 110 years of observations. That is on top of record or near-record warming in each of the past seven years.

Extreme warming from ever-rising emissions is now evident over much of Europe, northern Asia, the Middle East, in oceanic hot zones including off Tasmania’s east coast, and – especially – in the Arctic. Strong warming is helping to drive exceptional floods, droughts, fires and coral bleaching.

Australia’s vulnerability doesn’t seem to register with either major party. Scott Morrison could have chosen to put his weight behind strengthening climate policy when he became prime minister last year, but he didn’t. There’s ample evidence that he takes it about as seriously as tying his shoelaces.

Tony Abbott’s “axe the tax” campaign saw Labor opt for bipartisanship over effective policy. Now many in the party think Bill Shorten’s 2030 target to cut emissions by 45 per cent is too hard.

It has been said many times before that we’re at a crossroads, but we’ve been stuck there for years while governments fiddle with things they deem more important. In truth our country is doing next to nothing, either to mitigate the danger or to deal with it when it arrives.

Every country faces the same confronting future, and authorities everywhere need all the help their people can give them. If the federal government could only muster the courage to change tack, it would get plenty of public support in the huge task facing us all.

Instead we are confronted with the vitriol that passes for question time when parliament is sitting, or snappy, five-second attacks on opponents that we dignify with the title “press conference”. It seems an age since we had leaders able to rise above name-calling and point-scoring.

Instead of substantive policy development and debate we get populist posturing, scapegoating and trivialising of important issues. Chicanery around party donations and secretive dealings with the wealthy and privileged tell us our political class has abandoned public service for its own gain.

We need a mature debate about what climate change means for our nation. And we desperately need governments to prioritise communities and their well-being ahead of the individual hip pocket.

Those masters need to be persuaded that sticking with today’s mindsets and misdeeds spells electoral doom, and that can only happen if a big proportion of the electorate delivers a powerful signal of disapproval.

For an hour or two on Friday Australians are being asked to put other business aside and focus on the state of the planet. The Global Climate Strike grew out of a 2018 strike action by Australian students that drew inspiration from the solitary protest of a Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg.

Next Monday Thunberg will deliver her message to the world at the UN Climate Summit in New York. As it happens Scott Morrison will be in the US next week. He could join other leaders to hear what she and others say, but when Thunberg speaks he’ll be in Washington to dine with Donald Trump.

In reach and participation, Friday’s event will be huge. Past environmental and anti-war protests have focused on regional or national issues, but this is for everyone, everywhere. At thousands of venues in countries around the world, millions of people will be making their presence felt.

Governments may be in denial about the climate, but they can count. A big turnout on Friday will have an impact. It will bring more to the next rally and more again after that, until governments everywhere feel the heat like the rest of us. That’s democracy at work.

• TASMANIA is hosting four public rallies for the Global Climate Strike, starting at noon on Friday in Hobart’s Parliament Lawns, Launceston Town Hall, Devonport’s Providore Place and Cow Park, Wynyard. Elsewhere you can do as Greta did: take your placard to a public place and stay a while.

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