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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Death, revival, and a nation divided

Dark clouds are looming above Scott Morrison’s glittering election victory.

Scott Morrison claims victory alongside his family on Saturday. PHOTO Australian/Sam Ruttyn

The death of Bob Hawke, the political deaths of Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten, and the tub-thumping revival of Scott Morrison have left Australia divided and disoriented in a climate policy vacuum.

Amid all that sound and fury, a more momentous milestone passed almost unnoticed last week. Across the Pacific in Hawaii, Mauna Loa atmospheric observatory recorded carbon dioxide levels above 415 parts per million for the first time in its 71 years of records.

In itself, this is not huge. Every year about this time there is a spike in carbon dioxide because of the dominant influence of the annual cycle of growth and decay of Northern Hemisphere land plants, and the current peak reading was entirely predictable.

What is huge is what this sustained and accelerating rising trend – which last year alone saw about 4.25 billion tonnes of carbon emitted to the atmosphere – implies for our future climate.

Leaders who boast about containing emissions need to know this. For the past 60 years greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere have been accumulating over 100 times more rapidly than in any earlier time. The rise of over 3 ppm in 2018 was the fastest ever known.

Earth has not seen this level of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere for at least three million years – more than 15 times longer than humans have existed on Earth, when temperatures were at least 5C higher than today and, with little land ice, sea levels were several tens of metres higher.

Given the lag time between rising CO2 and temperature, portents for human and ecosystem wellbeing, not to mention coastal life and infrastructure, are ominous indeed.

Other ominous signs are appearing daily. Two random examples from last week: unprecedented May heat in the Arctic (29C at Arkhangelsk in far northern Russia for instance) and warming Antarctic seas causing ice shelves to melt several times more quickly than previous estimates.

For many years I nursed the hope that such warnings from science, repeated often enough, would eventually enable everyone to see we needed stronger action on climate, but I was wrong. Much more important is lived experience. We are now getting that in spades.

Each passing year has brought record-breaking weather events. Summer heatwaves, bushfires, prolonged warm conditions, sustained drought, intense rainstorms and huge floods have brought a new urgency to the debate. Voters everywhere know in their hearts that we have a problem.

Queensland aside, climate policy played a bigger part in this year’s election than ever before. It caused the ousting of Tony Abbott, and is top priority for four independents elected to a finely-balanced lower house.

In the new parliament, expect less negativity about electric cars, wind and solar power, possibly stronger emissions and renewable energy targets and even carbon pricing. But on present indications this will amount to no more than tolerance.

“All politics is local,” Labor leadership contender Anthony Albanese told supporters on Saturday night after winning his seat by a huge majority. Scott Morrison knows this as well as any, exploiting it brilliantly in a focused, targeted, supremely disciplined campaign.

As a campaigner Bill Shorten was no match for Morrison. For all its carefully stage-managed campaign and the Coalition’s deep divisions, Labor had no counter to negative tactics that targeted with pinpoint precision the Labor leader’s every weakness or misstep.

But the story does not end here. We accept voters’ choice in a fair election because that’s how democracy works, but we also know from Donald Trump’s election in the US and Nigel Farage’s Brexit win how electoral outcomes can go horribly pear-shaped.

Lauded in 2016 for their winning styles and strategies, both men still claim to be a force for good in their respective countries. But those fateful votes have left a very dark cloud over the rule of law and stable democratic institutions in the US and the UK.

Scott Morrison’s natural talents lend themselves to this kind of situation in Australia. His salesman’s patter has glossed over contradictions inherent in our national polity that have put Australia on course for its own, home-grown crisis.

Celebrating victory, Barnaby Joyce cited the Adani coal mine controversy and farmers’ knowledge of life on the land to claim Labor was out of touch with the bush. That seemed to be borne out by the big Queensland swing and Labor’s failure to win support in NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

But the combined issues of Adani and Murray-Darling basin administration (Joyce’s former ministerial responsibility) have the makings of a perfect storm. Unresolved environmental, financial and legal risks are attached to Carmichael, while the Murray-Darling is on course to become a natural disaster rivalling catastrophic bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.

While appearing to support new Queensland coal mines with their disturbing implications for global emissions, the prime minister would have us believe that his current climate policies are adequate.

Morrison’s electoral wizardry has got him this far, but now he must confront the real world. His government is woefully unprepared for the multi-dimensional, multi-jurisdictional emergency that is steadily descending upon us.

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Living in a fool’s paradise headed for calamity

The environment’s loss is ours too, if only we knew it.

Aftermath of a storm, Kuta Beach, Bali (IPBES)

Humanity is destroying itself. That’s the only conclusion to reach after an exhaustive scientific assessment of life on Earth found that the likely extinction of over a million species of plants and animals within decades will have “grave impacts” on people everywhere.

“Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before,” the report says, and as a result we are a threat to our own food and water security, health and social fabric.

Given that we continue along the high-growth, high-consumption, high-waste pathway, this seems like suicide. But it’s actually a matter of avoiding hard choices and hoping they’ll go away.

The public response in Australia should quash any thought that rationality carries weight in politics. At news of last week’s report from the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IPBES), Campaign 2019 barely missed a beat.

Labor referred questioners to its already-announced $100 million native species protection fund – better than we have now but a small fraction of what ecosystem scientists say is needed – and its pledge to establish an environment protection authority.

For his part, prime minister Scott Morrison said the government had already acted on IPBES concerns (ludicrously, he was referring to a law to regulate cosmetic tests on animals) but then promised to cut “green tape” – environmental regulation – and attacked Labor’s environment plan.

Conservative news and commentary, still going through the awkward process of coming to terms with man-made climate change, was firmly in the latter camp. There is no extinction crisis, declared Andrew Bolt of the Herald-Sun, adding that the only thing at risk of extinction is reason.

The lines must have been running hot at Conspiracy Central when it became clear that IPBES spokesman Robert Watson is the same leading climate scientist attacked by fossil fuel interests two decades ago and subsequently, under US pressure, ousted as head of the UN climate panel.

But all such attacks are a baseless distraction. The report was a three-year effort by 145 top experts from 50 countries, including Australia, with input from another 310 contributing authors. There is no remotely comparable contrary assessment. We have no option but to take this seriously.

IPBES found that nature is in decline and species are being extinguished at rates unprecedented in human history. We have seen off over 80 per cent of land mammal species, and around a third of marine mammals and reef-forming corals are on course for extinction within decades.

Deforestation is putting increasing pressure on terrestrial species and land resources, which the report finds are best managed by indigenous people. Runoff from excessive use of agricultural fertilisers is creating dead zones in coastal seas, with impacts right up the marine food chain.

Slash-and-burn deforestation, Madagascar (IPBES)

Every year, as much as 400 million tonnes of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other industrial wastes are being dumped into the world’s waterways. Four-fifths of our wastewater globally is being discharged back into the environment without treatment.

The report found that marine plastic pollution is 10 times what it was 40 years ago, causing death or disease in 86 per cent of marine turtles, 44 per cent of seabirds and 43 per cent of marine mammals.

Apart from the odd signature event like the 1983 Franklin River blockade, the natural environment has not been a political focus in Australia. The Greens tried to change that, but in the process unwittingly opened the door to the false notion that environmentalism is a political brand.

There are still people who don’t care about any life but their own – that’s obvious from the extreme self-obsession seen in today’s public life. But I doubt that anyone, even the hard nuts who run the country, could remain indifferent if they were directly confronted with what extinction means to us.

People feel uneasy about death and disease in others for a good reason. Embedded deep in our DNA is the knowledge that our survival depends on other functioning life forms and the ecosystems they are part of. It’s natural to feel bothered when animals and plants disappear.

Becoming aware that we’re messing up the climate is a start. It’s no great extension to accept that nature is not endlessly renewable, and messing it up has real consequences for economic security.

Political, bureaucratic and business leaders continue to claim economic success on the back of the current market value of goods and services, but they shut environmental impact out of calculations. We are left with false data, living in a fool’s paradise headed for calamity.

The last word in the IPBES title acknowledges what our leaders do not – that Earth’s biodiversity and ecosystem are a service. Not just any service, but the only really essential one. Our impact on nature (including the climate) has a huge negative value that we’ve failed to account for.

Giving voice and substance to that all-important environmental bottom line in our national accounts ought to be the determining issue of the 2019 election. Nothing else comes close.

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