Climate leadership is alive and well across the ditch

But in this week of wildfires the PM is much too busy to think about such things.

Last week, in an island nation to our east, we got a glimpse of a better future. With bipartisan support, a bill mandating dramatic action to curb carbon emissions passed the New Zealand parliament.

Three days after Donald Trump turned his back on the climate crisis by formally announcing US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, New Zealand’s Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill was voted into law.

It was welcome relief from Trump’s bad news. The US is the only nation to withdraw from the deal reached in Paris in 2015, when every developed country agreed to cut emissions and help poor countries deal with a warming climate. It’s far from perfect, but it’s all we have.

The US withdrawal is still subject to a formal 12-month cooling-off period, but that doesn’t lessen the pain of Trump’s decision. For all its many faults, the world’s most powerful democracy sets standards which others tend to follow. Its withdrawal makes progress a lot harder.

Trump’s rambling 30-minute announcement of the Paris decision said little except that he was “fighting every day for the great people of this country”. As he’s supposed to do, except that pulling out of Paris is as much a blow to his country and its people as it is to the rest of us.

He claimed, without naming sources, that the Paris Agreement would cost “close to $3 trillion in lost GDP and 6½ million industrial jobs”, forcing the US to cut production of resources including coal (“and I happen to love the coal mines”).

While asserting his own country was “the world’s leader in environmental protection”, Trump also said the agreement imposed “no meaningful obligation on the world’s leading polluters”, naming China and India as “leading polluters”.

[Fact check: As developing countries under UN rules, China and India don’t have to cut carbon emissions but agreed to do so on a longer timeframe when the US pledged to act. The US is a higher emitter than India, second behind China, and several times higher per person than either.]

The most important thing about Trump’s statement is what he didn’t say. His 2500-word speech contained not a single mention of the reason the treaty exists in the first place – climate change.

Contrast all that with New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern’s address to her parliament last week. Extreme weather, ecological impacts, spread of diseases, and rising sea levels making fresh water in island nations undrinkable were indicators that “our world is warming – undeniably”, she said.

“Therefore the question for all of us is, what side of history will we choose to sit on in this moment in time? I absolutely believe and continue to stand by the statement that climate change is the biggest challenge of our time.”

The new law, which passed by 119 votes to one, will be the basis for the country’s effort to meet its Paris 2050 commitment of cutting all greenhouse emissions to net zero by 2050. Using a carbon price, the country aims for an 80 per cent cut in methane emitted from animals and decaying plants.

New Zealand has pledged to reach 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2035, to have a “green hydrogen” plant operating next year, to stop offshore oil and gas exploration, to make low-emission vehicles cheaper, and to invest in rail, cycling and walking. It is well on the way to planting a billion trees.

The country will seek to end all tariffs on green technologies, fight to end government subsidies of fossil fuels costing $US500 billion globally, and will put $300 million into the Green Climate Fund for developing countries – contrary to Australia and the US, which have pulled out of the fund.

The Ardern government consulted extensively with Green and opposition National MPs as well as business and resource sectors, which were won over by investment prospects in a clean economy. To use our own PM’s favourite word, miracles can happen when people talk to each other.

Ardern pointedly rejected the idea that her country should act only when others do. She said that NZ food producers needed climate action because their product depended on a high level of environmental responsibility.

New Zealand has set a standard for the rest of the world, not least its next-door neighbour. With our worst East Coast wildfires in memory taking full toll in the midst of the worst drought in our history, it’s surely an example that Australia should take a good hard look at.

But this government has already declared its hand. In multilateral forums we’re a laggard, not a leader. We’re not yet following Trump, but pulling out of Paris will sound a much more harmonious chord in Canberra than Ardern’s great achievement.

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Tasmanian climate leadership? Not yet, but…

The Tasmanian government’s claim to lead the world doesn’t stack up, but that can be rectified.

“Tasmania is a genuine leader in responding to climate change.” That is the State government’s bold claim in the blurb promoting its “Climate Action 21” strategic plan, but it’s simply not true.

In fairness to the Hodgman government, from the day in 2007 when Paul Lennon released a draft climate strategy, no Tasmanian administration has produced any climate measure of consequence, despite strategies released every two or three years, in 2008, 2011, 2014, 2016 and 2017.

A strategy ought to be a plan to reach a desired goal, but these climate strategies seem to be devices for going nowhere, for preserving the status quo. They seem to be designed not to be read, but to serve as props for ministers, for holding up in parliament to show they’ve done something.

Assuming the primary goal of Tasmania’s climate strategies is lower greenhouse emissions, the data would indicate we’re anything but a global leader.

The federal government is notoriously slow to release data, but the latest available full year (2017) shows Tasmanian emissions more than a million tonnes above the figure for 2016, with rises in every sector: land use, agriculture, industry, energy and waste. If Tasmania was a country, its emissions per person in 2017 would have put us in the top 10 per cent of developed nations.

That’s not to say nothing is being done about climate change. The government’s Climate Change Office is a valuable source of information and advice, and local government, with Hobart City leading the way, is taking steps to reduce environmental impact and adapt to changing conditions.

But our institutions of government were designed in an age when time was of little consequence. Neither our bureaucracies nor their political masters seem to have adjusted to the fact that those days have gone. Climate change demands urgent action.

Our claims to leadership were based on paradigms that simply don’t stack up – on a hydro system built many decades ago and a rate of forest regrowth that is unsustainable. But we can build on our island’s advantages to become the leader we claim to be.

The first thing to do is stop messing around with disposable strategies and develop an action plan that is mandated through legislation. The fact that we don’t have one – that we have never had one, under any administration – is a killer-blow to any government’s credibility.

So far our only climate legislation is the Lennon government’s Climate Change (State Action) Act of 2008, which specified no action but did set up an advisory committee. Parliament has revisited this legislation just once, in 2014, to abolish the advisory committee – hardly an advance.

The record is dismal, but it can be rectified. The Hodgman government can start claiming leadership when it puts in place a comprehensive Climate Change Act that spells out actions to make our island home more sustainable and more equitable.

In doing so, it will do well to bear in mind that we are no longer just a speck at the bottom of the world, but an integral part of a nation and a planet whose future is the responsibility of every human community.

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Having the courage to risk failure

Our changing climate allows no time to fiddle. Franklin Roosevelt offers a great example of how to act.

There are just two things that will stop global carbon emissions. One is functioning national jurisdictions making effective laws to decarbonise their economies. The other is a total collapse of those economies.

The world got an inkling of what total collapse might look like in 2009, when it came close to a second Great Depression. That was the last time global emissions moved decisively downward, which is evidence that world-wide economic depression could do the trick.

Except that it would have to be permanent and it must not spark war, which is a huge source of carbon pollution. But crashed economies and social unrest go hand-in-hand. A permanently depressed, permanently peaceful global economy is simply not going to happen.

So we have no real choice but to get effective laws and other measures in place, either by persuading existing governments to act or by electing governments that will.

Time is not on our side. Science advises that Earth will pass the nominated “safe” level of surface warming, 1.5C, within about eight years. We will overshoot, but we can get back below that threshold with a gargantuan effort on a global scale. We have to try, because not trying will condemn us to a worse fate.

Let’s consider this present moment in history, and what we might learn from times past. Nothing like this has ever been attempted, because in our time on Earth we’ve never faced such absolute imperatives on this scale.

But great, enduring changes have been wrought before. I’ve previously looked at two of these, rebuilding western Europe and creating the world community of nations after World War II. Both were bold and visionary initiatives, and both actually worked.

A decade earlier, another great plan was unfolding in the United States. Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 on a promise to lift America out of the Great Depression.

Most experts agree his “New Deal” did just that. It lifted economic performance to pre-Depression levels and reformed the financial system to stop a repeat of the 1929 crash. It also provided relief measures for the poor and unemployed, and addressed exploitation of workers and farmers.

US legislators are now seeing that reforming mindset being brought to bear on climate change. The Green New Deal is a 10-year plan to mobilise the country to act, based on the certain knowledge that success won’t come without wholesale economic restructuring across the developed world.

Besides direct climate measures – strict emission cuts, 100 per cent clean energy by 2035 and an end to fossil fuel extraction – the Green New Deal covers job security, health care, housing, education, building renewal, manufacturing and agricultural support.

Like the original, this is breathtaking. The country is still trying to digest it nine months after the Green New Deal resolution was introduced to Congress by a newly-elected young New York congresswoman, Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

Unlike the original, the Green New Deal enjoys no presidential or Senate support. Donald Trump ridiculed it, and conservative Republicans have claimed the proposal is socialism on steroids. But elsewhere in the US it continues to get a lot of attention, and growing popular support.

The Green New Deal calls for massive government intervention in the economy. But governments all over the world, including Australia, have been selling off publicly-owned assets and services since the 1980s, when a Hawke Labor government privatised telecommunications company Aussat.

While federal governments sold the Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, Qantas, Medibank and airports, state governments steadily privatised electricity, education, health, transport and port services. Latest candidates for privatisation include accommodation and care for people with disabilities, land titles offices and even the processing of visas. Nothing, it seems, is sacred.

If the public sector sell-off was an iceberg, all those items would be just its tip. Both sides of politics have outsourced a host of public services including accounting, recruitment, IT and legal services, TAFE education, immigration detention and government publishing, to name a few.

All this has happened against the background of a warming planet. Climate change demands coordinated response across whole communities, at scales which can only be done by government. Yet many public assets and services needed for this have been diminished by privatisation.

The battle for the climate demands a revitalised public sector, led by a political class ready to stand up and be counted, and sometimes to fail. Much in the mould of Roosevelt, who in the depths of the Great Depression found the courage to declare to his people that he might not succeed:

“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Roosevelt, elected and re-elected four times, was the most successful president in US history.

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