Our future in the hands of simpletons

The Morrison government is going after people objecting to its failed climate policies.

As the saying goes, for every complex problem there’s a well-known solution that is neat, plausible and wrong.

Political leaders grab hold of simple solutions and make them seem plausible. But running the country is complex, so our democratic systems include checks and balances to limit what politicians can directly control. We don’t let them run classrooms and hospital wards, for instance.

Nor our courts, though some would like to. Because justice is complicated, legal professionals administer the judicial system based on centuries of collective wisdom. Politicians seeking the simple solution of mandatory minimum sentences are telling us they know better. They don’t.

The same applies, but even more so, to the natural world. To understand the workings of this most complex of systems we turn to science, which has long-established and trusted methods for working out what is happening around us.

Science has been telling us since the 1970s that human activities are seriously damaging Earth’s natural systems. Politicians in power tend to find this unpalatable. Donald Trump and others like him attack it as “fake news”. Other governments, like ours, choose to ignore it.

The release last week of two scientific reports, from the World Meteorological Organisation and the United Nations Environment Program, should have stopped leaders in their tracks. But neither the Morrison government nor any state administration, including Tasmania, took any notice.

It’s self-evident that ignoring such reports is a monumental political failure. The UNEP report pointed out the heavy – and rising – price we are paying for the failure of governments to act early on advice about curbing carbon dioxide concentrations.

Serious climate action from 2010 would have enabled the world to meet a 1.5C target with annual emission cuts of just 3.3 per cent. Since this didn’t happen, says the report, we now need an average cut of 7.6 per cent each year for the next decade.

While PM Scott Morrison says Australia is doing its bit, the UNEP says that all 2015 Paris pledges are far too weak. It says they need to be at least three times stronger to achieve warming of less than 2C and more than five times stronger to stay below the much safer 1.5C of warming.

Paris targets must be reviewed every five years, and next year is crunch time. The UNEP report warns that if we wait until 2025 it will be too late to close the 2030 emissions gap, resulting in an increasingly unstable climate and a damaged global economy unable to fund adaptation measures or protect biodiversity and food supply.

Last week’s WMO report only added to the general anxiety about how we’re travelling. In a nutshell, it says that greenhouse warming has increased by 43 per cent since 1990 and that greenhouse gases, now at record high levels, are rising faster than the average of the past decade.

Around four million years ago, when Earth last experienced this level of carbon dioxide in the air, it was 2C to 3C warmer than now and sea level was at least 10 meters higher. That’s what we should now anticipate, and perhaps sooner than anyone presently thinks.

A paper in Nature last week by seven world-leading scientists, including Will Steffen of the Australian National University, concluded that we are already on the verge of passing “hothouse” tipping points leading to irreversible climate change and “an existential threat to civilisation”.

None of this will surprise anyone tracking the science debate. Over decades, scientists have been meticulously gathering evidence, like doing an unimaginably large jigsaw, and analysing it in their professional journals. Seeing calamity ahead, they are now desperate to get our attention.

While our political leaders find this unpalatable and ignore it, people who do follow the science are understandably distressed and angry. Public protest is their response of last resort.

In targeting protests that disrupt business, the federal and Tasmanian governments miss the mark by 180 degrees. By far the darkest cloud over our future is carbon pollution driven by fossil fuel businesses – supported by government subsidies which add up to $500 billion globally each year.

The climate crisis needs leaders with the intelligence to recognise complexity, the courage to make hard decisions, and enough determination and empathy to bring people with them on a long journey.

Instead, our governments have gone for the simple, empty answer. “Lock ’em up” is their response to crime and civil disobedience. The mantra for climate change is “We are meeting our targets”.

Simpletons are in charge. God help us.

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Preparing for a new transport future

We need electric transport, and we need everyone to be involved. Good government requires comprehensive planning for a just transition.

An affluent society like ours is full of technologies that delude us into thinking we’re in charge of our lives, and the example that first comes to mind is the car. For most Australians, life without one would be unthinkable.

The advertising hype – fingertip mastery over the universe in a sleek, shiny capsule – conceals the fact that people’s passion for cars contributes significantly to global warming. In Australia cars and light commercial vehicles produce over 60 per cent of transport emissions.

With the US and Canada, we are among the three biggest car-users in the world, and one of the worst performers in transport efficiency, or distance covered per person per litre of fuel burned, behind countries like Indonesia, Russia and Mexico.

Tasmania’s clean hydro electricity means that road transport makes up a higher proportion of total emissions than any other state. But while the cars on our roads have become more fuel-efficient over the past decade, our transport emissions have been virtually unchanged for many years.

This year Climate Tasmania, a small voluntary group of which I am a member, has developed a legislative framework for a strong Tasmanian climate change response. It is seeking a non-partisan parliamentary process to transform this into workable, effective legislation.

Prominent in our proposal is a mechanism for managing the changeover to clean transport. This is no trivial matter. A car is one of the most expensive items in any household inventory. If half the population ends up stranded with a fossil-fuelled clunker, we’re all in trouble.

We are proposing that an energy transition authority be set up to manage the shift to a clean economy. It would regulate public reporting of fossil fuel use by bigger industry players, reduce adverse impacts and identify business opportunities, while also safeguarding equity.

We envisage that government will lead this process by facilitating take-up of electric vehicles, encouraging a second-hand EV market and supporting the rollout of recharging stations.

For all its ultimate benefits including much cheaper transport, the inevitable transition to clean transport will be a massive economic disruption for our island state. Without a firm government hand on the tiller, this will be too much for some to handle.

The Hodgman government was notably absent from this scene until recently, but the latest report released by its Climate Change Office last week shows promising signs that it’s starting to respond.

The government’s “Charge Smart” program offers over $500,000 in grants for 26 new strategic charging stations in a state-wide EV network. It is also offering funding to help government (state and local) and commercial vehicle fleets reduce emissions and costs while preparing for EV uptake.

No doubt aware of potential government support, others are already acting. Gerry White, a veteran sustainability activist in Kingborough and Huon municipalities, reported “a good level of interest” from Upper House MPs this month on proposals by Circular Economy Huon for ride-sharing and other measures to combat traffic congestion.

The CEH submission highlighted the futility of increasing road space in the face of ever-rising car numbers and the high cost of rural public transport. It revives the idea of car-pooling, tried in 2008 in Georgi Marshall’s innovative CoolPool Tasmania, but this time with government incentives.

Car-pooling is a good idea regardless of the kind of vehicle used, but moving to an electric car in the absence of a transition plan is another level of commitment altogether. New EVs cost a minimum of around $45,000. I’ve never been able to afford one.

Tasmanian-based Good Car Company is aiming to break that impasse by offering used EVs at a relatively affordable price. Now it’s teaming up with groups like Circular Economy Huon and the South Hobart Sustainable Community to offer second-hand vehicles, acquired in bulk from Japan, at around half their original price.

Between two and six years old, these cars are not exactly for the highway– the longest range you can get out of their fully-charged batteries is 159 km – but they are ideal commuter vehicles. Unlike petrol and diesel cars, EVs are most economical in stop-start city traffic.

Savings increase over time. Energy for EVs costs well under half that for fossil-fuelled equivalents, a 2019 Victorian study found, and with almost no moving parts EVs are very cheap to maintain. Longer-range batteries and more fast-charge stations will secure their place in our transport future.

Many Tasmanians are primed and ready to go, but if this is to happen at scale it must have clear and strong support from government. That surely can’t be far away.

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Everyone’s talking about climate – except the government

Canberra’s silence in the face of mounting public concern can no longer be justified.

Every nation identifies itself through stories – some true, some dodgy, some entirely mythical. Ours are about settlers coming around the world, about fighting battles far from our shores, about bushrangers, troopers, squatters, drovers, indigenous people and immigrants.

A thread running through all these stories is that in this harsh, unforgiving land whose moods can turn lives upside down, people have to be physically tough, resourceful, purposeful, plain-speaking and courageous.

With wildfire in the news, our Australian heroes of the moment, with all those qualities and more, are the ones putting themselves in harm’s way to keep flames at bay and save lives and property.

Early in April this year a group of 23 of these people, former chiefs of fire and emergency services in all states and territories – many still active volunteers in local fire brigades – signed a letter to prime minister Scott Morrison seeking an urgent meeting to tell him about their critical concerns.

They wrote of increasingly extreme weather events overwhelming emergency services and putting lives, properties and livelihoods at risk, and asked for a federal parliamentary inquiry into the resourcing and equipping of the nation’s emergency services.

The group, which calls itself Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, sought an urgent review of fire-fighting aircraft, pointing out that access to large helicopters and fixed-wing planes leased from the northern hemisphere was restricted because of an increasing overlap of fire seasons.

The PM was in the midst of an election campaign when the letter was sent, so it was no surprise that he didn’t reply. It was re-sent after the Morrison victory. Two months later the PM replied proposing that the group meet with energy minister Angus Taylor.

As spokesperson Greg Mullins, a former NSW fire chief, told the story last week, the group wanted ministers with finance and emergency responsibilities to be in the discussion, but Taylor declined to help get them to a meeting. They again sought help from the PM, but got no response.

As the fire chiefs had foreshadowed in their letter, the present Queensland fire season started early, in August, when the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre warned it was shaping up to be a bad one.

In 2003 the Howard government agreed to meet states halfway in a cost-sharing lease of fire-fighting aircraft. Leasing or buying these aircraft now costs far more than in 2003. But Canberra’s contribution has barely moved from that time, leaving states carrying 90 per cent of the burden.

With “unprecedented” NSW and Queensland fires raging and with angry insults between Nationals and Greens MPs adding to the general din, David Littleproud, whose agriculture and water portfolio also covers emergency services, has now agreed to meet with the group next month.

The political fracas is no surprise. Climate change comes up every time there has been a fire or weather emergency, and the standard response is that “now is not the time” to discuss it. Aware of the perils of raising it in fraught times, people tend to say nothing.

But between emergencies, too, the Morrison government actively discourages discussion of climate change impacts and mitigation. Ministers quickly brush off questions on the topic, and we continue to have to nurse their political sensitivities by treading carefully around it.

Global warming doesn’t cause fires, but it does make them worse. Scientific study of the connection finds that the way climate change alters rainfall, wind and evaporation patterns causes many places to dry more quickly, making fires more likely to ignite and spread, and far more intense.

Mullins pointed out danger signals: autumn-winter rain in south-eastern Australia now 20 per cent below average, fire seasons up to two months longer than before, and windows narrowing for hazard reduction burning. We face the prospect of 12-month fire seasons, as now happens in California.

A growing chorus – yesterday the insurance industry added its considerable voice – is urging the government to engage with genuine public concerns and develop a national wildfire strategy to deal with a changing climate. Its silence on this subject cannot be justified.

There is a silver lining. Drought creeps up on you, but wildfire makes a big noise. If the warning from these heroes about ever-worsening fire seasons doesn’t push the Morrison government into taking climate change seriously, nothing will.

• LOCAL initiatives to help the push to lower emissions are a vital counter to national inaction. Circular Economy Huon is conducting an EV recharging seminar for tourism operators at Willie Smith’s Apple Shed, 2064 Huon Highway, from 9 till 11 am today. • And at the South Hobart community’s annual meeting tomorrow (7pm, SH Primary School Hall) residents will hear about a bulk purchase of electric vehicles.

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