The Premier’s credibility gap on climate

Peter Gutwein has been refreshingly honest with Tasmanians about the pandemic. It’s a pity he hasn’t treated climate change the same way.

A month or so before the last election, calling for public submissions for a climate plan and a new climate act, premier Peter Gutwein put his credentials on the line.

“I recognise climate change is an important issue,” he said in an introduction to an attractively designed “opportunities paper” seeking stronger climate legislation and a “robust and practical action plan”. 

This was his take on his government’s climate record: “In 2015, we were the first Australian jurisdiction to achieve net zero emissions and we have achieved this commitment four years in a row”, adding that Tasmania “continues to lead Australia’s transition to a low emissions economy [including] a commitment to generate 200 per cent of our energy needs from renewable energy by 2040 and fast-tracking a renewable hydrogen industry”.

This calls for some unpacking, starting with “green” hydrogen produced by renewable hydro. While it sounds good, some big technical questions remain and valuable time will pass before we can be confident it will be viable. Commitments do not equal deeds. 

As for past success, the government bases its claims on its 2017 climate plan, which lists a staged introduction of electric vehicles in the government fleet along with EV charging stations, and energy efficiency support for businesses, homes and aged care facilities. All are worthy programs, but they are not significant budget commitments.

The premier rightly says the 2008 Climate Change (State Action) Act needs strengthening. It’s a shame he didn’t think that back in 2014 when the government he was part of weakened the Act by abolishing the state’s climate advisory council, arguing that at $150,000 a year it was too expensive. That repeal bill has been the Liberals’ only climate legislation. 

Gutwein’s claim that Tasmania has achieved net zero status since 2015 implies that the state has actually made significant inroads into its emissions. Considering what that claim is based on, it’s hard to imagine how he can do this while keeping a straight face.

Official government data on emissions sources – transport and stationary energy, industrial processes, waste and agriculture – show no downward trend as the premier suggests, just small rises and falls from year to year. Recent improvements in times of growing population may be partly due to government policies – a small plus for the premier.

But one sector has a dramatically different emissions profile. A rapid drop in native forest harvesting from about 2005 saw the sector move from being the state’s main emitter of carbon to the point where Tasmania’s native forests since 2015 have taken up more carbon than we emit from all our human activities. 

So the decline of our forest industry is the sole reason the government can claim a net zero emissions profile for Tasmania. And irony of ironies, while trumpeting that achievement the same government has been doing all it can to revive native forest logging.

It might be possible to forgive the premier his sleight of hand if this anomaly had never been raised. But I’ve written about it in these pages before, as has climate scientist John Hunter, and I know of two written submissions about it to government inquiries or directly to MPs.

As far as I can ascertain the premier has never acknowledged the existence of this argument, but he cannot be unaware of it. Yet he and ministers in governments led by both him and Will Hodgman have repeated the net-zero, global leadership claim year on year, as if nothing more needs to be said. To me, that’s deliberate deception.

To believe the government, having already reached the magic net-zero mark half a decade ago we can expect to cruise to 2050. But Peter Gutwein should be warning Tasmanians that far from cruising, they must get ready for paradigm shifts that climate change is already forcing on the world, from which this island will not be immune.

Wildfires and personal transport are two of these shifts highly relevant to Tasmania. The City of Hobart’s bushfire strategy is one response to the growing risk that our most treasured possessions, our homes, may become uninsurable if we do nothing, and the growing global pressure to electrify transport will have an economic impact on all Tasmanians. 

Peter Gutwein has done well to protect us from the virus. But protecting households’ economic viability in the transition to a post-carbon world calls for long-term, broad-scale public planning, starting now. As we have learned from the pandemic, the first step on that road is to cut the spin.

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The coronavirus learning experience

Openness and honesty are leaders’ most important lessons from Covid-19

At the dawn of 2021 Australia basked in the world’s acclaim. We were the object lesson in keeping the dreaded virus at bay. Six months later we have been dramatically marked down, the global object lesson in what not to do.

That reputation is not entirely deserved. Australia can still claim that timely financial support kept its economy afloat, and that its growing skills in managing people and tracing contacts have kept thousands alive who would have died under other pandemic regimes.

But those skills weren’t enough to suppress Delta, the coronavirus variant now sweeping the world. We were caught out by lockdown politics, specifically the belief that NSW could avoid lockdowns by using other measures. That was a mistake.

The other big question is vaccination. In the vaccine development phase Australia banked heavily on the UK-created AstraZeneca (AZ), which we could make in Australia. The government counted on AZ to see us through, ordering limited stocks of messenger-RNA (MRNA) vaccines. Another mistake.

With the lives and livelihoods of every individual in every business and community on the line, actually or potentially, this has to be the wickedest public policy challenge imaginable. While heeding scientific evidence, all leaders and officials – in government or not, elected or not – must also manage public perceptions.

Australia’s vaccine plans were thrown into disarray in April by European reports that AZ shots could lead to a dangerous blood-clotting disorder that disproportionately affected younger people. The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) advised that only people aged over 50 should get AZ, then in mid-June limited it to over-60.

As an AZ recipient I followed these events with a keen interest. I have now had both shots, with no discomfort and no side-effects, but I appreciate that some people, especially those with other health issues, would have been nervous at hearing ATAGI’s advice.

The central issue here is the risk from the clotting disorder. ATAGI says the risk of a person under 50 getting the disorder after receiving a first dose of AZ is 3.1 per 100,000 doses, or 0.0031 per cent.

The risk of dying from an AZ-induced blood clotting disorder is much lower. In June Melbourne epidemiologist Hassan Vally calculated that it’s about the same as being killed by a lightning strike and less than a 50th of the risk of dying in a car accident. Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital reports that new treatments are reducing that risk still further.

Which puts the ATAGI advice into context. If the risk of death from receiving the vaccine is so tiny, should the nation regard that advice as the last word, or rather as a caution, to be assessed in light of the overarching need to limit the damage caused by Covid-19 itself? 

ATAGI is thinking about this, and a fortnight ago advised that in an outbreak, younger people unable to get a Pfizer dose should “reassess the benefits” of AstraZeneca as opposed to “the rare risk of a serious side effect”. Last weekend it went a step further, saying Sydney people should “strongly consider” an AZ dose if the preferred alternative, Pfizer, was not available. 

The PM seems to have had a hand in this changed stance. He told a media conference last week that he was “constantly” appealing to ATAGI to review its AZ advice as “the balance of risk” changed. That was a potentially dangerous misstep: the independence of this crucial government agency is essential to its public credibility. 

But Morrison was right in his analysis of the situation. The spread of the virus’s Delta variant, with our biggest city as its epicenter, is clearly a greater risk than death from the clotting disorder. We should be rolling out AZ as fast as we can manufacture it.

The Sydney outbreak has done what Melbourne’s multiple waves could not – change the prime minister’s mind about lockdowns. Once a fierce opponent of restricting the movement  of people, the PM said on Sunday that it was the key to getting cases down. 

We don’t want miracles from our leaders, but in this public health emergency we rightly expect them to be open and honest. From the outset the government sought to cover up its critical vaccine supply failure. Of all its mistakes, that was the worst.

The only sure way to end lockdowns is mass vaccination. Scott Morrison can only hope that ATAGI’s new advice on AZ and a vastly better advertising campaign will bring forward the day when we can breath, move and mingle as we used to, all those long months ago.

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The dangerous times are upon us

Why climate change mitigation needs to have our government’s utmost attention, even in the midst of a pandemic

One more item on a lengthening bad-news list: the World Meteorological Organisation says we can safely assume that at least one of the next five years will be hottest on record and there’s a good chance it will reach the Paris Agreement’s “safe” warming limit of 1.5C.

And another: This year’s peak of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which happens late in May before northern forests start their growing spurt, was 419 parts per million. That’s over 50 per cent above its pre-industrial level and the highest ever recorded at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. 

Despite all the claims by world governments, including ours, to be lowering emissions, and despite the pandemic’s impact on travel as borders closed and cities locked down, there is far more carbon dioxide in the air now than in all the time humans have existed on Earth.

Continuing our present business-as-usual course would make the world 3C to 4C warmer within 80 years. Given that we’re currently dealing with the consequences of just over 1C of warming, that future doesn’t bear thinking about.

At least in the short term a lot of these excessive emissions – wildfires and methane from melting tundra come to mind – are unavoidable. But far more can be done quickly, like cutting fossil fuel use and stopping removal of carbon-rich natural forest, to name two notable Australian failures.

At the start of this century science was saying pronounced warming would happen gradually, allowing time to adapt as we lower global emissions. But the pace of change since 2010 is forcing us to juggle two balls at once – adapting to a warming, less stable climate while trying to slow warming before things gets completely beyond us. 

After deadly drought in eastern Australia, its worst wildfire season on record in 2019-20 and a multi-year “megadrought” in the American west, North America’s 2021 summer is already one for the ages. This year’s fire season seems apocalyptic – a word that is losing impact amid exhausting summers filled with seemingly endless firestorms.

For weeks the US northwest and Canada’s southwest have been really feeling the heat. In late June Portland’s all-time maximum was bettered by five full degrees Celsius. On the same  day, Lytton, a village in British Columbia at 50 degrees latitude, experienced Canada’s all-time high temperature of 49.6C. The next day the village was all but obliterated in a wildfire. 

After posting its second-hottest June on record, Europe has seen temperatures north of the Arctic Circle soar above 40C. Five Middle East countries have had days over 50C. Similar extreme heat rendered 20 Pakistani schoolchildren unconscious. None died, but death rates in all afflicted places rose substantially on the hottest days. 

Then last week, a warm, energetic, moisture-laden atmosphere dumped a massive load of water on western Germany, inundating hapless cities, towns and villages in the Rhine and other river basins of northwest Europe, wrecking infrastructure and killing around 200 people. Shocked survivors couldn’t recall anything like it.

Is this climate change at work? For many people in the US – and here – it remains a matter of personal belief and therefore impolite to talk about. A survey of regional US media coverage of the heat event there found that just six of 150 articles had referred to climate change.

Of course it’s climate change, said German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier after the floods. And scientists, though they still talk of probabilities and the continuing role of “normal” climate variability, are in no doubt that our climate is changing before our eyes.

It’s a far cry from a blazing northern summer to The Lodge and Kirribilli, where Scott Morrison recently spent weeks in quarantine or under lockdown. But if the PM is ever inclined to contemplation, this would have been the time for it. 

Climate change would be low on his thinking list, which is no doubt topped by the pandemic. But if he could only turn his attention from spinning narratives to the big picture, he might see connections between the two, and begin to understand our vulnerability – and that of his government – to forces of nature.

By December Australians should be nearing full vaccination, and the weather gods may give us another mild summer. Alternatively, the North American experience could be ours within six months, in which case nature would be the big issue in the next federal election.

So yes, the PM might learn something from the drought, the fires, the pandemic and the 2021 northern summer. But remember, this was the man who held up the lump of coal.

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