Voices for future generations

It is impossible to imagine a warming, increasingly unstable future climate without considering what is in store for today’s children and the generations to come. 

The response of the world’s wealthier nations to this clear threat to human life has been slow and inadequate – in Australia’s case especially so. There is still no discernible outcome from the Morrison government’s grandiose promises around “technology, not taxes”.

Australians of all ages are understandably bothered by the lack of substantive measures everywhere to reduce carbon pollution. On Friday a lot of angry young people, mostly too young to vote, will vent their frustrations in another “school strike for climate” in Hobart, Launceston, Burnie and centres across Australia.

It is said that parents and teachers dealing with children’s alarm at official reports about our climate future should be helping them see what they can do now that is within their powers – modifying behaviour and buying habits, using public transport, walking more, using food-scrap compost to grow vegetables – that sort of thing. 

Many young people follow this advice, but they can work out for themselves that individual effort won’t cut it. After decades of political negligence, the scale of the task now required demands the full and undivided attention of governments. All of them.

Senator Eric Abetz has held senior positions for most of the Coalition’s present term in government. He claimed last week that “climate change predictions made over the decades have failed to materialise” and complained about “an ideological pursuit of so-called climate change goals”.

Our children see clearly what the senator refuses to see. The dangerous impact of human activity on the climate is a matter of evidence, painstaking put together under UN auspices by thousands of scientists around the world. Ideology has no part in it, except in his mind.

His is the kind of political arrogance that stokes young people’s anger, not to mention fear and anxiety about their future – a reasonable response to a genuine crisis. Adults who remain indifferent to them while going about business as usual are part of the problem.

Peter George wrote in these pages last week that male domination damages society as a whole, and that it is the responsibility of men, and men alone, to address their attitudes toward women. It’s an obvious truth but it needs to be said; the obvious is often overlooked. 

The school strikers, like women protesting mistreatment by men, are protesting their elders’ apparent unconcern about the world they will be lumbered with. And just as men are responsible for their own attitudes and behaviour, so are we adults – especially the leaders among us – obliged to listen to and act on what the school strikers are saying.

Some adults are listening. Two Tasmanian legal academics, Jan Linehan and Peter Lawrence, have edited a collection of essays published as “Giving Future Generations a Voice” which explores administrative frameworks and practices addressing the needs of people yet to be born.

No-one wants future human lives to be more difficult than ours. The proposition that you leave the world better – or at least no worse – than how you found it is widely accepted. But the book catalogues numerous legal hurdles that prevent authorities from being empowered and/or compelled to attend to the well-being of future generations.

As Queensland law professor Bridget Lewis writes in the book, “future generations are not named explicitly as beneficiaries of human rights under international law”. People not yet born cannot be said to be under the jurisdiction or control of any government.

But, argues Lewis, the “effects doctrine”, which has been applied to a country’s actions causing environmental impacts in another country, could also be applied across time, into the future that our children will experience. By this means, courts could hold governments accountable now for the yet-to-be-realised impact of their negligence.

Throughout the Linehan-Lawrence book, experts from here and abroad offer plenty more such legal debate, and beyond that, current examples of various jurisdictions’ attempts to come to grips with inter-generational justice.

Examples explored in the book include parliamentary reforms, citizens’ assemblies and creation of positions like a commissioner or ombudsman for future generations. It is past time we had this conversation in Tasmania.

The Climate Justice Network and the University of Tasmania’s Law Faculty are sponsoring a panel discussion on justice for future generations, at 5 pm tomorrow week, 20 October, at the Medical Science 2 lecture theatre, 17 Liverpool Street, Hobart, or online. For more details and registration, go to https://www.utas.edu.au/events/ and scroll to “Giving Future Generations a Voice”.

This Friday’s School Strike for Climate in Hobart begins at the Regatta Grounds at midday before a march to Parliament Lawns. Launceston’s is at 11 am at City Park, and Burnie’s at 4.30 pm on the City Foreshore.

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Conservatism and conservation in Matt Kean’s NSW

The electorate of Hornsby is as blue-ribbon as it gets in the NSW parliament. For nearly 100 years all its elected members have been members of the Liberal Party or its predecessors.

So it looked like business as usual when Matt Kean, a 30-year old accountant with a private school education and a decade as a Young Liberal, won the seat comfortably in 2011 and settled into political life under premiers Barry O’Farrell, Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian.

When Berejiklian brought Kean into her cabinet in 2019, in the key energy and environment portfolio, the state was in the grip of an intense drought threatening the viability of farms and towns in the Murray-Darling basin, followed by fires devastating millions of hectares of parched ranges and coastal lands.

In the midst of the fire crisis Kean said what everyone knew but could not utter, identifying climate as the fires’ underlying cause. He won support for his position from NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro, who said last week that emerging low-carbon industries would benefit regional communities – directly contradicting his federal counterpart Barnaby Joyce. 

Early in 2020 Kean announced that the state would invest in a plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 by supporting various wealth-creating initiatives in electricity distribution, electric vehicles, carbon farming, the built environment, zero-carbon finance and organic waste.

The principle tool for reaching that goal would be an “Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap” to replace retiring coal plants by coordinating investment in renewable generation, storage and transmission. “Renewable Energy Zones”, described as “modern-day power stations”, would combine wind, solar and other generation with storage such as large-scale battery arrays.

Planning is already well advanced for the first five of these zones. Kean told an interviewer last week that when his department recently asked for expressions of interest for one of them – “right in Barnaby Joyce’s electorate” – it received more than four times what it had asked for in new electricity proposals producing 34 Gw of power worth around $40 billion.

The financial impact of all that renewable energy, according to Kean, will be entirely positive, with home power bills projected to fall by an average of $130 a year and company bills by $430. “So we’re not putting in place policies that will hurt the economy [but] policies that will reduce our emissions but turbocharge our economy.”

On the back of that 2020 plan for net-zero emissions by 2050, the NSW government last week committed to a 2030 target – much more significant given the need for early action – of 50 per cent less emissions than the Paris baseline year of 2005. That’s nearly double the Morrison government’s 2030 reduction target of 26 to 28 percent. 

Those familiar with targets in other Australian jurisdictions, including Tasmania, will not find the NSW ones outrageously ambitious, because those governments’ ambitions far outstrip the feeble federal targets.

But for a variety of reasons the NSW government might be expected to echo federal attitudes to climate and energy. It is very close in its political makeup to the federal government. It’s a majority-Liberal, minority-National coalition, holding on to power by a small margin and dependent on keeping all its MPs on a tight rein. And NSW is Scott Morrison’s home turf.

But NSW chose its own path. Government MPs could have repeated their national counterparts’ claims that curbing emissions would harm regional economies, but Kean rejects that as a false argument. “It’s not one or the other – you can do both,” he said last week.

The resignations of both Berejiklian and Barilaro either side of the weekend raises all kinds of questions about future policies. Unlike Barnaby Joyce’s federal Nationals, Barilaro had been in lock-step with Kean’s plans. Instead of talking about keeping old coal power plants he emphasised the value of emerging low-carbon industries to regional communities. 

A new leader may decide on a new role for Kean, but the climate and energy policies he crafted are unlikely to change. Both the Liberals and the Nationals have invested too much credibility in them to back out now.

The NSW government would be wise to remember that its Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap is not a complete climate package. Fully addressing climate change is a hard slog demanding the sustained focus of leaders and whole communities.

But it has shown that conserving nature and curbing pollution are far from the antithesis of conservatism, as many of their colleagues have held for so long. Unlike its federal counterpart, in the long walk to an uncertain future at least it’s facing the right way.

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The greening of the Coalition

Once a British colony and a source of slaves for American plantations, The Gambia is one of the world’s poorest sovereign nations and the smallest country on mainland Africa. Insignificant is a word that comes to mind.

Except that it’s not. Small, poor and exploited it may be, but it doesn’t shirk responsibility. According to the UN it is the only country in the world that is doing what each country must do to hold planetary heating below the agreed limit of 1.5C.

Prime minister Scott Morrison and treasurer Josh Frydenberg beg to differ. Last week, each claimed that Australia was doing its bit for the world. Frydenberg was speaking to the Australian Industry Group; the PM’s audience was President Joe Biden.

They made three main claims: Australia is a world solar power leader with panels on one in four homes. Pumped hydro schemes, new interconnectors and green hydrogen will boost renewable energy. And Australia has cut its emissions by more than 20 per cent since 2005 – faster than the OECD average, faster than the US, Japan, Canada and New Zealand.

But the rise of Australian solar has almost nothing to do with the Coalition, which until recent subtle shifts in its narrative has been pushing a “gas-led recovery”. And any impact from pumped hydro and green hydrogen will be many years or even decades away. To avert climate catastrophe, says UN chief Antonio Guterres, we need effective action now. Next decade will be too late.

As for the claim that our emissions have dropped since 2005, if you take out land-use credits they’ve actually risen by about 7 per cent. November’s Glasgow climate summit will be well aware of this – the “net” in “net-zero” that allows countries to offset emissions by growing trees – and how recalcitrant leaders can use it to their advantage.

A study released last week by the Australia Council and the Australian Conservation Foundation backs that up. The “Questionable integrity” study concluded that public funds are being squandered on so-called “avoided deforestion” when landowners are paid to retain vegetation that was never going to be cleared.

In 2019 the ACF sought assurance from the Emissions Reduction Fund about the integrity of its methods for deciding who gets money for avoided deforestation. The ERF Assurance Committee, which regulates the scheme, completed a review but has since released no findings. In the meantime, $68 million has been disbursed for projects in question.

The Morrison government’s claim to have cut emissions by 20 per cent is based on this scheme. Considering the method’s widespread use globally, we should all be alarmed.

Australia’s Paris commitments are the weakest among wealthy nations. A new UN scientific report concludes that the best – repeat, the best – we can expect from combined current national commitments is global emissions 16 per cent higher in 2030 than back in 2010, which puts the world on a pathway to global heating of 2.7C.

By any measure that would be catastrophic. Bear in mind that just 1.1C of warming has produced today’s melting permafrost, diminishing icecaps and record-breaking wet, dry and hot weather events.

Warming of 1.5C will be worse than today, but the report says that even just to stay at that “safe” level we have to set targets much closer than 2050. By 2030, a little more than eight years from now, global emissions must be 45 per cent below what they were in 2010. 

Australia and other G20 nations together produce 80 per cent of global emissions. Guterres wants the G20 to lead others by committing to that 45 per cent by 2030 target. Getting aboard the 2050-net-zero bandwagon is far less important than what we will do this decade.

On Friday, probably not by coincidence, the Coalition released a pre-election ad that rolls all their dubious claims about what they’ve done and plan to do into a shiny, family friendly cartoon about a sunlit clean-energy future under a Morrison government.

Twelve years ago the Liberals ditched their leader for treating global warming too seriously. The Coalition went on to deride and destroy a functioning carbon price scheme which would have helped to fund new energy. For most of its time in office it has been trash-talking wind and solar and talking up coal and gas. 

After all that, it now wants electors to believe it has reduced emissions when it hasn’t, and that expensive, largely untested technology with a long lead time is better for the climate than cutting existing fossil fuel emissions, starting now.

What are we supposed to do? Applaud?

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