For climate action to start to bite, our political leaders have to realise there’s a grave problem. They still seem to be trying to figure this out. [10 October 2007 | Peter Boyer]
Address to a pre-Federal election policy forum, University of Tasmania, involving Duncan Kerr MHR, Senator Christine Milne, Senator David Bushby, candidate Susan Austin, 10 October 2007
Climate awareness came to me gradually, as a writer working alongside Antarctic and Southern Ocean scientists from the mid-1980s. In 2006 I found myself in the thick of things when I was one of 80 Australians selected to become a presenter for The Climate Project, set up in the United States by Al Gore and administered in Australia by the Australian Conservation Foundation. Throughout 2007 I have been up to my neck in the fastest-growing business in Australia, climate change.
In this I have discovered all sorts of things about our communities and workplaces and the way we interact (or don’t) with government. For instance, I’ve discovered that admirable organisation Sustainable Living Tasmania, one of a handful of organisations, largely driven by voluntary effort, that have become run off their feet by the demands of people to know more about climate change and what to do about it.
As a presenter for the Climate Project I have been on the road now nearly a year, sometimes working with Sustainable Living Tasmania, sometimes without. My sessions have involved 65 meetings with nearly 3000 people including school groups, special-interest, business and workplace groups, community groups and a welter of ‘senior’ groups. These groups are buzzing with concern and a real, solid desire to get on and do things. And they’re starting to do them.
I have also met with political people – Duncan Kerr MHR and Senator Christine Milne, both of whom I encountered in a climate forum earlier this year, Senator Eric Abetz, Will Hodgman MHA, and two members of the Tasmanian Labor government, David Llewellyn and Paul Lennon. In all cases I have been received politely, and have been given the opportunity to raise my concerns — although Senator Abetz did think the ‘global warming swindle’ people had a point.
But I’ve never got the sense of engagement with the issue from politicians that I’ve had from other meetings I’ve attended, and that is of great concern. As Clive Hamilton of the Australia Institute said, even if every citizen climbs on to the sustainable living bandwagon and begins to take action, such activity cannot achieve what is needed to address climate change. Real progress will only be possible when governments (which means, politicians) are galvanised into serious action. This is a tough call, because the effort needed is without precedent.
So where are we at, as a nation? It depends who you consult. The Australian Greenhouse Office says we’re close to or slightly above our Kyoto target of 109 percent of 1990 emissions. Clive Hamilton argues that this is a miscalculation and we’re actually tracking well above this target, which in any case is unreal because of the land use factor and the exclusion of forestry data on which our Kyoto target is based.
But even if the Australian Greenhouse Office is correct, we now know that all Kyoto targets are far too liberal and Australia’s is the most liberal of all.
We now know that we’re at, or already across, the threshold of dangerous climate change. We know that we’ve delayed real action, including imposing mandatory targets, for at least a decade – since it was obvious the science was correct.
Oceanographer John Church, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has expressed the climate change story in terms of stages. Stage 1: the scientists have established there’s a problem; they know that we’re at, or already across, the threshold of dangerous climate change. Stage 2 is for political leaders to realise this; stage 3 is taking action (such as building sustainable power stations, living more sustainably) and continuing to do so until emissions start coming down (stage 4), and until the climate begins to stabilise (stage 5). As John Church sees it, we’re stuck in stage two, and can’t seem to get past it.
What we need is action, not talk. This is of course easy to say because I’m not a politician, faced with this demand all the time. But this time the demand is real and immediate. We needed to act 10, 20 years ago, and we didn’t. It isn’t enough for politicians to say we’ve got this policy or that policy in development. There isn’t time for ‘development’ – we have to have plans in place that can be implemented quickly. We have to have bipartisan – multipartisan – support for this.
Most of all, we need reassurance from all our political representatives in the form of an acknowledgment that climate change is their pre-eminent concern. And that the many actions that governments need to take have priority over all others, such that the world knows that we’re dead serious about this. Nothing less will do.