Will our leaders please stand up?

We won’t get large-scale mindset shifts on climate change without strong, focused leadership — something that’s noticeably absent from the Australian political landscape. [30 October 2007 | Peter Boyer]

Without resolute and well-informed political leadership, everything we do as individuals, families, communities or work groups to limit the damage from our excessive greenhouse gas emissions will come to nothing.

Around the developed world, political leadership on climate change measures has been a very scarce commodity – nowhere more so than in the US, Canada and Australia. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that these three countries have the worst per-person emissions record.

Until now, our politicians could get away with claiming to be leaders if they took a strong stand on street violence or terrorism, or if they stared down political opponents trying to nail them.

That doesn’t work with today’s changing climate. Its impact will be diminished only by targeted, sustained and coordinated action on many fronts, by many groups but most importantly by governments.

No amount of tough talking or clever manoeuvring will make this crisis disappear. The more we ignore it – or find refuge in “solutions” that turn out to be just diversions from the real work at hand – the worse it will become.

Throwing money at tree-planting schemes to offset our emissions may relieve the conscience but it won’t solve the problem. A few of them have substance and value, but too often they’re ill-defined in their benefit, slow to take effect and seriously under-priced.

We need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, quickly. In the 1997 Kyoto Protocol discussions, it was agreed we had little time to spare. Now, ten years later, that leeway has gone.

It’s no longer enough for governments simply to encourage people and businesses to do their best while postponing the tough measures they themselves must take.

Political commitments and actions on climate change must now be aimed above all else at lowering the levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

Everyone in federal, state and local government, from political leaders to the lowest ranks of the public service, needs to know that tough and perhaps unpopular action to reduce the impact of climate change is front and centre in the “to do” list.

The people we elect and appoint to administer us must now start to set examples in the way they operate in their workplaces – in their use of energy, their travel activities, their office management, their attitudes to the natural environment.

The time for half-measures is gone, as Winston Churchill said of the Nazi threat in the 1930s. We’re now in the era of consequences.

Changing climate, changing views

John Howard has shifted ground more than once on climate change and what to do about it. Here’s a collection from the past decade:

1997    “The outcome of the Climate Change Conference in Kyoto represents a splendid result… that Australia joins in very enthusiastically. For the first time we have an agreement amongst the developed countries to bring about a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.” (Media release on conclusion of Kyoto meeting)

2002    “It is not in Australia’s interests to ratify the Kyoto protocol. …For us to ratify the protocol would cost us jobs and damage our industry. That is why the Australian government will continue to oppose ratification.” (Statement to Parliament confirming that Australia would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol)

2006    “I don’t see [a need for drastic government action] occurring in a decade. … I’m very sceptical of some of the doomsday scenarios… I want to see the evidence, I want to see the science… these sweeping generalisations are next to useless in this sort of debate.” (Interview for ABC Four Corners)

2007    “In a protracted drought, and with the prospect of long-term climate change, we need radical and permanent change. I regard myself as a climate change realist.” (Statement on release of new water management strategy)

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