Our first climate minister sees cause for hope

Tasmania’s new climate change minister Nick McKim is an optimist, which according to one definition is an uninformed pessimist. But he’s determined to make a difference. [1 June 2010 | Peter Boyer]

To use a topical metaphor, science and politics are like oil and water. One deals with the world as it is, the other with the world as we’d like it to be. In science the rule is plain language; politicians like to embellish. Evidence is what drives science, but opinion is the main driver of politics.

Nick McKim on Election Night 2010. PHOTO: ABC

Nick McKim on Election Night 2010. PHOTO: ABC-TV Hobart

Many politicians may disagree, pointing to official inquiries as evidence that they work from facts, but any evening television news bulletin provides ample evidence that in politics reality is a mere sideshow compared to what people think.

If it were just a matter of political leaders acting on the scientific evidence, by now we might have our emissions on a downward path. But few politicians know much about the science of greenhouse warming. Some believe that their personal experience of the weather and a few maverick opinions are enough reason to reject the science.

A handful of politicians are outspoken advocates of climate action, with another handful loudly opposing them. In the face of a growing emergency, the rest sit in an apparently indifferent middle group, unwilling or unable to articulate the problem or to speak out individually.

This is the disturbing political reality that stopped Lisa Singh from making headway as Labor’s “minister assisting the Premier on climate change”. It will be no less of a challenge to Nick McKim as he seeks to get the ponderous apparatus of government moving in the right direction for a low-carbon economy.

When I sat down with McKim for an hour last week to talk about his program for achieving this, he gave only positive, optimistic signals. He takes pride in the fact that he’s Tasmania’s first fully-fledged climate change minister, and clearly wants it known that he’ll be hitting the ground running.

I started our discussion with many reservations. There are the obvious problems of government colleagues oblivious to the real threat from greenhouse warming and entrenched anti-Green sentiment in the Labor Party. Then there’s his newness to the job.

It was heartening to read in his article in last Tuesday’s Mercury that he takes seriously the need, obvious for so long to so many, to transform Tasmania’s transport system. But this is going to be a very tough grind with a lot of setbacks and disappointments, including rising transport costs. Besides encouragement and good cheer, managing public expectations will need some tough talk.

But for now, what’s more important is that this appointment is a real shot in the arm for Tasmanian climate action. We have a dedicated minister with a relatively strong knowledge of the actions needed and a keenness to get down to business. That’s a great start.

McKim sees his appointment as climate change minister and the inclusion of “sustainability” in the three key focuses of the new Bartlett ministry (the other two are jobs and children) as a signal of David Bartlett’s intent to give special emphasis to climate policy. He is confident that the Labor-Green experiment will see a lot of progress.

He believes that Tasmania’s long and deep environmental awareness, supported by expertise in renewable energy and climate science, can help it become a national leader in climate action. He believes his federal counterpart, Senator Penny Wong, will provide federal support in this drive.

In pushing Tasmania as a leader on climate action, McKim flags these as priority items:

• The Climate Action Council can and should actively engage in developing climate policy.

• Local government is a key player in developing local economies and better town planning.

• A near-term interim emissions target (well before 2050) and regular reporting of emissions are essential. He believes very short-term, perhaps annual, targets are desirable.

• Tasmania needs strong adaptation strategies, especially in marine industries, energy generation, planning and land use. This should not be at the expense of reducing emissions, which must remain a priority, but good adaptation policy will focus attention on the seriousness of the climate crisis.

• He will seek independent scientific advice, possibly outside Australia, on how Tasmania’s forests store carbon to ensure they continue to be fully effective carbon sinks.

I found the meeting a positive one. That needs to be put in context: Australian politics has a shockingly poor record on climate action. But Nick McKim seems prepared to put in the hard yards to persuade his colleagues of the need to act, quickly and decisively, and that’s reassuring.

If he can’t get the government, including the State bureaucracy, behind him, his personal commitment will count for little. He’s confident he has the Premier’s support; I hope he’s right. He’ll also need to get bureaucrats behind his policies, supporting a culture that welcomes ideas and innovation. That’s a tougher call which might need more than one electoral term to resolve.

In an Australian radio interview the other day, Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho defined an optimist as “an uninformed pessimist” — a sentiment that applies pretty well to climate policy. If Nick McKim doesn’t prove her wrong, let’s hope he can at least retain his spirit and commitment long enough to make a real difference.

“A Map of a Dream of the Future”, a Tasmanian creative arts and education project, invites schoolchildren to imagine Tasmania in 2100, transformed by climate change. Five free school holiday workshops around Tasmania begin in Clarence tomorrow (2 June), followed by Moonah (8 June), Dunalley (9 June), Launceston (10 June) and Devonport  (11 June). For more information call 63316770.

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1 Response to Our first climate minister sees cause for hope

  1. Hi Peter,
    Great article and I too share your view that keeping the heart strong in an environment of knockers and ‘can’t doers’ is the key to change.

    We have many examples of ultra conservatism (irrespective of party) which rejects the evidence in favour or their uncle’s observation that it used to be like this x years ago.

    We just have to look to the real science such as the acidification of the oceans to know that those with their eyes cast backwards will always say NO! and never-the-less me MUST act now!

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