Lesley Hughes: Why we should feel good about Tasmania

Tasmania has many advantages over other places in meeting the challenge of changing climate, something we should feel positive about, says Lesley Hughes. [12 June 2012 | Peter Boyer]

Professor Lesley Hughes, new chair of the Tasmanian Climate Action Council

Professor Lesley Hughes, new chair of the Tasmanian Climate Action Council

What’s the capital of Tasmania? The answer is $3.50, according to one of my regular interlocutors, John, who’s unhappy at the sight of our island state grinding to a halt when other parts of Australia are living it up.

As coal-rich Queensland and NSW continue to sell great shiploads of the stuff to Asia (on top of the huge trainloads they burn to power their own homes and industries), Tasmania, which doesn’t have much coal, is being branded the nation’s basket case.

As Australia’s largest renewable energy generator, Tasmania should be held up as a clean energy model, yet the same Canberra government that legislated for a coal-free “clean energy future” trumpets our coal-fuelled economic success. Public life is riven with bewildering contradictions.

The coal boom is powering more than just the economy. It’s helping to drive a shift in public opinion away from action to reduce carbon emissions, now supported by only a third of Australians according to a Lowy Institute poll released last week.

On cue, governments in the three eastern mainland states as well as Western Australia are back-pedalling on measures like restricting coastal development, cutting coal use, facilitating renewable energy projects and other climate reforms which a year or two ago seemed set in concrete.

Lara Giddings has shown little interest in emissions reduction, but at least she hasn’t yet joined the mainland rush to ditch reforms. That may have something to do with Hydro Tasmania’s carbon price windfall from next month, yielding to the government a much-needed dividend that’s forecast to rise in future years.

Tasmania may now be languishing, but our day will come, says Professor Lesley Hughes, the new chair of the Tasmanian Climate Action Council (TCAC), whose appointment was announced last week by the climate change minister, Cassy O’Connor.

This is something of a coup for O’Connor. Hughes, former head of biological sciences at Macquarie University, Sydney, is an internationally recognised specialist in the impact of climate change on species and ecosystems and a founding member of Climate Scientists Australia, a group of senior scientists seeking better-informed decisions on climate.

A lead author for the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, she represents Australia on a major UN biodiversity and climate change working group and is co-convenor of the Terrestrial Biodiversity Adaptation Research Network.

Besides hydro power, says Hughes, Tasmanians have many reasons to feel good about their future. The Climate Futures Tasmania project provided the state with unrivalled planning tools in the form of world-leading, detailed climate models for the next century.

While much of mainland Australia will have to cope with more extreme drying and wetting weather cycles, the impact of global warming on Tasmania’s climate is projected to be benign, favouring tourism and an enhanced role as a food producer and exporter.

As one of two specialist scientists on the Gillard government’s Climate Commission, Hughes has spoken to meetings in about 20 cities and regional centres around the country over the past two years in a public consultation process that she views as a highlight of her career.

“I was attracted to a role with the TCAC because it’s very much at the coalface, offering the opportunity to influence good policy while engaging with Tasmanians about their future,” she told me last week.

“I’ve been thinking for some time that I need to go beyond research and begin to try to make a difference, engaging more with the Australian community. The TCAC role offers me a good avenue to make that transition.”

Far from following other states in opting out of climate policy, Hughes believes that as a well-defined and close-knit community Tasmania can provide real leadership to the rest of the country, and an example to other state governments, in preparing for changes that are now upon us.

Tasmanians have much to feel good about, says Hughes. “I’m glad to be invited to help make good policy around the benefits and opportunities thrown up by climate change.”

Hughes is just one of nine new appointees to the 10-member TCAC, and the sole non-Tasmanian. Her deputy is Jess Feehely, principal lawyer at the Environmental Defenders Office (Tasmania), in which she provides advice on environmental and planning issues law reform.

Other TCAC members are Thomas Moore (oceanographer and science communicator), Chris Harries (environmental educator and activist in building sustainable communities), James Risbey (CSIRO senior climatologist), Greg Johannes (deputy secretary in the Department of Premier and Cabinet), Nick Towle (medical doctor specialising in emergency medicine and rural health, and community activist), Jan McDonald (Professor of Environmental Law, University of Tasmania), Anna Lyth (geographer and sustainability specialist, University of Tasmania), and the sole member from the old TCAC, author and former Greenpeace CEO Paul Gilding.

I wrote last week that O’Connor has yet to chalk up any significant climate-energy policy successes. If members’ credentials are any guide, this new TCAC should seriously enhance her firepower in winning government support for effective measures. I surely hope so.

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