Taking climate change seriously

In preparing Tasmania and its people for the transition to clean transport and industrial energy, the Hodgman government has a huge task on its hands.

Premier Will Hodgman, energy minister Guy Barnett, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and federal energy minister Angus Taylor at Cethana power station last February. PHOTO Simon Sturzaker, Advocate

In mid-2014, a few months after coming to power, the Hodgman government quietly abolished the Tasmanian Climate Action Council.

At the time it seemed odd. It was said to be a cost-saving measure, yet the TCAC’s annual budget, including the cost of flying its chairperson down from Sydney four times a year, was around $150,000 – about what it costs to employ and accommodate a single mid-level public servant.

Tony Abbott’s new government had done something similar eight months earlier when it abolished the Climate Commission, charged with improving public understanding.

But as an advisor to government the TCAC had a different remit. In-house and contracted scientific, legal, administrative and analytical expertise delivered comprehensive reports on Tasmania’s emissions profile, with cost-effective ways to reduce them and adapt to a changed climate.

Having isolated itself from professional advice, the government has struggled ever since to grasp why reducing emissions was so important then and why it’s so much more important now.

The TCAC’s former members determined to stay together, providing information and advice about how their state should address climate change. Six months later they formed a self-funded group, Climate Tasmania, with expertise in climate science, agriculture, economics and the law.

A year into its new life I was invited to join (needless to say, not as any kind of expert). We’ve had some ups and downs since – we’re currently having to find a new meeting venue – but we’re determined to keep plugging away in the hope that some are listening.

Looking around, we see little to be cheerful about. The Morrison government avoids discussing climate; when pressed it drags out pumped hydro, a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure scheme still very much on the drawing board. Its campaign rhetoric told us it doesn’t like electrified transport.

Here, the Hodgman government has always insisted that it takes climate change seriously, a position reiterated by newly-installed environment minister Peter Gutwein last week in response to a Climate Tasmania push for stronger state climate legislation.

He said the government was putting “up to $30 million” into “Battery of the Nation”, a scheme to use cheap off-peak power to pump water back up into dams so it can be reused to deliver “low cost, reliable clean energy” to Australia via a new Bass Strait power cable.

He told The Examiner that the government was also providing funds to set up a statewide electric vehicle charging network and to help local governments buy electric vehicles.

A vehicle charging network and pumped hydro have been a matter of public debate for a long time. Electric transport advocate Clive Attwater mapped out a $1 million charging network back in 2015, and I first reported on pumped hydro (a technology that’s over a century old) back in 2010.

Pumped hydro and a new undersea cable will make it easier to export our renewable energy, but greater wind and rooftop solar capacity gives our state system much more bang for the buck. For their part, electric vehicles are a no-brainer, considering Tasmania’s renewable energy capacity.

The government’s support for electric vehicles is tacit acknowledgment that burning fossil-fuel for transport – which involves $1 billion a year leaving the state to pay for the fuel – should be treated as an issue in its own right, not something to be offset by growing forests. That is most welcome.

Less welcome is the government’s continuing inability to grasp that climate change is not a peripheral environmental issue but a whole-of-society one demanding the attention of every state agency and every minister.

The government must acknowledge that like the rest of the country, Tasmania faces massive social and economic disruption if it doesn’t have a transition plan in place. It must ask itself how our state is to make the shift while ensuring that vulnerable people aren’t left behind.

It needs to start preparing, thinking hard about what is needed now and what will be needed over coming decades. And then, probably with federal help, it needs to secure necessary funding – something the state’s health crisis has shown is far from guaranteed.

This is the basis of Climate Tasmania’s proposals for a revised Climate Change (State Action) Act. The abolition of the TCAC robbed the 2008 Act of most of its value; Climate Tasmania believes this can be restored and augmented by redrafting the legislation to focus on a “just transition”.

Emissions targets remain important, and if we want to earn a reputation as a climate action leader (a title the government has already claimed) we should be setting ambitious targets, including interim targets and even annual ones. Ambition is not a crime.

But it’s crucial that the state’s climate measures win and retain widespread public support. That cannot happen unless the government shifts its focus to carefully and comprehensively managing the social and economic transition we now have to make.

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