With paralysis at the top, local action is the go

As new paradigms re-align global politics, local government is gearing up to act.

The damage that a changing climate is inflicting on our natural and human worlds is challenging everyone involved, from the global down to the local level, to cast off old world views and embrace wholly new ones.

As national delegations gathered in Madrid last week for the 25th UN climate convention (COP 25), southern Tasmanian councils embarked on a climate initiative of their own to deal with what Huon mayor Bec Enders calls “the most significant crisis of our time”.

In both cases participants are having to deal with paradigm shifts that would have been unthinkable not so long ago.

In Madrid, with the United States effectively sidelined after pulling out of the Paris Agreement, Europe is trying its own “Green New Deal” to raise the accord from its sickbed. Meanwhile gas began flowing into China courtesy of the 3000 km “Power of Siberia” pipeline, resulting from an agreement between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.

These two scenarios emphasise that the old North Atlantic centre of global influence is no longer what it was. Asia is the new centre, and Russia’s moribund economy may yet be revived courtesy of its huge reserves of natural gas and the emerging superpower to its south-east.

One other paradigm shift involves Australia. Under attack for building new coal power stations, China would always favour gas as a cleaner alternative. Now it has the option of converting coal-fired generators to gas, even brand new ones. More gas from Siberia implies less coal from us.

Climate change is helping to drive this fundamental shift in the global political balance, but its cutting edge is local. We will feel the impact of global warming most keenly in the places where we live our lives, in our countless encounters with daily weather and how it affects our own backyard.

The Climate Action Collaboration, an new initiative by the University of Tasmania and a coalition of southern Tasmanian councils, recognises the impact local changes in climate will have on local regions, and that old ways of administering them are no longer viable.

The Southern Tasmanian Councils Authority came to see a decade ago that collaboration would enable economies of scale in providing relevant knowledge and cost-effective responses to climate risks, taking in extreme heat, wildfires, drought, storms and flooding of coasts and rivers.

Back then, STCA sought help from the Climate Futures Tasmania research program, and the result was a broad analysis of climate risk for each of Tasmania’s 29 municipalities. As the need to respond to climate change becomes clearer and more pressing, the focus is now sharper.

Now based in the University of Tasmania’s geography and spatial sciences department, Climate Futures Tasmania is working on raising the resolution of global climate models to provide each local council with a fine-grained analysis of what it can expect from climate change.

The newly-formed coalition between the university and STCA will use that analysis to identify problem areas and solutions, and embed these within councils’ everyday activities, including planning and building approvals, waste management and community services.

Professor Jason Byrne, an urban planning scholar who leads the university’s school of technology, environments and design, sees the program’s main challenge as developing a “decision-making support template” for councils.

Tasmania’s rural councils are the smallest in Australia. Individually, they have limited resources and skills available to deal with what climate change is going to do to them.

A regional approach enables small councils to learn from each other in a new and complex policy environment, jointly devising ways to reduce carbon footprints and respond to changing climate in more streamlined and targeted ways.

One important lesson from past climate initiatives is that local government needs to deal with public anxiety about climate change, and the best medicine for this is action and participation. So practical outcomes will be the basis of the southern Tasmanian program.

The local projects emerging from this work are in the cause of climate mitigation or adaptation, and projects like tree plantings, dune revegetation, urban gardening or energy-efficient homes are all good for the climate. But their practical benefits are what will get people involved.

Higher levels of government have responded to multiple signals of dangerous climate change with silence and policy paralysis. That leaves councils now to pick up the baton and marshal their own limited resources to meet the challenge.

They will need help, which means us. Ordinary people are now fired up with the need to act. With councils now prepared to take initiatives, we might all be surprised at how quickly local projects can be realised.

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