On climate issues, what local government lacks in power, it makes up for in engagement
The unwilling have the power while the willing struggle along without it. This is the tragedy of the world’s shambolic response to the steadily growing threat from global climate change.
The worst we have seen of this response has come from the governments of countries capable of doing vastly more: from Washington, Beijing, Moscow, and errant European states.
And from Canberra, to our nation’s great shame. State governments have been more responsive – and more responsible – but they too are inclined to treat the climate challenge as something of a passing fad.
It could be argued that higher levels of government unprepared to take up the challenge themselves should pass resources down the line to those who are. But I guess it doesn’t work that way.
The best has come from low in the pecking order. Our youth has led a people’s charge for stronger, better-informed action to lower emissions, and various local groups have supported community-based initiatives such as walking and cycling facilities, parks and urban food gardens.
Local government reflects this grass-roots engagement. For many years its greater awareness of the growing climate threat has shown up its “superior” counterparts. A welcome manifestation of this is the “Sustainable Hobart” 2020 to 2025 action plan. Years in the making, the plan was the subject of some spirited council debate last year and more recently over whether it should exist at all.
Alderman Simon Behrakis is not among the council majority that supports it. He believes it is expensive, over-ambitious and bizarre, and that it takes the council far beyond its legal responsibilities. That position would seem almost quaint, in light of current scientific knowledge about climate change, if it wasn’t so widespread in Australian politics.
Very little of substance is happening in this space at higher levels of government. Federally we have no climate or energy policy, while the state government continues to drag its heels over urgently-needed legislation to replace the outdated and ineffectual 2008 Climate Change (State Action) Act.
That’s why Hobart and other Tasmanian councils, well served by dedicated climate officers who have won widespread acceptance of the need to act among colleagues and in their communities, are pushing the sustainability agenda in the face of a pandemic and economic upheaval.
The new Hobart plan looks in detail at what a climate-aware city should be like. A sustainable Hobart, it says, will use smart technology to help relieve traffic congestion, determine when public rubbish bins need emptying and when street lights can be dimmed to save power.
The city will experiment with alternative short-trip public transport such as electric tuk-tuks, and electric and driverless vehicles to deliver online shopping parcels. It will investigate how otherwise unused city spaces can be better utilised for all manner of pop-up uses including art displays and homeless shelter. And it will pay above standard rates for residents’ surplus solar electricity.
With help from scientific and other experts and community groups, it aims to improve the city’s biodiversity by developing self-sustaining vertical habitats, building artificial habitats for threatened bird species on the city’s outskirts, creating habitats for threatened insect species, and integrate edible plants, tended by children and parents, into playgrounds.
Having developed a way to determine local community emissions, the city will pursue international certification and lobby the state government to apply the methodology across Tasmanian councils.
It will work with local communities to build stronger preparedness for major fire, flood, storm and drought events, and establish a Sustainable Hobart community forum to share knowledge between the community and the city administration.
Although some of this plan is being realised it remains just a plan, and Simon Behrakis is right to say it is ambitious. But in the face of the climate emergency ambition is what we should expect from every government, at every level.
Over the years the state’s Climate Change Office has been a clearing house for information, a host of good ideas and financial backing for community projects, but its good work has had little impact on the partisan standoff that has so plagued action at the top.
Ideas and initiatives at grassroots level, however impressive, are no substitute for a focus on concerted action around Australian cabinet tables and corporate boardrooms. With prime minister Scott Morrison preferring not to talk about climate policy, it is clear we have a long way to go.
- At yoursay.hobartcity.com.au residents can download a draft Sustainable Hobart report and enrol for information sessions. The council aims to finalise the plan before the end of this year.