Peter Gutwein on climate

Still feeling his way, but some promising signs

A fortnight ago, premier Peter Gutwein sat down with the Legislative Council Estimates Committee to talk about climate change.

Actually the discussion came at the end of a long day in which everything except the climate was discussed. The truth is that climate change does not figure prominently in the Tasmanian state budget.

For those of us engaged with this issue it is incomprehensible that a clear and present danger to everyone in the world isn’t integral to budgeting in every jurisdiction, Tasmania included. The setting of our state’s budget priorities seems to follow a rule book from another planet.

It came as a relief that in response to scientific advice about the coronavirus pandemic governments were persuaded to change habits of a lifetime and take action on a scale unimaginable a year ago.

But it is disturbing that year after year, with apparent impunity, these same governments have been able to ignore equally firm, equally unanimous advice from the world’s climate scientists. So far, not even the shock and awe of last summer’s climate-driven conflagration seems to have changed their modes of thinking.

In these pages last week, Tasmanian scientist John Ross described a deception being perpetrated by the federal government and all state jurisdictions including Tasmania. This has its origins in Kyoto in 1997, when the Howard government secured an accounting rule which allowed it to use land carbon data to camouflage rising fossil fuel emissions.

The deception Ross describes allows Peter Gutwein and his government to claim, as he did in last month’s estimates hearings, to have “actually achieved zero net emissions” 30 years ahead of the state’s 2050 target. “We should’ve been shouting that from the rooftops,” Gutwein told the committee. Doing that might not be wise; someone might ask for the claim to be spelt out.

For all that, there are signs that this premier is open to a more assertive climate policy. He suggested that this year’s scheduled review of our only piece of climate legislation, the 2008 Climate Change (State Action) Act, should be “more ambitious”, adding a caution: “It’s one thing to have ambition, but it’s another to know and understand exactly what that will mean.”

This is heartening. At least the premier appreciates that it isn’t so easy to make “state action” actually happen. The attitude of past governments seem to have been that the use of those words in the title meets the need. Gutwein told the committee that “one would hope” new legislation – which I trust means a whole new Act – would be passed by parliament by next spring.

There was a bit of discussion around the introduction and even the local manufacture of electric cars and buses, which showed the premier realises the opportunity presented by using renewable energy to eliminate one of our major sources of greenhouse gases, oil-fuelled road transport.

It was good to hear that Gutwein appreciates the value of an early rollout of a fast charging network around the state and the need for “a good second-hand [electric] vehicle market here in Tasmania”, enlarging a market already being developed by the Good Car Company.

Asked if he had had briefings from climate scientists since becoming climate change minister, the premier said “there have been a couple”, including a recent meeting with Australian chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel. It needs to be said that while Finkel’s career takes in engineering and medical science, he is not a climate scientist.

There is a serious point to this. Knowing what climate science specialists here and everywhere are saying about the state of the climate today – not three decades away, when most national emissions targets are focused – ought to be enough to make any public office-holder act with real urgency.

But as far as I can tell, none of these official discussions about climate measures are informed by real knowledge as to why emissions must be curbed, starting now, and why government responses, which are already delayed not just by years, but by decades, are so shockingly inadequate.

This issue goes far beyond bureaucratic or business or political points of debate – even beyond principles of human rights and social justice. It is an existential issue, about the future survival of our civilisation and everything that hangs off it.

How we approach this goes to the heart of what it is to live in our Tasmanian community, defining the character of that community and those who lead it. It is a test that we continue to fail.

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