Ordinary responses to extraordinary threats

At opposite ends of Australia, on vastly different scales, we are seeing the politics of climate change playing out in ways that are both disturbing and predictable – and all too human.

Last week the Northern Territory government approved fracking in the Territory’s Beetaloo Basin without any provision for offsetting greenhouse emissions, expected to be immense. Mining minister Nicole Manison said people who publicly opposed the fracking – including 100-odd scientists and other experts – needed to be “more practical and level-headed”. 

Beetaloo emissions are essentially a federal responsibility. Treasurer Jim Chalmers is only lightly taxing the industry, arguing that it’s essential to a clean energy transition. That ignores a rising wave of evidence that methane released in gas production has a very large near-term impact on warming, rivalling that of coal. Just what we don’t need.

Credits needed to offset emissions from Beetaloo gas production are estimated to be between 23 and 102 megatonnes (between five and 22 per cent of Australian emissions) every year – at least double the credits provided by the entire Tasmanian forest estate in 2021. 

In Tasmania we have recently seen the release of yet another climate “action plan” – the eighth in a long series of such documents over 15 years. Introducing it, climate change minister Roger Jaensch warned that we cannot be complacent about lowering carbon emissions and raising community resilience.

He’s dead right, but coming straight after he repeated a tired old claim about the State’s “nation-leading emissions profile”, his warning falls flat. That claim is based on our decades-old hydro system; South Australia can and does make a similar claim on the basis of brand new wind and solar. 

But it’s a relief that his government has stopped proclaiming world leadership in the climate space, as it did for many years. This was never true, serving only to encourage us into complacency. The minister should make clear once and for all that we are emphatically not world leaders and never have been.

Latest available data, from 2021, put Tasmanian emissions from energy, industrial processes, agriculture and waste at 8.33 megatonnes. You don’t hear about this from ministerial ranks, but that total is actually marginally higher than it was in 1990 and clearly above the average for all the years since.

And while Tasmania’s population grew over that period, our 2021 per capita emissions were still high by world standards at 15.4 tonnes – way above official figures for New Zealand (6.7 tonnes) and the UK (5.2 tonnes).

Under carbon accounting rules the Tasmanian government uses forestry data to offset emissions from burning coal, oil and gas. Measuring these offsets is notoriously difficult and subject to uncontrollable forces like bushfires and market fluctuations. They serve mainly to conceal official failure to reduce fossil fuel use.

The government’s claim about world leadership derived from a variable pattern of tree harvesting, which has made our emissions seem much higher in high harvesting years and lower in years of low harvest. In 2021, a low rate of logging allowed growing trees to take up 13.13 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, turning that 8.33 megatonne deficit into a credit of 4.8 megatonnes – a remarkable return for zero effort.

Tasmania’s current draft action plan contains a few enticements for others to act – things like more climate research, helping people to understand projections and risks, improving school resources, supporting community and business innovation, making climate plans for key sectors and improving waste management. While useful, these are no substitute for firmly applied laws directly targeting emissions and long-term economic and social consequences.

Roger Jaensch is in the process of setting up a reference group to include people with scientific knowledge and other expertise, a pleasing development a decade after an earlier minister abolished the Tasmanian Climate Action Council. It shows the government is taking on board a broad community unease about our climate response: a start, but not enough. 

Climate change is an extraordinary threat calling for extraordinary responses. Our ships of state are in uncharted waters where masters need both to understand the perils we might encounter and to be capable of acting decisively to avoid them. 

For many years, political, bureaucratic, business and industry leaders have been in a dangerous state of denial over climate. They now acknowledge there’s a real and extraordinary threat but continue to act as if there isn’t, as if ordinary responses will do.

We need them, urgently, to get their heads around the state of the global climate and our grossly inadequate formal responses, to acknowledge the need for radical, decisive action, and then to step up and lead. Are any of today’s leading players capable of that?

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