The changing public mood about climate

This morning a group of senior citizens is meeting in Bridgewater to consider what climate change means for Tasmania in 2023. 

By itself this is no more important than each of the millions of other such meetings that have happened everywhere since 2006, when An Inconvenient Truth, the movie featuring former US vice-president Al Gore, persuaded people all over the world that something was seriously amiss in the global climate system.

This took on a life of its own, a rollercoaster ride for me and the many other people I have dealt with in Tasmania and elsewhere. It started with a bang – I spoke to over 10,000 people in hundreds of meetings over four years – and just as quickly receded to a trickle of a few meetings each year.

But the trickle persists. People still seem persuaded that the threat to our climate described by Gore is real. They seem to believe, now as they did back then, that to prevent the lives of future generations becoming very difficult indeed, we need to act decisively and urgently.

Well, we haven’t acted decisively or urgently, then or now. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere keeps rising, while climate and weather abnormalities keep popping up. Consider just the past month.

In early May unprecedented heat up to 20C above normal hit the US Northwest and fire emergencies were declared in many parts of western Canada. The Canadian fire emergency has now spread across the country, blanketing New York under a smoke haze ten times above the legal safe limit and making it for a time the world’s most polluted city.

Around the same time, record-breaking heat was reported across Spain, Portugal, northwest Africa and southeast Asia, causing roads to melt, while deadly flooding after torrential rain killed more than 400 people and displaced 3000 in the Congo. Projections indicate that by 2050, climate change will have forced over 100 million Africans from their homes, and similar numbers in south and southeast Asia.

We have just learned that since the 1960s, the area of low-oxygen water in the open ocean has increased by 4.4 million square kilometres. Fishing reports from various parts of the world ocean indicate a trend to a warmer, low-oxygen future ocean holding fewer and smaller fish and more greenhouse-gas producing bacteria. 

Within the next four years, scientists predict, the world will likely pass the Paris “safe” limit of 1.5C of warming. If we can’t turn this around, two billion people, including Australians in the far north, will face unendurable heat this century.

Just a few days ago came the projection that even if we start cutting global emissions now the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in summer by the 2030s. Over the past 40 years multiyear Arctic sea ice over an area the size of India has been lost, a clear sign of fundamental global change.

In Australia, currently benign weather sharply contrasts with activity on the legal front, led by Indigenous Australians. A Federal Court win against Santos by Northern Territory Tiwi Islanders has led to more than 30 offshore gas developments around the country being paused to allow for consultations with First Nations people. 

Last week Torres Strait Islanders hosted members of the Federal Court in a case against the Commonwealth, which they are saying is legally obliged to prevent their lands from being adversely affected by rising sea level and other climate impacts. 

These happenings are not going unnoticed by the likes of Bridgewater’s senior citizens. People still want to hear about what’s going on, but over the years they have learned to treat climate change as something other than an academic talking point. 

Where once they saw climate change as a proposition, now they don’t. It’s now a done deal, an event happening before our eyes. Now, the question is not whether we need to act, but “are we doing all we can to stop it?” 

The meetings are no longer lectures, but multi-sided discussions in which I’m sometimes relegated to being just another participant. We are in a new place, where old norms no longer apply, and we are all called on to rethink how we live our lives and how we might help community and country to change direction.

At the other end of the age spectrum, an Action Network campaign called Make It 16 is joining the push to give the vote to 16 and 17 year olds, allowing them a voice on crucial long-term issues like housing and climate. It’s launching its Tasmanian campaign in Hobart on 29 June. 

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