Lifting Our Heads (a personal rant on misinformation from Australian politicians on Climate Change)
Pass Mark Or Doing All We Possibly Can?
Gallipoli is rightly commemorated as the epitome of courage, mateship and the ‘Australian’ spirit. In the face of those who ask ‘What can we do when we’re such a small part of the problem?’, the answer is the same as that which was enacted at Gallipoli: everything we humanly possibly can and then more. My parents made it very clear to me as a child that ‘But everyone else is doing it!’ was no argument for not doing the right thing. ‘But no-one else is doing it!’ is equally facetious. We, all Australians, should be doing everything we can. Our leaders should be leading, helping us lead the world, not falling in behind at the back of the line.
The first step is to set the right priorities. Climate change is here. Not tomorrow, not decades away – here, now. If we are to tackle it and hope to slow then halt it’s progress we need to set this as the objective, not one of, or some vague, notional and give and take aim, but an absolute to be achieved as soon as possible, by all means at our disposal. There will be consequences, economic and personal pain and sacrifice. The argument is not that you can only have this (maximised climate change mitigation) or that (minimal economic impact), it’s how do we maximise our efforts against climate change, and in the process mitigate the hardships inevitably imposed on us? Not either/or, but in achieving maximum climate change mitigation how do also mitigate against resultant economic costs?
To those who argue, rightly or wrongly, we are meeting our Kyoto targets, let’s remember that firstly, these targets are a compromise so well short of where reputable science says they should be. Secondly, the modelling used and data used gets better every day, and the vast majority of information that has come since Kyoto says if we’ve erred it’s highly likely that we’ve erred the wrong way, i.e. changes will be greater, not less. In effect, on two counts, our ‘pass mark’ is more doomed to read ‘fail’ in time, than it is to say pass, and nowhere near credit or distinction. This is far too big a risk to gamble on, that an estimate of ‘just enough’ is good enough, particularly remembering we will not be able to resit this class to get a better result next time.
Too Painful, Too Costly?
It’s often claimed that it’s too costly to implement further steps to address global warming. False economy has always been a sinister partner. Those who say it’s too costly, need to answer the question what is the cost of not effectively addressing climate change? What results have they got when they compared the per capita and real costs of drought, floods, fires, cyclones over all the decades that we have such data? What do they project will be the costs into the future? If they need help they could start with the Climate Council’s report on economic impacts of climate change (https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/resources/compound-costs-how-climate-change-damages-australias-economy/). In fact just reading the first sentence is informative: ‘…there are few forces affecting the Australian economy that can match the scale, persistence and systemic risk associated with climate change.’ The summary goes on to say that climate change will directly result in ‘…reduced agricultural yields, damage to property and infrastructure and commodity price hikes, are likely to lead to painful market corrections and could trigger serious financial instability in Australia and the region.’ Furthermore ‘Australia’s financial regulators acknowledge that climate change is now a central concern for the economy and financial stability.’
In addition the statement that we can’t afford to address climate change because it’s too costly is no longer supported in the long term by what evidence we have. To quote Ross Garnaut, who conducted the 2008 and 2011 climate reviews in Australia, in a recent article (ABC web page: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-06/australia-could-fall-apart-climate-change-theres-a-way-to-avoid/11673836):
‘In 2008 the … Garnaut Review suggested the transition (to zero carbon emissions) would entail a noticeable (but manageable) sacrifice of Australian income in the first half of this century, followed by gains that would grow late into the second half of this century and beyond.
‘Today, … Australia playing its full part in effective global efforts to hold warming to 2C or lower would show economic gains instead of losses in early decades, followed by much bigger gains later on.’
It is difficult to restructure industries and infrastructures but it can, and has been done, e.g. restructuring of the forest industry in the 1990s. It has to be done to achieve our real objective: slow then stop global warming as quickly as possible. At the same time, no sector or group should have the responsibility to take the brunt of the costs and sacrifices. We all need to accept that we share this burden. But we cannot allow the desire to lessen the costs on a specific sector stop us from achieving our objective; simply put, the best way to ease someone’s burden is to share it. How to do that is what we should be working on, not claiming that we can’t achieve more because it will cause economic and social pain.
Fires and Fuel Loads
Currently there are arguments that the recent and ongoing fires are not directly attributable to global warming. As a literal and simplistic view, yes, that’s true. There’s also an argument that the real issue is fuel loads and if we increase fuel reduction burning this will alleviate our problem to the extent that climate change is secondary. It’s also been argued that precipitation nationally hasn’t decreased over the last one hundred years. Also true. But temperature has increased significantly and continues to do so.
It’s not the amount of precipitation that matters when considering fuel loads and fires, it’s the effective moisture in those fuel loads. It’s a complex relationship, but put simply, higher temperatures mean less moisture. In addition, global warming is putting more energy into our global and continental atmospheric systems, resulting in increased probability of extreme weather events, including drought, heatwaves, cyclones and (seemingly paradoxically perhaps) floods. One of the results of this increased energy is hotter, drier, stronger winds in some summers, and more of those summers, as time goes on. Hotter, drier winds mean less ground and soil moisture as well as lower fuel load moisture, and just at the worst time. i.e. in fire season.
Less soil moisture also means plant growth is stressed and in extremes, leaf fall increases.
Overall, then, these factors result in more, and drier fuel, even if precipitation remains the same. To talk of reducing fuel loads without addressing the underlying causes is at best misinformed, and at worst a deliberate confounding to meet some other agenda.
The simplest answer: all of us.
This is not a political discussion: both sides of politics have over the years made expedient choices rather then more meaningful but painful ones in terms of perceived electoral reaction, i.e. votes by you and me. The time for rhetoric and clever speak is over. The time for blame shifting and denial is over. The time for passing this buck into the future is over. This is the time to take responsibility, to acknowledge whatever we are doing, it’s not enough, and the question we need to keep asking now when told by our leaders what they’re doing is: “And what else?”
Our leaders need to step out of the political shadows they cast on each other and show true leadership. Or to paraphrase from the recent ITV’s Good Morning Britain interview (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-07/craig-kelly-denies-climate-change-linked-to-bushfires/11846604), pull their heads out of the sand.
All of them; all of us.
South East NSW
Just for info: Sixty-six years old, and now retired. Bachelor Degree in Parks and Wildlife Management (Sth Aust.); worked as a Park Ranger in Tasmania and NSW (Kosciusko NP), for The Australian Heritage Commission (Canberra), Federal Dept. of Environment (Canberra) and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and the (then) NSW Dept of Environment and Climate Change.