Burning Nature hurts. This time PM’s future. The bushfire crisis has given the Government a political ‘out’ to its climate change problem
By Frank Jotzo
The fires across Australia are taking a terrible toll. For those who have lost their loved ones and for those who have lost their homes.
For those who suffer weeks and months of fear, and for the firefighters working beyond exhaustion.
For the millions who breathe harmful smoke with the risk of future illness, and for the many businesses that go broke.
And for nature: we are losing animals and their habitat, biological diversity and natural beauty at massive scale.
The physical and mental scars will be with us for years. Every drive or walk in the woods will be a reminder. Spring will bring fear of the summer.
You need to lead
It could be the turning point for Australia’s climate change politics and policy that is so deeply in the ditch.
It could allow Government politicians to discard their past destructive stance on climate change, and give the opposition an opportunity to look to the future.
So dear Prime Minister and Cabinet, please find it within yourselves to drop the old anti-climate change stance.
You will need to lead, and that means showing concern and acknowledging that climate change is a huge issue for Australia.
And you will need to pivot on climate change policy. You’ve been politically locked into a no-action position, but the bushfires give you the reason to change. The bulk of Australia’s business community will be behind you, they yearn for sensible national climate policy.
You can make it your mission to protect the country from harm, an essential conservative cause.
Your biggest problem will be the Murdoch media, some rabid backbenchers and some coal companies. But you are in charge, right?
We need a strong and positive voice
And dear Labor, please be a strong and positive voice. You’ll need to get over the idea that the way to electoral salvation is by singing the praises of coal to differentiate from the Greens.
The party of progress and social justice needs to stand for strong action on climate change, and for helping workers and communities in the transition that will sweep Australia’s energy and industrial sector.
An all-around strong position on climate action is the natural position of the progressive centre.
A large majority of voters know that climate change is real and important and say that something should be done about it. That sentiment will likely strengthen.
The usual limitation is the fear of costs. But the fires and drought remind people that our high standard of living depends on nature, and that the very underpinnings of our wellbeing slip away when nature gets out of balance.
The bushfire catastrophe will put climate change policy once again into the mainstream of public concern. And perhaps 2020 will be the year when the political contest starts being over what specifically to do about it, rather than whether or not to act.
It is possible: the UK and Germany have conservative governments that pursue strong climate change policy, and the main opposition parties are broadly in agreement.
If there was ever a ‘nation building’ program, this is it
Under climate change, the conditions for catastrophic fires will likely be much more frequent — along with the conditions for drought, flooding and storms.
It is plain to see how hard climate change could hit Australia’s economy: the rebuilding after catastrophes like the fires, the costs of upgrading infrastructure including to better withstand flooding, and the losses in tourism and agriculture which are major sources of export income. Add to that the widespread damage to unique ecology, which is not only a value in itself but part of what makes Australia attractive to the world.
There is no need to despair. There will be rebuilding and regrowth, but as a nation we need to muster the courage to accept the inevitability of future catastrophes, and have an honest conversation about how we will go about them in a future of accelerating climate change.
We need to plan ahead, provide the resources to fully deal with the impacts as they come, invest in infrastructure and raise capability. If ever there was a “nation building” program, this is it.
It argues for better anticipation of future disasters in the context of climate change, and for more integrated decision making.
It has been buried, but Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and the Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo could now take the running with this blueprint.
Dealing with disasters is only the start of it. We need a comprehensive strategy for responding to climate change impacts.
That means a shakeout of government policy and planning at all levels of government, testing investments for whether they are climate change proof. It also means giving businesses — including farmers — the best information and right incentives to plan ahead for climate change.
Worryingly, in recent years Australia has fallen behind in climate change adaptation research and planning.
Your legacy is at stake
And of course we need to do what we can to limit future climate change. That means encouraging strong global action on emissions.
We cannot do that as long as we are seen as a recalcitrant on the global stage, as we are now.
We should invest to transition Australia’s economy to a zero carbon powerhouse, and to build up renewables-based energy export industries.
With our unrivalled renewable energy resources, we are extremely well placed to prosper in a global zero-carbon energy system. But we need to get started, and be seen to be playing ball on climate change.
Australia has profited from fossil fuels for decades. The workers and architects of the carbon industries deserve respect. But the future for our economy lies in services, clean industries and smart agriculture.
This is all quite obvious to most of our young people, and that is where things will turn.
For those who see their future in peril, climate change action is not a left-right divisive issue, but one of common sense.
The pressure and that will come from the young generation will sweep the climate nay-saying aside.
So dear politicians of all stripes: get with sensible climate policy, or be left behind. Your legacy is at stake.
Frank Jotzo is a professor at ANU Crawford School of Public Policy. He runs the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy.
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