Failing to address climate change puts at risk the health of the community, the viability of agriculture and the chance to lead the way in clean energy and sustainable industries.
The announcement this week of the weak targets Australia intends to take to international negotiations in Paris is evidence of the continued failure to address the most serious threat to our future well being.
A quarter of a century ago, politicians and governments heard the clear scientific message and leaders recognised we had the capacity to act.
It was Margaret Thatcher who said to the United Nations in 1989, ‘The environmental challenge that confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world … Those countries who are industrialised must contribute more to help those who are not.’
In the same year, Australian governments of all persuasions were ready to act. A Senate inquiry warned that, ‘Early action is essential to stop or slow some of the more extreme effects.’
As the 1990s began, Australia and New South Wales supported the Toronto targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent from 1988 levels by the year 2005.
Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s 1989 statement on the environment said, ‘There is much that can be done immediately to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.’
In New South Wales, Liberal Premier Nick Greiner worked to develop a climate strategy based on alternative and renewable energy, government leadership on energy efficiency and restrictions on clearing native vegetation.
What happened next is documented in the work recently completed by Maria Taylor for her PhD at the Australian National University, and now published in a book titled Global Warming and Climate Change: What Australia Knew and Buried.
Taylor’s analysis shows how the scientific consensus and ethical commitment to act on climate change were actively undermined by those with vested interests in stopping changes to our energy use and industry, supported by politicians who worked to serve their needs instead of the public good.
For two decades, the Australian public have been misled to believe that we must maintain the status quo of an economy that relies on fossil fuels for energy and exports, that we can’t take action because it would threaten our economy, when the reality is that our development can and must be sustainable for the health and well being of future generations.
The end result is that we’ve only seen occasional bursts of action on climate change that were undone as governments changed or priorities shifted. Instead of meeting the Toronto target, our 2005 emissions were essentially the same as 1988. Twenty-five years later, we are yet to meet Greiner’s target.
An entire generation worth of action was lost. Tony Abbott’s targets see us continue to lag behind the rest of the world and the trajectory supported by our earlier leaders.
The most fundamental thing we must do is look to the well being of future generations. We don’t achieve this by talking ourselves and the public into a belief that action is too hard and costly, especially when the stakes are as high as the future health of our planet.
We can do it by ensuring our society is empowered and resilient, so that every generation can take advantage of the opportunities that come with change, that we develop the new, sustainable industries and technologies that provide jobs and ensure quality of life, and that we adapt to the challenges and impacts that will inevitably come.
Governments at all levels have a duty of care to act on climate change. If we have faith in the capacity of our resilient and resourceful people, and if we set our commitments in legislation, we can all deliver on that duty.
Jan Barham MLC, Greens Member of the NSW Legislative Council