An appetite for action

9 December 2020 | Posted In: #137 Summer 2020,

Despite the catastrophic damage caused by last summer’s bushfires, the Australian Government remains reluctant to tackle climate change. But, as new research reveals, Australians are increasingly seeking leadership. Christopher Kelly reports. 

Unprecedented is a word all-too often bandied about to describe disasters. But, in the case of the 2019-20 bushfires, it seems the only apt descriptor. During Black Summer, as it became known, Australia experienced the most devastating bushfires in recorded history.

At least 33 people were killed, with toxic fumes across much of eastern Australia causing many more deaths. Over 3,000 homes were destroyed as fires raged through 24 million hectares of land. Nearly three billion animals perished or were displaced and many threatened species and eco systems were extensively harmed — “one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history” reported the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Meanwhile, suburban skies glowed ochre; commuters choked on smoke. Thousands of Australians — locals and holidaymakers — became trapped, fleeing to the coastal fringes to escape the encroaching flames. Communities were isolated, experiencing extended periods without power, communications, and ready access to essential goods and services. Viewing the nightly news footage you could well believe that the apocalypse really was now.

Seasoned firefighters had never witnessed anything like it. Writing in The Guardian, Greg Mullins — a former commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW — said: “In nearly 50 years of firefighting I had never seen fires behave like they did last summer. I saw kangaroos unable to outrun the flames and fires burning across people’s lawns, setting their homes on fire.” NSW was the worst-hit state, ravaged by more than 10,000 fires. Some of these converged to create megafires that burned for months.

An inquiry by the NSW Government into the blazes found that climate change played a direct role in the lead up to the fires and in the “unrelenting conditions” that helped them spread. It’s a conclusion echoed by the Royal Commission bushfire report that dropped in October. “[It] details how record temperatures, record dryness, years of reduced rainfall, fuelled these fires, and explains that this was climate change in action,” said Mullins. “It details how, even if we stop greenhouse gas emissions now, decades of increased disaster and fire risks are already locked in.”

The Black Summer bushfires have served as a wake-up call with more Australians than ever before voicing real concerns over the impacts of climate change. Indeed, the recently released annual Climate of the Nation report shows that four in five Australians (79 percent) agree that climate change is occurring — the highest result since 2012. “A striking difference in the reports over the years is the increasing number of Australians who believe we are experiencing climate impacts right now,” said Richie Merzian, climate and energy director at The Australian Institute.

The report reveals that three-quarters or more of Australians believe climate change is likely to cause or is already causing more bushfires (76 percent), as well as more heatwaves and extremely hot days (78 percent). “Last summer forever changed us, ushering a new age of fear, and bringing home the brutal reality of the extreme weather that a rapidly warming planet is serving up to us with increasing frequency and intensity,” said Mullins.

The report also clearly shows Australians’ preference for renewable resources over fossil fuels, with solar (79 percent), wind (62 percent), and hydro (39 percent) people’s top three energy choices. Coal ranks last (14 percent). The findings are at odds with the Australian Government’s dogged devotion to gas and coal. A position recently reasserted when Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced plans for a “gas-fired recovery” from the COVID pandemic. “The Government’s call is not backed by popular support,” said Merzian. “Natural gas is, after all, a key contributor to climate change.”

The majority of the report’s respondents (59 percent) support Australia’s economic recovery being primarily powered by investment in renewables, compared to only 12 percent who would prefer it were powered by investment in gas. “A gas-led recovery from COVID-19 will lock us into a high emissions future, more warming, and worsening climate change-driven catastrophes,” said Mullins. “That would be unforgivable.”

Not only does the Australian Government continue to push for gas, but it also has no plans to transition Australia from domestic coal-fired power. Rather, it has agreed to subsidise an upgrade to an existing coal-fired power station, called for ageing coal-fired power stations to operate past their retirement age, and funded a proposal for a new coal-fired power station in Queensland with a lifespan of up to 50 years.

Again, this flies in the face of public opinion. Over four-fifths of Australians (83 percent) prefer coal-fired power stations to be phased out, whether gradually (52 percent) or immediately (31 percent). “A strong commitment from Government to decarbonise the electricity sector and coordinate the transition away from carbon-based electricity generation is supported by most Australians — and is only getting more popular,” write the report’s authors, Audrey Quicke and Ebony Bennett.

The Morrison Government’s head-in-the sand approach to climate change has provoked dismay on the international stage. In 2019, the Prime Minister snubbed the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York. Viewed as a “regressive force” in global climate negotiations, Australia’s climate policy ranks amongst the worst-performing countries in the international Climate Change Performance Index. This year, Australia held the ignominious honour of ranking last out of 57 countries on climate policy. And despite more than 100 countries around the world committing to net zero emissions by 2050, the Australian Government has failed to do so.

As the report points out: there are substantial costs associated with inaction on climate change. “These costs are primarily borne by Australian households and businesses through uninsured losses or paid by the community through rising insurance premiums. Costs covered by governments, including emergency services and infrastructure reconstruction, are provided by increasing taxes or redirecting funding from other areas such as education and health. The cost of inaction will increase as climate-related disasters become more intense and frequent.” Research by Deloitte Access Economics backs this up. It warns that, if climate change goes unchecked, it would cost Australia $3.4 trillion and 880,000 jobs by 2070.

In the absence of federal leadership, Australian states and territories are leading the way on climate action. They have all embraced renewables and pledged to race toward zero emissions. And the public overwhelmingly backs the initiatives. According to the report, more than two-thirds of Australians (68 percent) support a national target for zero emissions, with bipartisan support across Coalition, Labor and Greens voters.

Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from the Climate of the Nation report, is that Australians’ desire for climate action comes at a time of “other high-priority concerns around the public health and economic impacts of the [COVID] crisis”. Yet despite the pandemic, people remain deeply anxious about the ever-increasing impacts of climate change. “The results show that concern about climate change remains at record high levels,” said Merzian. Indeed, according to the report, 71 percent agree Australia should be a world leader in finding solutions in tackling climate change. “There is an appetite to address both COVID-19 and climate change,” said Merzian. “The Australian public is ready to tackle both crises and want the Australian Government to take a leading role.” It could and it should. Otherwise, as climate scientists around the globe predict, the unprecedented will become commonplace.

Source: Climate of the Nation

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