If the Federal Government in Australia won’t act on climate change, what happens next?

For most Australians, 2019 will always be remembered as the year the country burned – wiping out 24 million acres of land, killing at least 28 people and destroying some 2,000 homes.

It was the year that blazes turned skies orange and made breathing the air dangerous for our health. An estimated 1 billion animals were lost, and scientists fear long-term damage to many sensitive ecosystems.

2019 will also be remembered by many as the year that Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to acknowledge not only the clear and present danger presented by the bushfires, but the general public mood around his government’s inertia on the important issue of climate change.

A national disaster

And, to make matters worse, as the country continued to go up in endless flames that teams of firefighters were unable to control, climate change scientists from around the world commented that the apocalyptic scenes being portrayed by the media were definitely a sign of what is to come if climate change is ignored and temperatures are allowed to rise to dangerous levels.

For the past few decades, scientists have been very clear about global warming, saying that prolonged droughts and increased storm intensity are two of the most likely results of climate change.

As Greg Mullins, former commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW and a climate councillor wrote in the Guardian newspaper: “Make no mistake: this disaster is a weather-driven event, not a fuel-driven one, underpinned by years of drying and warming. Climate change is the driver of increasing extreme weather.”

But as the national disaster continued to unfold, what became incredibly frustrating for Australians, is that the federal government really didn’t appear to be taking any notice. Nothing, it seemed, could sway Scott Morrison’s commitment to ‘no change’ to Australia’s existing climate policies – not the the Torres Strait taking Australia to the UN, school kids on strike, thousands of people marching the streets in protest nor comments made by the world’s most famous climate change activist, Greta Thunburg.

Then, bizarrely, on Christmas Eve, Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce (himself a farmer in drought) posted a video to social media suggesting that God is in fact the answer to climate change.

State and Local Governments need to act

But there was a voice of reason. And it came from a state politician.

In fact, New South Wales Minister for Environment Matt Kean broke ranks with his federal Coalition counterparts, arguing that not only was climate change very definitely a factor to be considered in the context of the bushfire crisis, but in a radio interview days before Christmas, he also said that climate change must be dealt with as a matter of ‘science, and not religion.’

And, in a move unusual for a politician, at the same time, he actually made a real commitment to change, announcing a plan to increase the NSW government’s emissions reduction targets. In doing so, he set an example for the rest of the state and territory governments around Australia. Because, if the federal government is going to sit on its hands for the foreseeable future, then the state governments must now pick up the mantle of climate change.

Public health emergency

In recent months, aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory have gone on record saying they fear being the country’s first climate change refugees, fears that are by no means unfounded.

Last summer was the hottest on record, and also the driest in 27 years. In the year to July 2019, Alice Springs reported 129 days over 35C, and 55 days over 40C. A heat monitoring study also showed that on some unshaded streets the surface temperature was between 61C and 68C. At the start of this summer, temperatures were also predicted to soar, only to be made worse by severe drought.

Several of the remote communities and outstations in northern and central Australia are already running out of water, others have exceptionally poor quality water.

Predictions by the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress for the health impacts of heat are dire. In its submission to the Northern Territory’s government’s climate change policy discussion paper, it outlined some of them: “Increased sickness and mortality due to heat stress, increased food insecurity and malnutrition, increased risk from infectious disease, poorer mental health and an increased potential for social conflict.”

In the weeks before Christmas, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) too, also issued a climate change health emergency as Sydney suffered through thick haze measured at 11 times the ‘dangerous’ levels. Regional areas too were also covered in layers of smoke.

Despite the fact that Australia was held up as a global example of potential climate change catastrophe throughout 2019, we are, of course, not alone.

Tens of millions of people around the globe are also under significant threat from climate change.

In 2017, a study by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) predicted that climate change would create the world’s biggest refugee crisis. The study called on governments everywhere to agree a new legal framework to protect climate refugees and for leaders to do more to implement the targets set out in the Paris climate agreement.

Communities can effect real change

The good news in all of this, is that where governments are failing, cities and local precincts are picking up the charge. One example is The C40 coalition (90+ cities representing 650 million people) including New York, London and Sydney have agreed to reduce their emissions in line with the ambitious elements of the Paris Agreement.

Another example is the regional town of Byron Bay on the far northern coast of New South Wales. Always well-known for its eco-friendly policies, in 2015 it set an ambitious target to be a “zero emissions shire” by 2025 by cutting greenhouse gases in a range of areas, through a plan that involves boosting renewable energy uptake, improving public transport and options for electric vehicles as well as changing land use practices and improving the management of its water and waste.

The role of business

Byron Bay is also home to innovative energy start-up Enova Energy which is working to localise renewable energy generation, storage and distribution via microgrids, solar gardens and other community energy models. No mean feat for a small company started with funding provided by 1600 local shareholders who believed in the power of the vision.

These businesses and communities are proving that they can do what the federal government won’t do – creating impactful change at a grass roots level.

Undoubtedly, climate change is an issue for federal governments to manage – there needs to be clear policy set for the entire nation, but if recent times have shown us anything it is that climate change can’t wait. The sense of urgency is gathering momentum, and as such, State and Local governments as well as business and community groups may well be the ones to successfully lead the charge.


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