Is there time to spare in the fight against climate change?

SO much heat, so much wasted time and energy.That could be a description of the political debate on climate change, or of the state of Australia’s energy and climate change predicament. Either way, climate change has already proved its political potency. Now we need our governments to prove its transformative and economic power. We have no time to waste.Waste is at the core of the problem. Over the past three years the climate change debate has been stranded by politics and the language of fear, blame, cost and complexity. Precious time has been squandered in the politicisation of climate change. It descended into a campaign against climate scientists, replete with assertions that controlling waste and pollution would cripple the future prosperity of the country.Addressing climate change is a question of leadership. Right now we need our leaders to take decisive and clear action, to change the language and to get on with the task of transforming our economy. Moving beyond the politicisation of climate change will be the 21st century leadership test.When the government we elect sits down to map out its priorities, there will be many strong signals to support putting policy leadership on climate change at the top of the list. We have to hope the new cabinet will listen to those signals.First, the power of the issue in the hearts and minds of Australians continues to be underestimated. Politicians and many commentators have refused to take proper measure of public opinion research on the issue, preferring to advocate caution, and delay.The social research I follow to understand what people are thinking on the issue is the Thermometer Survey on Australian Attitudes to Climate Change. Led by researcher Randall Pearce, with a team of behavioural experts from several universities, it has consistently discovered strong support across Australia for early and direct action on climate change.In February last year, 83 per cent of all Australians favoured immediate action instead of waiting for our big trading partners to announce their plans. One respondent stated what many believe: ”If they’re not going to do it, who else is? An issue like that; they’re the reason you have a government in the first place.” Only last week, the pollster PureProfile found 80 per cent of NSW residents want action on climate change now.Second, the impacts of climate change continue to develop both here and around the world. As noted in The New York Times recently, hot is the new normal. This year is shaping up to be the hottest on record, with nine countries already recording their hottest temperatures. Six nations in Asia and Africa set new all-time hottest temperatures last month, and Pakistan recorded Asia’s hottest temperature ever, 53.5 degrees, on May 26.We are heading into another hot summer of our own. Australia is one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, with high risks of drought, summer heat stress, severe storms and coastal inundation.Third, the global race to shift to low-carbon and clean economies is on, and we are missing out on this boom. More people are now employed in clean energy than coal, a trend rapidly increasing across the globe.Australia is increasingly left exposed in the worldwide move to carbon competitiveness and productivity, preferring to rely on the historical experience of exporting fossil fuel. We’ve excelled in the high-carbon political economy since coal first left Australia’s shores in 1793. The question unanswered is whether we will play so well in the global low-carbon economy.Fourth, more Australian businesses are expressing their frustration and anger at the failure to commit to a carbon price and to long-term policy plans so they can make significant investment decisions.And most importantly, the next cabinet needs to consider climate change inextricably linked to other societal problems – the pace of urban growth and development, food and water security and building sustainable economic resilience.The interplay of these issues will define Australia’s long-term prosperity. The connected challenges demand a new way of looking at opportunities and solutions. A government acting strongly and clearly on climate change can help create innovative solutions for myriad problems.For all the talk of moral challenges, the most pressing climate change story is rapidly building national resilience to the unavoidable effects of extreme weather and climate events, while transforming our energy, water and waste systems to take advantage of the economic benefits of the new low carbon economy.What could a government prepared to lead on climate change do?The first priority must be to set a clear, market-based carbon price with a long-term plan to limit carbon pollution. There will be some losers in this decision, but in this time of tremendous economic transformation we need political leadership to provide certainty to investors, businesses and communities as they move to build a clean and efficient economy.The government then needs to change the language of climate change. It must move from the era of challenge, compromise and expense, to the world of opportunity and economic resilience. The change in behaviour required to waste less energy and water is much harder than first thought. We need the help of social sciences to teach and encourage us, as we wean ourselves off our addiction to cheap dirty power and to become less wasteful generally. Rather than assuming that our power and water bills will be more expensive as our energy systems transform, our communities need to know that we can save money, save resources, and have a far more efficient economy.As part of that reimagining of our clean-energy future, the government needs to promote a national clean, low-carbon growth plan, underpinned by comprehensive regulation for large commercial and industrial process to deal with waste, water and energy. This should encompass a nation-building energy efficiency program, encouraging all levels of society to participate. We have the technological solutions to achieve this and lead the world. Australia just needs long-term enduring policies and clear transition plans, not token programs and early picking of technology winners.There is a strong connection between regional economies, climate science and urban planning, but it is often neglected. A leading government could implement incentives for local governments to develop planning regimes to build climate resilient and low-carbon towns and cities.This was suggested last year by a parliamentary inquiry into climate change and environmental impacts on coastal communities, and provides a strong foundation for a national plan for climate adaptation. Australians should be able to expect the government has national disaster resilience plans in place, to ensure we are adequately preparing for the unavoidable impacts of climate change.Finally, a cabinet with foresight and imagination would underpin these policies and initiatives with a strategy to develop skills and support for innovative investment in building new businesses in the low-carbon economy.We all aspire to be good ancestors for the future generations who deserve to enjoy our nation’s beauty. This begins with the actions of the government we will elect to office shortly.Those most affected by the climate change decisions taken in the next three years of government will be today’s children. Only by the time they reach the middle of their lives will they know if our leaders acted just in time.Samantha Mostyn is director of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at the University of Sydney.
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