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Good climate policy is beyond the Australian government – and maybe it should be

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The Conversation

The parliamentary climate is not always conducive to smart decisions

From global epidemics to global economic markets to the global climate, understanding complex systems calls for solid data and sophisticated maths.

My advice to young scientists contemplating a career in research is: “If you’re good at maths, keep it up!”

I’m no mathematician – my research career has focused largely on the complexities of infection and immunity. But as recently retired Board Chair of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, I’ve been greatly informed by close contact with mathematically trained meteorologists, oceanographers and other researchers, who analyse the massive and growing avalanche of climate data arriving from weather stations, satellites, and remote submersibles such as Argo floats.

My perception, based on a long experience of science and scientists, is that these are outstanding researchers of impeccable integrity.

Among both the climate research community and the medically oriented environmental groups such as the Climate and Health Alliance and Doctors for the Environment Australia with which I have been involved, there is increasing concern, and even fear, about the consequences of ever-climbing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.

The growing climate problem

Following the thinking of the late Tony McMichael, a Canberra-based medical epidemiologist who began studying lead poisoning and then went on to become a primary author on the health section of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s five-yearly Assessment Reports, I have come to regard human-induced global warming as similar in nature to the problem of toxic lead poisoning.

Just like heavy metal toxicity, the problems caused by atmospheric greenhouse gases are cumulative, progressive, and ultimately irreversible, at least on a meaningful human timescale.

Regrettably, this consciousness has not yet seeped through to enough members of the Australian political class. The same lack of engagement characterises current national politics in Russia and the United States – although some US states, particularly California are moving aggressively to develop alternative energy sources.

The latter is true for much of Western Europe, while China and South Korea are committed both to phasing out coal and to leading the world in wind and solar power technology.

In collaboration with the US giant General Electric, South Korean and Japanese companies are working to develop prefabricated (and hopefully foolproof) small nuclear reactors called SMRs.

At this stage, China (currently the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter) is humanity’s best hope – if it indeed holds to its stated resolve.

Political paralysis

Politically, with a substantial economic position in fossil fuel extraction and export, Australia’s federal government seems paralysed when it comes to taking meaningful climate action.

We signed on to the Paris Agreement but, even if we meet the agreed reductions in emissions, precious little consideration is given to the fossil fuels that we export for others to burn.

And while much of the financial sector now accepts that any new investments in coalmines will ultimately become “stranded assets”, some politicians nevertheless continue to pledge tax dollars to fund such projects.

What can be done? Clearly, because meaningful action is likely to impact both on jobs and export income, this is an impossible equation for Australia’s elected representatives.

Might it help to give them a “backbone” in the form of a fully independent, scientifically and economically informed statutory authority, endowed with real powers? Would such an initiative even be possible under Australian law?

Realising that reasoned scientific and moral arguments for meaningful action on climate change are going nowhere fast, some 41 Australian environmental organisations sought the help of the Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law (APEEL) to develop the case for a powerful, independent Commonwealth Environmental Commission (CEC) linked to a National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA).

This week in Canberra, at the culmination of a two-year process, the environmental groups will present their conclusions, preceded by a more mechanistic analysis from the lawyers.

In very broad terms, the new agencies would do for environmental policy what the Reserve Bank currently does for economic decisions. That is, they would have the power to make calls on crucial issues (whether they be interest rates or air pollution limits) that cannot be vetoed by the government.

Of course, that would require a government that is willing to imbue them with such power in the first place.

While it’s a good bet that developing such a major national initiative will, at best, be a long, slow and arduous process, it is true that (to quote Laozi): “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

What is also clear is that “business as usual” is not a viable option for the future economy, defence and health of Australia.

Source: The Conversation. Reproduce with permission.  

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  • Joe

    How backward is Australia compared to say Germany. Here we have a Chief Scientist Alan Finkel , much like his predecessor Ian Chubb, who is all but sidelined when it comes to climate matters. It is purely for political reasons and one day I hope The COALition is prosecuted for their wanton, wilful negligence. In Germany Kanzlerin Angela Merkel has her own climate change adviser in Hans Joachim Schellnhuber from the renowned Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Germany embraces the science whereas The COALition runs away at a 100 miles an hour……trying to outrun the climate change is NOT a policy.

    • Eric

      I’m not defending our government who are disgracefull on climate and renewable energy. Actually Germany is at a crossroads with its energy policy. Because they are phasing out Nuclear, fossil fuel is filling the gap. They don’t have enough sun or wind in the winter time when they have high energy needs.

  • Pedro

    Seems like the only way forward to move away from the toxic politics climate change and clean energy

  • MaxG

    @Peter: Fully understand your argument and approach…
    … but then, there is the human condition called greed… and based on my experience one could proof without mistake that in ten years the planet goes under, not one soul more would care about that prediction. Now, the “planet going under” is a far more bold statement than the “climate is changing” where people reply: “isn’t it changing all the time?” — nothing special about it. Combine this with the below par education standard in Australia and you have the perfect “don’t care” environment (as we do).
    As for the CEC idea: it will be rigged with party members and lobbyists, or actively ridiculed like Finkel or anyone else who opposes those in power.
    Like a fellow RE reader pointed out to me: this is going on since the French Revolution where the aristocrats called in the foreign legions to destroy any uprising demanding democracy. — and yes, I have given up (representing another group who knows what’s going to come, but sees no change in hell to stem the tide of stupidity).

  • Ian

    Just how many independent bodies do you want: judiciary, financial ,energy, security. How about other aspects of people’s lives: military, police, education, free speech and media, religion, family affairs, child rearing and care, commerce, housing, employment. Sports and recreation, health care.

    Personally, I think we have an excellent democracy, there are many lobbying groups, and people of diverse opinion and needs so we don’t do too badly. Just because the current government does not like renewables, doesn’t mean we must change our system of government.

  • Robert Comerford

    So you are saying that govt should privatise this issue just as they do when any other problem becomes too much of a hot potato. Then they can snipe from the bleaches and say it is not our problem when the populace has to spent an extra cent a year to fix the mess and whinges madly at the added expense.
    Hmmm… interesting idea :>)

  • Nick Kemp

    What can be done? Change the government to one that isn’t backed by minerals council bribes. Oops – I mean donations

  • Helen Camakaris

    applaud Peter Doherty’s article, and indeed, over the past five years I have made many suggestions of a similar nature. Hopefully, given his profile, people may listen. Evolution has not fitted us well for a time when the burgeoning human population, coupled with technological success, has created existential risks (https://theconversation.com/dont-trust-your-stone-age-brain-its-unsustainable-9075). We need the means to control consumption of resources and the production of pollution, most urgently in relation to climate change I have previously advocated a body with statutory powers, similar to the Reserve Bank, that would be charged with the responsibility of determining policy on long term issues. http://www.alternet.org/environment/paradise-lost-how-climate-catastrophe-may-be-tied-fatal-flaw-human-evolution and also https://theconversation.com/wanted-political-leader-with-a-vision-for-a-sustainable-future-17007. The majority of the population wants action on climate change, and deplores the inaction and adversarial jousting that passes as politics in this country. So how could change come about? Most people sit in the middle of the political spectrum, and their views are not represented by the major parties. I believe that a party that is prepared to pledge that they will introduce such a body would gain support in an election and gain Government. Alternatively a party within Government, perhaps with the support of a multi-party committee, could initiate such a change.