Opinion

David Ritter
Australians want leadership on climate

Earlier this year, I stood on the banks of the Darling River on a 39-degree day and heard the story of the Menindee fish kill from Dick, a local retiree who had witnessed the stinking carnage of a million dead and dying animals.

“That night, after the fish,” he told me, quietly, “I couldn’t go to sleep. It really hit me. I was still shaking.” His anger was softly spoken. “There’s no honesty, there’s nobody you can trust.”

A few weeks later, I was at Parliament House in Canberra with Lauren and Cassy, two survivors of the Tasmanian bushfires. A different state, a separate disaster, but cause and sentiment in common. “We just want some accountability,” Lauren told me. But the PM’s office could find no time to meet with her.

Later that day, to his credit, the independent MP for Denison, Andrew Wilkie, dedicated his final minutes speaking in the 45th parliament to tell the stories of these women.

“In the presence of Cassy and Lauren, I’m calling on the PM to take responsibility and to reach out to the bushfire survivors who are demanding he apologise directly for his climate inaction,” Wilkie said. “Because if those on the government benches are not doing everything they can to fight climate change, they’re just fuelling the fire.”

Where once “the environment” was just one political issue among many, years of inaction have brought on a state of paramount urgency. As David Attenborough put it recently, “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Change is coming. Every election is now a climate change election.

Yet watching the behaviour of our main political parties, one could be forgiven for thinking that acting on climate change isn’t urgent. The Coalition is in denial of reality. And while Labor doesn’t deny the science, it is avoiding an honest reckoning with the work that reality entails. Namely, the rapid reduction of climate pollution.

Last October, the special report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned we have just over a decade to act if we want to limit the rise in global average temperatures to no more than 1.5 degrees. What is needed is possible but demands total commitment. According to the IPCC, “Limiting global warming to 1.5ºC would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” But the consequences of exceeding 1.5 degrees would be catastrophic.

Already, serious climate damage is widespread. We’ve experienced a swath of disasters this year across our continent – fires in Tasmania, cyclones and floods in north Queensland and the Pilbara, millions of dead fish in Menindee, and this summer’s record heatwave, which left the entire meteorological map of the continent banded in livid shades of pink and red. The appalling bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef over consecutive recent summers remains fresh in the public memory.

On current trajectories, children who are today playing in kindergartens all over Australia will face about four degrees of warming in their lifetimes.

Not since World War II, when John Curtin’s federal Labor government faced the prospect of imminent invasion, have the stakes been so high for Australia. Although Curtin’s December 1941 speech “The Task Ahead” is best known for the statement that, despite Australia’s historic ties to Britain, we would now look to America for help, the wartime leader also had some significant things to say about the internal situation in Australia.

He said plainly that 1942 would be a year of immense transformation. To secure national survival would require nothing less than “the reshaping, in fact the revolutionising, of the Australian way of life until a war footing is attained quickly, efficiently and without question”. It was no mere rhetoric. What followed was the total mobilisation of the country to the urgency of the crisis.

None of this is to glorify fighting. Many of my own relatives were murdered in World War II and the litany of terrible contemporary conflicts are horrific reminders of the evils of warfare. Having been jailed as a pacifist during the Great War, Curtin himself abhorred military conflict. But as prime minister of Australia at a time of emergency, Curtin met the needs of the hour.

The contrast between Curtin’s frank leadership in the nation’s interest with the performance of our current prime minister could not be more acute.

Climate is the meta-issue. Ultimately, no other national aspiration can be achieved, no other social problem solved in the long term, if we cannot effectively tackle global warming.

Emissions have continued to rise every year for the past four years under the Coalition. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government has presented no credible pathway for reducing carbon pollution in the future and simply ignores the advice of the experts who point this out. The Coalition’s approach to other environmental issues is similarly negligent.

While Labor’s policies on climate and the environment are clearly superior, the real test for Bill Shorten’s team is not whether they are a bit better than the Coalition. The question is whether the ALP can actually do what is necessary to swiftly reduce the sources of pollution that are driving global warming.

Curtin’s aim was not just to look slightly more credible than his political opponents. He set out to win the war.

As a nation, we are hungry for decent leadership.

The swell for change is there, manifest in the words and actions of the school climate strikers, walking out in tens of thousands. The resolve is written in the actions of multitudes of angry voters, often lifelong Liberals, now organising against their old party in favour of independent candidates who support climate action.

The appetite for something better is plain in the recent findings by the Museum of Australian Democracy and the University of Canberra showing that satisfaction with Australia’s democracy has dropped by 45 percentage points in a decade.

Shorten promises to be the prime minister the national interest requires. If this is true, all his talents and energies must be directed to reshaping Australia to meet the challenge of global warming. On coal in particular though, Labor is in full work-avoidance mode. The simple truth is that coal has to go or the country is stuffed.

This transition should, of course, be handled as fairly as possible to ensure affected workers and communities are not left behind. But it’s no mystery what is needed to shift Australia on to an appropriate footing to meet the climate challenge.

We need to set legally binding pollution-reduction targets consistent with what is required to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees and replace all coal-fired power stations with clean energy. There needs to be a moratorium on any new coal, oil or gas extraction – and a planned phase-out of existing operations. This should start with clear decisions on the two iconic disputes – that Adani’s planned Carmichael mine will not go ahead and there will be no deep-sea oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight.

A new wave of strong national laws and institutions should be ushered in to give nature the best chance of flourishing and to create the maximum resilience in the face of global warming. Federal laws are needed to end the vast destruction of bush and forest by land clearing. The Murray–Darling needs urgent intervention – treating the stricken river system as a national emergency – to let the water flow again.

We also need a nationwide resilience framework because, even if we do act now at full speed, more and worse climate damage through extreme weather is already inevitable because of what is already locked in.

Reforms are also required to enable the needs of the country as a whole to be put before vested interests and to ensure our common welfare. Never again should our future as a country be held hostage to coal companies, frackers, big oil – or any other big business whose thirst for profit comes at such terrible cost to people and nature. What is required is a commitment to wholesale democratic reform through strengthened laws and institutions to enable clear-sighted government in the national interest, for the common good.

In 1941, John Curtin began his speech by making clear his aim was not merely the avoidance of disaster but a new dawn. The objective of responding to climate change is not to avert catastrophe but to create the conditions for Australia’s future flourishing. Such is the standard against which this federal election should be contested.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "In the heat of battle". Subscribe here.

David Ritter
is the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. His most recent book is The Coal Truth.