Business leaders gather to discuss climate change at a City of Sydney lunch.

On ignoring tantrums, and encouraging policy to grow up

It is tempting to wish we could ignore the federal government as we would a screaming two-year old in the lolly aisle, and that would make it behave better in policy terms.

However, just as telling a toddler that lollies are bad for them generally gets nil result, so it seems any amount of scientific and economic evidence that a coal-driven policy engine is on the fast track to disaster is gaining little traction.

We heard the dire warning on inaction from the mouth of the former EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard on Monday, who told The Fifth Estate and a business lunch that Australia could either respond appropriately to climate change and transition to a low-carbon economy or face the consequences of massive economic disruption. We also heard from Climate Change Authority chair Bernie Fraser that we were “not within cooee” of having a rational debate.

Let us, just for a minute, turn our eyes away from the disquieting spectacle of the nation’s leaders and consider whether the states and local government might not actually be generating the kind of political peer pressure that will succeed where reason hasn’t.

Firstly, the ACT, with its twin announcements of a 100 per cent renewable target and plans for divestment from investments in fuel firms – what a ripper of a thing to hear about over the weekend. Beyond Zero Emissions, Australian Youth Climate Coalition and 350.org made sure the news broke across the social media landscape like a bliss bomb.

And we cannot resist noting the irony that every time the Prime Minister is in town, if he switches on a light, if he drinks a hot cup of tea, or has a shower, odds are he should thank a wind turbine. And the same goes for Joe.

Then there’s Victoria, expanding the VEET it resurrected from the coal-black policy vacuum of the previous lot, putting the possibility on mandatory residential energy performance standards for pre-2005 dwellings on the table, and upping its renewable target.

A source who called The Fifth Estate to give us the gossip during the energy summit told us the government seemed “genuinely serious” about energy policy settings that will create a more sustainable state.

They’d certainly invited the right kind of people along for a substantial conversation. We were told attendees included Alan Pears, Anna Skarbek from ClimateWorks, the Property Council, Alternative Technology Association, Energy Efficiency Certificate Creators Association, Kildonan Uniting Care, Victorian Council of Social Services, Brother of St Laurence, VCOSS, the Tenants Union, local council reps, academics, engineers, efficiency experts, renewable energy advocates and other sustainability powerhouses.

Conspicuously absent, we were told, were the real estate agents and the Housing Industry Association. The HIA missing is a bit of a worry given its members are responsible for building our houses – houses we hear are so often turning out to not be compliant. The other sector, the agents, are in many cases not pricing properties in a way that shows the increased capital value of energy efficiency and other measures. It’s certainly not something many tenants get told about, and at the lower end of the market occupying the older, draughtier, very inefficient homes, the reality is the affordability crisis means the inhabitants often can’t afford to change the type of hot water system or heating a home has – some of the keys to getting an “energy-freedom” home (click that link to find out about our competition to win a copy of a new BZE book).

And as Professor Terry Burke from the CRC for Low Carbon Living explains, poorly performing properties don’t just affect that tenant. They constitute a massive percentage of the national carbon footprint, and what’s lacking is the kind of policies that will ensure they are rectified in the interests of preventing further escalations of climate change.

So here’s hoping Victoria will go the distance, and that the other states will suffer a case of the me-toos. We’d probably tip NSW and South Australia to be most inclined, as they are already well ahead in terms of energy efficiency programs that benefit lower income households.

NSW isn’t doing so well on other fronts this week though, with farmers taking to their tractors on the Liverpool Plains in a massive convoy to protest the go-ahead for coal mining in one of our prime agricultural areas. It was suggested by one of the Lock the Gate Alliance folks they should perhaps contemplate rolling on into Canberra – after all, it worked for the transport industry when everyone got all het up on the basis of dodgy claims about the impact of the carbon trading scheme.

It’s not a bad suggestion, after all, with the legislation now tabled in federal parliament to block environment groups and others from using the law to protect the environment, a few hundred well-placed bits of oversized farm machinery might become an effective way to make a point.

While there are obvious implications in terms of the mega coal projects like Adani’s black hole in Queensland, we wonder where it leaves people opposing smaller destructive developments, such as major densification replacing critical habitat areas that have up till now been protected in some cities. Maybe one of the legal eagles or planning progressives out there would like to give us a considered opinion piece or two?

It all comes back to where we started. The screaming toddler with the unhealthy addiction to poisonous forms of gratification, and the need to act quickly and decisively to get a grip on emissions and reduce the impact of climate change.

The Climate Council this week released a new report, Climate Change 2015, Growing Risks Critical Choices, written by Will Steffen and Leslie Hughes, that outlines the very real impacts that are already occurring.

Some of the key findings include:

Our understanding of climate change continues to strengthen, with dramatic changes of the climate system happening across the globe.

  • It is beyond doubt that human activities, primarily the emission of greenhouse gases from the combustion of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, are driving the dramatic changes of the climate system.
  • Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of many extreme weather events, including heatwaves and extreme bushfire conditions.
  • Hot days have doubled in the last 50 years, while heatwaves have become hotter, last longer and occur more often.
  • Over the last 30 years extreme fire weather has increased in the populous southeast region of Australia – southern NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and parts of South Australia.
  • Extreme sea-level events have tripled at Sydney and Fremantle since the middle of the 20th century.

The changing climate poses substantial and escalating risks for health, property, infrastructure, agriculture and natural ecosystems.

  • Further increases in extreme heat in Australia are likely with more frequent and more intense hot days and longer and more severe heatwaves. Deaths from heatwaves are projected to double over the next 40 years in Australian cities.
  • More than $226 billion in commercial, industrial, road, rail and residential assets around Australian coasts, most of them in urban areas, are potentially exposed to flooding and erosion hazards at a sea-level rise of 1.1 metres.
  • From 2020 onwards, the predicted increase in drought frequency is estimated to cost $7.3 billion annually, reducing GDP by one per cent per year.
  • If global temperatures reach 3°C above pre-industrial levels, an estimated 8.5 per cent of species globally are at risk of extinction, and under a “business as usual” scenario, leading to global warming of 4°C or more, a staggering one in six species could be lost.

Sobering, indeed.