Tony French.

Murrumbidgee River After Rain.
Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha. flickr cc.

Record greenhouse gas emissions are driving global temperatures to dangerous levels. This is the dire conclusion in the latest World Meteorological Organisation report, WMO Statement on the State of the Global Climate In 2018. The WMO is part of the United Nations.

The WMO report highlights record sea level rises, as well as high land and ocean temperatures. In fact, these have been the warmest recorded over the past four years. And the consequences? Natural disasters, most notably floods, affected nearly 62 million people in 2018. Typhoons and hurricanes have become ‘super’ typhoons and ‘super’ hurricanes in their damaging impact. And then there have been heatwaves.

While these events make graphic headlines, accelerating sea level rises, shrinking sea ice, and soaring carbon dioxide levels do not. Yet they directly put pressure on food security. The report says the number of undernourished people increased to 821 million just last year. This was partly due to severe drought associated with the strong El Nino of 2015-2016.

Undernourished people tend to become displaced people. Two million were displaced due to weather events in 2018. Heatwaves and poor-quality air caused by climate change now affect 125 million people. And heatwaves, as we in Australia know, last some time.

People are being affected injuriously and so too is the planet. Coral bleaching, we know something about, but rising sea ocean temperatures are affecting other coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves and salt marshes. Increasing warmth means reduced oxygen in the oceans, causing oceans to acidify and polar ice caps to melt, glaciers to retreat, and sea levels to rise. Sea levels were 3.7mm higher in 2018 than in the year before, seemingly a small increase, but the highest on record. And, remember, all these adverse changes are cumulative.

Australia experiencing unprecedented heat

JEROME LESSARD. flickr cc.

Now if you think all this doesn’t affect us in Australia, it does. Just recall this long particularly searing and seemingly endless summer. Autumns, if we have them now, have been replaced by increasingly long hot summers. We smugly say that, as a country, we contribute a minuscule amount to global warming, so why should we be doing much to combat it, compared to, say, the United States or China, the primary culprits of global emissions?

Well, the simple answer is that we are becoming one of the global climate change casualties. Australia is at risk of increasing desertification. To date, effects appear concentrated on a few remote outback farmers, who, we think, shouldn’t be there anyway. The drought relief we give them, well that’s just farmer welfare for unsustainable crop and livestock practises. To us in the cities, their plight is about as immediate as those weather-affected people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Hot weather just means we urbanites can manage – with with our airconditioning. But if there were little or no water, too, that might be hard to comprehend.

I have a small farm near Ballarat. This summer, my rainwater tanks emptied early, then the artesian bore dried up (probably due to neighbouring industrial ‘water mining’ of the aquifer for the bottled water business – but that’s another story).

My livestock, already on hand-fed provisions, now had no water, and the garden soon began to die. Our last rain had been back in December 2018, four months previously. On top of the Great Dividing Range at an altitude of 700m, I thought, complacently, we would be perpetually green. But that menacingly protruding edge of the Central Australian tongue of extreme heat licked our property daily. Our daytime temperatures were frequently higher than those in lowland Melbourne. “Never happened before”, said some of the old locals.

The rain gauge became a dust gauge, and bushfires became prevalent. Jokingly, I had said the outback began beyond Bendigo; now it seemed to begin at Broadmeadows.

My neighbour supplied us with a waterline from his deep bore, literally a lifeline. Now I have some appreciation of the effects of drought, like our farthest farmers, but, unlike them, I was going ‘gaga’ after three months, when, for them, the average drought in western Victoria and beyond lasts years.

The politics of climate change

So this summer has been my climate change conversion. But what about other urbanites? Most of us accept climate change science is providing robust evidence of global temperature increases. So what is stopping us dealing with the problem?

Increasingly, communities are seeing themselves as part of the solution to climate change, as they support renewable energy. Communities, too, want their politicians to address climate change. Climate change is real, and can no longer be regarded as “absolute crap” in the infamous words of a recent former prime minister. 

A record number of Independent candidates whose platforms are to seek a reduction in the rate of climate change are now standing in safe seats, challenging incumbents who have either denied global warming or downplayed its significance. It is a reaction to our national shame, too, of not being able to set a national energy policy, when we still generate two thirds of our electricity from coal. We are also unlikely to meet our agreed Paris Agreement target of 26% reduction by 2030. Instead of declining, emissions are rising.

The Labor Party is aware climate change is recognised widely by the public, and, ahead of the imminent election, it has recently put out a tentative response – tentative, given there is no mention of a carbon tax. It still exempts farmers except for some land clearing, and recompenses businesses, instead concentrating on vehicle emissions. It advocates electric cars, when we have no national energy policy for charging those vehicles’ batteries. But it’s a start, and shows more leadership than the Government has to date.

While there might be increased awareness, concerted action is still missing. The UN will hold a Climate Action Summit at Heads of State level in September this year. It’s a talkfest, too, just as our politicians continue to talk, or, more likely, argue.

What we can do ourselves

People want to do something, so, it up to us. What can you and I do?

According to David Suzuki, each of us can help bring about a slowing, if not a reversal, of the seemingly inexorable degradation of our planet. He advocates:

  1. Adopting renewables. Consider installing solar power, buy a fuel-efficient car.
  2. Green your urban commute. Take public transport, ride a bike, car share, use an electric vehicle or bike, and, if you can, fly less.
  3. Be an energy miser. Use energy efficient light bulbs, use fewer lights, turn off unused appliances, wash clothes in cold or warm water, put clothes out to dry, insulate your home.
  4. Eat for a climate-stable planet. Reduce your meat consumption, don’t waste food, grow your own.
  5. Reduce your consumption. (Marie Kondo may be onto something here.)
  6. Divest from fossil fuels. Tell your broker and your super fund.
  7. Advocate for a carbon tax, join a consumer’s electrical co-op, and negotiate with your power company.
  8. Vote for candidates advocating climate change reduction strategies. If you are too young to vote, then street protest, as our school children did recently.
  9. Tell your story. Your friends are more likely to be influenced by you than by some expert, or even by a UN Report.

I also tell friends about my minor brush with a summer drought, my message to them being drink tap water and spare my artesian bore. And I consider you a friend.

Let’s make the forthcoming election the Climate Change Action election.

Tony French is a Melbourne lawyer and a Board member of Social Policy Connections.

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