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A just transition for Australia – Steven Hail

Australia can lead the way towards repairing climate change damage

School climate strikes have helped raise awareness that time is running out (Screenshot via YouTube)

A climate change emergency is being acknowledged increasingly around the world and for good reason. The evidence is so overwhelming that those who deny, minimise or ignore the problem at this late stage are beyond the reach of rational argument. There is no point in reaching out towards them any longer.

Fortunately, we don’t need to.

All that we need to do is to calmly and consistently repeat three facts:

  1. It is well-established and has been understood for a long time (for more than 150 years) that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere trap heat and are responsible for global warming.
  2. It is well-established and has been understood for a long time (for over 100 years) that the net emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases due to human economic activity have added to, and continue to add to, global warming and to the changes in climate patterns and increasingly frequent andextreme weather events which are a consequence of that global warming.
  3. Climate change is both a consequence of and a contributor to an erosion of the natural capital which is essential to the quality of life of our children, our grandchildren, and all future generations.

There will be a few people, I suppose, who don’t care about the well-being of those who will follow us in the decades and centuries to come, but surely this is a tiny minority. Moreover, we are reaching a point where even they must fear climate change, because its impacts are no longer entirely in the future.

Farmers, bushfire victims and others are suffering today. Deputy PM Michael McCormack might well say that there have always been droughts and fires in Australia, but the evidence that extreme events are becoming more frequent and more devastating is increasingly clear. Things may be bad this summer, but they will get worse if we do nothing. Far worse. It is time for the National Party to take this seriously if they don’t want to betray those they claim to represent.

There are people who argue that we in Australia contribute so little to the problem that we ought not to be an early mover. Let the USA, Europe and China deal with it. They are the big emitters. What can we do? Why should we put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage? Why should we make out economy sick when doing so won’t make the planet healthy?

Yes, it is true that because there are so few of us, there are other countries whose approach to carbon dioxide emissions matters far more than ours. However, we have the greatest responsibility to take a lead and address the problem. We have the highest emissions per head of any of the countries in the OECD club and are easily the world’s largest exporter of coal and one of the top exporters of natural gas.

What’s more, we are better placed than probably any other country in the world to accelerate the shift towards green, renewable energy. We have immense potential to use solar, wind and hydro power and to create green hydrogen as a storable power source using other renewables. There are plenty of scientists and engineers who will tell you that Australia could rapidly replace coal and gas, not just for domestic energy production, but as a basis for exports.

We can go to 100% renewables, and far beyond. Thus 500% renewables, these people tell us, is a relatively conservative achievable goal. And given the problems in transporting renewable power, Australia may again become the natural place to engage in energy-intensive heavy manufacturing industries which have been lost off- shore, may naturally move back on- shore in this future scenario.

There are others who tell us that it is all too late anyway. To them, we are doomed. More than 99.9% of all the species to have lived on the Earth have gone extinct. Why should we be any different? Why should we escape the sixth great extinction episode in the history of the Earth? Why should we not go the way of the dinosaurs?

The good news for these doomsday merchants is that, while catastrophe is possible, it is not inevitable. We don’t have to be the first species to drive ourselves into extinction. There is still time to limit the concentration of green- house gases to a level which may be consistent with not much more than two degrees of warming over pre-industrial levels and later on we should be able to achieve negative net emissions and begin to repair at least some of the damage we have done.

We can achieve this while still providing plenty of good employment opportunities. We can do it while improving the lifestyles of future generations. We should in time be able to reduce the working week and reduce – not increase – the retirement age. We can do it while reducing inequality and while acting globally to end absolute poverty once and for all.

We just need to get on with it. And we need to engage in this Just Transition or Green New Deal very soon. There is an emergency. It is urgent. We can’t wait for politicians, or for the mythical Overton window. Time is running out.

This item has been extracted from an article by the author that appeared in Independent Australia on 13 December 2019, and it appears here with the author’s permission.


Dr Steven Hail is a Lecturer in Economics at the University of Adelaide and is an ERA member.

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