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Climate responsibility: the UN Climate Summit, 23rd September 2014

by Dr Robin Tennant-Wood

UN Secretary-General, Ban-Ki Moon, called for “all hands on deck…

The human environmental and financial cost of climate change is fast becoming unbearable.”

US President, Barack Obama, said, “We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.”

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a poet from the Marshall Islands, representing civil society, recited one of her poems, a moving letter to her child evoking a situation that could have been avoided but was not.

Australia’s representative, Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, said that Australia was balancing economic growth with climate change and was responsible for only 1.5% of global emissions.

Spot the difference?

Australia has long hid behind semantics in order to avoid climate change responsibility. By global standards our population is small and it stands to reason that as a result our overall contribution to global emissions will be small. However, what Ms Bishop (and others before her) have carefully skirted around is that we are the highest per capita greenhouse gas emitter in the OECD. As a major coal-producing nation, each time we send a shipload of coal offshore, we are exporting harm. Where does the line of accountability lie? What Ms Bishop also ignored was the somewhat alarming figure that since the government repeal of Labor’s carbon tax, Australian emissions have increased 8%. That’s 8% on top of already unsustainable emission levels in the space of three months.

As a wealthy, developed nation, Australia has had for many years the opportunity to be a leader in climate change action. Instead, successive governments have chosen to quibble about targets, claim that doing anything would harm the economy and, like the sneaky troublemaker in the schoolyard, deny all responsibility. “It wasn’t me, Miss, it was someone else. I wasn’t even there.”

In 1997 John Howard sent his Environment Minister, Robert Hill, to Kyoto to plead Australia’s case as an industrially developing nation with a need to increase, not decrease emissions. Ten years of inaction later, Kevin Rudd came to power with his grandiose statement that “Climate change is the greatest moral challenge of our time.” He then proceeded to do nothing about it beyond the now infamous ‘pink batt’ project. Julia Gillard ushered in the carbon tax after saying she wouldn’t and only then after agreeing to the terms set by the Greens in return for minority government support, and earned scathing condemnation for the remainder of her term. Abbott’s “climate change is crap” line may well go down in history as one of the most idiotic things ever uttered by a politician, but it nonetheless accurately underpins his government’s approach.

What our governments have consistently failed to grasp is that climate change will end economic growth. Australian agriculture is already on the brink, increased frequency and severity of cyclones and bushfires will push insurance higher and the cost to the government in maintaining basic infrastructure alone in vulnerable areas will be crippling. As the coastal strip becomes more vulnerable to sea level rise what responsibility will the government take for resettling people from, say, the canal developments on the Gold Coast or shifting port facilities in Port Kembla, Newcastle or Gladstone?

While the government is considering lowering the Renewable Energy Target from 20% renewable energy by 2020 in order to boost the production of coal-fired energy, mining companies are cutting jobs.

As the ‘big fish’ in the relatively small pond of the South Pacific, our neighbours look to Australia for regional leadership. Countries that lie only metres above sea level are already disappearing. Within years we will see the first climate change refugees in our region. As the regional leader, and the only industrial nation in the region, as one of the largest coal-producing nations on the planet what will we tell our neighbours when they come ashore seeking a safe place to live?

That we’re balancing climate change with economic growth?

What will Tony Abbott tell his grandchildren? That he balanced climate change with economic growth?

There is no balance.

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