Climate: Central to Everything this Election

Safe Climate

The following was published on the Opinion page of The Courier on Saturday 14/5/22.

This election you'd be forgiven for assuming that the climate emergency – hardly mentioned in the leaders' debates – had been downgraded.

During their campaigning, political parties push issues for perceived electoral advantage. So national security, the economy, health and the cost of living have dominated. Climate has emerged only as a second-level concern. It's as if we've forgotten the 'natural' disasters our communities have endured – the Black Summer bushfires, the record-breaking east coast floods and the devastating drought of 2017-2020 that dried the Menindee Lakes, killing fish in massive numbers. Extreme weather events are exacerbated by climate change. It's a connection most Australians now accept, along with the need for immediate action, even if it costs, according to last year's Lowy Institute Climate Poll. As we've also been warned recently, by the IPCC, to stabilise climate and keep warming below 1.5C, emissions must peak by 2025 – meaning radical cuts now.

Those campaign issues – national security, the economy, public health and the cost of living – are all intrinsic to acting on climate.

Dealing with climate change is critical to our national security. Our neighbours, the Pacific Island Nations have indicated climate change is a bigger threat than any risk posed by China. Climate change, driving rising sea levels, will destroy their way of life, rendering them climate refugees. Indeed the projected surge in climate refugees from across the world – as whole cities and vast tracts of land are submerged, and as formerly productive farmland is rendered barren by extreme weather events – will pose a considerable national security dilemma for Australia. And as our coastal and agricultural communities are impacted by climate change, rising homelessness and food security issues will make our nation more vulnerable. 

Climate action is intrinsic to our future economic prosperity. Writing in The Age, Ross Gittins recently noted, 'Three-quarters of the 50 top economists surveyed by the Economic Society of Australia, nominated “climate and the environment” as the most important issue for the election.' According to new Australia Institute research, in 2021-22 Australians paid $11.6 billion in fossil fuel subsidies, an increase of $1.3 billion from the previous year. And public health experts at the University of Sydney, estimate the energy and transport sectors alone cost Australia at least $6 billion a year in health problems. With 70% of our trading partners committed to emissions reductions targets of zero by 2050 we face trade embargos unless we follow suit and abandon our commitment to coal, as former PMs, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull recently warned. 

Of course, as we integrate more renewables into the national grid, the transition to clean energy will ultimately see energy prices fall, especially as more homes become all-electric. Australia, Ross Garnaut has noted, could be a clean energy superpower – exploiting our abundant wind and solar, creating clean energy jobs and producing clean exports such as green hydrogen, green steel and green aluminium.

Thirdly, climate change is also a leading public health issue. Pollution from emissions is a major health hazard. In the past century, heat waves killed more Australians than any other natural event. Other health risks linked to climate change include increased risk of: infectious diseases such as Dengue fever, Ross River virus; and food-borne infections due to increased growth of pathogens such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli. Air pollution – contributing to lung cancer, asthma, heart disease and stroke – triggers 3000 deaths annually. 

The COVID pandemic and its emergence in humans is widely attributed to bats, whose geographic distribution range has shifted with climate change, moving pathogens closer to humans. 

There's also a new wave of mental health problems related to climate change, psychological distress arising from extreme weather events and a rising tide of 'eco-anxiety.' 

Lastly, climate change is also a cost of living issue. Supply chains for locally produced foods and imports are impacted by extreme weather events, set to become more frequent and intense due to climate change, driving price rises. And increasing pressure on water supply will also pressure supply and prompt price rises.

Along with COVID restrictions, border closures and skill shortages, natural disasters exacerbated by climate change have impacted supply chains in the building industry. Businesses, home owners/renovators are being impacted by rising construction costs – steel prices have surged by up to 40%, and timber and electrical materials costs by up to 30%, while freight costs continue to rise. 

And as the impact of extreme weather events hits the insurance industry, we can expect higher insurance premiums. Homes in flood and bushfire zones may become effectively uninsurable. According to data from the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) the recent flooding in Southeast QLD and NSW is the most expensive Australian flooding event of all-time, costing $3.35 billion. Such extreme weather events also impact local governments financially, and will presumably drive rate rises in the future. 

If we are to give future generations a decent shot at a liveable environment, policy-making in defence, the economy and public health needs to embed action on climate. After the Black Summer fires which burnt 82 per cent of the magnificent Blue Mountains and destroyed nearly 3 billion native animals, after this year's east coast floods when whole communities were drowned in record breaking rains, after the IPCC's warnings, are we really just going to shuffle on as if everything is normal? Surely that's untenable.

Keep climate front and centre of mind this election. Cutting emissions, stabilising climate is the fight of our lives. Don’t leave things to chance, check the climate policies of candidates before you vote.

Mary Debrett
President, BREAZE Inc.