Heat is on Abbott government over climate change as world turns
Parched properties: The risk of
bushfires, like this near Lithgow last October, is elevated in a
heatwave. Photo: Dean Sewell
of how global warming is expected to shift the climate for NSW,
Victoria and the ACT by 2070, officials were quizzed why they weren't
using "climate variability", a term favoured by federal Coalition
counterparts, to describe the outlook.
"This is the NSW government, we believe in climate change!" came the immediate response at the last month's media briefing.
In the next few weeks, 2014 will likely be declared the hottest year on record globally, beating 2005 and 2010.So, it seems, does Victoria's new Labor premier
Daniel Andrews. His minister for climate change – Lisa Neville – is
expected to take a higher profile on the issue than her Liberal
predecessor Ryan Smith. NewEnergy Minister Lily D'Ambrosio has also
signalled a keen interest in energy efficiency and renewable energy -
both areas largely stalled under the previous government.
Farmers frazzled: Prime Minister Tony
Abbott visits a drought-hit farm near Bourke, northern NSW, in February
2014. Photo: Andrew Meares
change" in Victorian agencies, such as in 2011 when agriculture minister
and now state Nationals leader, Peter Walsh, launched a Climate Challenges Centre
at Melbourne University. The jointly funded research interests include
how crops might adapt to rising carbon-dioxide levels in an "evolving
AdvertisementAt the federal level, meanwhile, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce
in October outlined his department's paper on competitiveness in the
sector without a single reference to climate change in its 111-page report.
"Australian farmers, even more so than their global competitors, must
adapt to climate variability," was about the closest it got.
an aversion to the topic – and for some Coalition MPs, outright
dismissal global warming is at all a threat – may leave the Abbott
government even more out of step with the electorate and the governments
of its two most populous states.
Not cool: Records were broken in 2014 -
the world's warmest year on record and Australia's third-warmest. Photo: Steven Siewert
in 2014 – witness how it dogged his visit to the United States and then
dominated G20 coverage after President Barack Obama's "Save the Reef"
speech – there are many reasons to think it will be an even bigger issue
By the end of this year, almost 200 nations will gather
in Paris to negotiate a global treaty aimed at keeping temperature
increases to less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial times (versus
about a 1-degree increase so far). Each meeting in the run-up will
scrutinise pledges, including Australia's, for cutting greenhouse gas
emissions beyond 2020.
Pope Francis will weigh in too, issuing the
first-ever Vatican teachings to the world's 1.2 billion Catholics to
act on climate change. He is also expected to bring together other
religious leaders for a summit ahead of the Paris gathering.
The big dry: Farmer Neil Kennedy musters his cattle in December 2014 in Coonamble, NSW. Photo: Dean Sewell/Oculi
pay-the-polluter Direct Action plan will finally be tested – just as
power sector emissions start to climb in the wake of the carbon tax it
replaced. Any rollback of the Renewable Energy Target – so far blocked
in the Senate – will only add to the scheme's task.
Australia is vulnerable to climate change will also come in updates from
the NSW government of its assessment of risks for south-eastern
Australia to 2070, including for water availability and sea-level rise,
and more data on Victoria. The release of CSIRO's Natural Resource
Management report on climate risk – which the Abbott government is
understood to be delaying – will add to concerns.
voter sentiment is starting to shift, such as the Lowy Institute's
annual survey released mid-2014, which showed the first increase of
climate concern in six years. Almost two-thirds of respondents said the
federal government should be taking a leadership role in cutting
emissions, with just 7 per cent saying it should do nothing.
McKenzie, chief executive of the Climate Council – which was scrapped
by the Abbott government as its first act on taking office in September
2013 – said the mood will continue to move as people understand the link
between extreme weather and climate, with recent heat a clear signal.
"We've had two very extreme summers and this looks like it could be
In the next few weeks, 2014 will likely be declared the
hottest year on record globally, beating 2005 and 2010. For Australia,
it was the third-warmest behind 2013 and 2005, with only 2011 a
below-average year this century.
El Ninos tend to result in
relatively hot and dry years for most of Australia, and the current
near-threshold conditions in the Pacific point to a tough couple of
months ahead. This weekend's heatwave across south-eastern states will
also likely elevate anxiety about bushfires.
farmers well understand the impacts and risks of climate change – and
also the difficulty of convincing others in their industry.
Bill Yates, a farmer from Garah in northern NSW, serves as a "Climate Champion" as part of the federally funded Managing Climate Variability R&D program and is unhappy with the body's title.
allowed to talk about climate change in terms of variability but change
is change," the 65-year-old, third-generation farmer said.
region has been hard hit by drought but it is the rising temperatures,
particularly in spring, that is most concerning. Wheat and other crops
are flowering earlier, reducing their output for harvest even when the
rains do come, he says.
"The really smart farmers are sowing
earlier because it's warming up," he said, adding though that wheat may
be unviable in his area within 30 years.
The NSW government's
survey found northern and western parts of the state – including areas
such as Garah – could endure maximum temperatures above 35 degrees for
one-third of the year by 2070 if global emissions remain on a
Mark Wootton, a farmer almost 1500 km to the
south, last year took in 520 black steers from northern NSW for
agistment on his property near the Grampians in western Victoria.
The animals arrived by truck emaciated and blind from pink eye in "a scene like Gallipoli", Wootton said.
Wootton's farms, though, are now also extremely dry as the normally well-watered regions become parched.
As with Yates, Wootton is also outspoken on climate change. He helped found and continues to chair The Climate Institute, one of the country's leading non-government agencies on the issue.
said the most ardent climate change sceptics in his industry tend to be
"male, over-70 and cranky", and that younger farmers – particularly
the agronomy students he hosts from the Marcus Oldham College near
Geelong – need much less persuasion that the matter is serious.
it's not just the physics of climate change that is a threat. Wootton
said Chinese customers alert to the positive branding opportunities in
Europe and elsewhere now enquire about the carbon neutrality of his
merino and cattle farms. "Who the hell would have thought they'd come
and ask those sorts of questions?" he said.
Key issue for government
the Abbott government was about to give climate change greater urgency
were fanned last month when the PM appointed Bob Baldwin to be the new
parliamentary secretary for the environment – replacing Senator Simon
The affable NSW MP told Fairfax Media he sticks by
comments he made to a Chinese audience in 2010 that without climate
change the dinosaurs would still be around.
"Since the very
beginning of time there has been climate change," he said, adding he was
"neither a climate sceptic nor a denier".
Baldwin said, though,
that the planet should be given the benefit of the doubt and that he was
"strongly committed to Direct Action".
"We accept the science and
we're going to do something," he said. "We as individuals can make a
difference, as we did under Clean Up Australia."
Whether such a
response is enough, or whether the electorate will start demanding a lot
more of Australian governments at all levels, will be a key issue to
watch in 2015 and beyond.