If we are concerned about the cost of living (and other issues) beyond tomorrow, we better pay more attention to climate change

If we are concerned about the cost of living (and other issues) beyond tomorrow, we better pay more attention to climate change

We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment  

Uniting Church Statement to the Nation, 1977.

When the above words were first penned some 45 years ago, the authors probably were not fully aware of the science of global warming, greenhouse gases and their implications for our world’s use of energy. But they certainly did have a sense of responsibility for the impacts of their generation’s actions on others.

That sort of longer-term thinking can be sadly lacking as we confront the issues of the day. We want solutions now – a quick fix. Short termism is even more the norm in a lead up to an election. That is not surprising. We elect federal governments for three years at a time, if that. Politicians’ overriding aim is to get elected, so their focus is on offering us something now, to get our vote, and not on policies that may be better for all in the longer term.

Taking the longer view – connecting climate with our other pressing concerns

The Resolve Political Monitor is a survey that asks people about their highest priorities for their vote in the federal election. All age groups had: the cost of living; the economy; health and aged care; and climate change, in their top four issues.  Jobs and wages were also important for the 18-54 year olds. These and other issues are clearly interrelated. For example, the economy and jobs, or the ability to receive needed health care and the cost of living. But climate change is an issue of a different order.

It is already having an effect and in future will have even more fundamental impact on these other issues we care about, depending on how we respond in the next few years. What are some of those impacts and, what opportunities are there for our country in how we respond?

Direct and indirect costs of floods, fires and storms

This year we have witnessed extreme flooding in NSW and Queensland. Their cost will take time to determine.The economic impact of the Queensland floods of 2010/11 was estimated to be more than $five billion with 18,000 homes inundated, 28 percent of the rail network and 19,000 kilometres of roads damaged.

The devastating east coast fires of 2019/20 were hugely costly in terms of life, livelihoods and land.  A report by Sydney University and the World Wide Fund for Nature found the fires cost between $four billion and $five billion. This included damage to farm buildings, loss of crops and more than 100,000 livestock killed. Tragically, 33 people were killed as a direct result of the fires. But research published in the journal Nature found the fires were probably responsible for more than 400 additional deaths and 1305 hospital admissions related to asthma attacks, heart and respiratory problems, caused by smoke from the fires.

These are just two events. We know extreme weather events will increase in frequency and intensity as our atmosphere warms further. The Climate Council has estimated that severe floods alone, could cost Australia $40 billion each year by 2060.

Catastrophic events like these rob people of income and cause other costs of living to increase. Think of businesses who cannot operate and must lay off staff due to floods or fires. Think of the impact on tourism on a dying Great Barrier Reef. Think of the cost of disaster recovery and re-building which must be met, ultimately, by taxpayers.

The National Farmers Federation has criticised both major parties for neglecting to address the impact of global warming on farming.  They say this is already costing farmers tens of thousands per year in lost income. A new report by the Climate Council shows that about one in 25 Australian homes will be uninsurable by 2030 due the risks of extreme weather. That figure rises to one in ten in areas like Brisbane, the Gold Coast and northern NSW.  ‘Uninsurable’, means the insurance premiums become so high, the average homeowner cannot afford to pay them.

Health impacts and costs

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has recognised that climate change is a health emergency. They say the “significant health impacts of climate change have been evident for some time” and can be expected to increase.  These impacts include deaths from heat stress (impacting older people particularly) and other extreme weather; increase in vector-borne diseases (like Dengue fever from mosquitos); decline in people’s mental health (observed especially in young people) and; threats to food security.

It is not just the impact of climate change but the burning of fossil fuels itself, that damages health. An independently reviewed report by Greenpeace International found Australia’s coal fired power stations were responsible for 800 premature deaths, 14,000 asthma symptom days and 850 low birth weight births each year.

It is not surprising the AMA “promotes an active transition from fossil fuels to renewal energy”, as part of its policy on climate change.

Threats to food production, cost and security

Food prices have a major impact on the cost of living, especially for people on lower incomes. The price, quality and seasonal availability of Australia’s food is already being affected by climate change, and this is expected to increase.  Consequently, our nation’s food security is under threat.  Water scarcity, extreme heat and unpredictable weather all make food production less certain in our key agricultural areas, like the Murray Darling Basin. During the 2005-2007 drought,the cost of fruit and vegetables increased by 43 percent and 33 percent respectively. The Murray Darling Basin covers 14 percent of Australia’s land and accounts for 40 percent of agricultural produce and $15 billion of national income. Average cool season rainfall in south eastern Australia has declined by 12 percent and is expected to fall further. The length and intensity of droughts will increase.  

Water scarcity, food security and disruptions to supply chains are just some of the issues raised recently in an open letter to Australia’s political leaders by the Australian Security Leader’s Climate Group (ASLCG). The ASLCG is made up of senior ex-defence force and emergency services personnel. In their letter they state that “climate change, imperils the health, wellbeing and livelihoods of Australia’s people”.  They lamented what they saw as a lack of credible national climate policy that has left our nation unprepared for harsh climate impacts. They urged that fossil fuel emissions be reduced to zero “at emergency speed” and that committed action on climate must be a top priority for all sides of politics.

Not just costs, but tremendous opportunities

Despite these sobering realities, the challenge posed by climate change also provides our nation with enormous opportunities. As many economists and other commentators have argued, Australia has much to gain from a switch to a renewable energy economy, with benefits in all those areas of concern – health, cost of living, jobs and the economy- that worry us now.  As the sunniest and windiest continent on earth, we are blessed with abundant renewable energy resources and capacity to generate very cheap electricity. We could export this well as using it to power a revitalised manufacturing sector, including metals manufacturing. We also have stores of minerals, such as nickel and lithium which are needed in the post-carbon world economy. Economist, Professor Ross Garnaut, argues that while some politicians have been pre-occupied with the costs of moving to a low carbon economy, the economic cost would be far outweighed by the gains.  Professor John Quiggin of the University of Queensland agrees, stating that the cost of transition to renewable energy would be around 2.5 percent of GDP, much less than the cost of allowing global warming to continue.

The gains of switching to renewable energy include opening up new and greater job opportunities, including in regional areas. The Business Council of Australia supports emissions cuts of 46 percent to 50 percent by 2030. Its analysis estimates that this will create 200,000 extra jobs with most of those in the regions. Research by the Australian Conservation Foundation supports this, finding that renewable energy could be a major driver of new jobs for regional communities currently dependent on fossil fuels.  They found that replacing the electricity produced from Australia’s biggest coal fired power station, Eraring (due to close in 2025), with renewable sources could generate 13, 339 jobs (if from wind farms), 14,415 jobs (if from solar farms) and 63, 562 jobs (if from roof top solar).

Globally, the International Monetary Fund estimates that five million jobs will be lost in the coal, oil, and gas industries over the next decade. But they also found that growth in renewable energy would create 14 million jobs and demand for energy efficient appliances, electric vehicles and low emissions buildings would require a further 16 million workers.

All this means that the transition to a renewable energy economy provides tremendous opportunity for Australia and its people to prosper and flourish. As Christians we would argue that also brings additional responsibility to share that abundance with others.

The time to make the switch and avoid the most harmful impacts of climate change is running out. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report from August last year, was called a “code red for humanity”. The window to keep global warming to the 1.5 degrees will close in the next few years on our current rate of emissions. The IPCC says globally, we must make emissions cuts of at least 50 percent and ideally 75 percent by 2030, to have better than a 50/50 chance of achieving the 1.5 degree goal.

Australia, as one of the worlds highest per capita emitters, has a moral responsibility to do more than the minimum required. While the emissions reduction targets of both our major parties fall short of what is needed, others in business, finance, and the health and community sectors, as well as state governments, are taking a stronger lead. That is a hopeful sign.

The urgency and scale of the climate challenge must not paralyse us, but spur us on to take the right action, for there is also much to be gained. We can appeal with the psalmist: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom,” and then work to secure a safer and better climate future for all, far beyond tomorrow and the term of the next Federal government.

Jon O’Brien

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