Announcing new climate change policies is something Australian politicians have learned to fear the most. Over the past decade, climate change politics has knocked off four prime ministers, and split political parties and allegiances apart at their core.
The political risks in this election campaign are no doubt even more exacerbated, with many calling this the “climate election”. Nor is this a battle that is limited to the Green versus Labor swing seats. It is perhaps even more acute in key traditionally safe conservative seats. Buoyed by the result in the Wentworth byelection, several high profile independents are taking on Tony Abbott, Josh Frydenberg and Greg Hunt. Central to their campaign is climate change action.
In the last few weeks the major parties have trepidatiously released their climate change policy platforms. The LNP policies reflect a party that needs to be seen to be doing something to fend off the independents. Simultaneously it needs to somehow be seen not to be doing too much to avoid deserting votes on the right. The ALP policies on the other hand reflect a party trying to be seen to be doing a lot to capture the political momentum from the school strike movement, and the broad majority of Australians who want more climate action. On the other hand, being too ambitious gives the Murdoch press the ammunition for headlines it has frothed over for the past decade.
Both parties’ climate policies of both parties are dominated by energy and by and large focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Such policies and actions are often grouped in the category of “mitigation”. Mitigation in this case refers to actions that are taken to limit the magnitude or rate of long-term global warming and its related effects.
What is missing from both parties’ policy platforms is any substantive commitment to deal with adapting to climate change. Adaptation recognises that even with the most aggressive mitigation efforts, Australian society is already being impacted by a changing climate and will continue to do so.
Even among environment and climate groups, adaptation is often missing from advocacy platforms, or a footnote. Perhaps this is because for many climate activists, promoting adaptation sometimes has that feeling that the battle to combat rising temperatures has been lost.
Adaptation has long been the poor cousin of climate change policy and funding so perhaps this is no surprise. But what is perhaps more intriguing is that adaptation has often been the area of climate change policy that has had more bipartisan support. One of the first national adaptation strategies came about during the Howard era, and in many states, adaptation activity carried through changes in government more in tact than mitigation.
If anything, the 2019 election should highlight the need for adaptation more acutely than any other previous election. The number of weather and climate records surpassed in this last term of government has brought climate change “home” to many Australians. Images of dead fish in the Murray Darling, burning rainforests and button grass plains in the Tasmanian wilderness, coral reef bleaching is front of mind for a large majority of Australians. So are the more personal experiences of hotter and drier conditions and more extreme weather events.
No longer an abstract concern for future generations, it is an issue that is affecting Australians now and in major and complex ways. Unsurprisingly it is this dramatic shift from the abstract to the tangible that is galvanising non-traditional political actors to speak up and demand more. Groups like Farmers for Climate Action, the School Strike for Climate movement, and the Climate and Health Alliance are new movements challenging the climate politics of the past decade.
Local governments and their communities across the country are on the frontline of climate change impacts right here right now and need federal support. Interestingly, in its 2018 annual survey of Australian attitudes towards climate change, an Ipsos poll found that Australians considered local governments leading when it comes to climate action compared to state and federal governments and industry/business.
Infrastructure upgrades to improve resilience to extreme weather events and hotter and drier conditions are obvious needs. Community and social resilience programs to ensure communities are informed, empowered and have capacity to respond to climate change are also crucial. Several programs are under way, led by local governments such as the Ramp Up Resilience project in rural shires in northern Victoria, and the Resilient South project in South Australia.
Critically, what is needed most is funding support to local communities to design local solutions to the very localised impacts of climate change already being experienced. This goes beyond disaster relief funding, but takes a more proactive approach so that communities can become more resilient to disasters as they will inevitably unfold.
In coming weeks hopefully we will hear both parties reveal the rest of their climate change policies, the much needed adaptation policies.
• Rob Law works for the Victorian Greenhouse Alliances, regional networks of local governments working on climate change projects, advocacy and knowledge sharing