Nothing direct about ‘Direct Action’

Saturday, October 18th, 2014
“It’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult.” Seneca (1 BC–AD 65) (With thanks to
The Abbott Government’s “Direct Action Plan” is currently undergoing public scrutiny via a Senate Inquiry into the policy. More specifically the Inquiry will look into “the Abbott Government’s failure to systematically address climate change”.
I use the “air quote” marks deliberately as there is little that is direct about this policy, as it is largely about using taxation revenue to funnel, through complicated administrative schemes, publicly funded subsidies to polluting industries for emissions reductions they might make anyway, and reduces any incentives for long term emissions cuts due to a short program time frame.
Despite being touted as the cornerstone of national climate policy, the Direct Action Plan will not even achieve the wildly inadequate emissions reduction target of a 5% cut on 1990 levels by 2020. In the words of The Climate Institute: “No independent analysis to date has shown that the policy framework as outlined can achieve Australia’s international obligations and emission commitments.”
Bit of a worry, isn’t it?
A more direct way of achieving emissions reductions might be to impose a financial penalty or disincentive to pollute. That would increase the costs of emission per tonne, raise the relative costs of emissions intensive practices and create an incentive to find lower emissions alternatives. It would also make cleaner, lower emissions pathways relatively cheaper, compared to now. But, oh wait… that’s what we already have in the form of a carbon price (which is not a tax – although that would be better). But the Abbott government, to the consternation of the international community, and against the advice of leading economists, climate policy experts, the OECD and the World Bank, is seeking to abolish it.
Other elements of the (poorly spelled out) plan include the employment of masses of young people to plant trees. A laudable aim, both for youth employment and for revegetation projects, but as an emissions strategy, it’s a bit like saying you’re going to stop the warming of the ocean by picking up litter on the beach i.e. nice idea but hopelessly inadequate in tackling the core problem.
The core problem, as it stands, is our fossil intensive energy system, based as it is on coal, gas and oil. Until we begin to transition away from these energy sources and take advantage of our abundant, cost effective (because they carry few or none of the “externalities” of fossil fuels, like environmental harm and damage to people’s health) renewable energy resources like wind  and solar, we’re basically ‘pissing into the wind’, to adopt a crude, but accurate, analogy.
Despite the rhetoric, the DAP and its Emissions Reduction Fund will not fund lowest cost, effective emissions reductions with minimal administration – it promises to do the opposite and support high polluters with large subsidies to make little or no emissions reductions AND to see a massive increase in paperwork with a project by project approach that will cost more and disproportionately burden smaller organisations.
But the core issue in regard to the Direct Action Plan for health and medical professionals is that this and other proposed climate and energy policies fundamentally overlook the full truth about climate change – that it is not an environmental problem, and cannot be solved by a single portfolio approach. It is a profoundly complex issue that impacts on every corner of society, every industry, every person, every species.
But while it is complex, and no other challenge like it has been faced by human society before, we know what to do. It’s not like we’ve just found out about it. A recent note from the Australian Parliamentary Library chronicles the sad and chequered history of climate policy in Australia, starting back in 1972, riddled as it is by the fingerprints of rent seekers, big coal, oil giants, gutless politicians and climate deniers and those who are willing to willfully gamble the lives and futures of our children, our grandchildren and a future for the extraordinary miracle of human existence on this tiny blue planet.
Climate change is, as the international medical journal The Lancet wrote in 2009, the biggest threat the global public health this century. Climate change threatens the future of human civilisation. As leading climate scientist Hans Schellnhuber from the Potsdam Institute in German says, if we hit a temperature rise of four degrees, projected for mid century on current rates of emissions, the difference between that and our (also too high) target of two degrees, may be “human civilisation”. That’s a big gamble to take.
And it’s not one we need to take. As the European Commission 2050 Roadmap outlines, the pathway to a low carbon economy offers lower energy costs, cleaner air, a healthier community, and the preservation of vital natural capital. In its flagship report on a global low carbon transition, the German Advisory Council on Global Change is emphatic that the key ingredients for this necessary transition are available – they state: “the technological potential for comprehensive decarbonisation is available”, the business and financial models are available, and “the political instruments needed for a climate friendly transformation are widely known”.
Here in Australia, two sets of comprehensive modelling, from Beyond Zero Emissions / Melbourne Energy Institute and the University of NSW, show affordable technologies for a 100% renewable energy supply for Australia are available now, at a lower cost than polluting ones.
The Abbott government would do well to look beyond its rhetoric and determined opposition to policies that have global and expert support. To do otherwise risks failing in its duty of care to act in the interests of Australian citizens, by leading us on a global warming pathway which looks to carry the kinds of profound consequences only those well versed in the Bible may yet have contemplated.
The Climate and Health Alliance submission to the Direct Action Plan Inquiry can be found here.

It’s time for the health sector to step up on climate

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

This post first appears as part of this Croakey blog post on 22 October 2013

The legislation to repeal the carbon price is another reminder of the disconnect between science and policy in Australia. So much policy is driven by corporate interests, with the impacts on people’s health wellbeing often a secondary consideration. In this case, the impacts on people are being completely ignored, with the glaring horror of climate change writ large as the New South Wales bushfires destroy homes, livelihoods and biodiversity while the New South Wales Government rolls back climate research programs. The Federal Government contribution is to abolish the Climate Commission, dismantle the Climate Change Authority, and remove the only current national disincentive to greenhouse gas emissions.

Authors Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway write presciently in their recent paper: The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A view from the future on the emergence of the second ‘Dark Age’ in which “denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on ‘free’ markets, disabled the world’s powerful nations in the face of tragedy”.

The new Federal Government is a strong example of this denial and self-deception and what others call “wilful ignorance”. Mr Abbott will have to live with the consequences of his actions, as will we, but most significantly, these actions serve to rob our children and future generations of the chance to avoid a wildly unstable climate and irrecoverably degraded ecosystems. The denial and self deception being engaged in by our political leaders, encouraged by the cheer squad of corporate vested interests, may well one day be seen as acts of criminality – since the decisions being taken so flagrantly disregard widely available scientific evidence of the consequences of doing so.

This is little comfort to those of us willing to take a clear eyed look at the future, and see an unfolding, but predicted, tragedy. The health sector and the community more broadly are ill prepared for what lies ahead. It is my hope however that the health and medical community will bring its voice more strongly to this debate both in Australia and internationally, as there are few health risks in our history, or in our future, that pose the profound risk to health and wellbeing that we now face from climate change.

Health groups seek urgent action on climate

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

With the federal election date looming, many Australians will be seriously considering their voting intentions and the issues that will shape them. So far the hot topics in the media have been the leader’s gaffes and characteristics of candidates, along with the state of the budget, asylum seekers and education.

But are these the issues voters and community leaders would prioritise given the chance?

One key issue that has so far escaped much attention is that of climate change, outside the narrow debate of shifting to a floating carbon price or, in the case of the Coalition, abolishing the emissions trading scheme altogether.

But while it may not be popular politically, and many in the media either misreport or avoid it, climate change is a key issue in the minds of the public and civil society.

Sexism: I’ve had a gutful

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

Growing up in rural Queensland during the 70?s, I have been exposed to more than my fair share of sexism.

This was the era of Joh Bjelke Peterson after all, and women were largely invisible in public and political life.

Insulting women on the basis of gender was a national sport, and attitudes to women in that state at that time was in part responsible for my decision not to return to live there following my first overseas trip at age 20.

Sexism was an ever present issue for the period of my professional life spent working as a registered nurse and – during that period of reflection that motherhood affords – one of the reasons I chose to change career.

But while I have witnessed plenty of sexism, it’s not something I have ever felt compelled to campaign on, or even respond to, preferring to simply avoid sexist environments and people.

That is, until Julia Gillard became Prime Minister.

Coal and csg rush clashes with health and climate obligations

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Australia is currently in the middle of a coal rush. Coupled with the exploration of coal seam gas expanding at a rapid rate across Queensland and New South Wales, this looks (on paper) to be one of the country’s biggest and most rapid industry expansions in our short history.

Australia is currently the world’s largest exporter of metallurgical coal and ranks sixth in exports of thermal coal. In 2012, we sold around $60 billion worth of coal, mostly to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Looking to the future, Australia’s national energy policy, the Energy White Paper, anticipates strong demand from these nations for Australian coal and prioritises coal production as a core element of energy for the coming decades.

Around 30 new coal mines and coal mine expansions are planned for New South Wales and Queensland, and if they proceed would more than double Australia’s current coal exports of more than 300 million tonnes per annum.

Much of the current expansion of coal is predicated on rising demand from China, and India; a stable global economic environment; and industry denial about climate science.

These assumptions have shaky foundations and investors should heed the clear warning from risk experts of the imminent destruction of value of high-carbon investments and that climate change will continue to deliver systemic shocks to regional and global economies.

Health ministers’ attacks on climate action just sick

Monday, October 8th, 2012

The ACCC has been vigilant about following up the 45 or so carbon price gouging complaints it gets each day. But who can stop the politicians? Their relentless carbon price scare campaigns seek to frighten, rather than inform, an increasingly polarised public who should be getting the facts on health and climate change.

Take, for example, the Liberal Health Minister in Victoria, David Davis. His recent contribution to the climate discussion was a leaflet for distribution across Melbourne’s eastern suburbs which suggested that the “carbon tax will hurt patients”. He said that hospitals will face a $13 million “tax bill” because “Julia Gillard doesn’t care.”

In actual fact, there is no such tax bill. Even if electricity costs rose by $13 million, it would reflect less than 0.1% of total health expenditure. Given that the Commonwealth will be footing the bill for 50% of the cost of hospital care from 2014, the states can hardly claim the burden as their own.

Now for the good news

Monday, August 27th, 2012

THERE has been much recent negative media about climate change — from harmful effects on human health, consequences for infrastructure and communities, through to concerns about the impact of Australia’s carbon price on the economy.

But there is a positive story about climate change that warrants media attention.

This good news story is the potential for health benefits from action on climate change. The changes needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the energy, transport, built environment, and food and agriculture sectors could also lead to substantial improvements in health.

Our Uncashed Dividend: The Health Benefits of Climate Action

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Fiona is the author of the recently released paper: Our Uncashed Dividend: The Health Benefits of Climate Action, jointly published by the Climate and Health Alliance and The Climate Institute as a joint report.

This report draws together a large and growing body of evidence from health and medical research showing substantial health benefits linked to measures to cut emissions.

It demonstrates that actions that cut greenhouse gas emissions can improve Australians’ health and could save billions of dollars for health care budgets and save thousands of lives each year.

 This report reflects the fact that it is becoming clear that many activities that cut emissions will also improve health and vice versa. While emissions reductions are also important strategies to act on climate change, the benefits for health are significant and available immediately, while the climate benefits accumulate in the longer term. The report is supported by the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association (AHHA).

Download the full report here.

Reducing carbon good for health and economy

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

Don’t tell ‘em it’s good for ‘em or they’ll eat it by the boxful. While our politicians remain embroiled in a toxic battle over carbon laws, the health and productivity benefits of climate actions have been ignored. Yet research from around the world strongly suggests that billions of dollars and thousands of lives can be saved with actions that also just happen to cut the risk of climate change.

Consider, for starters, that air pollution in this country kills more people every year than the road toll. The annual health bill from our addiction to coal-fired power costs us $2.6 billion and $3.3 billion from trucks and cars.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison recently reviewed dozens of studies of the money saved by improvements in air quality. The average benefit was around A$46 for every tonne of carbon dioxide avoided. This makes Australia’s starting carbon price of $23 per tonne look a bargain.

Carbon price’s health bonanza

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

The birth of Australia’s carbon price legislation is predictably being heralded by the chorus of criticism that has accompanied its gestation, despite the early distribution of handouts as the government attempts to buy its way through the noise.

While the #cashforyou compensation might muffle some of the clamour, it certainly can’t be countered by the mysterious silence about what the carbon price is for and what it will do, other than line the pockets of Australians. The decision by the government to label the carbon price package the ”clean energy future” represents a pragmatic reading of the political mood, as well as the need for a positive ”frame” with which to ”sell” it, but there remains an ongoing failure to describe the point of the legislation – or what it can deliver.

There is however an untold story of good news associated with this, the beginnings of our national emissions reduction strategy, which has been completely overlooked in government communications and in other commentary – and that is the improvements in public health and economic savings that accompany emissions reductions. For while there will indeed be climate benefits, they are far off in the future and will only be realised by a considerable ramping up of emissions reductions, far beyond a 5 per cent by 2020 target or a $23/tonne carbon price. The health benefits however are available much sooner than that.