If the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is correct, the world only has 12 years to limit catastrophic climate change. As a country highly vulnerable to climate change, Australia needs to act. A summer of record breaking heatwaves, raging bushfires across Tasmania and devastating floods in Queensland gives us a glimpse of the future.
On our current trajectory, Australia will struggle to meet its own Paris Agreement target of 26-28 per cent below 2005 level emissions by 2030 but even that may be insufficient. The Climate Change Authority recommended a 45-65 per cent emissions reduction target for 2030 below 2005 levels, based on scientific evidence.
Nearly a decade of inaction means we cannot rely solely on a carbon price to drive the deep decarbonisation needed. It will require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and industrial systems.
Globally there is recognition that past inaction and the urgency to act demands an ambitious intervention. In America, a Green New Deal has become a litmus test for action on climate change. It harks back to a World War II style mobilisation to tackle climate change while also fighting economic inequality.
Pushed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in the space of only a few months, the concept of a Green New Deal has gained support across the field of Democratic contenders for President including Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.
The drastic change Australia need calls for our own Green New Deal but we should draw on our own historical experience rather than simply copying rhetoric from America. Australia has experienced a transformation on the scale that is needed, that of post-war reconstruction during the 1940s.
Post-war reconstruction was shaped by the 1941 Atlantic Charter where the Allies committed to a post-war order that would have ‘a better future for the world’ where there would be ‘freedom from fear and want’. The Commonwealth oversaw the transition to a peacetime economy, planning and coordinating the transition. The role of the Commonwealth transformed as it assumed a wider range of responsibilities, expanding social security, working with the states to provide healthcare and housing, and focusing on full employment. Post-war reconstruction fundamentally shaped the Australia we live in today.
To achieve deep decarbonisation, it must be an overarching mission of the Commonwealth. Economist Marianna Mazzucato has argued that mission thinking can steer innovation to solve challenges such as climate change, increasing both public and private investment and encouraging collaboration.
There is a parallel between post-war reconstruction and a mission of deep decarbonisation. The scale of the challenge we face requires a greater role for the Commonwealth, working with other tiers of government, the private sector and civil society. We need to significantly improve energy efficiency, build a nearly carbon free energy system, reduce emissions from agriculture and transport and change how we use land. It requires co-investment in innovation, skills and infrastructure but also encouraging less carbon intensive activities by reorienting work towards renewal and stewardship, such as by creating more caring roles and reducing working hours.
If we are serious, action on climate change will require a transformation on par with the transition to a peacetime economy. But the challenge we face is not solely environmental.
Action on climate change cannot be separated from the health of our democracy. Social researcher Rebecca Huntley has pointed out the environment has almost become a proxy for leadership at a federal level.
Dissatisfaction with democracy and mistrust is at an all-time high. A Democracy 2025 report on trust and democracy found that fewer than 41 per cent of Australian citizens are satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia, down from 86 per cent in 2007.
Disillusionment with democracy fuels the growth of reactionary illiberalism that has undermined action on climate change. Not only have we seen the election of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro but at home, similar forces within the Coalition have tried to stop action on climate change.
Just as the focus of post-war reconstruction was not merely demobilisation but the maintenance of full employment, developing social security and economic development, decarbonising Australia must involve rebuilding faith that politics can deliver a better Australia.
We need to ensure that our response leads to a good society and a life that people want to live — that means good, secure jobs in new globally competitive industries across the country, more educational opportunities and a better quality of life.
The public supports action on climate change but if we want support for the scale of change needed, the offer needs to be much more than simply one of risk mitigation. The idea that responding to climate change means a life of misery is nihilistic and will doom action. It must mean a better and fairer future for us.
Published at Eureka Street on 11 February 2019