Australia’s climate policy has proved to be one of the most contested, politically tumultuous and polarised issues of the 21st century. Despite decades of scientific evidence asserting the anthropogenic impact on the climate, Australia’s policymakers are still grappling with skepticism that pervades the Australian political and social landscape. As the driest inhabited continent on earth, Australia is prone to extreme weather patterns and both devastating floods and droughts. Australia is also currently one of the largest per capita polluters in the world.
Climate change represents one of the most significant environmental problems facing humanity today. The climate change debate has become increasingly prominent among scholars and policy makers worldwide, and there is growing acknowledgment of the fact that climate change science is undeniable. Not only is climate change one of the greatest ecological, economic, and social challenges facing humanity today, but strong scientific evidence asserts that human activities are contributing to climate change. The rate at which modern society over the last 200-300 years have continued to burn fossil fuels, clear forests, and partake in a range of industrial and agricultural activities have ensured that an increased concentration of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, ‘thereby increasing the amount of radiation trapped near the Earth’s surface and driving accelerated warming,’ (CSIRO). Australia has long been regarded as lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of implementing climate policies over the last decade, and despite a handful of promising policies being established, the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions growth has not been mitigated enough by Australian policymakers. As an energy intensive economy in which fossil fuel resources are vital for its economic buoyancy, Australia has continuously privileged government-business relations that are at the expense of the environment, seeking to maintain its energy status quo.
If the malaise that haunts climate change policy in Australia continues, the impacts on Australia will be significant. Not only will sea levels rise globally, but highly populated south-eastern regions of Australia will be at risk of water scarcity, while bush fires, droughts and natural disasters will be more frequent and more severe. Furthermore, these changes will lead to a significant reduction in production from agriculture and forestry. Meanwhile, the northern states of Australia will be exposed to increased flooding and intense cyclonic activity, resulting in further agricultural losses, property damage and increased rates of injury and death. Australia’s natural jewel, the Great Barrier Reef, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest coral reef system in the world, is already severely impacted by climate change, and will be at further risk of large scale bleaching, pollution and ecosystem destruction. Such effects will have harsh economic ramifications, as insurance and repair cost to damages will increase, and greater investment in public infrastructure to deal with disasters will be needed. Additionally, health costs may increase as the rapidly changing environment causes tropical diseases to move south into more populous zones, while vector borne diseases such as malaria increase concurrently.
Australian professor and former political adviser, Ross Garnaut believes that attempts to solve climate change, which is a global environmental problem, is inhibited by the absence of an international body at the global level, with the lack of authority or legitimacy to impose solutions, and thus, coordinated international action to combat climate change is highly problematic. Garnaut believes that nations have a collective imperative to adopt their own policies to cut carbon emissions. While the need for a coordinated, international response to climate change is undeniable, such an absence of international cooperation and authority has pitched many nations into a state of inaction. Thus, a key issue in dealing with this challenge is developing national responses and public policies that will assist in advancing the global response to climate change, while ensuring that climate change policy in Australia is no longer fragmented and inactive.
By Natalie Kyriacou
Director, My Green World