COMMENT by JIMMY COCKING
(pictured with TV personality Tanya Ha)
2014 was the hottest year on record and 2015 is likely to trump it.
There is no denying the thermometer of global mean temperatures, nor that man-made emissions are the cause of it.
As emissions continue to rise, so too does the prospect of life getting harder and hotter for all species that call this planet home. The problem is that despite everybody knowing this, even though some refuse to believe it, our economic system is increasing risk and supporting a more dangerous future for all of us.
The Northern Territory with all of its complexity is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
The Top End has the complication of rising oceans and cyclones, whereas we down here can expect longer dry-spells, increasing numbers of hot days, increased variability in relation to rainfall and as a result, increased intensity of fires.
The other, not highly publicised risk for the Territory is growing inequality and the disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots”. This growing disparity is what will determine how Central Australia fares as the impacts of increasing temperatures are felt.
Central Australia has three distinct advantages in dealing with climate change on a local level.
We have relatively abundant underground water supplies; unequalled abundance of solar energy and people whose ancestors have lived here through great climatic changes of millennia past.
By planning and managing our use of groundwater; investing in renewable energy and building efficiency; while ensuring that communities are prepared for the impacts through education and developing and implementing community and regionally-specific adaptation action plans, we might be OK. But that depends on a number of factors.
The current lack of political will, or more worryingly the increasing pressure from vested interests has the potential to squander our natural advantages.
The poisoning of progress by creating a false competition between jobs and the environment will impact on all of us. The mantras of “open for business” and “Developing the North” may create short-term gains for shareholders in global corporations, but the rest of us will be left high and dry as a result of this myopic economic agenda.
In a changing world, the economics need to reflect the times and not extremist ideologies based on increasing the power of the market, reducing corporate taxes and shrinking government responsibilities.
The reality is that the boom is over. Commodity prices (oil, coal, iron ore etc) are crashing, causing geopolitical tensions and pressures globally and locally. Now is the time to invest in the future and not squander opportunities chasing pipedreams and economic fantasies.
The key going forward is ensuring that investments are targeted to generate economic development that builds on our ability to cope with a warming world.
This is an all-inclusive opportunity to ensure that future generations not only have a reason to live here, but more importantly, are able to. This requires holistic thinking and actual planning for the region.
Alice Springs is the capital of outback Australia, servicing communities across South Australia, Western Australia and of course the Northern Territory. We need to think of development as a regional issue, not just concerning ourselves with the Alice Springs CBD separate from the rest – but as a collective whole.
What are our assets?
What are the threats?
What are our opportunities?
How can we overcome the barriers?
These are questions we would expect our decision-makers to be considering. However, the narrowness of vision sees our assets as something to be sold off; threats to be ignored or gambled with; opportunities created for friends and party donors; while barriers to development are removed by limiting community participation in policy development under the guise of “consultation”.
The real assets in Central Australia are not the minerals in the ground or potential for gas extraction. It is the ingenuity of the people living here: Those who persist and persevere against the odds. Those who have mapped, studied, observed and acted in the interest of the people living here.
The threats to the people living in Central Australia are related to ideological policies that will see internal dislocation and relocation of people into unsustainable communities.
The potential pollution of our aquifers from unfettered shale gas exploration, the industrialisation of our landscapes that locals and visitors treasure: These are the threats being gambled with at present. Not to mention the climate impacts of massive leaking and burning of methane.
The opportunities for sustainable development are plentiful. Rather than building carbon intensive skyscrapers across the Alice Springs CBD; retrofitting homes and businesses for energy and water efficiency would create lasting jobs, as would supporting movement towards more than 10,000 roofs in Alice Springs equipped with solar panels and water heating units.
Overcoming the barriers to this require government investment.This means supporting community and business-initiatives to reduce and adapt to the impacts of climate change, not exacerbate them.
But first, the government needs to acknowledge it by having a policy that seeks to mitigate emissions and support communities to adapt to the likely scenarios presented by the scientific literature.
2014 was a year of going backwards in many ways. The Federal Government scrapped the carbon price and mining tax, created uncertainty in renewable energy investment, handed over environmental assessment powers to the states and territories, cut funding to environmental groups and community legal centres, scrapped the National Water Commission and gutted departments and committees working on climate change including cuts to the CSIRO.
The Northern Territory Government sold off TIO; voted for and then put down an independent political donations inquiry; continued approving exploration that involves fracking while conducting an inquiry into the process (report yet to be released), cut funds to environment groups and social support agencies; started a bidding process for a gas pipeline and belligerently supporting a “development at all costs” agenda.
Meanwhile, iron ore and bauxite mines have closed across the Top End; the Macarthur River Mine continues to release sulfur dioxide (key ingredient for acid rain) into the atmosphere; the Minister for Land Resource Management (and Mines and Energy) Willem Westra Van Holthe was taken to court for water licensing issues; and investment is drying up due to shaky commodity markets.
Despite all this, the NT government remains committed to its economic agenda but is failing to recognise the signs of the times.
Climate action makes economic sense, preparing for the long term while immediately stimulating activity on the local level. Climate policies are a necessity for any government, left or right.
This global issue is beyond politics and planning for it needs to be incorporated into all levels of governance.
There are an abundance of opportunities to create work for people through supporting investment into building efficiencies and renewable energy.
The promise of gas wealth is narrowly distributed. Locally, some contractors may get jobs out of it, but mainly it will be a fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workforce who will contribute minimally to our local economy.
The impacts of climate change require thinking beyond the election cycle and quarterly statements. By investing in our environmental balance sheet (clean air, clean water and clean country) we will provide better opportunities for future generations.
Through investing in our people and their innovative potential, we can share the benefits with the world. Utility and household scale renewable energy; building efficiency (lifetime energy and water costs) in arid environments; remote recycling and small-scale industry; sustainable dry-land agriculture and horticulture; cultural knowledge and understanding; arts, events and tourism; large-scale land management and biodiversity conservation; water sensitive urban design; climate adaptation and social activism. These are but some of the words that provide a lens for a sustained future out here.
This coming year I hope we see more substance and less spin in the realm of policy making. I hope we see more equitable development and support for vulnerable people and communities in central Australia.
But most of all, I hope more people recognise, respect and stand up for our shared rights to a safe climate, clean water and healthy landscapes. The failure of government becomes the responsibility of communities – if we love this place, then we must protect it.