Time to build community resilience

By Angela Dorizas

The world has exceeded safe levels of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change can no longer be prevented. But rather than sinking into apathy, government leaders must instead focus on building resilience within their communities.

That was the message from four influential authors at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival event, ‘Have we all been conned: an emergency Town Hall meeting’.

The panel discussion featured Professor Ross Garnaut, leading economist and author of the Garnaut Climate Change Review; Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at the Australian National University and Greens candidate in the 2009 by-election for the federal seat of Higgins; Bill McKibben, US environmentalist and founder of international climate campaign 350.org; and Professor Tim Flannery, environmental scientist and bestselling author.

They all agreed that in this post-Copenhagen world, the challenge was no longer to stop global warming, but to reduce its impacts.

McKibben, who was among the first writers to warn of the dangers of global warming in the late 1980s, said governments should prepare themselves for life on a “new earth”.

“Everything frozen on earth is now visibly melting,” McKibben said.

“The oceans are now 30 per cent more acidic as they try to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. We’re seeing incredible disruptions of the hydrological cycles of the planet.

“We have lost the earth that we knew.”

Hamilton agreed that the world had left it too late to act and the impacts of climate change had become a reality.

But he cautioned government leaders and decision makers not to become apathetic.

They should instead focus on building resilient communities and prepare for a “new world under a transformed climate”, he said.

Hamilton called for local government to be given greater power in planning for a changed environment.

“Clearly local governments have far more capacity to invest in and plan for adaptation than they do for mitigation,” he told Government News.

Hamilton said attempts by local government to implement long-term planning policies were hindered by state governments, pointing to Byron Bay Shire Council’s ‘planned retreat’ policy as an example.

This is a hazards management approach to rising sea levels and erosion, requiring the retreat of development and infrastructure along the Byron Bay coastline.

“It’s very frustrating that councils like Byron Shire, for example, with their planned retreat policy are being overruled by state government, when they themselves in Byron are trying to respond in an effective way to the impacts of climate change,” Hamilton said.

“Local councils are at the absolute front line of this and they should be given more power to respond, rather than being overruled by state governments influenced by developers.”

Hamilton said the community was demanding strong local leadership on climate change, demonstrated by the number of Greens in local government.

“They’re voted onto councils by local people, because local people recognise that they need strong environmental principles being implemented at the local government level because it affects them in their daily lives,” he said.

Garnaut said local government measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the community were useful, but certainly did not go far enough to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint.

“It will no doubt be better if we have a national carbon price, but if we don’t have a national carbon price then every little bit helps,” he said.

“But let’s not kid ourselves that individual councils and individual people doing their own thing is going to be enough.”

Global fiasco

The panel agreed that it was far too early to measure the outcomes of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. The authors did, however, acknowledge that it fell short of expectations.

“It’s too soon to tell whether Copenhagen was a failure,” Garnaut said.

“It certainly was a fiasco.”

Australia is one of the three biggest emitters of greenhouse gases and had proven to be the “biggest disappointment”, he said.

“We’re doing almost nothing. Our resource industries are actually getting a free kick.”

Garnaut said it was puzzling as to why Australia had become the laggard, since it has the most to gain from early mitigation.

“We’re conspicuous because out of all of the developed countries we are the country that has the strongest national interest in strong mitigation, because we will be hurt earlier and harder by unmitigated climate change than any other country.”

Garnaut said Australia had the most to gain from a switch to renewable energy sources, since it had the right conditions and requirements for solar power, deep geothermal, wave power, bio-fuels and carbon sequestration.

“When we think about how we will manage without fossil fuels, we’ve actually got opportunities that no other country has.”

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