Should Australia declare a climate emergency?

Symbolic action matters

Marvin Vestil

Environment & energy, Government and governance | Australia, Asia, The Pacific, The World

16 October 2019

Despite massive climate action demonstrations and a viral speech by Greta Thunberg to the UN, Australia has continued along a path of policy stagnation. Pressure is rising to declare a climate emergency, and Australia must step up, Marvin Vestil writes.

If anything can be taken away from last month’s UN climate summit, it’s that Australia is a long way from keeping its promises set out in Kyoto and Paris.

Greta Thunberg’s speech should be taken as a reminder that policymakers today won’t benefit from the policies they enact on climate change. Her generation will be the ones that will either benefit or suffer from action taken now. A decision must be made for action or inaction.

For this to work, Australia needs to unite and declare a national climate emergency.

Some local governments have already declared climate emergencies. First to declare an emergency was the city of Darebin in Melbourne. Not only was it the first city in the country to declare an emergency, but it was also the first in the world.

More on this: How we discovered the climate problem

Australia’s largest cities followed suit. After all, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney have much at stake should sea levels and temperatures rise.

Flooding of their ports and their vital economic centres could send ripple effects through multiple sectors of the economy.

Most cities have promised tax incentives and emissions zones in their most congested areas.

Major global cities like New York City, Amsterdam, and San Francisco are situated along waterways that are subject to flooding and natural disasters, the likes of which have already been seen on a minimal, yet costly, scale.

Other cities like Paris, Los Angeles, and Brussels have announced emergencies as well, as both Europe and North America have recently experienced abnormal environmental conditions linked to climate change.

More on this: Policy File: Climate refugees – where to next?

The United Kingdom went a step above and announced a climate emergency at a national level, outlining a new sense of urgency in tackling climate change. The motivation to announce their position was made clear after new research highlighted the significant economic losses with continuing climate change, estimates being in the billions of dollars.

London has also announced an Ultra-Low Emissions Zone, whereby driving conventional cars in the city centre will yield fees to prevent pollution and congestion.

There are many that see climate change as a fight for survival.

Australia’s Pacific neighbours have made it a priority to contribute to the climate change discussion. Most vulnerable to rising sea levels, many of these island nations live at or only a few metres above sea level, but are underequipped to deal with the massive requirements needed to protect the populations.

Fiji has been the most outspoken island nation, spearheading much of the debate in Paris and helping to establish the 1.5-degree benchmark. Yet, current plans to adapt may not be enough for substantial change.

More on this: Metropolitan climate policy – a problem of scale

Australia needs to do better. Even though declaring an emergency is symbolic, it can show other nations that the country is approaching climate change seriously and could send important signals about the need to transform the country’s economy.

Australia’s coal industry, insufficient policy to deal with drought, and its failure to secure a speaking spot during the climate summit are instead sending a message to its allies that Australia isn’t serious about climate change.

Ironically, with its droughts wreaking havoc on Australian farms, Australia’s circumstances are providing a clear reminder of the relationship emissions have with economic and environmental factors.

There are many ways to combat climate change, but Australia must at a minimum recognise it as a glaring issue. Without doing so, its actions will lack clout as it attempts to tackle issues that determine the future of the world. Australia must declare a climate emergency.

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