Australia has two paths on climate action: chosen and unchosen. We can continue with the status quo, which has made us one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, but will increasingly come with major costs for the world’s driest inhabited continent. Or we can choose change.
Australians don’t traditionally like change. Referenda don’t pass; republics get rejected; policy-heavy election platforms are scorned. But this change isn’t the pie in the sky, Adani convoy-attending virtue signalling so easily written off by the knee-jerk commentariat.
Acting — really acting — on climate change comes with an enormous raft of benefits. Australia stands to gain amongst the most in the world. Within 20 years, we could switch from our reliance on coal exports to exporting renewables — green hydrogen to Japan, direct current to Java.
Even with a national government determined to move as glacially as possible, to make the good times in coal and gas last as long as they can, Australia will be at 50% renewables within 11 years, driven by state-based targets and the plunging costs of renewable power. Imagine what we could do with a government willing to commit to the change.
With this change comes jobs. Good jobs, regional jobs, jobs that will exist beyond the lifetime of a mine or coal power plant.
What if we convert the dirt cheap renewable energy that pours into the grid into green hydrogen, a stable fuel that Japan is betting its future on? What if we used green hydrogen as energy storage for later use, as the US is doing?
What if we could banish coal from our power grid and no one even noticed? The UK has just hit 13 days without firing up a single coal powered station — a transition that’s taken place under a Conservative government.
What if wind turbine technician and solar installer jobs could offset the small number of new jobs offered by a coal industry which is, like other mining sectors, steadily automating? What if the sun beating down on the Pilbara could be converted into electricity and sent by undersea cable to populous, energy-hungry Java?
What if we could solve one of our glaring national security threats — our dwindling fuel reserves — by giving people just the right incentives to switch en masse to electric vehicles, as Norway has done?
What if we could regain one of our edges in manufacturing — cheap power — by switching as fast as possible to renewables, which are now far cheaper than coal and continuing to drop? What if we solved the intermittency problem simply by firming the power with batteries, pumped hydro or green hydrogen?
What if our buses and taxis were switched to electric, as China’s tech megacity Shenzhen has done? Without bus diesel and taxi fumes, city air would be cleaner and the electric future that almost every major automaker is betting on will come sooner.
What if Australia’s future lay in projects like Sanjeev Gupta’s $1 billion plan to combine solar farms with pumped hydro to power energy hungry steelworks in Whyalla? What if we built more resilience into our farming practices for the climate-driven droughts we have already locked in?
What if a better future really was just around the corner, and all we had to do was shake ourselves free of the way things have always been done?
The problem is that the past has a stubborn grip on the present. Abundant Australian coal developed the nation and brought electrification, steady jobs and cheap power for manufacturing. Now, of course, we know that it’s not all positive. There are real costs that we have not yet paid.
If we choose the path of least resistance, which is to burn or export as much of our giant coal reserves as possible, we stand to lose a great deal, with farmers and regional Australians hurt earliest and hurt the most. Climate change is not simply a problem for small islands or low-lying cities.
Australia is almost the size of contiguous America, but with only about 7.5% of its population. The difference is water and soil. Our habitable areas are small and confined mainly to the coasts and riverine hinterland. While the deaths of the Great Barrier Reef and the Great Southern Reef, and the burning of the Tasmanian high country and its Gondwanan plant relics cause scientists and nature lovers great grief, many people will not be directly affected.
But you can bet we will all notice as our climatic zones steadily shift, forcing some farmers into bankruptcy. Others will move, chasing the rains.
In March, Farmers for Climate Action chief Verity Morgan Schmidt sounded the alarm.
“If you don’t take into account the speed at which our climate is changing, if you don’t take into account, for example, shifting inflows into the Murray-Darling Basin or rainfall zones shifting south, it’s very hard to build a sustainable farm operation because you are operating on a policy framework that is at best outdated,” she told the ABC.
“How do we recognise that the climate is making it increasingly challenging for us to continue agriculture in many of these regions?”
Two months later, the government approved our first imports of wheat in a decade, as the eastern states drought drags on.
We’re at one degree of temperature rise, and already the change is upon us. Our emissions are still rising, and we’re tracking towards a three-degree rise by the end of the century.
To treat this year’s federal election as a mandate to mine, sell or burn our coal is to sign up to a slow form of national suicide.