News & Media Opinion Pieces Climate: the Key Issue for the next Federal Government

Climate: the Key Issue for the next Federal Government

by Dr John Coulter, President Sustainable Population Australia, Former Australian Democrat Senator, member of DEA

It is very possible that within the term of the next Federal Government southern Australia will be exposed to the hottest climate on record with massive failure of food production, the Murray/Darling basin a dustbowl, uncontrollable bushfires and insufficient water to service even minimal needs in capital cities.

This possibility emerges from work of the highly regarded Hadley Centre on Climate Research in the UK and published in the journal Science on August 10.

The Hadley Centre has worked hard to disentangle natural climate cycles from the increase in global temperature caused by burning fossil fuels. It shows that since 1998, the hottest year on record, the natural cycle has been a cooling one offsetting the temperature rise from greenhouse emissions and putting us on a temperature plateau.

But that condition is about to change as a natural warming cycle augments human induced warming. The Hadley Centre predicts that half the five years post 2009 will be hotter than the hottest year on record, 1998. Global temperature will rise by as much as 0.3ºC, almost half the rise that occurred throughout the whole of the 20th century. The Hadley Centre draws attention to the situation in southern Australia.

In recent decades Australia has fed about 20 million people at home and another 40 million overseas. But it has done this at the expense of extensive environmental damage to soils, water and biodiversity. It has yet to be demonstrated that we can feed and water even our present population in a severely climate changed world and do it in a sustainable manner.

But it’s business as usual for the two major political parties. Neither Labor nor the Coalition has taken the issue of climate change seriously. It is an issue they have kept at the periphery of their core goal, maximizing economic growth. All their efforts to achieve this core goal work against reducing greenhouse gas emissions or working toward an environmentally sustainable future: more coal mined and exported, the same for natural gas, more cars, more airconditioners, more air travel, more people. The list is a very long one. And all these things add to GDP, add to economic growth, are encouraged by every government in the land and are inimical to an attack on climate change.

The major parties have also actively discouraged attempts to address climate change. A Senate Inquiry I initiated in 1988 was strongly resisted by the then Labor Government. However, the committee did proceed and reported in 1989 and finally in early 1991. Among other recommendations it said that we already had enough knowledge and reason to act, what we lacked was the ‘political will’. In 1990 the then Hawke/Keating government said it would reduce emissions to 20% below the 1988 level by 2005. Throughout the remainder of the Labor term and through the term of the Howard Government emissions have continued to rise. One of the first acts of the Howard Government in 1996 was to remove the bounty on fuel ethanol that I had successfully negotiated with Labor in 1994.

Beware of any party that promises an emission reduction target years out from the end of its present term. It’s easy to promise, it will never have to deliver.

There is no excuse for not acting now and achieving significant cuts in emissions within the next three years. It’s not sensible to hide behind a claim that it’s a global problem and there’s nothing we can do until everyone else does. Australia is going to be very badly impacted by climate change in the very near future and we are more likely to have our concerns taken seriously if we are actively addressing our part of the problem. While considerable early and quick reductions in emissions can and should be made, the necessary deeper cuts will be harder and the sooner more nations explore and share their experiences and knowledge of this area the less the adverse impact in the longer term.

Australia is not an insignificant contributor to global emissions as some apologists for procrastination claim. We count our coal and gas exports toward our GDP. If we count into our total emissions those from these exported fossil fuels we have by far the most energy intensive economy in the world.

There are many ways in which emissions can be cut quickly. Solar hot water on every mainland home and substantially improved energy efficiency would be an easy start – suggesting where the $17 billion surplus might be wisely spent. But beyond these important initial moves the incoming government must decide where its first priority lies. Will it remain with continual economic and population growth and the continued encouragement of all those attitudes and industries that serve that end? Or will it recognise that the only future for our children lies with giving first priority to environmental sustainability and determining the population and material standard of living that Australia can indefinitely support in a climate changed world?


Improved Surface Temperature Prediction for the Coming Decade from a Global Climate Model. Doug M. Smith et al (Hadley Centre) Science 317: 796-799 August 10, 2007

Humans and Nature duel Over the Next Decade’s Climate. Richard A. Kerr. Science 317: 746-747 August 10, 2007.

The author of this article, Dr John Coulter, is now retired but is a former medical research scientist with an active involvement in conservation over 50 years. He was a Senator for South Australia from 1987 – 1995 and leader of the Australian Democrats 1991 – 1993. He is presently National President, Sustainable Population Australia.