Opinion: Climate change action

With 100 per cent of NSW now in drought, it’s time for some serious action on climate change.  But first things first - all of us in the climate movement acknowledge the very real suffering experienced by farmers and rural communities.  Drought is soul-destroying for those on the front line and the sooner it breaks the better.

However this is also the time for real action on climate policy.  It’s time to do whatever we can while we still have a chance. Climate change is making droughts worse.  It’s not causing them - that’s due to natural weather patterns - but it is making them worse. It’s also creating the conditions for hotter and more deadly heatwaves and more dangerous and unseasonal bush fires.

Since Dorothea Mackellar wrote her poem My Country in 1908, human society has added 40 per cent more carbon pollution to the atmosphere by burning coal, oil and gas, developing heavy industries, and destroying forests and woodlands.  While invisible to human eyes, and proving no barrier to the sun’s rays, greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are very effective at trapping energy radiating off the land as infra red heat.

Humans are adding pollution to the sky above us at the rate of 30 billion tonnes each year and we must cut back.  Since 1980 our planet has been absorbing the equivalent of four Hiroshima bombs’ worth of heat every second. Most of that extra heat has gone into the oceans, but some remains in the atmosphere, causing the world to warm.

Global warming is creating climate change which is super-charging the extreme weather that Australia often experiences, making it worse.  Global warming intensifies the drought cycle. As it gets warmer and evaporation increases, the ground gives up moisture and dries out. Drier regions of Australia are getting drier, with longer and more severe droughts.

The current drought is devastating.  Many on the front line are saying it’s the worst they can remember.  Brian Egan is co-founder of the farm charity Aussie Helpers and he told ABC Radio National Breakfast it’s the worst he’s ever seen.  

“It’s like a war zone in some places. Everything is just burnt dry - it’s dead and if it’s not dead, it’s dying.  It’s quite frightening. I think a lot of people will be walking off - I’ve never seen bush people so poor in my life.”

Unlike the Coalition government grant of $444 million to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, charities helping farmers receive no government support.  And unlike the Adani mega coal mine, also in northern Qld, farmers have not been promised unlimited access to artesian water free-of-charge for the next sixty years.

Peter Mailler, a grain and beef farmer near Goondiwindi, says farmers feel abandoned when they hear politicians say that acting on climate change won't help communities affected by drought.  He says we can’t ignore climate change, and refers to a ‘complete break between reality and understanding’, with political opportunism and deliberate misinformation rife.

“We are experiencing some particularly difficult conditions at the moment and a lot of farmers are becoming overwhelmed and that’s making people feel a little hopeless.  There’s an increasing acceptance that human activity is impacting on the climate and we have a great responsibility to change it. We’re all profoundly concerned about what’s going to happen for generations to come,” he says.

“We really need to act now.  We’ve got a responsibility to the next generation we just can’t ignore.  We need to be much more proactive about it politically. What affects farmers affects the entire community.  This drought is going to be quite severe socially and economically beyond the farm gate,” he told ABC Radio program The World Today.

Droughts have wide-ranging impacts on our health, agriculture, ecosystems, economy and water supplies.  It is estimated that the Millennium drought cost Australia $5 billion or 1 per cent of GDP. Food lost to droughts worldwide is enough to feed 80 million people every year.  If it goes on much longer we will all be on water restrictions and missing our favourite foods.

Now is the time to be urging greater action from all levels of government.  There are lots of things we can do but most need real leadership. Just as ordinary motorists (but not mining companies) have to pay fuel excise which goes to general revenue, so we should have a levy on the use of coal in electricity generation, with money going into a national disaster response and rebuilding fund.

There are opportunities to respond to this drought with long-term solutions.  These include increased resilience to climate impacts, more energy independence, and lower electricity costs from wind and solar.  Clean energy attracts jobs to regional areas and more than 28,000 jobs will be created if Australia generates half our energy from renewables by 2030.

Farmers can add additional revenue streams from renewable energy.  $30 million each year is already earned in lease payments to farmers and landholders hosting wind turbines and solar farms.  Acting on climate change will attract jobs and investment to regional Australia.

The group Farmers for Climate Action describe themselves as an alliance of farmers and leaders in agriculture.  They are open to ‘anyone who eats and supports effective, urgent climate action’. The group is campaigning for a national plan on climate change and agriculture.  Finally, give generously to charities that are providing assistance to farmers and rural communities in this, ‘The Big Dry’.

Harry Creamer is the co-founder of Climate Change Australia, a safe climate and clean energy group based on the Mid North Coast of NSW.

He can be contacted on harry.creamer@hotmail.com