Just How Important is Climate Change?

Akash argues why we need to make politicians accountable for the environmental future of generations to come

As published in The School of Social and Political Sciences Magazine – Issue 3, 2016

The 2016 federal election is near. Major and minor parties, issue-based parties and independents are beginning to settle on where they stand on key election issues. So far, the battleground issues appear to be negative gearing and tax avoidance by multinational corporations. The shapeshifting that inevitably comes with politics will mean that by election day, the political agenda will have probably transformed altogether.

The gist of all these issues come down to the following moral questions on intergenerational equity and fairness: Is it fair for housing to be unaffordable for many young Australians? Is it equitable to leave blooming budget debts for future governments?

But how much talk is there about climate change? Is that not about intergenerational equity and fairness?

One of the most divisive issues this millennium appears to be climate change. As an Honours student in the Department of Government and International Relations and Honours Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute, this issue will form the basis of my research thesis. In the beginning, it ranged from former Prime Minister John Howard’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to a then Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd characterising climate change as the ‘great moral, environmental and economic challenge of our time.’ Later, it spanned to former PM Julia Gillard establishing a fixed carbon price, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s repeal of it and the introduction of an unambitious Direct Action policy which current PM Malcolm Turnbull took to the COP21 Paris Conference to set a new legally binding international instrument on climate change.

On the one hand, interest groups vigorously lobbied, were intimately involved in the drafting of policy and ran negative ad campaigns. On the other, new non-governmental organisations grew, mobilising civil society in the new digital age. My research this year will look to investigate the relationships and intensities of power that influenced the creation of Australian climate policy, at a time brimming with policy reversals and changes in the Prime Ministership.

As a young person, the most pressing issue for me is climate change. According to a report by the Climate Institute, my generation is 10% more likely than the general population to believe in Australia’s ability to tackle climate change, its responsibility to lead as well as increasing the renewable energy target. But then again, nature doesn’t care if we think it’s important to improve the environment. The past few centuries have put us on track to such undeniable climate disruption that, in many respects, it is a moral imperative to consider important and dedicate ourselves to improving the environment. Those that have caused the problem either aren’t around anymore, or won’t live long enough to face too many of the consequences of this change.

As a Sydneysider, a changing climate is of high concern. Imprudent planning and ill-thought out development is setting Sydney on track to becoming an urban heat island. This would make us vulnerable to extreme heat temperatures in the next decade, with associated effects on public health. People’s homes have already been affected. In just another small glimpse of the long reach of climate change impacts, the Sydney Morning Herald reported increasingly frequent and extreme weather events such as the 25 metres of Narrabeen coastal erosion in last April’s storm. We’ve got to make sure the relaxed cosmopolitan lifestyle on a picturesque harbour doesn’t become a historic postcard.

As an Australian, climate change is important to talk about. With the damaging bushfires in Tasmania’s ancient forests and widespread coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, happening at the beginning of this year alone – our most precious natural assets are threatened. On top of this, with the development of renewable energy sources overseas and increasingly cheaper battery storage solutions – Australia is lagging on the energy sector transition happening globally. Late last year I was a sustainable energy advisor to Pollinate Energy, a UN-recognised Australian social enterprise creating viable solutions to energy poverty in India. While I transitioned a community of 600 people from kerosene and wood-based fuels to less environmentally-harmful energy sources, I now ask myself: why hasn’t Australia transitioned to more sustainable energy sources? In just another snapshot of how quick everything is changing, in February this year Japan’s electrical vehicle charging points surpassed the number of petrol stations. But for us to catch up to this global change, we have to talk more about climate change.

Australia is at a crucial crossroads: do we allow our elected representatives to treat climate change as a fringe issue? Or do we, like we have a couple of times this millennium, bring it to the centre of our political debate?

I know my answer, what’s yours?

Akash Bhattacharjee is a 2016 recipient of the Honours Research Fellowship at the Sydney Environment Institute. He was recently a sustainable energy advisor to Pollinate Energy, a UNFCCC-recognised Australian social enterprise working to create viable solutions to energy poverty in India. In this work, among other things, he secured a deal to transition 600 people from kerosene and wood-based fuels to the less environmentally-harmful LPG source for cooking. Akash is also the political editor of The Amerigo, the student journal of the United States Studies Centre and former Education Director of the Sydney University United Nations Society.

His research focuses on how Australian governments have affected climate change policy.

Image: ‘Fall Front 2’ by cksydney via Flickr Commons