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Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Reflections on the Climate Change Forum

Many thanks to all who attended last night's forum at the Chermside library, hosted by BNCWAG. There were around seventy people including the group members and the politicians which means fifty or more responded to our invitation.

We had five politicians participating:
- Wayne Swan, ALP (current member for Lilley)
- Simon Kean-Hammerson, Greens (candidate for Lilley)
- Andrew Bartlett, Democrats (senate representative for Qld)
- Larissa Waters, Greens (senate candidate for Qld)
- Phil Johnson, Climate Change Coalition (senate candidate for Qld)

In some ways I felt it was a little unbalanced to have two Greens candidates on the panel, but I guess it's representative of their concern for the issue of climate change that they would consider it worthwhile to spend their time with us.

We opened with Dr Trevor Berrill's presentation which appeared to be well accepted by everyone present, including the politicians. Trevor did a brilliant job of setting the context for the night, with an emphasis on climate change as part of a broader concern for sustainability. He brought the issue home with a look at the local impacts and a call for local responses.

Mr Swan's political experience and professionalism is immediately obvious and he has an engaging speaking style - a combination which gives him an edge in keeping people's attention while he talks. I interpreted his position (and by extension the position of the ALP) to be that although climate change is the single most urgent issue facing humanity, it's not important enough to take any action which might harm the Australian economy. Unlike the Liberal party they've announced a target for GHG reductions by 2050 - I think it's 60% below year 2000 levels, based on the recommendations of the Stern report from the UK. But they are refusing to say anything about shorter-term targets until their own economic advice comes through from an analysis which is currently underway.

Mr Bartlett is somewhat more softly-spoken, with the air of somebody who weighs his words carefully before he permits them to become speech. A serious but not sombre man who earned a warm reaction from the audience for his assessment of "clean coal" as a marketing term chosen more for its emotive effect than its accuracy. As he pointed out, "less-dirty coal" is more truthful but doesn't have the same ring to it. And although I can't recall many specific policy details I gained the firm impression that this thoughtful bloke represents a party that's genuinely interested in the advancement of humanity in an ethical, prosperous and sustainable fashion.

Mr Kean-Hammerson was the third speaker, and I mean no disrespect when I say that he did not appear to be very practised in the art of public presentation. The Greens policies have been online since March so there's not much to say in that regard other than to suggest you go and look them up if you aren't familiar with them. With regard to climate change specifically and sustainability in general, I suspect that my own vision and values are more closely aligned with the Greens than with the other "major" parties. I'm not entirely sure I'd be comfortable with a Green majority in parliament but their influence, especially in the Senate, is welcome. To get back to Mr Kean-Hammerson individually, I was fascinated by the insight gained through his childhood in Kenya (I think it was Kenya, please correct me if needed) with regards to social and industrial development. If you're a voter in the Lilley electorate, try and find an opportunity to speak with this man and get to know him a little better.

The introduction of our fourth speaker marked a small milestone in history. The Climate Change Coalition was only registered as a political party three weeks ago and last night was the first public address by Mr Johnson, who is standing for election to the Senate. As you can infer from their name they have a fairly focused agenda. Mr Johnson has a background as a professional in the health sciences and acquits himself well in front of an audience. The sceptic in me rates the party's election prospects as poor, but I'm a bit inclined to give Mr Johnson my primary vote as a statement of support for his policy objectives.

Ms Waters had the closing statement and an opportunity to repeat the Greens key messages. A 30-year-old environmental lawyer with a somewhat vivacious style, she pressed the case for Greens seats in the Senate as the only way to break the Liberal/National coalition's influence in government even if Kevin Rudd is successful in his bid for the Prime Minister's office. It's an argument that bears some serious consideration.

Now to try and summarise some of the audience's questions and the responses as best my recollection allows.

A challenge was made regarding the accuracy of the term "clean coal". Unsurprisingly four out of five candidates agreed that it was an oxymoron while Mr Swan stuck to the party line in stressing the belief that coal-sourced power is essential for Australia's economy in the foreseeable future.

The candidates were asked whether any of them were brave enough to face the public and urge us to change our consumptive behaviour in the interests of efficiency and sustainability. The most memorable response came from Ms Waters who declared that she tells people not to buy things they don't need because it won't make them happy and it harms the environment.

Mr Swan was challenged regarding the relative importance of climate change versus the economy. His response was the standard ALP cake-and-eat-it line with reference to the Stern report and the need to wait for the results of their own analysis before committing to any "rash" actions. I understand the need for a large party like the ALP to be cautious with their policy development and disclosure but I can't avoid the impression that they consider the possibility of recession to be worse than the predicted effects of climate change. If that's not true, the ALP needs to do a better job of communicating it.

An insightful question came from none other than Doone Wyborne of Geodynamics fame - the company which is attempting to develop the hot rock geothermal resource in South Australia. He asked about the parties' stance on population management. Unfortunately I wasn't able to listen to all of the responses but I did catch Mr Bartlett's comment that he wasn't a fan of "steady-state economics" but saw economic growth within a stable population as being necessary to alleviate poverty. Mr Swan expressed concern about the social consequences of a reducing population, advocating instead a long-term policy of "replacement", ie zero population growth. Mr Kean-Hammerson described a conversation with an African villager in which numerous children were seen as a necessary component of family life at least partly for their capacity to do work such as water carrying: the provision of electricity to perform such practical tasks would, it was claimed, reduce the incentive to bear more children.

I also took the opportunity to ask a question myself. It was prompted by Malcolm Turnbull's comment about the prospect of achieving a global zero-emissions electricity sector sometime this century and based on my belief that values drive behaviour. The first part of the question was directed towards Dr Berrill: is it feasible? His answer, essentially, was yes - provided we're all bloody serious about achieving it. The second part was for the politicians and all I needed was a yes/no answer. "Do you dare to envision a society like that?"

I was pretty sure that the Greens and the Climate Change Coalition would answer in the affirmative. The Democrats I had hope in. But I was concerned that the ALP - in reality the only party with a chance of wresting control from the nuclear-bent Liberals - would prevaricate or maybe even deny the possibility that an advanced technical society could achieve balance with nature. If the ALP wasn't even considering a zero-emissions future then the fight for climate action in the next few years would be a difficult one indeed.

To my delight, every one of the candidates including Mr Swan delivered an unqualified "yes" in response. I am yet hopeful for the future of human civilisation.

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