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The new climate change report released by the Academy of Science on Monday is a strong call to action. It reinforces the message the science has been giving us for decades. Human activity is changing the global climate so fast we need urgent, concerted action.
Climate change is clearly a critical threat to our future.
It should be the most important topic of the election campaign. Instead, the leaders of the major political parties are staging orchestrated media events, talking glibly about trivial issues and making strategic handouts to marginal electorates.
We know that climate change is already exacting a heavy cost. The Murray-Darling system is in deep trouble as a result of over-extraction of water for irrigation.
Restoring the river system's health is an urgent priority, but declining rainfall and reduced water availability have inflated the social impact of returning water to the rivers.
More frequent extreme events, such as severe storms, are occurring. Billions are being spent on ill-advised desalination plants, as a panic response to altered rainfall patterns. Vector-borne diseases like dengue fever are spreading.
Heatwaves are already killing the vulnerable; it has been estimated that several hundred people died of heat stress in Victoria before the 2009 bushfires.
Our unique biodiversity is being lost. Iconic natural systems like the Great Barrier Reef are at risk.
The new report reminds us that sea level rise is likely to inundate freshwater wetlands, including parts of Kakadu. These changes are imposing serious economic costs on top of their social and environmental impacts.
The critical conclusion of the report spells out the scale of response needed to avert catastrophe.
To have a better-than-even chance of preventing the global average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees above pre- industrial temperatures, the world would need to be emitting less than half the amount of CO2 by 2050 than it did in 2000. To do this on a smooth pathway, global emissions (which are still rising) would need to peak within the next 10 years and then decline rapidly. For this to happen by 2020, the peak for countries like Australia should be within the next term of Parliament, allowing later stabilisation in poorer parts of the world.
We need a plan for action by the next government just to give us a 50:50 chance of avoiding a two- degree increase in average global temperatures.
Many distinguished scientists think that level of warming could have disastrous consequences. We certainly can't afford to allow even greater changes.
Opinion polls show that the community understands the need for concerted action. Economic studies like the Garnaut Report find that the cost of measures to scale back our greenhouse pollution is much less than the future cost of rapid climate change.
Instead of putting a price on pollution, we are still spending billions of public dollars subsidising the supply and use of fossil fuels.
There is irresponsible talk of allowing new coal-fired power stations, which would lock in huge volumes of CO2 pollution for decades. Instead of investing in the clean supply technologies we need, some of our leaders are talking about such fantasies as “clean coal” and nuclear power. The Victorian government's recent decision to start closing down the Hazelwood power station and guarantee that 5 per cent of the state's electricity will come from solar by 2020 is a decisive step in the right direction.
We need similar action from other states.
But it is important to have a national response. What should we be doing? The crucial first step is a price on carbon dioxide pollution. If our leaders can't craft an emissions trading scheme without the shameless handouts to big polluters that flawed the Rudd scheme, we should have a straight carbon tax.
One way or another, those who are pumping pollution into the air should be paying for it.
Secondly, we need a commitment to clean energy supply and efficient conversion into the services that energy provides. As Amory Lovins said, we don't want energy, we want hot showers and cold beer! The 2003 National Framework for Energy Efficiency found we could cut pollution 30per cent with measures that repay their cost within four years.
The recent report by Zero Carbon Australia concluded we could get all our electricity from a mix of renewables by 2020. It would cost a lot of money, but it would be the best possible investment in our future, providing clean energy for decades.
This is the most important issue in this election.
Anyone asking for your vote on Saturday should be able to tell you how they plan to meet this urgent challenge.
By Ian Lowe, ACF's President