A stitch in time will stop climate change

Some problems are just so hard to think about, let alone act on, that they go into the ‘too hard’ basket.

Everyone who has ever faced a seemingly monumental task ahead knows the feeling. In basic terms, it’s procrastination. 

That thing where everything from rearranging your sock drawer to alphabetising your utility bills becomes more urgent and interesting than the task at hand.  

These cases of procrastination happen on a larger scale too. None is more obvious than Australia’s response to the looming climate catastrophes it’s long been warned about.

Last week Australia was ranked worst on climate change action among G20 nations in a report produced by Climate Transparency.

On a scorecard Australia was the only country to receive a “very poor” rating in a majority of categories.

It received the worst possible rating for emissions trends, carbon intensity, share of renewables in its energy supply and overall climate policy.

The report said if every country followed Australia’s approach, global warming would likely exceed 4C. To put this in perspective, this would cause a semi-permanent food disaster in many parts of the world.

It also said that Australia’s policy measures were not set to achieve targets set in Paris last year. Instead, its emissions would rise to about 27 per cent above 2005 levels by 2030, not the targeted 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels.

Australia has a more important role to play in curbing carbon emissions and stemming the impacts of climate change than its leaders want people to think. 

First, it’s the highest per capita contributor to global carbon emissions. The enormous wealth it accumulates, and the lifestyle this affords its people, are being built on the future instability and disorder that runaway global warming will cause generations to come.

Second, as Bill Clinton once observed, Australia has a crucial role to play on the global stage as a model country. It’s not the largest or most powerful nation. But its democratic institutions, peace, wealth and levels of health and wellbeing make it an example towards which other countries can look. 

It’s feeble measures to address climate change send a powerful and unhelpful message to other nations. 

The federal government has a leader who cares about the issue and one can only assume he’s aware of the consequences of inaction. 

How Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will reshape the nation’s climate change policy following a review next year will play a major part in the world’s success or failure in keeping warming levels below 2C. 

Beginning with the release of the Climate Change Authority’s review recommending two market-based emissions trading schemes for Australia, the next chapter in its environmental debate is under way. 

One of the hard facts the country will have to grapple with is that if it’s to keep carbon emissions to levels needed to prevent warming beyond 2C, no new coal mines can open. 

That will be a hard sell to the mining industry and to the public that has looked to it as a pillar of economic growth.

It’s doubtful the Turnbull government, let alone Labor in opposition, would consider such extreme measures. 

The problem is that more procrastination will require yet more radical action to curb emissions. 

Our national sock drawer of distractions can wait. There’s no time to waste.