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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The planet deserves a better climate change debate

Cyclone Christine that is threatening the Pilbara in Western Australia is the second major tropical weather event the country has seen this summer and for me, living in southeast Queensland, this fact has an unnerving quality because although we're a good 1600 kilometres from Cairns people here know it's a matter of when, not if, the next big one arrives to turn everything upside down.

But in Australia discussion of extreme weather events like Cyclone Christine is conducted inside a kind of collective cone of silence and the worst perpetrators are conservative politicians. This species of human tends to front up at press conferences held in the course of such events and they are getting better and better at denying any connection between them and climate change. It's a kind of tic but one executed with fury, like those imposed by nature on people living with a disease of the nervous system. The Blue Mountains bushfires this year gave us several examples of this kind of spastic defensive gesture. As more and more such events transpire its efficacy hopefully will begin to wear thin.

In some countries the government is embracing climate change with positive results. See for example how countries like Spain, Germany and Denmark have migrated from dirty energy generation to clean ways of making power. And while China refused to sign any protocols in Copenhagen, behind the scenes authorities at all levels are pursuing clean alternatives, so that the country is now the major producer, for example, of solar panels.

There was a solar panel manufacturing plant in Australia but it closed down as it couldn't compete with cheaper overseas rivals. Embracing climate change can still serve our economic interests however by helping clean technology companies operating at higher levels here to build capacity and develop export markets. While politicians whine and spasm when Holden says it'll stop manufacturing in Australia - following Ford, which made the same decision - they seem to be utterly oblivious to the employment opportunities that exist within the cleantech sector. There are hundreds of Australian companies that are working to develop viable businesses, but look at their share prices and you see that the arrival of the Abbott government in September has functioned as a drag on their performance.

While it would be wildly optimistic to expect Abbott in 2014 to develop a concerted and functional plan regarding the cleantech sector, effectively killing two birds with one stone - reducing carbon emissions while simultaneously creating jobs - there seems to me to be no better way to move forward. Rusted-on right-wing culture warriors can whinge about Gillard and the famous promise but the fact remains that a carbon price would be good for the Australian economy because it would act as a lever to pull companies toward more sustainable ways of operating. For cleantech manufacturers with excellent prospects of strong export markets given the right regulatory environment, the equation is even more remarkable. If you want to create jobs, the carbon price is the way to go.

So if there's anything I would like to see change in 2014 it would be the way we talk about climate change. Scientists and left-of-centre pundits bang their heads against a wall every time there's an extreme weather event. Conservative pollies deny any link with climate change as if their family honour depends on it. The debate collapses in a white cloud of atomised claim and counterclaim, resulting in silence. Meanwhile conservative businesspeople throw millions of dollars at the PR industry in a sustained attempt to retard change. No wonder so many people just turn away in disgust, and remain silent. It's a dirty business but we should come clean and focus on the positives to be gained from acting responsibly. We only have one planet.

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