It’s time for bipartisan action on climate change
18 Dec 2019|

Australians are sweltering through a record-setting heatwave. Bushfires that are unprecedented in scale and scope have been burning around the country, some for weeks now, choking capital cities in smoke and destroying property, livelihoods and ecosystems. The multi-year drought—the driest in history for much of the country—shows no signs of abating.

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that we are unprepared for the hazards climate change is amplifying.

It’s time to begin building a bipartisan Australian response to climate change. The stakes are too high to continue the divisive politics on this fundamental threat to our national wellbeing. Achieving a political consensus may seem impossible after the polarising political rhetoric during bushfires earlier this year and during the federal election campaign, when the two major parties actively campaigned on their climate policy differences. At the time, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten described it as a choice between ‘night and day, black and white’. No doubt Prime Minister Scott Morrison agreed.

The difference between Labor and the Coalition has focused primarily on how deeply and rapidly to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions in support of the Paris Agreement’s global goal to limit warming to well below 2°C. That issue is likely to remain contentious. But their views are much more closely aligned with respect to the agreement’s second global goal: strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change.

Labor is outspoken in its commitment to climate change adaptation. At its national conference it resolved to take ‘strong action on climate change to mitigate the risks and impacts of climate change on Australian society and the economy’, and during the campaign it outlined several measures to build climate resilience.

Similarly, the Morrison government late last year launched new funding arrangements that allow states to reinvest savings from federal disaster recovery funding into measures to reduce vulnerability to future disasters. In April, the government produced a national framework for disaster risk reduction which notes the changing climate’s contribution to ‘more frequent and intense’ natural hazards and the ‘growing potential for some natural hazards to occur at unimagined scales, in unprecedented combinations and in unexpected locations’.

More recently, Labor joined the Coalition in supporting passage of the $5 billion Future Drought Fund and the $3.9 billion Emergency Response Fund, both of which will provide very significant funding to build community resilience to floods, droughts and other climate-related hazards. And in October, Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie chaired a meeting with the state and territory agriculture ministers at which they agreed on a bipartisan program of collaboration to help the agriculture sector adapt to climate change.

Some parliamentarians are already attempting to formalise bipartisan work on climate change. Several Liberal MPs, for example, have recently joined a crossbench-led climate action committee.

Experience in other countries suggests that this can be a useful step in building broader support, including measures to rebalance funding from disaster response to disaster risk reduction; establishment of a national public communications campaign to build resilience; and passage of legislation that facilitates investment by the public and private sectors to reduce their exposure and vulnerability to climate hazards. It can also help connect key groups, such as the Australian Red Cross and the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster and Community Resilience.

Much good work is underway at the state, territory and local levels, in the private sector, in civil society, at Australian universities and scientific research institutions, and in many federal government departments to build Australia’s resilience to climate and disaster risk. A bipartisan political consensus would help to create connections and synergies between these groups, as core elements of a more coherent national resilience strategy and action plan.

We have an opportunity in Australia to begin bridging the political and ideological gap on climate change. Ultimately, strengthening the resilience of Australian communities won’t solve the problem if global temperatures continue to rise, but it’s an important and achievable step in the right direction.