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Acting on climate change - now

By Kasy Chambers - posted Thursday, 21 February 2008


Few outside the contrarian redoubts (www.cis.org.au; www.ipa.org.au) now deny that our environment is in trouble. Or that this is in large part a result of human activity.

To take only the most recent evidence: the 2008 Environmental Performance Index (produced by Yale and Columbia Universities) puts Australia 47th out of 149 countries, 42 behind New Zealand. This follows last year’s UN Human Development Report (PDF 893KB) which ranked Australia third in per capita carbon emissions, after the United States and Canada. Clearly we must do something about this - decisively, comprehensively and now.

In one not very helpful sense we are all to blame and share the responsibility for cleaning up the mess. Environmental damage is, after all, the counterpoint to human well-being. From plastic bags to sophisticated air-conditioning, cheap electronic geegaws to luxury vehicles, our convenience and self-indulgence come at the cost of a natural despoilment that most of us, by choice or indifference, casually ignore.

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But the wretched state of the environment is also the counterpoint to much human misery. Those who do not enjoy the material advantages of affluence also pay for it. As the UN report makes clear, while rich countries are largely responsible for causing climate change, those who stand to be hardest hit will be the already worst off:

The effect that increased droughts, extreme weather events, tropical storms and sea level rises will have on large parts of Africa, on many small island states and coastal zones will be inflicted in our lifetimes. In terms of aggregate world GDP, these short term effects may not be large. But for some of the world’s poorest people, the consequences could be apocalyptic. In the long run climate change is a massive threat to human development and in some places it is already undermining the international community’s efforts to reduce extreme poverty.

On the international scene, as we saw in the Bali convention, this leads to the understandable accusation of hypocrisy in Western calls for parallel global action on greenhouse gas reductions and other measures to promote ecological sustainability. Peak oil may be about to hit us, if it has not already, but why should India, China, Latin America and (most of all) Africa be denied comparable opportunities to those which countries like Australia enjoyed in the era of cheap energy?

It is a strong case. But not the whole one. Inequality occurs not only between nations but also within them. Anglicare Australia’s primary concern is with those who are already vulnerable in our own society. They too are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation and climate change, but stand to be even more disadvantaged by whatever measures we take to counter them. Like the public service, austerity is an unequal opportunity employer.

We may be all to blame. And we may be all in this together. But on very different terms.

Poorer Australians feel the effects of climate change disproportionately. To give obvious examples: rising costs in food (due to the drought), utilities and petrol take up a greater percentage of a smaller budget. Anglicare services across the country are reporting more families accessing emergency relief as these prices rise.

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We have seen increased wild weather events. Those on low incomes are less able to protect themselves. Only some 45 per cent of clients of community services are able to afford home contents insurance - compared with 78 per cent of the general community.

Not only are Australians on lower incomes more disadvantaged by the effects of climate change, they are also less able to inoculate themselves against it. People with adequate disposable cash will simply turn up their air conditioners (in itself causing more carbon emissions); they can afford anti asthmatic drugs if their children are affected by excessive dust from mining emissions; they can more easily upgrade to more energy-efficient equipment. They can, if necessary, make a geographical escape - even trading in their SUVs for an environmentally friendly Lexus Hybrid sedan to make the move.

In short, such people can buy their way out of the effects of climate change - at any rate, in the short term.

Across the world it is the poor who live in areas of greatest environmental degradation: from the slums built on rubbish tips in South America and the Philippines to the people living in the haze of California’s celebrity pollution.

People on lower incomes are also less mobile. Those who do not complete school have significantly less choice in the workforce than those with a tertiary education. They are more likely to be employed in unskilled jobs in the carbon producing industries such as coal. This lack of choice also affects their ability to move and adapt as these industries re-structure and change.

We now have a government that declares itself willing to act on climate change. Signing the Kyoto Protocol was an important symbolic gesture. And Professor Ross Garnaut’s warning that the policy challenges facing Australia are “diabolical” suggests that his Climate Change Review, due in September, will be realistic and sobering.

Anglicare Australia supports Government actions in this area but cautions against a simplistic policy that would treat all Australians the same.

It is obvious, for example, that we will all have to be paying more for energy. Just as obvious is that the increase will not affect us all equally. It does not take a mathematical genius to recognise that simply charging more for something will disadvantage those with a low household budget. A study (PDF 95KB) commissioned by Anglicare Australia member the Brotherhood of St Laurence showed that a $25 a tonne rise in the price of carbon would cause poor households to experience an average 2.8 per cent increase in household expenditure, compared with 0.4 per cent for high income, tertiary educated households.

We need to consider options that take into account the ability to pay. Let us not forget that those that have used the most goods to date have, by default, caused the most problems. It may be a simplistic assumption that these higher-using individuals are likely to be on higher incomes, but still it points to a basic unfairness if we expect those with less to pay proportionately more.

  • There is a level of electricity required to allow what we recognise as basic requirements in Australia - cooking, heating water, and lighting. Richer households may choose to utilise more - say, by keeping the temperature range around 22C or running extra appliances. Would it be unreasonable if there was one tariff for basic use, with a higher (luxury) rate for households wanting to use more (and therefore produce more carbon emissions)?
     
  • As noted, people on low incomes are less able to afford energy-saving devices, such as solar panels or lagging for hot water tanks. Conversely, they are the least able to afford the extra power bills created by not having these items. Any government rebates for these items should consider people on low incomes first.
     
  • We must also tackle the issue of “climate change proofing” houses owned by investors for that large number of Australians on low incomes who live in the private rental market. This of course should not benefit landlords but meet the needs of those living in private rental accommodation. In the future this issue could be addressed by writing these items into building codes and requiring them in any renovations.
     
  • A subsidised basic insurance policy along the lines of compulsory third party fire and theft car insurance could offer solace to households affected by bush fires, floods and other wild weather events where they have been unable to afford insurance.
     
  • Programs to address skill shortages should highlight those working in industries in need of re-structure to enable easier less painful movement when the time comes.

This is not a comprehensive list. It is more a call for a change in our overall ethos as we react to climate change.

Many years ago Peter Garrett, when President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, wrote that we need “a kind of bush dreaming in the cities and the suburbs, with a digger ethos of looking after our communities”. That remains the challenge, especially for the Government dreaming of which Mr Garrett is now a part: to address the issues of climate change while ensuring that the Australian aspiration to egalitarianism can be taken seriously.

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This article is based on a talk for the ABC program Perspective on February 4, 2008.



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About the Author

Kasy Chambers is the Executive Director of Anglicare Australia.

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