The climate crisis is here. That’s why our vote matters

Opinion article written on the 09 May 2019

First published in RendezView on Thursday, 9 May: The climate crisis is here. That’s why our vote matters

Dr Helen Szoke is Oxfam Australia’s Chief Executive.

While the Australian Government attempts to defend its indefensibly weak emissions targets, Mozambique is coming to terms with the devastation caused by an unprecedented two deadly cyclones in less than two months.

Cyclone Kenneth struck the impoverished southern African nation at the end of April, only six weeks after Cyclone Idai hit, one of the worst extreme weather disasters ever in the Southern Hemisphere.

Idai killed more than 1,000 people and devastated the lives and crops of more than two million across Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. And the huge storm reportedly destroyed 80 per cent of the coastal city of Beira in the south of Mozambique — home to about half a million people. While Cyclone Kenneth reportedly damaged or destroyed 35,000 houses in the north — a region reportedly not hit by such a storm in the modern era.

The United Nations says this is the first time in recorded history that Mozambique has been hit by two major tropical cyclones in the same season.

Oxfam is working to get clean water, emergency food and other essential aid to thousands of people affected by the two cyclones. As the flooding continues, responders are bracing for the spread of cholera and malaria — with more than 6,500 cases of cholera already reported.

Climate change is increasing the destructive power of tropical cyclones, with storm surges riding upon higher sea levels and likely increases in maximum wind speeds and the amount of rainfall.

As we count down the days to the Federal election, two lessons should be glaringly clear to all Australians from these latest humanitarian disasters.

Firstly, the climate crisis is here. We have entered an era of brutal climate damage, fuelled by the reckless inaction of wealthy countries and influence of the of the fossil fuel industry.

Australians are no strangers to this. From the floods in Queensland to fires in Tasmania, our whole nation has been hurting from Australia’s angriest summer. But while climate change is affecting us all, its impacts are felt still harder by poor communities in developing countries — the same people who have contributed the very least to this crisis and have the fewest resources to cope.

The second lesson is the dishonesty at the heart of the Federal Government’s increasingly desperate defence of its current climate policies and targets.

“Responsible” is the adjective used to defend the current and almost universally derided commitment to the Paris Agreement — to reduce Australia’s carbon pollution emissions by 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

But, if all countries were to follow Australia’s current lead, we would be headed for a catastrophic 3C of warming, inflicting unbelievable suffering on communities worldwide and robbing young people of their future.

So just how “responsible” does the Government’s 2030 target seem now?

Already, at around 1C of warming, the level of climate disruption is becoming intolerable for communities in many parts of world.

Labor’s alternative of a 45 per cent reduction by 2030, while an improvement, is likewise short of the shift we need.

To avoid a future of truly existential challenges, the world as a whole must roughly halve its emissions by 2030 and reach zero by mid-century. For Australia, a wealthy country with a hefty historical responsibility for climate pollution, we should be acting well ahead of the curve.

Only the Greens, which have just announced a plan to achieve net zero emissions no later than 2040 and to phase out coal exports, have a policy response that reflects the gravity of the climate crisis and Australia’s international responsibilities.

Nobody is pretending that decarbonisation of the economy will be easy. But there is the promise of new jobs, better health and long-term prosperity if the right policies are implemented.

Whoever forms Government must also increase Australia’s support to vulnerable communities with adapting to the impacts of climate change and reducing the risk of disasters.

Clearly, the thousands of young climate leaders who have been taking to our streets, and will do so again on Friday, see how inadequate the current climate policies are.

Just like those whose lives were devastated by Cyclones Pam in Vanuatu and Winston in Fiji, or our farmers beset by crippling drought and heatwaves, families in southern Africa will face a long journey to rebuild their lives and to prepare for ever greater challenges in the face of climate change.

Australia has everything it needs to help reduce such suffering and lead the path to a cleaner, more sustainable future, and we know the vast majority of Australians want to see real leadership on climate change.

In a few short weeks, we have the chance to choose the future we want. Let’s make this the climate election.