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Peter Garrett calls for Australia to go onto a ‘war’ footing on climate change

Introduction by Croakey: Midnight Oil frontman, long-term environment campaigner and former Labor Environment Minister Peter Garrett has called for Australia to go onto a “war footing” in efforts to address climate change.

Speaking at the National Climate Emergency Summit on Friday in Melbourne, he said that the calamity that we have been warned about for years had come to pass in the horrendous 2019-2020 bushfire season that came close to home also for him.

Garrett won big applause for an impassioned speech that included a call for a joint sitting of the Australian Parliament to declare a climate emergency, and among many other significant measures, for a stand-alone ‘War’ Cabinet committee charged with ensuring Australia meets new ambitious emission reduction goals.

The ‘wartime’ rally was a frame for action that was welcomed and echoed by others at the packed two-day summit, but it also caused some concern for others in the room, which Croakey will discuss in our coming wrap on the #NCESummit2020. You can read the Summit Declaration here. Here is Garrett’s full speech, republished with permission from his website.


Peter Garrett writes:

How can we develop a stand – up, fearless form of leadership that moves us beyond the failure of business/and partisan politics/ as usual?

The second part of the question: What does a climate emergency response look like?

As a young boy I loved walking through the bush, it made me feel alive, and heightened my awareness of the natural environment.

In my early adult years I came to understand how important the environment was to human health and happiness, and started working with environmental organisations whilst still making and performing music.

Climate change was known about, but sat under the radar. It seemed a long way away, the province of experts and scientists.

Over a decade and a half ago I entered the Federal parliament, primarily because Howard government were not taking the issue seriously. Climate change had become, as predicted, a major issue of concern.

On a sunny afternoon five and a half weeks ago, with the New Year barely underway, I stood aghast, looking towards the Kangaroo Valley escarpment, near where I live in southern NSW.

A massive blanket of smoke unlike anything I had ever seen, or imagined rimmed the rocky, wooded cliffs of the escarpment rising to 600 metres.

This was the Currowan mega fire, a big one amongst hundreds of bushfires alight and on the move down the eastern seaboard, and in four states across the country.

Despite the herculean efforts of firefighters -many volunteers – for weeks the smoldering giant had been advancing inexorably towards Kangaroo Valley village and its outlying hamlets.

As I watched, a deep orange glow like giant footlights on a stage illuminated the huge curtain of brown from the other side of the escarpment.

In a matter of minutes above the smoke blanket, a bundle of pyrocumulonimbus clouds formed, spiraling skyward as the fire spawned its own violent weather system.

A water bomber swooping over the ridges to drop its load was like a tiny insect spitting into the mouth of a dragon.

“We had lost control of the weather”

The fire had been declared catastrophic, lots of residents had left for safer locations – a difficult task as areas to the north, west and south were already ablaze – roads were blocked, birdcalls had been replaced by sirens.

A tipping point had been reached. We had lost control of the weather. An extra 1degree or so of heat already in the system was causing havoc.

The calamity we had been warned about for years had come to pass.

Whilst the fires raged, and people were evacuated by naval vessels from the coast, ice sheets were melting quicker, carbon dioxide filled oceans were turning to barren hot water. These phenomenons were part of the same process.

We were in a climate emergency.

The destruction of homes and farms, the decimation of wildlife, the collapse of local economies, are a reminder, as if one were needed, that the social, environmental and economic impacts, and hence costs, of climate chaos are astronomical.

Costs that will only rise unless we take urgent action now.

The Currowan mega fire ended up burning for over 70 days, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. We were spared, others were not so lucky.

With more than 16 million hectares burned in hundreds of fires, cities shrouded in smoke with air quality plummeting, including in the nation’s capital, the climate crisis was literally in Australian’s backyards.

Then community spirit rallied, and the fireys toiled bravely day and night, showing our best qualities.

“Abject failure of national leadership”

Yet none of this could undo a cataclysm that would affect people for decades. We were face to face with the future, a world of pain, heartache and harm. And this was only the beginning.

So how do we develop a stand up, fearless form of leadership, given the failure so far to implement any far-reaching national measures to help confront and minimize the impending climate apocalypse?

One thing is certain. We no longer have the luxury of prevarication or deferral, of wishful thinking or blind denial. The time for half measures and incremental action is well and truly over.

But there is hope too.

Consider the ‘thought’ and ‘action’ leaders in this Town Hall, including on the panels to come. There are plenty of fearless advocates right here, and I’ll draw on some of their insights today.

Still we need to ask ourselves why have we failed to deal satisfactorily with the climate crisis that is upon us?

Of the many reasons offered, from the disproportionate strength of the resources industry to voter apathy, the answer is that notwithstanding these and other factors, above all we are experiencing an abject failure of national leadership.

People are mobilizing. The environment has reemerged as a leading issue of concern and support for declaring a climate emergency is higher than ever.

The Governor of the Reserve Bank just yesterday called for certainty to allow the nation to exploit ‘fantastic’ renewable energy opportunities.

European governments are setting ambitious reduction targets, and renewable energy is now established as a cost effective way of producing electricity.

A number of local councils, regional, state and national governments, here and overseas, have ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets, some have declared a climate emergency, and more will surely follow.

Yes the broad arc of history suggests that when enough people stand up, believe deeply and are willing to move mountains, then change will come.

And yes, one common element when the times demand that change is in different ways, leaders, both elected and unelected, are essential.

Yet in Australia the absence of such leadership is holding us back. As a New York Times headline said, “When will Australia’s PM Accept The Reality Of The Climate Crisis?”

Local and state governments, let alone communities and individuals, cannot do the heavy lifting required on their own.

Ultimately the only institution that can guide and underwrite a major challenge of the scale we face in the time we have left is the national government.

This crisis is also about our core Australian values.

Jeopardising the future

Here surely it is a matter of returning to first principles, as understood in a religious, humanitarian or even planetary sense.

And if by these principles – say ‘do unto others’ or ‘do no harm’ or ‘protect all living things’ – a certain action is understood to be wrong, the task of opposing and putting it right is the only reasonable thing to do.

That and being willing to work in collaboration with others, cooperating to achieve together what one individual or group would struggle to do alone.

It is wrong to irresponsibly jeopardize the future by polluting the atmosphere to such an extent the world becomes a furnace, committing “national suicide”, as the Nobel Prize winning Australian researcher Professor Peter Doherty stated.

Who can deny this? Only those who betray the interests of their fellow citizens.

It is wrong to leave the poor, who can’t afford to cushion themselves against climate impacts, and less well off Pacific neighbours who played no part in bringing the world to the brink, with nowhere to turn.

Who can deny this? Only those with such rampant self – interest or blinkered ideology they persist even when the evidence is spray canned big on the wall. Their power and influence must be taken away.

It is wrong to frustrate real actions on reducing the risk of climate chaos, to pretend the situation is under control, and to sabotage international efforts to reach agreement on reducing emissions.

Who can deny this? Only those unfit to govern.

Leadership comes from every person who stands up, takes a principled stand and declares we must act now, as young people have begun to do.

Leadership comes from those who get involved and stay involved, whether in lobbying, education, or non-violent direct mass action – all worthwhile, all needed more than ever – until the race is won.

Leadership of this kind cannot be described down to the last detail, but I see it emerging from many different parts of the country.

I see it in the work of environmental organisations like the ACF, taking polluters to court, and Greenpeace, showing up to keep fossil fuel exploitation out of the Great Australian Bight. I see it in campaigns Like Stop Adani.

It is present in local governments and communities, and in this place today, even if still absent in the corridors of power in Canberra.

Mobilising all the resources of the state

So what does a climate emergency response look like?

In 1942, Australian Labor Prime Minister John Curtin contemplated the threat of Japanese invasion.

To secure Australia’s survival would require nothing less he said, than “…the reshaping, the revolutionising, of the Australian way of life until a war footing is arrived at, quickly, efficiently and without question.”

This meant the resources of the state must be mobilized to that end above all others.

Climate chaos most resembles war in the scale of threats to humanity. We don’t have long, and the changes needed are far reaching. The climate emergency dictates the nation must go onto a ‘war’ footing.

So think John Curtin as Japan advanced in 1942, US president Franklin Delaware Roosevelt in the Depression, Winston Churchill in WW2, and more recently Jacinda Ardern at Christchurch.

What might a national leader determined to respond to the climate crisis actually do?

Here’s a scenario.

He/she walls into the House of Representatives and moves that Parliament:

‘Accepts the best scientific advice that to hold temperature increases in check to around 1.5 degrees and avert an increasingly dangerous climate crisis we must act immediately to reduce greenhouse gas emissions;

Recognizes that Australia is particularly vulnerable to climate chaos, caused by consistently hot weather nationwide, as evidenced recently by the largest, most destructive bushfires in living memory;

Understands that any delay imposes incalculable costs and greatly increases the risks to national security and the stability of our immediate region equivalent to war in terms of impacts;

Acknowledges that real action has been left to the eleventh hour, and that the unjust burden of repairing this negligence will increasingly fall upon the young;

Recommends to the House a joint sitting of the Parliament to declare a climate emergency, and approve plans to enable the Commonwealth government, working in partnership with state and local governments, large and small business, unions, farmers and the community, to deal with the crisis immediately. ‘

What follows?

A super department aligned to Treasury, similar to the Department of Post War Reconstruction headed up by Nugget Coombes in 1946, is formed with the specific task of implementing the transition.

A stand-alone ‘War’ Cabinet committee chaired weekly by the PM, charged with the responsibility of overseeing the new plan, ensuring Australia meets new ambitious emission reduction goals.

The Australian Defence Forces and the Army Reserve must be geared up to play a greater role, given climate chaos will put significant pressure on domestic infrastructure and emergency services, as well as the unpredictable ways it will reshape geopolitics in our region, including growing numbers of climate refugees.

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) should be directed to ensure planning, investment and infrastructure decisions are aimed at smoothing the transition to zero emissions and managing climate chaos.

At a time of record low interest rates the government should issue long-term climate bonds to boost investment in new zero emission industries, and enact sensible tax reform measures targeted at unsustainable activities and free riders.

Massive public works scheme

The economy should be stimulated by a massive public works scheme to build resilience to extreme climate, including the provision of large scale tree planting and vegetation management to draw down carbon already in the atmosphere, rehabilitating degraded waterways and landscapes, involving farmers and regional communities, with substantial participation by First Nation’s peoples.

A rapid transition out of coal, with an immediate moratorium on future coal, oil and gas developments, whilst increasing the target for renewables – the most successful measure for reducing emissions we’ve had so far – is essential.

A special transitions fund, with a minister responsible, for displaced workers to provide support, retraining opportunities and adjustment would be established.

Above all there should be a targeted price on carbon to enable a faster reduction in greenhouse pollution, with the revenue used to compensate those unduly affected, stimulate clean technologies and strengthen our physical and industrial infrastructure for the consequences of wild weather that’s coming.

Before the Gillard government’s scheme was bought down by a climate denying former Prime Minister – and let the record show it was Tony Abbot who destroyed the scheme – it actually worked. Emissions came down for the first time in years, and the sky didn’t fall in.

This is where future growth will be. New jobs are already being created in so many areas. Grey water specialists, builders expert in fire protection, manufacturers of new battery technologies, developers of solar farms.

These new jobs already exist. More will come.

So there is a positive future which is also kind to the planet.

And with leadership of people who care about the Great Barrier Reef, care about the fate of the world and the future of their children it will be realized.

People from all quarters; school students, senior citizens, in sports clubs, homes, farms, factories and boardrooms.

All of us naming the climate crisis a real emergency, demanding our leaders respond, ensuring this great challenge can be met and a safe future won.

But as the mega fires of 2020 showed us, there is no time to waste.

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