Earlier this year, Trudi Beck, a general practitioner from Wagga Wagga, wrote to councillors across New South Wales urging them to acknowledge the climate crisis and declare a local emergency.
Some responses were positive. Others less so.
Mark Hall, a Lachlan shire councillor and Baptist pastor, told Beck: “Stick to medicine – you have utterly no clue about climate science. Your email intrusion is truly not welcome.”
So far, 84 jurisdictions in Australia covering about a quarter of the population – mostly cities and local government areas – have declared a climate emergency. The first elected body in the world to act, Darebin council in Victoria, is credited with starting a movement that is now supported by governments representing 800 million people worldwide, including the European Union and Bangladesh.
In Australia, as ever when it comes to climate policy, the process has been polarising and frustrating.
The leaders of one town might have recognised the climate crisis and committed to developing adaptation measures to help the community deal with the impacts of global heating. The next town over might have decided that climate change has nothing to do with local government business such as carting rubbish or fixing potholes.
“We went from talking about the climate emergency, to now all of a sudden we’re living in it,” says Sarah Mollard, a general practitioner from the coastal NSW town of Port Macquarie.
“It was incredibly unsettling to experience the sky going from blue to red in the space of a few hours. It’s extraordinarily unsettling to be in your home and see smoke haze in your home. This is my home, this is my safe space, and I can’t keep my children safe in it.”
A few months ago, Mollard and other community members began to lobby for the Port Macquarie council to declare a climate emergency. In September, a relatively benign council motion to develop a “climate change action plan” was deadlocked at four-all. The mayor’s casting vote shelved the idea indefinitely.
Since the vote, and since the November bushfire crisis that blanketed Port Macquarie in an orange haze, community members have turned up to council meetings, where residents are allowed to take the floor before formal debates, to discuss the climate change impacts of relevant items of business.
In November, Mollard spoke about the need for the council to develop a heat plan.
“It’s constructive in a sense. At the moment the council does not have someone on their payroll who is looking at the actions of council through a climate lens,” Mollard says.
“I prefer gardening to public speaking, and would rather spend my day off work with the kids at the beach than rallying for our government to simply do its job.
“As a doctor I am familiar with the term emergency. An emergency is a threat to people, property or society that has the potential to overwhelm them.
“An emergency requires action to stop the problem from getting out of control and then return to safety. In an emergency, timing is critical – if you wait to act, the problem gets worse, more damage is done, the cost of repair is increased.
“The more involved I’ve been getting the more I’ve had people coming up to me in the street and saying thank you. That’s a really strong indicator that people feel strongly about an issue.”
Symbolic, but practical
One of the most remarkable aspects of the climate emergency movement is how it has put debate on the agenda in places that might have otherwise buried their heads in the nearest sandy riverbed.
The Glen Innes Severn council has made a declaration and the mayor, Carol Sparks, has emerged from the bushfire crisis as a credible voice for regional people demanding climate action.
Newcastle, the home of the world’s largest coal export port, has declared an emergency and has a policy to work towards a just transition. The Wollongong City c-ouncil – which along with Newcastle was for decades an industrial and steelmaking hub – has also recognised the climate crisis.
In Queensland, where climate politics is most fraught amid a rush to support coal exports, only the Noosa council has declared an emergency. It also set a zero net emissions target by 2026.
“I see it as both symbolic but also practical for sure,” Noosa mayor Tony Wellington says.
“Of course, when we declared a climate emergency I did receive some hate mail. Let’s just say I did expect that. There wasn’t a large amount of pushback but there are inevitably in our community a number of people who [don’t accept climate change].
“Noosa has a history of being somewhat adventurous and pioneering as a council. We’re also for example the only council that has joined the alliance for gambling reform. We take a rather intrinsic view to development per se. We have a proud history of environmental conservation.”
Two communities in the area, Noosa North Shore and Peregian Beach, were evacuated under threat from bushfires earlier this year. Wellington says the incidents were a “wake-up call” for the need to adapt the council’s plans and operations for a changed climate.
“We’re acutely aware the impacts of climate change will resonate,” he says. “The costs of not preparing are far greater than doing something now.”
‘I respect your view to have an opinion on the theory …’
Conservative Wagga Wagga, home of the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, earlier this year declared a climate emergency. A few weeks later, after an increasingly nasty debate, councillors rescinded that declaration.
Outraged councillors would later demand the mayor, Greg Conkey, drive an electric vehicle to Sydney and back. He did and has said the journey was a success.
Beck had been instrumental in building local support in Wagga Wagga, and in July, while the city was locked in debate about the declaration, she contacted other council areas soliciting support.
“No way!” replied the Tenterfield deputy mayor, Don Forbes. When Beck responded by referring to the water security issues facing the Tenterfield community, which have got worse in the months since, Forbes asked not to receive further emails.
When the same email reached Wollondilly shire councillor Simon Landow, a former candidate for Liberal preselection, he replied to say it was not the council’s role.
“The term ‘climate emergancy’ (sic) … is very misleading to my residents of Wollondilly,” Landow wrote.
“I respect your view to have an opinion on the theory that man is causing catastrophic global warming.
“I would like you to respect my view that there is none, and I won’t be deviating from a stance thats is filled with so may (sic) flaws and misconceptions.”
Another councillor, Murray Thomas from the Bland Shire, said in response that climatic changes had no relationship to carbon dioxide and would soon be proved to be caused naturally.
“How do you propose explaining that [to] hordes of angry rorted,” Thomas said.
“You’ve obviously made your choice, suggest you reconsider while you have the opportunity. Just tell ’em you were experimenting with psychotic drug samples … or in a moment of stress you fell victim to carbon rort hype.”
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