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Yes, Australia's carbon emissions do have an impact

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Prime Minister with coal in the Australian Parliament (screenshot via YouTube)

Don't listen to the climate sceptics that say Australia's emissions are irrelevant to tackling climate change. Our contribution does matter — and it has real consequences for fighting this most urgent threat, writes Assistant Editor Nicholas Bugeja.

For about the last decade, the vast majority of Australians have believed in the prevailing climate science. Yet the issue was hardly closed, with conservatives and so-called "climate sceptics" constantly trying to impugn what 97% of scientists accept: that climate change is occurring, is human-induced, and will radically alter weather conditions, the natural environment and the world itself.

Over the past year, however, a seemingly widespread, unassailable consensus has emerged in Australia. Finally. That climate change is a matter of the utmost moral and political urgency. Although this conclusion was reached by scientists roughly 30 years ago, the increase of public consciousness around climate change has proven promising and heartening.

It has also left conservatives and "climate sceptics" with something to think about. In the current environment of public opinion, it has (arguably) become politically, and factually, inconvenient to lambast the science of climate change. They might have to turn to new tactics in attempting to halt meaningful action on climate.  

And this is what we saw from Sky News’ Chris Kenny some weeks back. Instead of employing the old, tired rhetoric of scientific doubt and incendiary attacks, Kenny drew attention to Australia’s apparently futile efforts to mitigate carbon emissions around the world. "Whatever you think about climate change, Australia’s actions can have no impact … we are doing more than enough at the moment," he proclaimed.

For Kenny, those committed to lowering Australia’s emissions – “the kids, and the Greens, and the Labor politicians” – are “just kidding themselves. They know they will hurt us for no environmental gain.”

This kind of rhetoric is deft and manipulative, meant to lull the public into a sense of disempowerment and ineffectuality about Australia’s role in combating the greatest modern threat to humanity and the planet.

What proponents of this view don’t acknowledge is the need for global unity on this issue. Climate change cannot conceivably be stopped if states, like Australia, throw their hands up in defeat. Imagine if every country of a comparable size to Australia remained passive: the Netherlands, Taiwan, Canada. We’d be condemned, most certainly, to a perilous future of climate instability and disaster. Every bit of carbon reduction matters.

To put it another way, there are 24 countries, Australia included, that contribute between 0.5-1.5% of carbon emission in the atmosphere, an aggregate of 21% of all emissions. This is comparable to China’s total emissions, an admittedly big player in the battle to tackle the problem of climate change. As one cooperative unit, these countries can make a real difference in reducing carbon emission. Australia – one of the world’s richest countries – must be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

It is true climate change cannot be solved by one individual country. But it certainly won’t be if countries fail to make substantial and swift emission cuts in line with their international obligations. Indeed, it’s the cumulative effect of carbon emissions, that extends across borders and nations, that must be focused and acted upon. Australia’s inertia will only further guarantee that the IPCC’s worrying predictions – of widespread flooding, droughts, heat-related deaths, smaller crop harvests, greater amounts of poverty – come true.

Should Australia continue along its current path, its moral authority on the climate change issue will be utterly diminished. The old adage “practice what you preach” has enormous application here. Those states with the highest carbon footprint – the U.S., China, India, Germany – would hardly accept any appeal Australia might make about emissions cuts. And who could blame them? It’s imperative that Australia takes action – for it to have any moral or diplomatic agency in urging other states to mitigate their emissions.

For its size, Australia’s emissions are staggeringly high. In 2015, we ranked 13th in the world for total carbon emission, ahead of much larger countries: UK, Italy and France, as well as most of Africa. Our emissions per capita were the highest in the OECD, at 16 tonnes for each person. Brazil’s emissions per capita were roughly in two tonnes region, France’s about four tonnes, and China's – a growing superpower – were six and a half tonnes.

Think about it: in what position would we be in if every person in the world emitted carbon as much as each Australian? Not a very good one. We’d be way over the hill to stop the most severe effects of climate change.

None of this, of course, is to mention Australia’s historical contribution to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Considering that industrialisation began in the 1800s, it’s safe to say this isn’t a negligible contribution. So in that regard, surely it seems only fair that Australia should now, at this crucial moment, substantially reduce its carbon footprint.

Expect that conservatives and "climate deniers" will continue to deploy this argument – that Australia cannot make a dent in emission reductions – in order to sow the seeds of futility and moral exculpation. "Australia cannot stop climate change", they will say. To deny Australia’s massive contribution to the climate problem is utterly misleading and disingenuous.

We must power on into the future by significantly reducing our emissions, before transitioning to a carbon-free economy. Otherwise fires in Tasmania will continue to rage; the Great Barrier Reef will only be seen in history textbooks; Australia’s coastal areas will be submerged underwater. There is no other alternative.

Nicholas Bugeja is an Assistant Editor for Independent Australia. You can follow him at @BugejaNick.

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