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Mark McGowan's win a potential victory for Australian climate goals

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WA Premier Mark McGowan has led Labor to a massive victory in the 2021 State Election (Screenshot via YouTube)

Labor's landslide victory in the WA Election could mean a greener future for the state and hopefully inspire the Federal Government to do better, writes David Ritter.

WA PREMIER Mark McGowan has won an unprecedented electoral mandate in the midst of the climate emergency. He has both the authority and the ability to act decisively to help secure the future security and prosperity of West Australians.

As a WA boy who now lives in Sydney, I spent last spring and summer inhaling the smoke from the fires that devastated our eastern seaboard. But in February this year, I found myself going to sleep worrying about my home town, as out-of-control fires devoured homes and swept through thousands of hectares on the outskirts of Perth. Just as the West Australian Election campaign went into full swing, severe climate damage was felt in the west.

As everyone who’s spent time in the Perth Hills and the Swan Valley knows, these are incredibly precious places of extraordinary natural beauty, with tight-knit communities and magnificent wildlife. Growing up on the scarp was a life of gumtrees, bikes, gilgies and orchards that could seem a world away from the brighter lights to be found “down the hill”.

As the fires took hold, I thought of my sisters and their families who live on the Darling Range and of the old friends still in the area. Like so many Australians over recent years, I found myself sending hasty text messages, checking that loved ones were okay.

Pouring over the Emergency WA website to monitor the progress of the blazes brought up precious memories of more carefree summers. One meeting place for evacuees, I noticed, was Brown Park, a place I associate with some memorable and hard-fought cricket matches — not as a gathering place for escapees from severe climate damage.

The last time I batted at Brown Park, the amount of global CO2 in the atmosphere was at around 355 parts per million. Today, it is over 410 and rising, mainly driven by the continued use of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – which is why the world is in a state of climate emergency.

Catastrophic fire conditions are a symptom of the climate emergency because global warming is responsible for record heat, drought and dry conditions. Historically, we’ve always taken some perverse pride in the heat of the sunburnt country, but global warming is taking the temperature off the dial of what we have ever experienced before.

Seeing images of the blinding orange haze covering communities once again and the streets of my childhood choked with smoke, it seems impossible that our governments could not comprehend that Australia needs a clear and binding commitment to net-zero emissions. We need to get there by 2040 at the latest, with a comprehensive and fair plan to show our path — and that means rapidly phasing out mining and burning coal and gas, which are driving dangerous climate change.

WA is used to feeling aggrieved at some of the treatment from Canberra, but on climate, the current Prime Minister is letting down the whole of Australia. Despite the USA under Joe Biden now moving rapidly forward on reducing emissions, along with recent step-change commitments from China and many others, Scott Morrison remains out of step with the direction of the world community. Australia has no binding net-zero emissions target and no credible mechanisms in place for reducing carbon pollution consistent with the science.

And let’s be clear, the people whose homes and livelihoods are being ravaged by fire should not be left to foot the bill for the clean-up once the fires are out. Ordinary Australians have been placed in the path of harm by the coal and gas companies who have hampered Australia’s progress in tackling climate change for decades.

Again, this is where Canberra should definitely step in. We need a national Climate Compensation Fund, paid for by fossil fuel companies, to repair the damage they have caused. As the largest contributors to climate change and thereby direct feeders into these devastating extreme weather events, the onus should be on them to clean up the mess left behind. It’s only fair.

But not all the responsibility sits with the Commonwealth. Western Australia can do more to reduce domestic emissions faster, in line with what is needed across the world. And in terms of exported emissions, WA’s own fossil fuel extraction industry is a major contribution to driving the climate emergency.

The Conservation Council of WA’s (CCWA) landmark report into the Burrup Hub, a Liquefied Natural Gas mega-project currently proposed in the Northwest of Western Australia, concluded that if allowed to proceed, it would be the most polluting project ever to be developed in Australia.

As noted by Piers Verstegen, CCWA’s Director, the proposal would be:

“...delivering some of the world’s dirtiest LNG for up to 50 years. With estimated total emissions of over 6 billion tonnes (gigatons) of carbon pollution across its lifetime, the proposal has profound implications for the global climate across generations.”

Western Australia, one of the sunniest, windiest places on Earth, stands to gain so much from a swift transition to a solar and wind-powered energy system and, conversely, faces increasingly graver threats from climate change unless action is taken to reduce emissions. Damaging proposals like the Burrup Hub should not move forward when there are so many clean and reliable renewable options ripe for investment. 

With great power comes higher responsibility. No Western Australian premier has ever possessed the mastery now held by Mark McGowan. He has the ability to do very great good, for the future of all Western Australians — and for us all.

David Ritter is CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, adjunct professor at Sydney University and an honorary fellow of the Law Faculty at the University of Western Australia. You can follow David Ritter on Twitter @David_Ritter.

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