Climate change is the existential crisis with us right now
Australia was once again devastated by bushfires over the summer.
When Parliament resumes on Tuesday after the Christmas break, it's presented with a stark choice. It can seize the opportunity to discuss the fires and the floods; the devastation and the losses and pluck up the courage to deal with the reality of climate change. This remains the biggest and most immediate danger facing the nation. The evidence of the threat lies all around us.
Even if you still believe there is doubt about the specific linkage between carbon dioxide emissions and the rising global temperature - and I do not believe there is - there can be no doubt about the increasing incidence of extreme climatic events. The hottest January on record resulted in terrible bushfires across the nation, while at the same time we've suffered devastating floods in the tropical north: Australia can no longer rely on ''global action'' to avoid the catastrophe that climate change represents.
Yet you would not know this listening to what passes for political debate in this country. Politicians still seem to believe that all that is required during a natural disaster is for them to tour the affected area, nodding sympathetically and promising relief.
Environmental catastrophe is framed as the ''work of nature'' and therefore inexplicable. By pretending we cannot comprehend why this is happening we absolves ourselves from dealing with reality. This means that individuals can avoid the hard choices about the future while society pretends it can still afford to ''nationalise'' the losses. A far better way of coming to terms with the way the climate is changing is provided by the internal workings of insurance companies.
Businesses don't deal in academic theory. They deal in reality. That's why the cost of insuring against damage caused by natural disasters is climbing, because the companies realise that the chance of these events is increasing. There's nothing ideological about this and certainly no pro-Labor bias at work.
The opposition needs to explain immediately how it will deal with climate change because the holes in its current program are so large, and urgency so absent, that one inevitably returns to the possibility that Tony Abbott doesn't believe in climate change at all.
The government's problem is different. It misses no opportunity to demonstrate it ''believes'' in global warming. But this is not the same as acting on more localised climate change. Gillard's policies have been put forward with the implicit (and comforting) reassurance that pricing carbon will solve our problems. This may be a necessary condition for attempting to deal with the problem, but it isn't enough. We don't know just how much damage has already been done to the global ecosystem.
If the Siberian permafrost begins to melt, for example, this could create a positive feedback loop by releasing more CO2 into the air. There is also considerable evidence that global emissions are continuing to rise. Certainly Australia's action alone will not be enough to stop the danger. And finally - and this is why it's important to use the phrase ''climate change'' rather than ''global warming'' - the altered composition of the atmosphere will have different effects in different places.
Hotter waters off the Queensland coast increase the likelihood of torrential rain falling on the coast. How many years of this will it take to recognise that cyclones and floods are the norm, rather than the exception? The blast of hot air coming out of central Australia across Victoria increases the likelihood of devastating bushfires. Should the federal government say to people in these areas that they are on their own? Will the cities become fatigued and resentful of the necessary levies to pay for rehabilitation?
Western Australia and Queensland loudly point out that they contribute more GST revenue to the Commonwealth than they receive. Their premiers noisily demand larger pots of money are returned to the states than provided for by fiscal equalisation. Does this mean they should also be expected to manage their own disaster relief?
Dealing with climate change is costing money now. ''Emergency levies'' aren't an answer - they demonstrate a refusal to deal with reality. The government has responsibilities. The first is to collate and release information on how climate change is likely to affect specific areas. Then people can make choices about how they'll respond. It will allow people to recognise the dangers they face as individuals, depending on where they live.
Second, there is an urgent need to fund and develop emergency services for each district together with specific disaster management plans for likely scenarios. Resilience at a local level is vital, along with a co-ordinated national plan to assist where possible. But the responsibility of dealing with this needs to be pushed down so that people feel empowered, rather than expecting government to solve every problem.
Finally, politicians on both sides need to shout that climate change is occurring today. Labor needs to stop pretending that its carbon-pricing scheme will be enough. The Liberals need to explain how they will tackle the crisis. And the Nationals need to shout that, yes, climate change is responsible for what's occurring and their constituents are about to be hit worst of all.
By the end of the year, Labor will be nothing more than a speck in our rear-vision mirror as we hurtle forwards. If the Coalition wants to govern it needs to explain rapidly how it will deal with this existential challenge to our society.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.