The government's current framing of its bushfire response poses a curious dilemma. On the one hand, we are told the policy on emissions reduction is "evolving" and a possible royal commission will focus, in part, on "resilience" and "adaptation". On the other hand, the Prime Minister refers to those calling for an end to coal exports as "reckless". His plan is to "meet and beat emissions reduction targets, without ... pulling the rug from regional communities who depend on the [resources] sector for their livelihoods."
How easy it is to blur ideas about coping with disasters (resilience), reducing the size of our contribution to climate change (mitigation), and taking steps to reduce the impacts of climate change and tap beneficial opportunities (adaptation)! We are seeing and hearing first-hand how climate change affects our health, and results in loss of life and reduced safety, damaged property and infrastructure, reduced food production, increased insurance costs, and loss of species and biodiversity. We're no longer talking about some vague tomorrow. This is today, right now.
Is the Prime Minister suggesting we just cop climate change on the chin and learn to cope, without tackling causes and doing little to tackle effects? The CSIRO has pointed out that the less we reduce emissions, the more we will have to adapt. Adapting takes knowledge and skills. These take time to build, and today's decisions, if lacking suitable climate foresight, may create greater costs and risks in the future.
Three points about communities adapting to climate change are worth noting. Firstly, no one is suggesting shutting coal mines tomorrow. Surely Mr Morrison knows that moving away from coal is an adaptation process that will need to be implemented as his policies "evolve"? To pretend otherwise is unsound and irresponsible.
Secondly, it's not just coal communities. Tourism, which contributes more to Australia's economy than coal mining and employs nearly 15 times more people, is also at risk, as are other sectors and industries. The Climate Council points out that "there are few forces affecting the Australian economy that can match the scale, persistence and systemic risk associated with climate change". As we are seeing, extreme weather and climate events have a cascading effect through the economy, affecting households, governments and businesses.
Thirdly, the world of work is changing due to factors like globalisation, digital technology, automation and climate change. Most sectors are affected to varying degrees. The one thing that can be said about the future is that it is uncertain. And nothing destroys resilience like protracted uncertainty.
For communities adapting to the impact of climate change, we are not starting from a blank slate. We already know a lot about structural adjustment from the work of the Productivity Commission. Multiple Senate inquiries, such as those into the closure of coal-fired power stations (which we know are to close in the next two or three decades) and jobs for the future in regional areas, plus academics' research and think tank reports, provide a wealth of useful information.
Do we want to abandon communities to unemployment, low-paid jobs and social decline, or work with them to develop new industries with job opportunities, hope and resilience?
A government report on the transition of the car manufacturing sector confirms people need to be skilled in managing their careers. The report identified best-practice support for communities and people directly affected by company closures. Best-practice support for transitioning workers includes:
- "Early notification to workers allowing support to be communicated early and often,
- Tailored career advice and local labour market information via case managers,
- Transferable skills recognition and training support including funding,
- Resume, interview and digital job search assistance,
- Health and wellbeing support, financial counselling, and
- Dedicated transition hubs or information centres."
From this material we know what is needed for communities to evolve, adjust, and adapt. It takes long-term planning and investment by governments, companies, and communities; wide-ranging stakeholder involvement; evidence-based industry policies; sufficient funds; training opportunities; and tailored, support services.
What we need now is for the government to review existing Australian and international adaptation research, consult widely, draft policy, and promote tailored, community-based programs so that Australians understand what is happening, how and why, and are reassured that no one is pulling the rug out from under anyone.
- Dr Ann Villiers is a career coach at Mental Nutrition.