Mr Morrison's legacy at COP26 will not be one of effective diplomacy, nor of progressive climate ideas. Instead, it will be one of sloganeering. His recurrent use of "the Australian way" is embedding itself into common language - to denote a facade of supposed action, when in fact there isn't any. "The Australian way" is becoming a "drover's dog" saying for the English-speaking world.
If COP26 fails to deliver, Australia, along with some other nations, will carry responsibility for the uncontrolled climate that will ravage this country. A government's overriding commitment should be to the safety of its own citizens. So what is being done to protect us, and help us develop resilience and adapt to the scourges of increasing heat, floods, fires and droughts?
In the past few days, the government has published its National Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategy 2021-2025, so as to be available for COP26. This document appears to follow the "Australian way" of reacting to an urgent, complex issue by producing a colourful, well-constructed document with little substance. Cynically, it has been delivered by a minister who recently approved three new coal mines, and by a government refusing to sign the methane 30 per cent reduction pledge - an action which will compromise our resilience.
Will this strategy document do anything to address the fact that Australia does not have policies and plans for adaptation, when at least 106 other countries do?
The strategy has no defined policy on a range of issues, no legislative safeguards or targets, no comprehensive delivery of essentials such as health policy, and no clear funding. Prior to COP26, US President Joe Biden announced $US105 billion for environmental resilience to address the impacts of extreme weather events. On a per capita basis, Australia would need to announce about $A10.9 billion to match this.
To properly plan for effective resilience, every government department must commit to a co-ordinated approach. One of many areas requiring urgent attention is the wide range of health impacts brought on by climate change, recently detailed by Doctors for the Environment Australia.
The past decade was the hottest on record for Australia, with the temperature almost 1 degree above average. Life becomes increasingly unliveable when temperatures soar above 40 degrees, and indeed infants and the elderly become physically stressed and in danger of collapse. Our heat-related mortality rate is about 2 per cent, causing more deaths than bushfires or any other environmental event.
Already some locations in Australia regularly reach 40 degrees or more, and many regions will become progressively unliveable.
Countless towns in regional and rural Australia will need heat shelters, just one of a host of health needs yet to have national help or policy. The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements detailed the urgent need for bushfire shelters, but these need to be multipurpose, for more long-term use by young and old in severe heat waves.
This illustrates the need for national co-ordination and expertise on just one of countless resilience issues. Are local communities, councils and authorities expected to develop their shelter plan with local expertise on structural, heat-resistant architecture, or will there be a national blueprint they can vary for their own needs? The plan must include fire and heat-proof building regulations, secure energy with storage from a localised grid, first-aid facilities, secure communications, water security and capacity for local population requirements.
Such co-ordination and delivery are interdepartmental necessities which appear to be beyond the federal government's capacity, as evidenced by national issues such as COVID vaccine delivery, renewable energy development, Murray River security and biodiversity protection. The government is hindered by the smoldering climate denial in the National Party.
What we need is an independent body of expertise, a Sustainability Commission or an Independent Climate Change Commission as detailed in Zali Steggall's climate change bills. This would encompass all existing resilience measures, including the National Recovery and Resilience Agency. It is inconceivable that a federal government can deliver this co-ordination from the proposed National Adaptation Policy Office.
My pointing out these national inadequacies should not be taken as downplaying the efforts and plans of states, territories, local authorities and the input from many groups, including the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action.
Many will feel shamed by Australia's fellow-travelling with Russia and China in the coal and methane mining camp. Our government's choice amounts to a denial that global warming may become irreversible this decade, and may condemn millions to a terrible future. Unfortunately, the position of a Labor government may not be appreciably different.
The confronting message from COP26 is for our nation to urgently build our resilience to coming disasters - and to avoid doing it "the Australian way".
- Dr David Shearman, AM PhD FRACP, is emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Adelaide and co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia.