Australia reaches the tipping point on climate change

March 21, 2007

Several business leaders I have met on my recent trip to Australia argue that the country reached a tipping point, probably in the last 3-4 months.

Doug Jukes, KPMG’s Australia chairman, told me that it was arguably one week in mid-November: when Al Gore made a second visit to promote An Inconvenient Truth, and was hosted by Mike Hawker at IAG for several presentations.

Simultaneously, IAG made a commitment to go ‘carbon neutral’; the Great Barrier Reef Authority issued a report, warning of the threat to the world-famous coral reef; and Prime Minister John Howard executed a U-turn on his opposition to the scientific consensus on man-made climate change.

The continuing severe drought and water shortages are also having a profound impression on Australians. Indeed, when I was in Melbourne, I heard several people seriously argue that it would be cheaper and less environmentally damaging, to bring super-tankers daily from water-rich Tasmania to Melbourne than to build a controversial desalination plant.

The resurgent opposition Australian Labour Party (ALP), which has made the environment a major part of its recovery in this federal election year, has put pressure on the government to make its own green credentials stronger. The coalition government and the ALP now both have rising-star politicians handling the environment and water brief: Malcolm Turnbull for the government and the former rock star Peter Garrett for the ALP.

Australians have also been much influenced by the Stern Report. In April 2006, Westpac was one of six companies, along with the Australian Conservation Foundation, to launch the Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change, to present an analysis of the issues in an Australian context.

There is a very readable account of the tipping point in, business, politics and the media by former journalist turned environmental consultant Murray Hogarth from consultancy ecos corporationThe Third Degree to be published on April 3. The book argues that an average global temperature increase of two degrees in now inevitable. The battle has to be to prevent the third degree of increase – or else we will all feel ‘the third degree’ felt in some interrogations.

The Third Degree is a compelling account of how the tipping point happened, which will be of interest to both Australians and people overseas. More than this, it also sets out a forward agenda – not least for the consumer arena where the tipping point is yet to occur.

Murray writes with the journalist’s eye for the vivid illustration and with the engagement of a passionate advocate for sustainability. While some voices still challenge the reality of man-made climate change, the precautionary principle – if nothing else – should emphasise the need for urgent action because as Murray concludes “either the future is greener – or it’s very black”.

Finally, a Financial Times article by Victor Mallet, published during the first week of my trip, confirms the growing Australian interest in climate change. Mallet writes that the politics of John Howard – Australian prime minister and friend of George Bush have developed an “uncharacteristically greenish hue” in the past few weeks.

“The greening of Mr Howard is certainly a reaction to a profound change of mood in Australia and is conveniently timed for the general election expected by the year’s end.”

David Grayson is a contributing editor to Corporate Citizenship Briefing. From the beginning of April, David will be the Chair in Corporate Responsibility and Director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management ( ).