VIEW FROM THE ACTING CPA SMALL BRANCHES CHAIRPERSON
BIG PROBLEMS, SMALL PARLIAMENTS: TACKLING CLIMATE CHANGE AS A SMALL JURISDICTION Acting Chairperson of the CPA Small Branches, Joy Burch, MLA, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory All Legislatures face challenges: some big, some small. Yet when you’re a small Parliament, the scale of some problems do not change. Instead, your smaller jurisdiction and limited resources make these appear even bigger than they might for others. Climate change is one such challenge, and one which disproportionately affects small island developing states. In this issue of The Parliamentarian ahead of the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference, I highlight the struggle small Parliaments can face in meaningfully fighting climate change while their capacities to do so are increasingly tested by that same changing climate. I also take the opportunity to showcase what can be done by a small jurisdiction when commitment and capacity align – as has been the story of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). What’s the challenge? Climate change is a tough issue for any Parliament to tackle, but what makes it different for small jurisdictions? The CPA Climate Change and Small States toolkit sets out several reasons for this. What it boils down to is that small states are disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change but cannot easily make any impactful difference to mitigate them. The tragedy of this is that those same states’ contributions to global emissions are negligible. Because of this, small Parliaments’ best bet is to pursue adaptation-focused legislation which aims to adapt to the effects of climate change. This is not to say mitigation isn’t valuable. It instead reflects the reality for small states that adapting to protect what little we have against the impacts of climate change must be the priority. Impactful legislating As small Parliaments, our limited resources demand we employ a bit of creativity in how we legislate for impactful climate action. How each state achieves this is determined by their unique environments and character. For example, on Prince Edward Island, one of Canada’s Maritime Provinces, an ambitious carbon capture-by-reforestation program is being pursued alongside work to adapt to increasingly frequent coastal flooding. While in Vanuatu, the combination of adaptation education with customary knowledge is successfully empowering ni-Vanuatu ownership of climate action projects. In my own jurisdiction, the Australian Capital Territory, we’ve achieved practical-yet-ambitious targets through continued cross-party cooperation. Our focus on energy, previously our largest emissions source, saw us reduce our emissions 45% on 1990 levels and become the first city outside of Europe to be powered entirely by renewable energy. The tripartisan work which achieved this will be key to any future work. Some Legislatures also choose to couple legislative action with symbolic recognition of the said action’s urgency. Among the CPA Small Branches Network, five Parliaments – Gibraltar, the Isle of Man, 224 | The Parliamentarian | 2021: Issue Three | 100 years of publishing
Jersey, Yukon, and the ACT – have declared climate emergencies to date. Practical and well-implemented law-making is central to how small Parliaments are meaningfully contributing to the fight against climate change. However, this fight isn’t always one-sided. When the climate fights back Our climate is lashing out with increasing frequency and ferocity, of which small jurisdictions overwhelmingly bear the brunt. These catastrophic events impact small Parliaments’ abilities to affect change in three distinct ways. First, damage caused by major climate events reprioritises political attention and funding. In the aftermath of any destructive event, focus understandably turns to providing relief and, later, social and economic recovery. Yet due to limited capacities, this can take small jurisdictions much longer than larger ones. This in turn delays the politically viable return to legislating on climate change. Next, these climate events can decimate small states already limited economic capacities, drastically inhibiting their ability to rebuild and recover. Short-to-mid-term internal displacement after disasters significantly reduces the available workforce needed for rebuilding and recovery. Dominica experienced this in the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria, which damaged or destroyed 90% of housing stock and displaced 47% of its population. Similarly, climate change and major climate events can incapacitate many of the limited industries which small jurisdictions rely on. This has been most apparent in tourism, but the future risks of ocean acidification, permafrost thaw, and drought threaten small jurisdictions worldwide, from Nunavut to St Helena. Reduced income and displaced workforces from such events disempower small states’ efforts to adapt to and address climate change. Lastly, major climate events are increasingly disrupting parliamentary sittings and operations. The level of disruption varies. At the lower end of the scale, it is an inconvenience, such as when smoke from the 2019-20 bushfires forced our Legislative Assembly to close for a day. Yet at the other end it can destroy entire Parliaments, as Tropical Cyclone Gita did to Tonga’s Fale Alea in 2018. What can be achieved by a small jurisdiction? It is well understood that Parliaments have key roles in passing laws, responding to social and economic needs of their community and in setting the policy framework that guides its own and private sector responses. It is also understood that the role of Speaker/Presiding Officers is to ensure the good function of the Parliament and that it operates without hindrance from the Executive. That said many Speakers are also members of a political party and as elected Members contribute to policy devolvement. This is an opportunity to share recent ACT government policy and legislation passed in the ACT Legislative Assembly.