"Climate change will be solved by us," says Ian Porter. Photo: Rebecca Hallas
Ian Porter says you don't have to wait for governments to combat climate change. You can do it yourself.
Climate change is one of the most menacing, complex issues we have ever had to confront. But some things are evident. While there is debate at the margins, there is widespread scientific agreement that human activity is contributing to climate change. There is also widespread community support, here and across our planet, for action to ameliorate the effects of that activity.
Given the difficulty and risks associated in engineering the transition to a lower-carbon economy, it is perhaps not so surprising the issue continues to confound lawmakers and the legions advising them. Were there a simple, risk-free fix, it would have been implemented long ago.
One of the most compelling interventions in the debate came as long ago as November 2006, when the then president of the Business Council of Australia, Michael Chaney, urged action on climate change.
Ian Porter will chat live with readers between noon and 1pm today. Leave your questions and comments for Ian here.
Advertisement: Story continues below
The nation's most powerful and influential business leader urged that the scientific majority be given the benefit of the doubt. Using a simple analogy, he said that although he did not expect his home to burn down, he had taken out insurance against such a disaster. In the same way, Australia and the world need an insurance policy for climate change.
But, while our public policy forces struggle to design the policy and set the premium, there is much action individuals and households can take on their own.
So, for those who might be frustrated with the pace of the top-down political process, Ian Porter is here in The Zone to explain how each of us can get change under way from the bottom up. Indeed, many already are.
Porter, a science graduate with an unfinished PhD in mathematical modelling, brings some 20 years' experience as a government adviser on environment and energy policy to his role as chief executive of the Alternative Technology Association (ATA).
''There is no 'them'. Climate change will be solved by us. Governments need to recognise that people are wanting change. People are acting - themselves. People are making decisions and spending the money and doing things which involve sacrifice. They involve passion, and involve investment in the future.''
It's an investment that pays off. Porter estimates some households are saving hundreds of dollars a year by making some simple changes.
Notwithstanding the financial incentive, Porter believes people are making the changes for moral reasons, too. After all, it is an issue described by former prime minister Kevin Rudd as our greatest moral challenge.
Perhaps one reason there is a growing appetite for grassroots activism on climate is because Rudd disillusioned so many people by baulking at taking action on the issue he had so elevated.
''There are sections of the media, and I think there are sections of industry and sections of the academic world, who make a very big play of arguing the case for a very narrow version of what people's interest is.
''And at times there is the suggestion that people will only do X, Y and Z if there is a dollar in it, and that people will only do certain things in a very cynical way. And that to me is a very cynical and I think a very negative take on the human spirit, on our character.
''And while of course there are people who are like that, I think they are far outnumbered by people who are fundamentally concerned with good things - with each other, with the future and with their communities.''
So, what is Porter's advice should you wish to take individual action on climate change?
''The first thing to look at is what you consume and how you consume it. I would look at questions like efficiency in terms of your home. So, have you got insulation would be my first question. I would look at what you and your family consume in terms of products and services. Not wearing the hair shirt, but just being more efficient. I always use the example, which my daughter hates, of how many Barbies did she actually need? And I think we can all ask ourselves those questions.
''Efficiency of design: is your house well insulated? Does it face north? Do you get good solar gain? Then I would look at questions like what sort of hot water service you have. What sort of cooking equipment do you have? What sort of refrigerator do you have?
''How we get around: do we travel all the time by car? Do we drive a giant four-wheel drive or do we drive a small car?
I'd be asking people could they swap to using other forms of transport. Could they travel more by public transport? Some can. Some can't. I recognise that.
''But I would be saying to people: all of these things make a difference. You don't have to jump from today to zero admissions in a month, but you can over a period. And so start making these changes and make the ones you can afford to straight away.''
There is a full transcript of our interview, including further advice, at theage.com.au/opinion/the-zone, and Porter is happy for people to email him: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are some figures on a few changes people have been making:
Solar panels: rooftop installations in Australia are surging. More than 100,000 systems were installed in 2010, which exceeded the collective total for the entire previous 10 years. Local bulk-buy organisations are emerging across Australia.
Solar hot water: about 600,000 households used solar hot water in 2008, up by 61 per cent on 2005.
GreenPower: there were 827,000 residential and commercial customers of GreenPower (power from renewable sources) in Australia in the final three months of last year. The average household is 2.5 people, so that means more than 2 million of us, or close to 10 per cent of the population, have taken this option.
Small wind power: the Hepburn Wind two-turbine project is community-owned by 1500 Hepburn locals and other Victorians. Off-grid micro-generation of power is increasing in rural areas.
The ATA is 30 years old and has about 6000 members, most of them households. It is funded by membership subscription and the revenue from two magazines, Renew and Sanctuary, which have a readership of 100,000 or so each and are available online (see links below).
Renew works like a buyers' guide and shows what technologically plugged-in enthusiasts are achieving in their homes.
''We had one member with a solar-powered lift not long ago, which was terrific,'' Porter says. ''She had built a house up in Gippsland and because they were building a two-level place they needed a lot of movement up and down and she thought the first thing they should do was get solar power for the lift, as they were off the grid.''
Sanctuary is for people interested in design and renovation. It is a growth area. A former guest in The Zone is Tamsin O'Neill, founder and editor of green, a printed and online magazine that champions sustainable design and architecture (see link below and O'Neill's package at The Zone's online archive).
Meanwhile, Ian Porter and the ATA are keen to see this issue depoliticised and they support ideas put forward by all the major political parties. The ATA supports the Gillard government's policy to put a price on carbon, as well as the Greens' push for a national solar feed-in tariff and some of the measures Tony Abbott's team is promoting, including the million solar rooftops proposal.
But Porter ultimately sees the community leading its politicians, not the contrary. People ultimately behave rationally. ''I would say a constant of how our society has developed has been people expressing the fact that they are concerned about delivering an environment for their children for the future.
''I saw a very funny cartoon the other day of a character, a public speaker at a conference, and someone was asking, 'What happens, though, if this is all an elaborate hoax and we make our lives cleaner, better and more sophisticated for no reason?' That is a very good point.''
In other words, we should be doing all this, anyway.
Follow the National Times on Twitter: @NationalTimesAU