There seems to be an accepted wisdom in Tasmania across a broad range of political persuasions that tourism is one of our most promising directions for strengthening and growing the state’s economy. Apparently tourism will not only be a long-term winner for the state’s economy, but it can be so in a way that somehow supports (and not merely exploits) our ‘clean green’ image.

As unsporting as it may sound, I feel the need to churlishly suggest that this optimism is misplaced, and that a focus on tourism as the ‘saviour’ of the Tasmanian economy only diverts attention from the directions we really need to pursue to build a sustainable economy and society. There is an elephant in the room whose implications are being blithely ignored.  The elephant is global climate change.

Because of pervasive denial and the politically-unpalatable nature of the sorts of drastic actions that decades of complacency have now made necessary to genuinely mitigate climate change, humanity has done virtually nothing that will effectively slow or reverse it at a global scale. Leaving aside the ideologically-driven lunacy of full-on climate change denial, I sense there is a pervasive notion amongst many reasonably well-informed people that goes something along the lines of: “Well, sure climate change is real, but it’s not going to be all that bad is it? Maybe a few slightly warmer days, but basically it will be business as usual for the foreseeable future wont it? I mean, surely nothing really dramatic is going to happen in my lifetime!”  To those of us who have been paying attention to the science and its implications, this “don’t want to know” complacency is chillingly reminiscent of Western Europe circa 1937-38.

I suggest that those who see tourism as underpinning Tasmania’s long term future haven’t faced the implications of the degree and rate of global anthropogenic climate change now underway. We are facing nothing less than a brave new world whose changes will sweep away many of the comfortable assumptions those of us born in the post-war ‘golden age’ of the Twentieth Century grew up with.

Climate change means much more than a simple slow incremental change in average temperatures.  It also means changes to the seasonal and regional weather patterns we are used to, and in particular increases in the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events of a sort that we are already starting to see.  There is now broad agreement amongst climate scientists that the last several decades have seen a statistically significant shift towards droughts, bushfires and floods of greater frequency and magnitude than was the norm for the greater part of the Twentieth Century1. These are predictable effects of an atmosphere and ocean whose thermal – and thus energy – content is continuing to rise well above historic levels, and at rates even faster than most climate scientists were expecting only a few years ago.

Increasingly frequent extreme weather events directly impact on two things we depend on to keep our modern civilisation running, namely agriculture and infrastructure.  Every time another drought, bushfire or flood destroys crops and livestock, food production suffers. Whilst First World countries have some reserves and capacity to endure such shocks – at least for the near future - Third World countries do not.  As famines and resulting social chaos resulting from crop failures in Africa and Asia become more frequent and widespread than they already are then social chaos, mass refugee movements and ultimately wars can only spread and intensify. The First World cannot expect to be immune to this, and the number of safe, desirable tourist destinations will shrink with the global spread of such social chaos.

Extreme weather events are also beginning to impact on infrastructure, and if anything this effect of climate change will impact more on the First World than the Third, for the simple reason that the First World has more infrastructure upon which it is more dependent.  Our infrastructure - such as roads, airports, drainage systems and buildings - was designed for a Twentieth Century climate with Twentieth Century weather extremes.  As more and more floods, high magnitude cyclones, storm surges and extreme heat waves that our infrastructure was not designed for put those facilities out of action for longer and longer periods, disruptions to normal life will become more frequent. The reliability of travel will suffer.  More and more frequent delayed and cancelled flights or cruises due to extreme weather events and civil disruption will increasingly frustrate travel plans. Tourism – especially to distant destinations – will be more and more fraught with uncertainty, disruption and inconvenience.

With increasing climate change impacts flowing from our abject failure to have taken any really meaningful steps towards genuine mitigation, there will come a point at which the severity of our situation can no longer be denied or ignored. Paul Gilding2 has called this the ‘Great Disruption’ – the point at which we finally understand that we are in real trouble, and that the very survival of civilisation itself is at stake.  When this happens, the best case scenario is that we will switch rather rapidly to a wartime-like economy focussed on one goal only, to get ourselves out of the trap we have made for ourselves. Massive technological and infrastructure changes and innovation will be of highest priority and huge national-scale efforts will be needed; there will be little time for non-essential activities like tourism other than perhaps on very local scales.  Our situation will be much like that which the world found itself in during World War II,  which is probably the closest analogy we have to the situation that we are now rapidly bringing upon ourselves through our failure to respond effectively to anthropogenic climate change.

That is the best case scenario.  I prefer to remain optimistic and hope that we will in the end prove (belatedly) smart enough to avoid worse scenarios.

Either way, it seems plain that within a decade or less it is likely that there will be little or no tourism anywhere – just as there was little tourism during World War II, and for much the same reasons.  We will be too pre-occupied with the urgency and effort required to adapt to a brave new climate to have either the time or resources for non-essential activities like overseas tourism.

Even so, Tasmania does have a far brighter future under climate change than many other places.  Compared to places like Queensland, Africa, North America and much of Asia, the physical impacts of a changing climate will be much less dire in Tasmania. As shown by future climate modelling conducted by the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Co-operative Research Centre at the University of Tasmania, our fortunate situation as a small mid-latitude island in the Southern Ocean means that our climate will be physically buffered from many of the more extreme changes that will occur elsewhere.  With extensive stable rocky coasts, arable land, good rainfall that is expected to continue under climate change, abundant renewable energy resources, as well as adequate mineral and forest resources and a tradition of stable democratic government, we will come to be seen as a desirable climate change refuge compared to the much of the rest of the world.

Whilst some on the right of politics like to paint Tasmania as a backward under-achieving mendicant state because of our growing focus since the 1970s on environmental protection, I believe this will turn out to be our saving grace, as many of us who have been involved for decades in driving Tasmania towards a more ecologically sustainable economy have known all along.

These aspects of Tasmania’s situation are the key to our future in an increasingly troubled world under a changing climate. Rather than trying to attract a fickle stream of tourists to spend their income here, our future would be far better served by a focus on building self-reliant productive industries suited to a finite world, that are not vulnerable to global shocks of the sort that unmitigated climate change is rapidly making inevitable for tourism (amongst other industry sectors). 

Agriculture and sustainable technologies can provide a genuinely productive future that our existing advantages point towards, and as such can become increasingly important elements of a sustainable and self-reliant Tasmanian economy. Viticulture and regionally – distinctive food products are potentially high value industries which are already successful elements of the Tasmanian economy and warrant greater support3. Such quality food products complement a flourishing culture of Tasmanian arts and thought which seems to be finally recognising the value of its island milieu and moving beyond the cultural cringe that saw earlier generations of wannabe sophisticates desert Tasmania as a supposed backwater.  The growing integrity of an authentic Tasmanian island culture may indeed attract a few tourists (for the present), but of vastly more importance is the fact that an authentic Tasmanian cultural environment can underpin the vision and will needed to drive us in better economic directions based on Tasmania’s inherent advantages.

The use of renewable energy sources including hydro and more recently wind-power is already a distinguishing characteristic of Tasmania which - if we are smart – we could be capitalising on through development of the infrastructure to support such technologies as electric cars and all the other technical components needed for a genuine ecologically-sustainable economy. We could be inventors, manufacturers and exporters of real, high value technology. Although it has only recently been recognised as one of our key strengths, Tasmania is already the base for a science and research culture which – particularly in climate and oceanographic areas – is of world stature4.  We already have a world class research and technical capacity to build on, and we should see this as another capacity which the rest of the world will need more and more as the impacts of unmitigated climate change bite deeper. When the ‘great disruption’ arrives, and the world finally accepts the need to dramatically change the way we do things, Tasmania could already be a long way down the right path if we choose to start now – which would mean much less disruption to our lives than will be the case for much of the world.

As a final key point in this brief survey of Tasmania’s potential, I would like to suggest that one of Tasmania’s biggest advantages is the very thing that many of the old-school detractors of Tasmania have long claimed is our biggest problem; namely our lack of rapid population growth. For much of the last few decades Tasmania’s population has hovered around the half-million mark with little and sometimes no growth.  Based on the entrenched assumptions of classical economic theory, we have been told by a succession of politicians and business entrepreneurs that our economy cannot be prosperous unless we can grow our population. However this is precisely the growth-based economic thinking that has produced the threatening future we now face through global climate change. Reality is beginning to trump the assumptions of the old economic theories. We are in need of new economic ideas, and indeed a new understanding of what genuine prosperity itself could really be. Unending growth – in population and thus resource consumption – is self-defeating on a finite planet (or a finite island) and those not in complete denial about the causes and implications of anthropogenic climate change have known this for decades.
We need new economic ideas and principles that can be a basis for worth-while societies with stable populations and stable resource requirements if we are to have a worthwhile long term future.  Yet here in Tasmania, we already have a stable population and have had it for decades. Despite a lot of self-centred whinging, things haven’t been so bad. What we need to do is refine ways to make it work better economically, rather than trying to stick with out-dated ‘zombie’ economic theories5, the same ones that got the world into its present mess in the first place. Indeed, one of Tasmania’s biggest challenges in adapting to global climate change may ironically prove to be an excessive influx of climate change refugees – rich as well as poor ones – once Tasmania’s advantages as a climate change refuge become more apparent to the world at large.

Tasmania has the potential and the opportunity for a genuinely worthwhile and desirable society with a resilient economy without feeling the need to grow its population. We can become a functioning example of the sort of genuinely sustainable society that the world as a whole needs to transition to if we are to cope with the changing climate that we have brought upon ourselves.

But tourism will not get us there.


1 Professor Will Steffen, 2013: The Angry Summer; Climate Commission, Commonwealth of Australia, 11 pp. (available from ).
2 Paul Gilding, 2011: The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis will bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World; Bloomsbury Press, New York, 292 pp.
3 Matthew Evans 2013: We need to talk about the northwest; in: J. Schultz & N. Cica, (eds), Tasmania: The Tipping Point? Griffith Review 39, Griffith University, p. 238-243.
4 Jo Chandler 2013: The science laboratory: From little things, big things grow; in: J. Schultz & N. Cica, (eds), Tasmania: The Tipping Point? Griffith Review 39, Griffith University, p. 83-101
5 John Quiggan (‘Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us’ Princeton University Press, 2012) has delightfully coined the term ‘zombie economics’ for those old economic theories which have been shown not to work and should be long dead and buried, but which continue to shamble onwards nonetheless.

*Chris Sharples is an Honorary Research Associate at the School of Geography & Environmental Studies (Spatial Science), University of Tasmania