Climate adaptation: government action on life support systems is lamentable

Jan 16, 2024
Fuel pump with planet over white background.

The foundation for effective climate change adaptation must be the preservation of ecological life support systems for humans and all other species. We must prioritise the protection and expansion of water, biodiversity and ecological services to provide food security for future generations instead of environmentally damaging industries, especially fossil fuels.

The devastating consequences of increased global heating are all too apparent in Australia and abroad. As long as Australia retains its enormous oil and gas export ambition, however, talk and policy development towards climate change adaptation will remain unfocussed, ineffective and confusing to the public who must be involved.

Let us be clear: the planned 118 new fossil fuel developments threaten not only the climate, but also these very planetary life support systems that enable survival in an increasingly turbulent world. Our policies, regulations and development decisions are enabling new shale oil and gas, LNG, coal and petrochemical industries.

Unabated addiction to fossil-fuelled economic growth at any cost indicate that emissions will continue to rise, as will the devastation we see around us.

Hopes for effective long-term adaptation rely on the speed at which we can end this addiction and shift focus to life support priorities.

Responsibility for minimising global heating resides with all the world’s countries, but especially countries that have grown, and continue to grow, their wealth through fossil fuel exports. As a rich country and a top fossil fuel exporter, Australian governments must reject their petro-state mentality and re-imagine us as a positive global force for liveable human futures protecting oceans, ground and surface waters, coasts, air, climate, forests, soil and wildlife.

Australia needs a much more far-reaching approach to transformational adaptation if we hope to ease the now inevitable impacts. Piecemeal actions will not be enough for the extent of warming we must expect, as the likelihood of limiting warming to 1.5⁰C, or even 2⁰C, is small.

The UN’s non-transformational approach to adaptation “refers to adjustments in ecological, social or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects. It refers to changes in processes, practices and structures to moderate potential damages or to benefit from opportunities associated with climate change”.

“Adaptation actions can take on many forms, depending on the unique context of a community, business, organisation, country or region. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all-solution’—adaptation can range from building flood defences, setting up early warning systems for cyclones, switching to drought-resistant crops, to redesigning communication systems, business operations and government policies”.

Twenty years ago such an approach alone may have been appropriate, but as off-the-scale ocean temperatures and sea ice loss shock the world and increasingly severe, large scale and complex catastrophic events wreak lives and reduce resilience, this is not enough. We need transformational change, as everything is at stake.

The Australian Security Leaders Climate Group (ASLCG) recently asked a crucial question, “How can a realistic climate or defence policy be determined without first understanding the risks they are supposed to address”? The lack of such assessment suggests that successive governments, in concert with many corporate leaders, preferred to ignore the real risks of climate change, including food and water insecurity, perhaps to avoid accusations of failing to act upon this knowledge.

A comparable analysis in 2021 by UK’s premier, government-funded security think-tank, Chatham House, reported that “the world is dangerously off track to meet the Paris Agreement goals, the risks are compounding, and without immediate action the impacts will be devastating in the coming decades”. It warned cascading climate impacts will “drive political instability and greater national insecurity, and fuel regional and international conflict.”

Similarly, Australia’s National Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategy 2021 – 2025 (Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) is driving a National Climate Risk Assessment to prioritise concerns raised by environmental, climate and social scientists and Indigenous leaders.

Fundamental within this Strategy must be protection of environmental and human capital able to meet the needs of coming generations of Australians. It must ensure that soil, forest, marine and water governance systems view their responsibility as a security, health and survival issue and a human right, enabling continued food production in ever hotter and drier climates.

After decades, the battle for environmental water to restore the natural ecological environment continues. Water remains primarily considered as an economic resource. Our adaptation Strategy must eliminate the root human-driven causes of past and current disasters, e.g. the Murray Darling River system which epitomises national problems with water management. Richard Beasley, former senior counsel assisting the Murray-Darling Royal Commission in “Dead in the Water” (2021), Margaret Simons in “Cry Me a River” (2020) and scientific studies detail mismanagement, disagreement between states, incompetence, corruption, water theft and political malfeasance. Without correction, death of the river and loss of $20 billion in agricultural produce is likely.

Protecting groundwater is also crucial, one third of the world’s largest basins are continuously declining.

Groundwater supports vital purifying ecosystems of stygofauna, thousands of species of blind eels, blind beetles and translucent crustaceans which clear bacteria, viruses and nutrients in aquifers protecting surface water ecosystems.

Australia’s precious groundwater resources are threatened by excessive withdrawal and contamination from thirsty and polluting developments, particularly expanding oil, gas, coal and cotton in the NT, WA Queensland and NSW. Remarkably a pilot proposal awaits approval from the Queensland government to liquefy CO2 from a coal-fired power station and store it deep within the Great Artesian Basin.

A year ago, Pearls published “We need urgent action to save our life support systems”, however land clearing continues, species disappear, soils deteriorate and bigger, more threatening developments seek approval. Just last week,, a Regional Forestry Agreement enabling logging in NSW and Queensland forests was legally confirmed.

Each such outcome diminishes hopes of slowing environmental destruction and achieving climate adaptation. Effective laws, management revolution, powerful voices and political guts are needed now. 2023’s astonishing temperatures demonstrate it’s crunch time.

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