A year ago, discussion of climate change as an existential threat, and the corresponding need for emergency action, was anathema to those leading debate on climate policy in the political, corporate and NGO incumbencies globally. Incremental change remained the order of the day. But even that was too much for Australia, where political denial of climate change remained dominant.
Today, in the face of rapidly accelerating climate impacts, “existential threat” and “climate emergency” have become common currency globally, “existential” meaning the potential to destroy humanity as we know it. The UK, Irish and Catalonian Parliaments, along with 560 councils and regions, such as the ACT, representing 66 million people in 13 countries, have adopted formal climate emergency resolutions. The movement grows daily as civil disobedience from Extinction Rebellion, school children and others escalates.
But Australia still has its head in the sand. We are most exposed to this threat, yet we return a government which has been incapable of delivering any credible climate and energy policy, and now intends to ramp up massive fossil fuel expansion to hasten our demise. As international climate impact specialist Prof. Stefan Ramstorf put it: “A country so vulnerable to drought and wildfire, to floods and tropical storms and sheer heat, voting for coal, that’s turkeys voting for Christmas”.
In the new Morrison ministry, climate does not rate a mentioned, but henceforth it will dominate our lives. Yet again industry demands policy clarity, built around the fourth-rate compromise of the NEG. Minister Taylor is not even prepared to contemplate that, despite the fact that nothing of substance is offered in its place. Minister Canavan demands new coal-fired power and coal mines in the Galilee Basin, putting the people of Northern Australia at great risk of severe climate impact and destroying their existing sustainable businesses, such as Great Barrier Reef tourism. And the ALP show every sign of walking away from their more ambitious, but still inadequate climate policy
Recent surveys indicate, the election notwithstanding, that a large majority of Australians now favour strong or emergency climate action, and the Prime Minister has committed his government to act in the interests of all Australians.
That being so, the government has no mandate for their wholly inadequate approach to climate and energy, which will destroy Australian society. Government Ministers have never taken the time to understand what climate change really means. If this gross failure of leadership and imagination continues, Parliament will fail catastrophically in its duty of care to protect the Australian people, their safety and well-being. That is not acceptable in the face of an existential threat.
Why a Climate Emergency?
The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement emission reduction commitments, if implemented, would lead to a temperature increase of 3.50C by 2100 – described by national security experts as “outright social chaos”. We are currently on track for a 4.50C increase, a world “incompatible with any organised society”, resulting in a substantial reduction in global population long before 2100.
Dangerous climate change is occurring at the 1oC temperature increase already experienced. The 2oC upper Paris limit is the boundary of extremely dangerous climate change. To stay below 2°C, global emissions must peak now and be rapidly reduced. The lower 1.5°C Paris target requires even more rapid reduction. Instead, emissions rise in line with worst case scenarios.
This IPCC analysis assumes only a 50-66% chance of meeting the targets. Not good odds for the future of humanity. To have a sensible 90% chance, there is no carbon budget left today to stay below 2oC, let alone 1.5oC. Thus all fossil fuel consumption should stop immediately. Obviously that is not going to happen, but new investment must stop now, and the existing industry wound down as fast as possible.
Emissions from continued fossil fuel investment lock-in irreversible, existential outcomes today. By the time their impact becomes clear, it will be too late to take avoiding action.
Atmospheric aerosols produced by burning coal and oil are cooling the planet by around 0.50C. As aerosol concentrations reduce with the phase-out of fossil fuels, a commensurate one-off increase in temperature is likely, compounding the problem of staying below warming limits.
Proposed solutions to meet the targets rely heavily on carbon removal from the atmosphere using technologies, which do not exist at scale today. This is extremely dangerous, creating a false sense of security.
The recent IPCC 1.50C report understates key risks in moving from 1.5oC to 2oC warming. For example, increasing climate-driven refugees, exceeding tipping points that could push the world on to an irreversible path to a “Hothouse Earth”, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet instability triggering multi-metre sea level increase. Exceeding 1.5oC poses huge risks, but it is likely that will occur within a decade.
Three decades of predatory delay by political, corporate and media players mean it is now impossible to limit temperature increases to 1.5oC, and probably to 2oC unless global leaders commit to emergency action. Australia is not exempt.
What Does Emergency Action Mean?
The accelerating momentum for emergency action is long overdue, but there has been minimal discussion of what that actually means in the context of an existential threat.
In short, akin to wartime, business-as-usual is suspended, politically, socially and corporately, replaced with an all-encompassing commitment, from all sectors of society, to do whatever it takes to address the threat, in their collective interest. This requires new modus operandi, cutting across or dispensing with conventional left and right wing politics. The best leaders are convened, not necessarily politicians, in a governance structure that may resemble a government of national unity, supported by the best scientific, technical, economic, financial and social expertise to address the challenge. Quite simply, there is no higher priority.
Clearly such change is way beyond anything contemplated in international negotiations, or in national policies, to date, but it is the inevitable outcome of the evolving climate reality.
The economic consequences of our climate inaction are becoming a major drag on the economy. The refusal, by both main parties, to honestly inform the community of the implications, is irresponsibility of the worst kind. An abject failure of political leadership, particularly in refusing to initiate discussion on fair and equitable transition arrangements for those who will be adversely affected. Notably those in the thermal coal industry, which will inevitably contract rapidly.
To open up a new coal province like the Galilee Basin, indeed any new fossil fuel investment, in such circumstances is suicidal from every angle. Even if Adani alone proceeds without the other mega coal mines, the economic cost to Australia from misallocation of capital, diversion and misuse of resources, particularly water, stranded assets and worsening climate impact, will be massive, far outweighing any short-term financial and employment benefit. Plus the opportunity cost of not investing in readily available low-carbon alternatives which have far better economic and employment potential.
The next three years will be a roller-coaster as the government struggles to deal with escalating climate impact. The longer planning for an emergency transition away from fossil fuels is delayed, the greater the economic damage to the community, and the social chaos it will create. Particularly in Northern Australia, which will face further devastation as events such as the Townsville floods proliferate.
Parliament must now demonstrate it can be trusted to act in the interests of all Australians by committing us to emergency action.
Ian Dunlop was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chair of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is co-author of “What Lies Beneath: the understatement of existential climate risk”, and of the Club of Rome’s “Climate Emergency Plan”.
An edited version of this article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 3rd June 2019.