The drought and bushfires ravaging large parts of Australia are a foretaste of the climate emergency which, after three decades of inaction by our political and corporate leaders, is locked-in for years to come.
They are early signs that the irreversible climate tipping points, which have concerned scientists for years, are starting to manifest themselves here.
Yet even after the horrors of the last two weeks, complacency reigns supreme. Angus Taylor trumpets that Australia is leading the world in responding to climate change. Utter nonsense on any objective assessment.
Joel Fitzgibbon proclaims that “Labour can support fossil fuels whilst battling climate change”, re-affirming the ALP’s ignorance of climate reality, already evident with their about-face support for Adani and the opening up of the Galilee basin coal deposits.
But most concerning, the Prime Minister insists that there is nothing unprecedented about the current disasters, and that “our emission reduction policies will both protect our environment and seek to reduce the risk and hazard we are seeing today.” It beggars belief that, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the leader of this country, with access to the best possible scientific and risk management advice, can make statements so totally divorced from reality. These are absolutely unprecedented conditions but not unexpected to those paying attention .Furthermore current policies are hopelessly inadequate.
To cap it all, in a blast from the past, Tony Abbott assures us that climate change is little more than a religious cult, as he and his mentor John Howard established long ago. Regarding climate change, “as a matter of simple logic, carbon dioxide emissions, particularly human carbon dioxide, are not the only, or even the main factor here.”
When will politicians accept climate change is not about left or right wing ideology, or religion, but about our survival?
Years of warnings about climate risk have been deliberately ignored in the interests of ideology and short-term profiteering. At the May 2019 election the government deliberately refused to articulate these potential disasters to the community, despite the fact that they had been spelt out by the government’s own risk advisors in the 2018/19 National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework:
“The cost of disasters to society and the economy are growing and it is becoming increasingly apparent we need to urgently do more than change at the margin”
“Natural hazards intersecting with societies are not only possible, but are highly plausible, and their effect will likely exceed the capacity of the nation. The consequential damage, loss and suffering would be immense and enduring”.
We are now paying the price, with society picking up the bill for this criminal indulgence. Lives and livelihoods are being lost and impacts will inevitably get much worse.
Emergency action is now essential at two levels:
First, to handle the immediate devastation, and to support affected communities. Something we are good at, albeit the government has left the country totally unprepared to face these conditions, reliant upon unsustainable, herculean efforts by volunteers.
Second, to fundamentally change policy to prevent the current disasters escalating into even more catastrophic outcomes. The only way climate change can now be addressed realistically is akin to wartime, where an over-riding existential threat to our security is identified which becomes the absolute focus of national, and in this case, global attention. There is nothing more important.
Climate change is that threat. Clearly we do not have political leaders who can be trusted to handle it, let alone with the capability to do so even if they wished. There is none of the statesmanship required to contribute to the global collective action which is so essential. Both major parties have deliberately misled the people, and failed in their primary responsibility to ensure the security of the nation. For which there is no excuse. They must step aside, now.
In their place, we need a governance structure of national unity, comprising genuine leaders from politics, business, finance, academia and community, supported by technical experts to identify and act upon the optimal solutions to the climate challenge. Climate and energy policy must be built upon a few hard truths:
There is no global carbon budget left to stay below 2oC, so the emissions of every major emitter, country or company, need to reduce, fast. It is in our interests to lead in achieving this, rather than spoiling every step of the way, as our governments have been doing for years.
The Paris emission reduction commitments overall were woefully inadequate, with Australia’s contribution, 26-28% reduction by 2030 (less than half that amount if the totally unjustified Kyoto carryover credits are applied) one of the worst. Our current targets are worthless as a real contribution to the global climate challenge
Far from being an insignificant “1.3% of global emissions”, our climate impact must be assessed by including fossil fuel exports. Climate change is a global problem, and emissions have global impact irrespective of the point of consumption. On that basis, Australia is already the fourth largest global carbon polluter. What we do, in emission reduction terms, matters.
In these circumstances, arguments that Australian coal exports can expand as our coal is better quality than others are nonsense. All coal consumption must reduce. Likewise with LNG exports; they are not replacing coal, and while gas emits less than coal, it is still a fossil fuel adding to the global emissions burden. Far from alleviating poverty, increasing fossil fuel use is creating it. So no Adani, LNG expansion or Great Australian Bight oil exploration.
Market-based mechanisms and technological innovation alone are not sufficient to address climate change; widespread regulatory reform is essential. Misuse of market power has been a major factor in creating the current disasters, delivering a massive A$42 billion subsidy annually to our fossil fuel industries. That subsidy must be removed rapidly, with far more support given to renewables, energy efficiency and conservation, and other solutions to accelerate the transformation.
It suicidal to build our economy, as our politicians and some corporations intend, on fossil fuel resources and technologies which are fundamentally unsustainable and will destroy our civilisation.
One notable feature, amidst the disasters of the last few weeks, is the silence of the directors, corporate leaders investors, and their industry bodies such as the Business Council of Australia, the Minerals Council, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, the Queensland Resource Council and the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, who still refuse to face up to the reality of climate change, and who have been major architects of Australia’s official climate denial.
In this context, a senior cadre of Australian directors for years have been strong climate deniers. Even now they consider regulatory concerns over climate to be “alarmist”, and the impacts of climate change to be long-term and not foreseeable. A view which is totally at odds with any objective assessment of the overwhelming science and evidence to the contrary but which, given their seniority has had a pernicious effect in spreading climate denial “groupthink” within the closed confines of the Australian directors club.
In contrast to the corporate silence, the conservative media, notably the Murdoch press, are hysterically doubling down on denial as climate impacts worsen and their role in creating these disasters is ever more obvious.
We have a wide range of attractive and innovative solutions to develop a low-carbon, sustainable Australia.
However they have no chance of being successfully implemented as long as the ruling elite operate under this fundamental philosophy of climate denial.
We have one chance to get this right, so no more half-baked, self-serving “politically acceptable” solutions.
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”.