The Climate Tide roars in, yet leaders fail to understand and act

Jun 11, 2020

Climate change is a massively complex ‘wicked’ problem hence solutions require human capacities of logic and imagination guiding action. Our leaders appear bereft of science-based logic, acknowledging neither magnitude nor urgency of climate change.

This denial may be facilitated by refusal to imagine themselves inside these impacts and become mobilised to take responsibility for the suffering of those who are and will be affected by their decisions.

A Devastating experience of natural disasters

Let’s explore the plight of people in India and Bangladesh salvaging a future after Cyclone Amphan smashed their lives on May 20. With millions affected, over 100 deaths and hundreds of thousands needing urgent assistance, farmers bear salt water inundation of their lands, mass fish kills, contaminated drinking water and rising COVID19 in intolerable heat. Consider the anguish in one of the world’s poorest, most densely populated regions.

In 1970 Cyclone Bhola killed 300,000 in the same region, but despite fewer direct deaths assisted by improved warning, circumstances bode particularly poorly for post-Amphan recovery. Indeed even in US territory Puerto Rico, recovery from Cyclone Maria in 2017 remains poor, perpetuating suffering three years later.

In 2019, 5 million people in India (24.9million globally) were internally displaced by weather disasters. With vast ecosystem damage, there is little to go home to.

Meanwhile at the recent summit with Indian Prime Minister Modi, Mr. Morrison said, “We share an ocean and we share responsibility for that ocean as well, its health, well being and security”. Unfortunately the grave risks both countries face on their East and West coasts and inlands from climate change–charged cyclones, floods, heat waves and droughts wasn’t discussed. The talk was about energy, defense and trade, not climate change mitigation, adaptation or humanitarian aid.

NOAA has confirmed that tropical cyclones severity increased 8% from 1979-1998 and 15% from 1998-2017. IPCC modeling demonstrates that 2oC warming will be vastly more dangerous, from cyclones and flooding, land and marine heat waves, droughts, species extinctions, food and water insecurity, famines, etc.

Health savings from staying below 1.5oC are also massive, reducing injuries, infectious diseases, air pollution, malnourishment, poverty, displacement and mental illness. Even so, WHO warns any rise enhances risk, even below 1.5oC.

Two stern messages also came from IPCC and WHO in 2018 – we cannot return from an overshoot of emissions over 1.5oC and the greater the warming, the lower the chances of safely adapting.

Yet limiting warming to 1.5oC degrees is now beyond us without heroic effort – the world must reduce emissions by 45% by 2030 for any hope.

Since the government’s planet revolves around an economic sun, their problem is best explained as a sizable debt (atmospheric CO2 and methane), increasing annually with compounding interest. Each passing year the debt becomes larger and more difficult to pay back. This is a world debt, but as the Paris Agreement requires, rich countries like Australia must lead – carrying greater proportions of debt because of their wealth and ability to spearhead global clean energy transitions. Inexplicably, Australia remains locked in a pathological greenhouse gas spending spree.

Imagine the consequence of default for Australia

Imagine the vulnerability of your own family to these devastating predictions.

Imagine worsening heat waves –the deadliest climate emergency – and as predicted, large swathes of Northern Australia, including Darwin, with average annual temperatures similar to the Sahara Desert’s hottest pockets.

Like many Bangladeshi’s probably feel today, we would be cooked.

Imagine dealing with regular epidemics from diseases jumping species and temperature barriers, facilitated by habitat and biodiversity loss.

Imagine economic collapse has resulted from our failure to reduce emissions. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2020 ranks climate action failure the #1 global economic impact risk, above weapons of mass destruction, and now calls for a ‘great COVID19 reset’ on sustainability.

Imagine the state of our mental health, especially bearing knowledge of our leaders’ failure to join this call for their own people.

Even after recent unprecedented megafires and smoke that directly killed 33 people, accelerated about 400 deaths and put 4,500 more people in hospital climate mitigation and adaptation is conveniently deferred into a Royal Commission that will report what we already know.

Just three months post-megafires, Australia’s COVID19 recovery planning appears determined to deliver a fossil fuel-coated silver bullet, using taxpayer’s money to rescue and expand gas and coal. Australia is already the world’s leading exporter of coal and LNG.

How this can happen within wealthy democracies is climate change’s greatest mystery. It requires abject leadership failure, subservience to fossil fuel industries for inexplicable reasons, inability to understand science or to imagine the magnitude of intergenerational suffering.

How to drive more action?

We call on political leaders who buy into the fossil fuel silver bullet to imagine millions of Australians coping with tropical cyclones, floods, megafires, droughts of ever growing fury in 2025, 2030 and 2040.

Or failing their imagination, ask them to prepare explanations to their grandchildren who will experience the outcomes of their governance.

Without major change the long term outlook for our nation under either major Party is arguably as poor as those in India and Bangladesh.

Solutions are in their hands. Australia is rich with 65,000 years of ecological knowledge, detailed plans, vision, affordable technology, world class universities, innovative brains and widespread desire for healthy, secure futures.

In the face of inaction, surely there are sufficient thinkers among the Parliament’s 226 members and senators to make a stand and demand action?

Surely there is overwhelming medical evidence to support a legal case of negligence against government that starkly exposes the intent and reasoning to promote fossil fuels via the COVID19 Commission.

When this issue is addressed, we can all breathe easier for the solutions to climate change will simultaneously advance Australia’s interlocking wicked problems of social and racial injustice, as it is the poor and Indigenous who suffer the most.

Dr Melissa Haswell is the Professor of Practice in Environmental Wellbeing, Office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) at University of Sydney and Professor of Health, Safety and Environment at Queensland University of Technology

Dr David Shearman AM FRACP is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University

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