MIKE SCRAFTON. Global warming – we’re screwed!

In 2018, the IPCC warned with high confidence that ‘Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if [the rate of emissions] continues to increase at the current rate’. The World Meteorological Organisation reported this week that in 2018 emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide had equalled or surpassed emissions in the previous year. We’re screwed!

The Australian political elite faces a bleak reality that is overwhelmingly imposed on Australia from outside; it is the product of forces and developments over which Australian governments can have no control. Australia can only become a forceful and persistent advocate for international cooperation and coordination on the matters related to or flowing from global warming and an exemplar. In addition, the government must rapidly introduce measures domestically that are aimed at shielding Australian citizens to the extent possible from the consequences of global warming.

The world’s population is projected to increase by ten percent to 8.5 billion in a decade and to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. That is, in the period in which global warming will have passed 1.5oC (and be on its way to a 2oC or 3oC rise) there will be another two billion people to feed, clothe, house, and employ.

The implications of this needs to be absorbed. The world faces the seemingly impossible task of transforming the global economy, industrial production, agricultural practises, transport, food supply chains, and energy generation while at the same time that it caters for an increase of 25 percent in the demand for these outputs.

The combination of population growth and global warming poses a technical and moral quandary for the transformation of food production. Presently, the number of people in the world who suffer from hunger continues to increase and ‘more than 820 million people in the world were still hungry in 2018’. Rates of hunger are growing in Africa, Western Asia and Latin America. Moreover, a 2019 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates ‘that over 2 billion people do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food, including 8 percent of the population in Northern America and Europe’. That’s the contemporary problem.

Based on IPCC figures, agriculture, forestry and other land use are responsible for an estimated 23 percent of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. An unavoidable area for radical reduction in emissions. But, the intersection between food scarcity and food insecurity with global warming is complicated.

Existing inefficiencies in food distribution and production, and especially food wastage, are being compounded by the effect that desertification, water shortages, shifting precipitation patterns, droughts, seasonal temperature variations, and changes in disease and pest vectors attributable to climate change. So, to continue providing adequate nutrition to the world with the current agricultural practises is going to be difficult enough let alone feeding an additional couple of billion more in the next three decades. To maintain an adequate supply of food while simultaneously expanding production and at the same transforming the agricultural sector into a low or zero emissions sector seems impossible. It is also analogous to similar problems that will be faced in other high emissions sectors. In such a transformation it would not just be radical on-farm change that would be required but radical changes to the means of transport, distribution, and storage. Serious disruption to the sector could lead to malnutrition and starvation across the globe, especially among the most disadvantaged and otherwise vulnerable.

Even if the required investment could be found, the alternative agricultural practises proven, the transition path identified, and the managerial capacity located, it seems inordinately optimistic to believe any individual government would embark on such a program or that governments around the world could coordinate their actions on this. How would any government sell the risk of going hungry?

If global warming is to be limited to 1.5oC, simultaneous with agricultural emissions being dramatically reduced to low or zero, the same outcome has to be achieved simultaneously in global energy sector. Consider the feedback loop implications. The IPCC has reported ‘Global model pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C are projected to involve the annual average investment needs in the energy system of around 2.4 trillion USD2010 between 2016 and 2035’. Actions in these areas ‘include the widespread adoption of new and possibly disruptive technologies and practices and enhanced climate-driven innovation’. Drastic reductions in the rate of growth of energy sector emissions before 2035 seem unlikely.

There are, of course, many other steps that need to be taken in parallel. Sea level rise will continue inexorably beyond 2100 affecting hundreds of millions of people living in low lying areas. Apart from large scale emergency humanitarian assistance being required by disadvantaged groups, significant investment will be required in protecting coastal urban infrastructure or relocating populations. To facilitate the necessary changes the financial sector will need to be restructured. The list goes on!

And it’s just getting worse. The UN’s Emissions Gap report concludes ‘The summary findings are bleak. Countries collectively failed to stop the growth in global GHG emissions, meaning that deeper and faster cuts are now required’. To avoid overshooting 1.5oC warming emissions would need to be 25 percent lower by 2030 and staying below 2oC means being 55 percent lower than in 2018.

Not going to happen!

The Australian government cannot fix the world’s global warming problem but it can set an example; it can contribute. The task is avoiding the catastrophic case. Even then it seems highly improbable that the global community will be able to reach consensus and agree on a path to avoid 2oC, let alone plan and implement it. Given the inertia and lassitude of governments around the world it won’t happen.

We’re screwed!

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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12 Responses to MIKE SCRAFTON. Global warming – we’re screwed!

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    The question of exemplarification is simple.

    Are we prepared to elect a government which winds down Australia’s strategic contribution to global warming (e. g. exports of coal) to nil by, say, 2030?

    If you think “yes” – what do we have to do to obtain such a political decision?

    And just how do you think our prospective example would persuade other countries (particularly India) to commit to doing likewise?

    Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely wish we could have that power. I just don’t think we do – nor that we can.

    We’re screwed. All of us. Everyone.

    Don’t bother writing a will.

  2. Ray Hehr says:

    Thank you Mike for linking world population growth with global warming. It is a point often missed. We are really fighting on two fronts. I agree with your pessimistic outlook. Where ever one looks there are few signs of change. The US have dropped out of the UN Kyoto agreement and China’s emissions will continue to grow for a decade. Any person only needs to look at NASA’s CO2 graph of the recording from Mauna Kea to see that the line of CO2 increase in the atmosphere is going up in a straight line at 45 degrees and hasn’t changed, even after 25 years of UN sponsored international conferences on Climate Change. We are indeed screwed!

  3. Michael Flynn says:

    Speaking truth to power is a good start and publication is a rare blessing. We all have to deal with the inconvenient fact that global warming will impact us and our children.
    Peaceful co-operation at the local level with regional and national support is the go.
    There is a risk of chaos when guns and food/water theft arise so “defence” is local. This is not the time to be spending on submarines and supporting nuclear weapons that do not make us safe. Our spend to keep US defence strong has to shift to plans to deal with the real prospect of disruption in Australia particularly in cities. Imagine no food or water !
    Young people get it and are scared. They are the adults. Our leaders have to step up now.

  4. Allan Kessing says:

    Truth is not supped gladly by people with belief in an agenda.
    It has been well observed that “Faith is what one requires to believe something they know to be untrue.” which applies to politics, economics & religion, as well as commercial sport or gambling.
    There is no doubt that the thawing of the permafrost regions of Canada & Siberia will release far more methane than all the bovine digestion currently on the conveyor belt to causing epidemic obesity throughout most of the developed world.
    The tip-over point is locked in – it cannot be avoided.
    Amelioration is a worthy plan for the long term future, if any, but in the life time of many reading this article the best plan is adaptation.
    Which will be a money spinner for shonks & spivs still pushing denialism who can change direction faster than the BigBrother apparatchik receiving word, mid rant about the threat of EastAsia, to then proclaim “We have always been at war with Oceania.”

  5. Ray Brindal says:

    Sadly, Mike Scrafton outlines a highly credible argument for doing nothing to address the rapidly emerging crisis arising from anthropogenic global warming and climate change.
    Conservative ‘thinkers’ – who apparently ‘inform’ Australia’s extreme LNP governing regime – could rally behind such an analysis, declaring if “we’re screwed” anyway why bother doing anything. Such is their desperation to give their generous benefactors among fossil fuel producers free rein to do anything they want.
    Fortunately, the intransigence of conservatives acts in direct opposition to human nature. Faced with our own mortality, the extinction of our species and life on Earth, humans will choose to save themselves. The scale of our efforts, such as the massive national effort required to regreen Australia by planting tens of billions of gum trees and other native plants to soak up atmospheric CO2, is hard to imagine.
    At the very least, this will help moderate the impact of the climate crisis, extending our time on our home planet. It’s worth a go and worth starting immediately.

    • Stephen allen says:

      So the intransigence of LNP is not human nature, are the LNP inhuman?

    • Mike Scrafton says:

      Global warming’s reality is not a political issue between conservatives and progressives (neither of which have had the imagination and scientific literacy to understand the scope of the problem). It trend and scope is a reality irrespective of Australian politics.
      I agree Australian governments should do all they can to mitigate the problem but to suggest that the global impact would be much more than to provide an example is fanciful. Unless enormous efforts are made cooperatively across the globe by the world community the emissions are going to grow and any Australian contribution won’t change that.

  6. Ken Russell says:

    We probably are screwed, but this mustn’t stop us from doing all we can to help avert a climate catastrophe. It would be good if Australia was contributing to the solution rather than being part of the problem. Decarbonizing electricity globally by no later than 2050 is a key requirement for the world to have any chance of holding the temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Australian governments (federal and state) are pulling in the wrong direction by promoting a long-term future for thermal coal. The opening up of the Galilee Basin illustrates this.

  7. Peter Farley says:

    While I am every bit is a bit concerned about Climate Change as the writer, this sort of article does nothing to solve the problem. All it does is promote hopelessness, denial and inaction.
    In fact if over-consumption and food waste together were reduced by 60-70% we would have plenty of food to go round.
    Further, innovations such as regenerative agriculture, reafforestation, vertical farming agri-voltaics and a less meat intensive diet can not only increase food calories per hectare but restore grasslands and forests while improving water utilisation.
    These projects are doubly effective in combating global warming because they increase carbon sequestration in the soils while reducing NOx and CO2 emissions produced by industrial farming and allowing land to be returned to nature either as grasslands or forests.
    This already apparent in France, Germany and Spain which have all increased forest area by about 1 m ha in the last 20 years, and China which has increased forest area by 19 m ha. None of these countries has become less self-sufficient in food.
    None of this is to deny that there is a long way to go and even with our best efforts it will get worse before it gets better, but we can have a huge influence on how bad things get if we show what can be done rather than what can’t

    • Peter Farley says:

      Further evidence that the food supply can be provided is that India which has the same population as the whole of Africa but has 1/7th of the arable land is nominally self sufficient in food. It is well known that there is plenty of room for improvement in India’s farming practices as there are for the rest of the world

    • Mike Scrafton says:

      India handily proves the point. The World Food Program notes that ‘India is home to a quarter of all undernourished people worldwide, making the country a key focus for tackling hunger on a global scale. In the last two decades, per capita income more than tripled, yet the minimum dietary intake fell’.
      The entire economy has to be transformed in India to address hunger because it is not a matter of simply having enough but of addressing ‘market forces’ and income distribution. Just improving farming practises in a world where floods, droughts and storms are becoming more frequent and stronger is not enough.
      The world food problem is currently intractable and will only get worse with population growth. Another two billion people will make it unimaginably difficult and then there’s response to global warming.

      • Peter Farley says:

        I agree that economic transformation is absolutely necessary, but the point is that food production can be maintained or even increased in less land with less water and less petrochemical derived inputs than we use now.
        The problem is by no means intractable, there are huge areas of land from Poland across to the Stans where food production can be significantly increased. Food production will increase in Canada and Russia. Similarly in Africa, Ethiopia is showing that wise management can dramatically restore exhausted lands. Those practices followed across Africa can increase food output dramatically while restoring a significant area of forests and grass lands
        While production in Australia can be expected to fall and possibly quite rapidly if we stay with business as usual , regenerative agriculture has been shown to increase yields by a factor of 2-3 under the right circumstances. We will almost certainly grow less wheat but the opportunity for solar assisted horticulture such as Sundrop farms and Nectar farms can vastly increase agricultural value added. The difficulty for Australia is that with the right techniques most countries can reduce their food imports and our markets may decline
        The point is we have to encourage people by showing them what can be done rather than throwing up our hands and saying we are doomed

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