The belated release of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s “Reef snapshot: summer 2021-22” has exposed the Federal government’s insistence that the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is not endangered as the lie it has always been.
But beneath the political gaslighting is a far greater issue. A new report, “Climate Dominoes: tipping point risks for critical climate systems”, from the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, concludes that as a result of climate denial and inaction, the GBR, along with coral reefs worldwide, is in a death spiral even at today’s 1.2oC average global temperature increase.
The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Reports (AR6) are the most important analyses of humanity’s future on Earth to date. As Professor Sir David King FRS says in his foreword to “Climate Dominoes”: “Never before have we had so much scientific evidence demonstrating that we are in the midst of a global climate emergency.”
AR6 provides a stark warning that humanity’s chances of outrunning the devastating impacts of climate change are uncomfortably low. The fact that these reports have been ignored by our political leaders is an abrogation of their primary responsibility to ensure the security of the Australian people.
Unfortunately there is a blind spot in the AR6 analysis, in that the severity of human impact on our planetary ecosystems is leading us toward a range of irreversible tipping points.
These are the greatest risks of climate change, for the process does not necessarily progress in a linear manner correlated with increasing atmospheric carbon concentrations. Instead, at certain points, it may “tip” abruptly from one relatively stable state to another far less conducive to human prosperity or survival. For example, Arctic sea ice is melting rapidly as temperatures rise four times faster than the global average. As a result, less solar radiation is reflected back to space off the white ice; instead it warms the oceans, which in turn warm the seabed and surrounding land, melting permafrost, leading to further carbon emissions and accelerated warming.
Fifteen non-linear tipping points were identified around the world some years ago. Once triggered, they may become irreversible, beyond the influence of humanity, with catastrophic outcomes. Some are inter-related; once one triggers, others may follow in a cascading effect globally.
The “Climate Dominoes” report has reviewed the latest science and concludes that tipping point risks are greater than previously thought:
- At just 1.2°C of global average warming, tipping points have already been passed for several large Earth systems. These include Arctic sea ice, the Greenland Ice Sheet, the Amundsen Sea glaciers in West Antarctica, the East Amazon rainforest, and the world’s coral systems including the GBR.
- System-level change is happening earlier and/or faster than previously forecast, locking in substantial sea level rise and warming
- Climate models do not yet incorporate an accurate representation of these processes
- Overall, the Earth climate system is already undergoing abrupt change, not just to individual elements but also the cascading interaction between them
- This may push the system past a “Hothouse Earth” threshold of accelerating and irreversible warming. Scientists have warned this could occur in the 1.5–2°C target range of the Paris Climate Agreement. At least 1.5oC is now inevitable by 2030, irrespective of any action taken in the meantime.
Quantifying the probability and severity of these risks is difficult due to their complex nature. But from study of the Earth’s past climates we know they exist and we are ill-prepared for what may happen. Hence, as Sir David King emphasises: “Precautionary action is needed now to avoid, to the extent possible, further tipping points being triggered.”
Australia is the country most exposed to climate risk, yet the country with the most opportunities to benefit from addressing those risks. But this climate threat cannot be overcome with the anti-science, vested-interest governance that has created it over the last three decades.
In the election campaign, there has been no sense of urgency to address climate change, just antagonistic rhetoric around political trade-offs between inadequate policy options, to reach net zero by 2050.
What politicians, corporate and financial leaders fail to understand is that politics and business-as-usual is over. If we want to survive with a viable economy and society, we must act now in line with the science, rather than prioritise a free-market system which has created the climate threat, but proven incapable of solving it.
Emission reduction is the single most important issue. Zero emissions must be reached as close to 2030 as possible, with carbon drawdown from atmosphere to more stable levels. No more fossil fuel expansion or corporate and offset greenwashing, fossil fuel subsidies removed, far greater focus on demand reduction etc.
A massive task requiring national mobilisation akin to wartime. Inevitably this will be disruptive, but we have wasted the time in which we could have made an orderly transition.
This is not alarmism, but realistic recognition of the path ahead. The decisions taken here and globally in the next three years will determine the future of humanity.