Humanity has a big decision to make in the climate end-game

| August 24, 2018

Humanity has a big decision to make very soon about its future on warming planet, but the Federal Coalition is still in denial that human-induced climate change even exists, let alone that the climate end-game is upon us.

Yet again our political leaders are pre-occupied with getting re-elected, totally ignoring the national interest and their first priority which we are repeatedly told is the security of the community, not the current fad of  reducing energy prices.

Energy policy is important, but the greatest threat to Australia’s security now is climate change, which the NEG largely ignored and in the latest twist, is to be written out of policy consideration entirely.

It is beyond belief that in 2018, in the face of massive drought in Australia, and evidence all around the world for years of escalating climate impact, particularly in Europe, North America and Asia right now, our political leaders can still deny the problem even exists.

They sit like rabbits transfixed in the headlights unable to think beyond their own selfish concerns as we head into what is likely to be an horrendous summer. Ethically and morally bankrupt – and criminally negligent. Particularly for the Australian farming community who are copping the leading edge of climate impact

The federal government’s denial of climate risk is evident in its failure to even talk about that risk. As a result, climate and energy policy is a shambles, endlessly trying to reconcile the irreconcilable: expanding our fossil-fuel based economy, particularly coal, whilst pretending to address climate issues.

Excruciating contortions by conservatives to rationalise this nonsense have only highlighted the danger to Australia’s security and people of allowing scientific illiteracy to dominate decision-making on critical issues, particularly when the risks are the destruction of human society as we know it.

For climate change is now an existential risk to humanity. That is, a risk posing large negative consequences which will be irreversible, resulting inter alia in major reductions in global and national populations, mass species extinction, economic disruption and social chaos, unless carbon emissions are reduced far more rapidly than proposed under the Paris Agreement, way beyond the wholly inadequate 26-28% Australian commitment.

The risk is immediate, in that it is being locked in today by the insistence of Australian political and corporate conservatives and their global kin to expand the use of fossil fuels when the carbon budget to stay below sensible temperature limits is already exhausted.

And where are the business leaders?  We are told it is absolutely critical that the NEG be implemented to ensure investment certainty, yet no individual Chairman or CEO is prepared to stand up and be counted on these issues. Rather, as always, they use lowest-comon-denominator industry associations to do their bidding.

Our top companies have access to the best scientific and risk management advice. They know full well the existential climate risks we face, or they should do if their directors are fulfilling their fiduciary responsibilities.

Why have they been prepared to accept the appalling compromise that the NEG represents to appease the Coalition right wing, rather that demanding the Canberra charade cease and we implement urgent climate action? Criminal negligence again.

The investment certainty which business and politicians crave, and the lower energy prices, will be nonexistent until action on climate change is accepted as the absolute priority in determining energy policy.

It is no longer possible to follow a gradual transition path to restore a safe climate. We have left it too late; emergency action, akin to a war-footing, will eventually be accepted as inevitable. The longer that takes, the greater the damage inflicted upon humanity.

Our latest report, “What Lies Beneath, just released, demonstrates that special precautions going well beyond conventional risk management practice are required if the increased likelihood of very large climate impacts — known as “fat tails” — are to be adequately dealt with. The potential consequences of these lower-probability, but higher-impact, events would be devastating for human societies.

The bulk of climate research underplays these risks, exhibiting a preference for conservative projections and scholarly reticence, although increasing numbers of scientists have spoken out in recent years on the dangers of such an approach.

Climate policy-making and the public narrative are based around the important work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). However, IPCC reports also tend toward reticence and caution, downplaying the more extreme and damaging outcomes.

Whilst this has been understandable historically, given the pressure exerted upon the IPCC by political and vested interests, it is now becoming dangerously misleading with the acceleration of climate impacts globally. What were lower probability, higher-impact events are now becoming more likely.

This is a particular concern with potential climatic tipping points — passing critical thresholds which result in step changes in the climate system — such as melting polar ice sheets (and hence increasing sea levels), permafrost and other carbon stores, where the impacts of global warming are non-linear and difficult to model with current scientific knowledge.

The extreme risks which these tipping points represent justify strong precautionary risk management. Under-reporting on these issues is irresponsible, contributing to the failure of imagination that is occurring today in our understanding of, and response to, climate change.

A reframing of scientific research within an existential risk-management framework is urgently required, both in the work of the IPCC, and in UN climate negotiations. Current processes will not deliver either the speed or the scale of change required.

In the foreword to What Lies Beneath, Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, says that the issue now “is the very survival of our civilisation, where conventional means of analysis may become useless” and that “climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.”

Either we act with unprecedented speed, or we face a bleak future.  Australian politicians need to accept climate reality, set aside blinkered ideologies and start working for the people, not destroying their future.

We have the solutions; it is time to start using them, not preserving an unsustainable fossil-fuelled past

Like an iceberg, there is great danger in “What lies beneath”.

This article was written by David Spratt, the Research Director for Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, and Ian Dunlop, a senior member of the Breakthrough Advisory Board.  It was first published on Pearls and Irritations and is reproduced with the author’s permission.