Tackling the real climate challenge

| December 23, 2019

After three decades of inaction, human-induced climate change is the greatest threat, and opportunity, facing this country, far outweighing the issues dominating our domestic political discourse, such as the US/China impasse, a faltering economy and religious freedom.  The world faces the same threat.

Climate change now represents an existential challenge which, if not addressed as a genuine emergency immediately, will destroy human civilisation as we know it within decades. Immediate, in that the actions we take today, particularly expanding fossil fuel use thereby increasing global carbon emissions, are locking-in that outcome.

In stark contrast, the disastrous lack of serious climate change policy in Australia stems entirely from the fact that Federal parliamentarians of both persuasions, despite access to the best possible scientific, economic, social and health advice, refuse to accept, even today, that climate change and its risks are real, let alone doing anything to address them.

That denial is responsible for the increasingly maniacal contortions of ministers pretending to take climate action, but in essence intent upon doing nothing, despite the massive damage inflicted on the community by extreme weather.

The vitriolic exchanges between politicians regarding the linkage of drought, bushfires and climate change, confirm that our current political system is incapable of managing this threat.  Likewise with much corporate, finance and media leadership, whose business strategies either totally contradict their rhetoric urging climate action, or are ideologically locked-in to climate denial.

The starting point in overcoming this extremely dangerous situation, must be acceptance of the real climate challenge we, and the rest of the world, face. A challenge far more serious than acknowledged by our Federal and State governments.

Climate change is an immediate and existential risk

Climate change is happening faster than anticipated, driven primarily by human carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion, agriculture and land clearing. Uncertainties relate not to the basic climate science, which has been well-understood for decades, but to the speed and extent of climate impact, both of which have been badly underestimated.

  • The first round of voluntary emission reduction commitments in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, if implemented would lead to a temperature increase of around 3.50C, relative to pre-industrial conditions, by 2100 if not earlier – a world which leading national security experts describe as “outright social chaos”.
  • At present, we are on track for around a 4.50C increase, which would be “a world incompatible with any organised society”, resulting in a substantial reduction in global population, toward 1 billion from the current 7.5 billion.
  • Dangerous climate change is occurring at the 10C temperature increase already experienced. The 2oC Paris upper limit now represents the boundary of extremely dangerous climate change.
  • To stay below 2°C, global emissions must peak now and be reduced by around 9% annually, something no country has ever achieved. The lower 1.5°C Paris target requires even more rapid reduction. Meanwhile, emissions rise in line with worst case scenarios.
  • This Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) analysis assumes only a 50-66% chance of meeting the targets. Not good odds for the future of humanity. To have a sensible 90% chance, there is no carbon budget left today to stay below 2oC, let alone 1.5oC.
  • Thus all fossil fuel consumption should stop immediately. Obviously that is not going to happen, but new investment must stop now, and the existing industry wound down as fast as possible.
  • Emissions from continued fossil fuel investment, including gas, lock-in irreversible, existential climatic outcomes today. Due to climate inertia, by the time the climatic impact of these investments becomes clear, it will be too late to take avoiding action. Hence the risk is immediate.
  • Atmospheric aerosols produced by burning coal and oil are cooling the planet by around 0.3 to 0.50C. As aerosol concentrations reduce with the phase-out of fossil fuels, a commensurate one-off increase in temperature is likely, compounding the problem of staying below warming limits.
  • Proposed solutions to meet the 1.5°C target rely heavily on carbon removal from the atmosphere using negative emissions technologies, none of which exist at scale today. This is extremely dangerous, creating a false sense of security.
  • The recent IPCC 1.50report understates key risks in moving from 1.5oC to 2oC warming. For example, increasing climate-driven refugees, exceeding tipping points that could push the world on to an irreversible path to a “Hothouse Earth”, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet instability triggering multi-metre sea level increase. Exceeding 1.5oC poses huge risks both for humans and natural systems, but it is likely that will occur within a decade.

In summary, it is now impossible to limit temperature increases to 1.50C, and probably to 20C unless global leaders accelerate action on climate change to an emergency footing, akin to wartime.

This is no extreme, alarmist view, but objective risk management analysis of the science and evidence.  It is also not new; it has been clear for at least a decade that these were the risks, yet officialdom globally has deliberately ignored them at the behest of fossil fuel interests and conservative acolytes.

Tipping points

The tipping points referred to above are the most critical aspects of climate change, as it does not necessarily progress in a linear manner correlated with increasing atmospheric carbon concentrations.  Instead, at a certain point, it may flip abruptly from one relatively stable state to another far less conducive to human development.

For example, Arctic sea ice is melting rapidly as temperatures rise 2-3 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.

15 non-linear tipping points were identified around the world some years ago.  They represent the greatest risks of climate change in that, once triggered, they become irreversible, beyond humanity’s  influence, with catastrophic outcomes.   Some are inter-related; once one triggers, others may follow in a cascading effect globally.

Unfortunately, the implications of tipping points are not quantified in IPCC analyses, in part because scientists do not know enough about their mechanisms to accurately assess the potential impact. This emphasises the importance of exercising the precautionary principle, by early reduction of carbon emissions.

As Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research puts it:

This is particularly true when the issue is the very survival of our civilisation, where conventional means of analysis may become useless”.

The latest assessment by leading scientists suggests that tipping points may occur earlier than previously thought. Indeed, there are indications that 9 inter-related tipping points are underway, with one, the West Antarctic ice sheet, now irreversible, leading eventually to a 3 metre sea level rise.

Others may be triggered between 1 – 2oC, raising the prospect of a global cascade effect even below the upper 2oC limit of the Paris Agreement.  Hence the importance of staying below that limit, however difficult.

They conclude:

“In our view, the evidence from tipping points alone suggests that we are in a state of planetary emergency; both the risk and urgency of the situation are acute. 

We argue that the intervention time left to prevent tipping could already have shrunk toward zero, whereas the reaction time to achieve net zero emissions is 30 years at best.  Hence we might have already lost control of whether tipping happens. A saving grace is that the rate at which damage accumulates from tipping – and hence the risk posed – could still be under our control to some extent.

The stability and resilience of our planet is in peril. International action – not just words – must reflect this.”

In short, prayers and platitudes from global, and Australian, leaders no longer suffice.


The prevalent idea that the world can still make an ordered, gradual transition to a low-carbon world, for example to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, is now totally unrealistic.  We have to take emergency action to reduce carbon emissions as fast as possible.  This means the big emitters, whether private fossil fuel companies or state entities, must take the brunt of the cuts. Other contributions, from communities, agriculture etc are important, but will not achieve the required reductions in the limited time available.  Solutions would be along the following lines;

  • Accelerate innovation to further reduce cost of low-carbon energy alternatives.
  • Ban investment in new fossil fuel capacity from 2020, then phase-out coal, then oil & gas as fast as possible as alternatives become available.
  • Remove subsidies to fossil fuel industries – currently A$42 billion in Australia, more than our Defence budget.
  • Introduce realistic carbon pricing.
  • Tighten controls on fugitive emissions from fossil fuel operations.
  • Accelerate electrification to eliminate fossil fuel rapidly.
  • Redesign agricultural practices, emphasis on soil carbon, ocean sequestration and reforestation.
  • Emphasise energy conservation and efficiency.
  • Encourage debate and reframing of values toward evolution of sustainable societies in support of this transition.
  • Provide, and plan for, a fair transition for those people and regions adversely affected.

The immediate priority must be to stop fossil fuel expansion – coal, oil or gas – both here and overseas.

What does “emergency action” mean?

The climate threat is increasingly obvious as extreme events escalate globally. As a result, the climate emergency call is being taken up widely.  In essence it means, akin to wartime, the suspension of business-as-usual, politically, corporately and socially, to do whatever it takes to resolve the climate crisis.  There is no higher priority.

 This does mean massive societal and cultural change, and fundamental reframing of virtually every policy arena; climate, energy, foreign affairs, defence, health, immigration, agriculture to name but a few. The upside is that Australia has far greater potential to prosper in the low-carbon future than in the high-carbon past, as experts have long been pointing out.

But realizing that potential requires an all-encompassing commitment to a low-carbon emergency transition. Certainly there will be costs, but the costs of ignoring climate change and continuing Australia’s current climate denialist stance will be far greater.

Addressing the existential climate threat

The immediate existential threat of climate change is a global problem that cannot be solved by Australian action in isolation.  It requires unprecedented levels of global co-operation to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.

This may seem fanciful at a time when many leading countries are moving toward isolationism.  However this existential threat is unlike anything humanity has experienced historically; if human civilisation as we know it is to survive, it is in everyone’s interest to overcome it.

Climate change has the potential to create major conflict over issues such as migration, water and other resource availability. It has already been a major factor behind the Syrian crisis, Brexit and Trump’s Mexican Wall, though this is rarely acknowledged.

As climate impacts mount, if the outcome is increasing isolationism and conflict, then civilisation will collapse.  The question is whether, and how, leadership  and statesmanship will emerge to trigger co-operation and avoid collapse?

New leaders must accept some hard truths:

  • Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is now fundamental to the economic and social prosperity of the country, indeed to our survival.
  • Emissions reduction commitments must focus on absolute outcomes, not per capita or relative comparisons. The first round of Paris voluntary emission reduction commitments were woefully inadequate. Within that, the Australian contribution of 26-28% reduction by 2030 (less than half that amount if Kyoto carryover credits are applied) was one of the worst. To claim that “we are meeting our Paris commitments” is worthless as a real contribution to the global climate challenge
  • With no global carbon budget left to stay below 2oC, the emissions of every major emitting country and company need to reduce, fast. Whether China, the US, EU, India, Australia, Exxon, Shell, BP, BHP, Rio Tinto etc.
  • Further, a country’s 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. Whilst it was convenient for the UNFCCC to adopt an accounting mechanism in the 1990s based upon consumption point, that is no longer relevant given the global climate risk we now face.
  • On that basis, Australia will shortly become the third largest global carbon polluter if current coal and LNG expansion plans are realised. We are already one of the world’s highest per capita carbon polluters.  Far from being an insignificant “1.3% of global emissions”, what Australia does matters in emission terms.
  • Arguments that Australian, or any other country’s, coal exports, can expand on the grounds that a particular coal is better quality than others are nonsense in the circumstances where there is no global carbon budget. All coal consumption must reduce.
  • Likewise with the expansion of LNG exports. Gas has less emissions per unit of energy than coal, but it is still a fossil fuel adding to the global emissions burden. Given the rate of emission reduction required, there is no justification for gas expansion. The argument that gas expansion is justified because it is replacing coal has no validity in the absence of a carbon budget.
  • Similarily, fracking expansion, deep water oil exploration whether in the Great Australian Bight or the Arctic, make no sense in the current climate context.
  • Negative emission technologies can no longer be used as a justification for fossil fuel expansion. There is no prospect of them being applied at scale in the limited time available.  They may have longer term benefit, but the immediate risks are so high that they cannot be relied upon for the time being.
  • There is a great deal of criticism directed at the supposedly excessive subsidies given to renewable energy technologies. These pale into insignificance compared to the massive A$42 billion subsidy given annually to the fossil fuel industries in Australia. The latter must be removed rapidly and more support given to renewables to accelerate the rate of change.

In an Australian context, it makes absolutely no sense to build our economy on fossil fuel resources and technologies which are fundamentally unsustainable. It is particularly untenable, in geopolitical terms, when Australia has some of the best low-carbon energy resources in the world, and is not using them.

Given that Australia is one of the countries most exposed to climate risk, Australia’s national interest, and national security, is best served now by reversing years of climate denial and taking strong global leadership in the transformation to the low carbon world.

In 1964, Donald Horne wrote:

“Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise”.

Is that still the case in the climate context, or do we have leadership and statesmanship potential capable of rising to the greatest threat, and opportunity, this country has ever faced? It is certainly true that current leaders have been taken by surprise at the ferocity of climate change impact, despite having been warned about it for years.

This article was also published on Pearls and Irritations, and is republished with the author’s permission.