The elephant in the election room – The immediate existential threat of climate change

| March 18, 2019

Human-induced climate change is happening faster than officially acknowledged. Extreme events intensify, particularly in Australia, Asia and the Pacific. Victoria and Tasmania are ablaze again. Queensland needs a decade to recover from recent floods. Much of SE Australia has become a frying pan, curtailing human activity.

The economic and social cost is massive, as Reserve Bank Deputy Governor Guy Debelle warned us this week, but our leaders refuse absolutely to acknowledge climate change as the cause.

Given the overwhelming evidence and repeated warnings of the dangers we face, even as a former oil, gas and coal industry executive I find it incomprehensible that proposals for new fossil fuel projects proliferate, encouraged by government and opposition alike,

Adani’s Carmichael, Glencore’s Wandoan, Kepco’s Bylong, Whitehaven’s Maules Creek, Shenhua’s Watermark, along with twenty other NSW coal projects, Shell’s CSG and LNG expansion, NT and WA fracking, Statoil in the Great Australian Bight, HELE coal-fired power stations, the list goes on.

These projects are crimes against humanity. Fossil fuel investment must stop, now.

As the cost of three decades of climate denial mount, the incumbency become ever more hysterical, lying and dissembling to avoid accountability – “we will meet our climate obligations at a canter.”

The government’s 26-28% emission reduction by 2030 is laughable in the context of the real obligations of climate policy, which Australia signed up to in 1992, namely: “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.

Such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

We have failed totally to meet those obligations.

Dangerous climate change is occurring at the 10C warming already experienced. The lower 1.50C limit of the Paris Agreement will be here this decade. The upper 20C limit, is now the boundary of extremely dangerous climate change. On our current emission trajectory, warming will be 3-40C long before 2100. This is a world incompatible with maintaining civilised society.

Natural ecosystems can no longer adapt to climate change, as accelerating species extinction and collapse of the Great Barrier Reef demonstrate. Food production is under threat. Sustainable development is impossible within the current economic paradigm.

The task now is to avoid triggering irreversible, non-linear tipping points, where climatic changes spiral rapidly beyond our sphere of influence, with the potential to eradicate humanity. This is an immediate existential threat, with little time to act.

The West Antarctic ice sheet has passed its tipping point, locking in a metre sea level rise by 2100. The Arctic permafrost, East Antarctic ice sheet, Amazon rainforest are close behind.

Yet we continue to increase emissions with abandon, even though the dire implications have long been known.

The current climate and energy debate is irrelevant. Our emissions must reduce 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. This requires emergency action, akin to wartime: the suspension of political and corporate “business-as-usual”, to do whatever it takes to resolve the climate crisis.

Other countries must do more, but rhetoric that our domestic emissions, 1.3% of the global total, make us an insignificant player in the emission stakes, is utter nonsense. As LNG exports increase, Australia will shortly become the world’s fourth largest carbon polluter when exports are included, as they must be given that climate change is a global problem. What Australia does matters.

We face massive societal and cultural change, but Australia has far greater potential to prosper in the low-carbon future than in the high-carbon past. Realizing that potential requires an all-encompassing commitment to emergency action. Certainly there will be costs, but we have solutions and the cost of ignoring climate change will be far greater.

This requires leadership prepared to honestly articulate these risks, and the real way forward, particularly the need for a fair transition for those adversely affected. At present Australia is totally unprepared for what is about to happen.

Politicians must bury their differences and co-operate for the common good.

Business, investors and lobbyists must stop immoral predatory delay. Stop publicly advocating urgent climate action whilst privately maximising returns from unsustainable practices before the shutters finally come down on fossil fuels.

To halt our suicidal rush to oblivion, the community must ensure no leader is elected or appointed in this country unless they are committed to emergency action.

This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and is reproduced with the author’s permission.