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 south-east 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 too many of 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 20 other NSW coal projects, Shell’s CSG and LNG expansion, Northern Territory and West Australian 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 becomes evermore hysterical, lying and dissembling to avoid accountability – “we will meet our climate obligations at a canter”.
The government’s 26-28 per cent emission reduction by 2030 is laughable in the context of the real obligations of climate policy, which Australia signed up to in 1992 with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, namely: “stabilisation 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 with the 1 degree warming already experienced. The lower 1.5 degree limit of the Paris Agreement will be here this decade. The upper 2 degree limit is now the boundary of extremely dangerous climate change. On our current emissions trajectory, warming will be 3 degrees to 4 degrees 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, quite possibly locking in a metre of sea level rise by 2100. The Arctic permafrost, East Antarctic ice sheet and 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 be cut by 50 per cent by 2030 and 100 per cent 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 of 1.3 per cent 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. Realising 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. They must stop publicly advocating urgent climate action while 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.
Ian Dunlop is a former international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chair of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is co-author of What Lies Beneath: the understatement of existential climate risk, and of the Club of Rome’s Climate Emergency Plan.