The Leaders We Deserve ?

Rarely have politicians demonstrated their ignorance of the real risks and opportunities confronting Australia than with the recent utterances of Barnaby Joyce, Matt Canavan and other ministers promoting development of Adani and Galilee Basin coal generally, along with their petulant foot-stamping over Westpac’s decision to restrict funding to new coal projects.  Likewise, Bill Shorten sees no problem in supporting Adani.

The media are no better; discussion instantly defaults to important but secondary issues such as Adani’s concessional government loan, the project’s importance to the economy, creating jobs for North Queenslanders and so on.

Nowhere in the debate is the critical issue even raised, namely the existential risk of climate change which such development now implies. Existential means a risk posing large negative consequences to humanity which can never be undone.  One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate life, or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.

This is the risk to which we are now exposed unless we rapidly reduce global carbon emissions.

 In Paris in December 2015, the world, Australia included, agreed to hold global average temperature to “well below 20C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.50C”, albeit the emission reduction commitments Australia tabled were laughable in comparison with our peers and with the size of the challenge.

Dangerous climate change, which the Paris Agreement and its forerunners seek to avoid, is happening at the 1.20C increase already experienced as extreme weather events, and their economic costs, escalate. 1.6oC is  already locked-in as the full effect of our historic emissions unfolds.

Our current path commits us to a 4–5oC temperature increase; a totally disorganised world with a substantial reduction in global population, possibly to less than 1 billion people from 7.5 billion today.

The voluntary emission reduction commitments made in Paris, if implemented, would still result in a 3oC increase, accelerating social chaos in many parts of the world with rising levels of deprivation, displacement and conflict.

It is already impossible to stay below the 1.50C Paris aspiration.  To have a realistic chance of staying below even 20C means that no new fossil fuel projects can be built globally, coal, oil or gas, and that existing operations, particularly coal, have to be rapidly replaced with low carbon alternatives.  Further, carbon capture technologies which do not currently exist have to be rapidly deployed at scale.

Climate change has moved out of the twilight period of much talk and limited impact.  It is now turning nasty. Some regions, often the poorest, have already seen major disasters, as has Australia.  How long will it take, and how much economic damage must we suffer, particularly in Queensland, before our leaders accept that events like Cyclone Debbie and the collapse of much of the Great Barrier Reef are being intensified by man-made climate change?  Of that there is no doubt, nor has there been for decades.  The uncertainties, regularly thrown up as reasons for inaction, relate not to the basic science but to the speed and extent of climate impact, both of which have been badly underestimated.

The  most dangerous aspect is that the impact of fossil fuel investments made today do not manifest themselves for decades to come. If we wait for catastrophe to happen, as we are doing, it will be too late to act.  Time is the most important commodity; to avoid catastrophic outcomes requires emergency action to force the pace of change.  Australia, along with Asian regions to our north, are now considered to be “disaster alley”; we are already experiencing the most extreme impacts globally.

In these circumstances, opening up a major new coal province is nothing less than a crime against humanity.  The Adani mine by itself will push  temperatures above 2oC; the rest of the Galilee basin development would ensure global temperatures went way above 3oC.  None of the supporting political arguments, such as poverty alleviation, the inevitability of continued coal use, the superior quality of our coal, or the benefits of opening up Northern Australia, have the slightest shred of credibility. Such irresponsibility is only possible if you do not accept that man-made climate change is occurring, which is the real position of both goverment and opposition.

Likewise with business.  At the recent Santos AGM, Chairman Peter Coates asserted that a 4oC world was “sensible” to assume for planning purposes, thereby totally abrogating in one word his responsibility as a director to understand and act upon the risks of climate change.  Westpac’s new climate policy is a step forward, but fails to accept that no new coal projects should be financed, high quality coal or not. The noose is tightening around the necks of company directors. Personal liability for ignoring climate risk is now real.

Yet politicians assume they can act with impunity.  As rumours of Trump withdrawing from Paris intensify, right on cue Zed Seselja and Craig Kelly insist we should do likewise, without having the slightest idea of the implications.

The first priority of government, we are told, is to ensure the security of the citizens.  Having got elected, this seems to be the last item on the politician’s agenda as climate change is treated as just another issue to be compromised and pork-barrelled, rather than an existential threat.

We deserve better leaders. If the incumbency is not prepared to act,  the community need to take matters into their own hands.

Edited versions of this article were published in the Canberra Times and RenewEconomy on 19th May 2017