Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements.
The 2019/20 Australian bushfire season was unprecedented in terms of the intensity of the fires, their areal extent and their impact on the Australian community . Initial attribution studies confirm the significant role of anthropogenic climate change in fuelling these fires . Severe drought over large parts of the continent for some years beforehand set the context for the extreme fires that developed.
Experts had warned, for some time, of the potentially catastrophic fire danger for the 2019/20 season, but these warnings were not acted upon . Whilst preparations had been made, they proved to be wholly inadequate for the unprecedented conditions which eventuated, necessitating emergency action.
The firefighting effort on the ground was exemplary from the outset. Unfortunately the national response left much to be desired, until it accelerated once the full extent of the disaster became clear. However, why were the initial warnings ignored?
Recovery from the fires was still in progress as the coronavirus pandemic hit, further compounding the impact on fire-affected communities, and on Australian society at large.
The Terms of Reference for this Royal Commission focus on “— preparedness for, response to, resilience to, and recovery from natural disasters”. Further, “— arrangements for improving resilience and adapting to changing climatic conditions, what actions should be taken to mitigate the impact of natural disasters, —-“.
Whilst these are clearly important considerations, they are essentially reactive. They cannot be meaningfully addressed unless there is an understanding, and acceptance, of the real risks which are causing these natural disasters. This must be the foundation for realistic national arrangements – to proactively provide the best chance of avoiding such disasters by mitigating the risks themselves, as opposed to mitigating the impact of the disasters, then adapting to manage the disasters we cannot avoid.
For the last three decades, Australian leaders, political and corporate, have refused to accept, and act upon, expert advice on the major risks our society faces, from climate change in particular. The resulting damage is now obvious, but this is only the beginning, as climate change, along with a number of critical, inter-related risks, will probably manifest themselves henceforth as escalating compound events, as we already see with the pandemic.
This requires entirely different emergency risk management from techniques currently employed.
The following commentary is submitted as a “relevant matter”, as per Paragraph (d) of the Commission terms of reference.
Global Catastrophic Risks
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted, in brutal fashion, that there are immediate catastrophic, potentially existential, risks confronting the Australian community for which we are totally unprepared.
The recently-formed Commission for the Human Future summarised them as follows :
• Decline of key natural resources and an emerging global resource crisis, especially in water
• Collapse of ecosystems that support life and the mass extinction of species
• Human population growth and demand, beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity
• Global warming, sea level rise and changes in the Earth’s climate affecting all human activity
• Universal pollution of the Earth system and all life
• Rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality
• Nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction
• Pandemics of new and untreatable disease
• Advent of powerful, uncontrollable new technologies
• National and global failure to understand and act preventively on these risks.
The concurrence of recovery from the bushfires with the arrival of the pandemic demonstrates these events compounding, one upon another. The pandemic in particular has highlighted the fragility of a global economic system built upon the exponential increase in both human population and consumption. For decades, concerns have been expressed about the implications , which have been ignored as the global community constructed an economic system of perverse incentives guaranteed to ensure its own destruction.
The point has now been reached where that system is indeed destroying itself, in that it cannot handle the contradictions it has created. Multiple risks are compounding in inter-related ways never previously experienced.
The availability of cheap fossil fuels triggered the exponential increases in population and consumption, one result being anthropogenic climate change. In turn, the encroachment of humanity into the natural environment, along with increasing temperature, initiated zoonotic diseases such as SARS and Covid19 . Water and food resources are also under pressure, as evidenced currently in Australia.
As one domino falls, others begin to topple. The opportunity that the current pandemic presents must be used to rethink the road ahead, not just revert to business-as-usual.
With both bushfires and pandemic, Australia was not prepared, as leaders had ignored expert advice, albeit we reacted rapidly once the events were upon us. However this will not be good enough in future, as the potential impacts will be far worse in the years ahead unless we take mitigating action to avoid the risks to the extent possible.
The risks set out above all require urgent attention. However climate change is arguably the most urgent, as explained below:
The Rapidly Changing Context of Global Climate Change
After three decades of inaction, human-induced climate change is the greatest threat, and opportunity, facing the world. 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. The rationale for that view is as follows:
• 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 3.5degC, relative to pre-industrial conditions, probably before 2100 – a world which leading national security experts describe as “outright social chaos”. At present, we are on track for around a 4.5degC 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 1oC temperature increase already experienced. The 2degC Paris upper limit now represents the boundary of extremely dangerous climate change.
• To stay below 2degC, global emissions must peak now and be reduced by around 9% annually, something no country has ever achieved. The lower 1.5degC Paris target requires even more rapid reduction. Meanwhile, until the pandemic, emissions have been rising 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 2degC, let alone 1.5degC. 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, coal, oil or 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 0.5degC. 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 1.5degC 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 1.5degC report understates key risks in moving from 1.5degC to 2degC 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 1.5degC 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 1.5degC, and probably to 2degC 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.
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 “tip” abruptly from one relatively stable state to another far less conducive to human prosperity, or survival. 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.
Fifteen 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. Hence 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 nine 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 – 2degC, raising the prospect of a global cascade effect even below the upper 2degC 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 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 left it far too late and 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, transport, manufacturing 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 US$5 trillion globally
• 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, to draw down carbon already in the atmosphere to more acceptable levels.
• Strong emphasis on 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, not least the 2019/20 Australian bushfires and subsequent floods, the unprecedented nature of which suggest tipping points are beginning to trigger at a regional level . As a result, the climate emergency call is being taken up widely by communities and institutions globally as damage mounts. 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. That requires an all-encompassing commitment to a low-carbon emergency transition. Certainly there will be costs, but the costs of ignoring climate change will be far greater. Unfortunately much economic modelling, supposedly based upon the science, has badly understated the costs of inaction, whilst amplifying the costs of action, which has further distorted global climate policy-making.
Addressing the Existential Climate Threat
The immediate existential threat of climate change is a global problem that cannot be solved by any one country in isolation. It requires unprecedented levels of global co-operation to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and atmospheric carbon concentrations. 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?
Existential Risk Management
Climate change is existential risk management on a global scale. The risk implications outlined above require that existential risk should now be the primary consideration in managing climate change, moving beyond the official IPCC & UN conclusions. It should be built around existential risk management policy unlike anything being contemplated officially at present. The components would encompass:
• Normative Goal Setting. “Politically realistic”, incremental change from “business-as-usual” is not tenable. This must be replaced with a normative view of limits which must be adhered to if catastrophic consequences are to be avoided, based on the latest science. Action is then determined by the imperative to stay within the limits, not by incremental, art-of-the-possible, change from business-as-usual.
• Change Mindsets, to now regard the climate change challenge as a genuine global emergency, to be addressed with an emergency global response.
• Genuine Global Leadership. Current responses reflect the dominance of managerialism – an emphasis on optimising the conventional political and corporate paradigms by incremental change, rather than adopting the fundamentally different normative leadership needed to contend with the potential for catastrophic failure.
• Integrated Policy. Climate change, though difficult, is only one of a number of critical, inter-related, issues now confronting the global community, which threaten the sustainability of humanity, as indicated above. Rather than viewing these issues separately in individual “silos” as at present, integrated policy is essential if realistic solutions are to be implemented.
• Honesty. There needs to be an honest articulation of the catastrophic risks and the integrated sustainability challenge we now face, with extensive community education to develop the platform for commitment to the major changes ahead. That has not happened thus far. Investors, corporates and regulators have a crucial role to play in articulating reality and in adopting constructive solutions.
Request to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements
In the above context, I make the following suggestions for the Royal Commission’s recommendations on National Natural Disaster Arrangements:
• The foundation for any national arrangements must be objective science and evidence-based assessments of the real risks causing natural disasters. Henceforth, political, ideological or vested interest considerations must be excluded.
• The full range of potentially catastrophic and/or existential threats must be understood, along with their inter-relationships.
• Preparedness, response, recovery, resilience and adaptation are all important. But emergency mitigation of risk is essential, otherwise irreversible existential impacts may soon be locked-in.
• Hence emergency action must become the modus operandi in addressing these inter-related risks, along the lines suggested above.
I would be pleased to discuss mechanisms under which these suggestions might be developed, at your convenience.
Ian T Dunlop