Climate Change & Politics As Usual – A Government Missing in Action

The first priority of any government should be to safeguard the people it serves and provide for their future well-being, their safety and security. In recent times, national security discussions in Australia have been focused almost exclusively on issues such as terrorism, migration, cyber and energy security, and largely in a policing and defence framework. However, security today must be understood in a broader societal context: national security is about human security.

As a result of three decades of political inaction on both sides of politics, climate change now represents the greatest, potentially existential, threat to Australian and global human security. New climate extremes confront us: record-breaking droughts and floods, extreme heatwaves, unstoppable bushfires, damaged infrastructure, and coastal inundation. And, as the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently concluded, the worst is yet to come.

In vulnerable countries, governments have already collapsed and civil wars erupted, displacing millions of people looking for a safe haven. Instability is on the march and a growing insecurity shadows our daily lives and the relations between nations.

The impact of climate change on the health and well-being of peoples and nations starts with one element above all others: water and the ability to grow food.

In 2010, almost 2.4 billion people were living in areas with chronic water shortage, with around 800 million people living with extreme water shortage. Today, approximately 1.8 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and nearly 2 billion people lack access to sanitation. By 2035, more than 30 countries will experience extremely high water stress, inevitably increasing economic, social, and political tensions, particularly in our region. By 2030, population growth and a burgeoning global middle class will result in a worldwide demand for 35% more food and 50% more energy, compared to 2014.

In contrast, scientists project the subtropical zone will experience a 5–10% reduction in precipitation for each 1oC of global warming. At 3°C of warming, water availability will decrease sharply in the dry tropics and subtropics, affecting about 2 billion people, with agriculture becoming nonviable in many of these areas.

Recent analysis of the impact of extreme heat from climate change suggests that over the coming fifty years, between one and three billion people may be left in areas unsuitable for habitation, leading to increased levels of forced migration.

Responding effectively to these impacts will require unprecedented international co-operation, and a complete re-think of global refugee governance, rather than the nationalistic and militarised responses we have today.

Preparing for the growing climate threat is essential for our survival as a nation – unlike the pandemic, we will not be able to quarantine from these new climate extremes. However, because of a failure of political leadership, Australia is ill-prepared to handle the growing climate security impacts in our region; the highest-risk region in the world.

Australians are falling behind peer nations when it comes to addressing the impacts of climate change. We are failing in our responsibilities, both as a global citizen, to each other, and to future generations.

The Australian Security Leaders Climate Group (ASLCG) was formed earlier this year by leaders with a depth of career experience in defence, national security, policy and risk assessment, who are concerned about our lack of preparedness. For years, we have experienced firsthand the impact climate change is having in theatres of operation around the world, and the increasing calls for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

A particular concern is that our first responders, along with the Australian Defence Force (ADF), are already under pressure, as we saw in the 2019/20 bushfires. Higher levels of warming, which according to our climate scientists are now inevitable, will exceed our first responders’ capacity to respond.

Many Australians have repeatedly made representations to government about these concerns. These have been largely ignored. Just as the recommendations from the 2018 Senate Inquiry into the “Implications of climate change for Australia’s national security” were ignored.

Our assessment of successive Australian governments’ leadership failure, and the implications of its lack of preparedness to face global warming’s consequences, is set out in our new report: “MISSING IN ACTION – responding to Australia’s climate and security failure.”

We need to act on climate-related security risks, starting with a plan to Protect, Prevent and Prepare the community for what is ahead.

Air Vice-Marshal John Blackburn AO (Retd) is a former Deputy Chief of the Royal Australian Air Force. He is currently the Chair of the Institute for Integrated Economic Research-Australia.

Ian Dunlop is a Member of the Club of Rome. He was formerly chair of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

John and Ian are both Executive Committee members of ASLCG.

This article was published in Pearls & Irritations on 7th September 2021

Net zero emissions by 2050: Leadership or climate colonialism ?

Floods – Funafati Tuvalu

How fast does Australia need to reduce greenhouse emissions to play its fair part in responding to the global climate emergency?
One answer jumps out: “Net-zero emissions by 2050”. Suddenly almost everybody is clambering aboard this train: State governments, big business, investors, mining companies such as BHP, Rio Tinto and Shell, and community advocacy organisations.
But there is a problem: what if this target is just another bit of the colonialism we rejected long ago? A sense of entitlement in this rich, developed country to keep on polluting for another three decades, a country whose leaders insist its wealth must continue to be built on a high output of greenhouse emissions, in the process probably denying some of the poorest and least developed nations their very survival? Particularly our neighbours in the Pacific.
Look at the numbers. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests a “carbon budget”, the maximum amount of further global emissions that would still give the world a chance to keep warming less than 2oC relative to pre-industrial levels. This proposition has serious flaws.
First, 2oC is not a good target. Even at the 1.3oC global warming this year, climate disruption is dangerous: the Great Barrier Reef and Arctic sea-ice are already in a death spiral, with the West Antarctic Ice Sheet past a multi-metre sea-level rise tipping point. Other systems such as the Greenland ice sheet and the Amazon may also be close to tipping.
Second, the “carbon budget” brings with it a catastrophic risk of failure, namely that warming has a 33-50% chance of exceeding 2oC, perhaps substantially. We would not take such risks with our own lives day-to-day, for example boarding a plane knowing it had a one-in-three or fifty-fifty chance of crashing. Why do so with the future of our civilisation, which is what exceeding 2oC means?
But let’s dig further into the implications of this “carbon budget” for Australia. The IPCC global carbon budget for 2oC, with a 67% chance of staying below the target, is 1170 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, starting from January 2018.
How is that budget to be shared? There is a strong argument that developing nations with small contributions to carbon pollution so far should have more right to any remaining budget than those people in the developed world. Put aside that argument for a moment, and let’s divide that budget equally amongst the world 7.8 billion people. It works out to 150 tonnes per person from now on.
Australia’s current per capita carbon footprint is at least 20 tonnes per year. On that basis, our 150 tonnes per person would last seven-and-a-half years, starting in 2018. At the current rate, we are out of budget by 2025!
So how can we have a conversation about “net-zero by 2050” being a fair contribution? The fact is we can’t as it isn’t. Any thought of climate justice has to be suppressed to justify this approach. It is not fair or reasonable, rather it is climate colonialism.
Climate justice is the idea that in advocating responses to climate disruption, priority should be given to protecting those most vulnerable to the impacts of the disruption. There are two elements: first, to advocate mitigation action, ameliorating or removing the threat to the extent possible; second, to recognise that the priority in adapting to impacts which cannot be avoided must be to retain the economic capacity of the worst affected. “Net-zero by 2050” for wealthy Australia is an absolute negation of climate justice principles.
The fact is that 10% of the world’s population is responsible for half of the world’s carbon pollution, and Australia is firmly embedded in that 10%. We have known about this inequity for three decades and done nothing to correct it.
The Prime Minister’s latest dog whistling, that he “will not be dictated to by other government’s climate change goals”, apes John Howard’s 1997 “Safeguarding the Future Statement” which began Australia’s ongoing climate denial.
The resulting decades of inaction have eliminated our options for a gradual response. To avoid catastrophic outcomes, the latest analysis of climate risk, Climate Reality Check 2020, indicates that net zero emissions will have to be reached globally by 2030, not 2050. A massive task, requiring the emergency action communities across the world increasingly demand.
Yet much of our polity still cannot bring themselves to accept human-induced climate change is real, as Minister Taylor’s target-free techno-optimism Roadmap demonstrates; in Lewis Carroll’s words: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there”.
But we do know: it is net zero emissions by 2030, not 2050.
The colonialist mentality is also evident domestically. Politicians in their Canberra bubble pretend our high carbon status quo can continue indefinitely to avoid the loss of ideological face which will come from admission that climate change really is real. In the process they leave those who will be worst affected by climate impacts totally unprepared for the transition which is inevitably coming.
We have solutions; they require a concerted national commitment, setting aside ideology and applying Australia’s best expertise and innovation, to get us there. We have seen it to a limited extent during the pandemic. That must now happen with the much greater and longer challenge of climate change.

Otherwise we are just colonialists, arrogantly prepared to destroy poorer nations, and our own people, to compensate for our refusal to face climate realities.

Ian Dunlop is Chair of the Advisory Board, Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration. David Spratt is the Research Director of Breakthrough. They are co-authors of Climate Reality Check 2020

An edited version of the article was published in the Canberra Times on 2nd November 2020