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

Climate Change – will the financial system survive?

One of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal global response to the escalating climate crisis has been the preparedness of financial market regulators to force their regulated institutions to face up to the implications of climate risk.

In so doing, they have been acutely aware of the lessons learnt from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, where scenario analysis, expert financial modelling and stress testing failed to foresee the crisis and the consequences for the banking system, investors and business alike. As a result, the global financial system was only save from collapse by a massive trillion-dollar bail out, for which the banks and corporations who caused it have yet to be held accountable.

When questioned by the Queen in 2008 as to why the crisis had occurred, the British Academy, after much introspection, responded that a “psychology of denial” led to “the failure of the collective imagination of many bright people … to understand the risks to the (financial) system as a whole.”

The reaction to the ominous warnings in the first part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 6th Assessment Report, recently released, demonstrates that the same psychology of denial is alive and well, particularly in Australia. The financial press has erupted with ever-more incredulous claims as to why gas, oil, and even coal are absolutely essential to solving the climate crisis. Politicians are suddenly experts in silver bullet technologies that will solve our problem without understanding the limitations of their claims, and trawl the web even more vigorously than normal for any sliver of denialist evidence that the climate issue might just go away.

Fortunately, regulators with independent mandates to ensure the stability of the global financial system are taking their responsibilities seriously. To make climate risks more transparent, central banks and regulators globally are stress-testing the financial system. Most notable have been initiatives by the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the scenario work of the Network for the Greening of the Financial System (NGFS). In Australia, regulators have coordinated their work through the Council for Financial Regulators, with the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA) initiating a climate vulnerability assessment for banks, encompassing scenarios up to 3°C of global mean warming, and issuing draft guidance for companies to stress test their own finances against scenarios up to 4°C warming.

Stress tests are simulations, relying on scenarios of future circumstances, and on models of the climate, the economy and the financial system. These techniques are valuable in reasonably well-understood circumstances, but they have severe limitations in addressing the threats which climate change now presents. The latest IPCC report has begun to discuss these issues, which include non-linear processes such as climate tipping points, cascade effects and radical uncertainty, where probabilities cannot be attached to specific outcomes, but even now the IPCC remain relatively reticent on these potentially existential, but increasingly possible, threats.

It is particularly challenging to map first-order physical climate warming impacts onto the second-order impacts in the social and financial spheres because it depends on the responses of complex human systems which cannot be reduced to probabilistic terms. In a complex world, systemic risks can arise from interactions between changes in the physical climate and human systems, so that small changes can lead to large divergences in the future state of human society.

Scenario analysis creates coherent, credible stories about alternative futures, allowing for constructive discussion on alternatives that should take into account the full range of credible evidence. But too often it is devalued and represents little more than sensitivities around some conventional strategic plan. Scenarios, properly used, can assist in securing a safe and stable future, but only if applied with brutal honesty in exploring extremes and not just a predetermined path.

Unfortunately global leaders, and Australia’s in particular, have not acted fast enough to avoid locking in extremely dangerous, and potentially catastrophic, climate impacts. Those impacts are close to moving beyond human control as global warming accelerates, evidence of which was clearly seen with the unprecedented 2019-20 Australian and Californian bushfires, the Chinese floods and Indian extreme temperatures. Even greater extremes are occurring in recent weeks in the Western USA, Canada, the Arctic, Siberia, Europe, China and the Amazon, resulting in some impacts that were not projected until around 2100.

In that context, the approach currently being used by regulators in assessing the future assumes compliance with the Paris Climate Agreement, unsustainable economic growth, a reliance on technologies not yet proven or deployed at scale, an overshoot of the Paris temperature target, and a big continuing role for gas. This worldview is being rapidly overtaken by events.

Scientists and analysts consider 4°C of warming to be an existential threat, incompatible with the maintenance of human civilisation, and 3°C to be catastrophic, perhaps leading to outright chaos in the relations between nations. Applying stress tests to such circumstances is problematic. Even at 3°C, the impacts may be so great as to be potentially infinite and unquantifiable, making scenario testing largely irrelevant.

It is unlikely that the banking system could survive such levels of warming, as discussed in our latest report: “Degrees of Risk: can the banking system survive climate warming of 3oC?”

Markets crave stability, but the world is entering an era of instability and uncertainty driven, inter alia, by climate-related financial risks. This makes the current approaches to managing these risks not fit-for-purpose. Sensible risk management, especially for highly uncertain events such as we are now facing, demands a precautionary approach, which must be applied to prevent these risks materialising.

Such precautionary action must ensure temperature outcomes do not trigger further tipping points or cascading effects which move the climate system beyond human influence, and are capable of returning it to the stable climate conditions under which human civilisation flourished. This means emergency action to keep the temperature increase to a minimum, as close to 1.5°C as possible, coupled with drawdown of current atmospheric carbon concentrations.

If the financial system is to survive and prosper, reactive disclosure of risks alone is no longer enough; time is short and mitigating those risks must become the absolute focus of regulators and regulated alike.

Company directors have a fiduciary responsibility to identify the risks to which their organisations are exposed, and to implement suitable systems to manage those risks. In the context of climate risk, boards of directors have too readily adopted recommendations from regulators and from supranational organisations such as the International Energy Agency or the IPCC, without bothering to understand the limitations of such analysis, thereby failing in their fiduciary responsibility to fully assess risk.

Regulators, here and overseas, exert great influence over financial and corporate players. If climate risk regulators imply warming of 3-4oC is manageable or can be adapted to, and such thinking becomes enshrined in the corporate psyche, as is currently happening, then regulators will be institutionalising failure, which is certainly not their intent.

Instead, regulators must now demand that the regulated proactively disclose what emergency precautionary action they are taking to ensure the world remains as close to a 1.5oC global mean temperature increase as possible.

This is just one change amongst many that must occur if humanity is to survive and prosper through the 21st Century and beyond. And it is an important one, because we cannot afford another failure of imagination.

Ian Dunlop is Chair, Advisory Board, Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration.
David Spratt is Research Director of Breakthrough.

This article was published in Pearls & Irritations on 17th August 2021

The Net Zero Emission Illusion

As the need for serious action to prevent runaway global warming becomes critical, it is not surprising that efforts from the denialist lobby to prevent that action intensify, albeit in more subtle form than the blanket refusal of yesteryear to even accept that a climate problem existed.

Around the world, companies, investors, governments and other institutions are committing, with much self-congratulation, to reach net zero emissions by 2050 (NZE2050), the point at which any remaining emissions can be counterbalanced by offsetting absorption in carbon sinks, using technologies which currently do not exist at scale.

Regulators and central banks, concerned that global warming might de-stabilise the world’s financial system, are urging their regulated institutions to disclose the implications of climate change risk to their investors, and to undertake stress testing against scenarios with up to 4oC of global mean warming relative to pre-industrial levels.

Missing from this debate is any understanding of the real risks posed by climate change. Recent events such as the unprecedented 2019/20 Australian and Californian bushfires, Chinese floods and Indian extreme temperatures, along with even greater extremes occurring this year in the Western US, Canada, the Arctic, Siberia, Europe, China and the Amazon, should be a wake-up call that climate impacts are accelerating and close to moving beyond human influence.

But that is far from the case. Despite impassioned pleas from scientists and much lofty institutional rhetoric from global leaders on the need for emergency action, the emphasis on a NZE2050 pathway, is actually locking-in extremely dangerous, and potentially catastrophic, climate outcomes by refusing to rapidly reduce carbon emissions, which is now necessary to stop runaway warming.

The 1.5°C global mean warming, the lower limit of the Paris Agreement, is inevitable by 2030 irrespective of any mitigation action in the interim. The upper 2°C limit is likely before 2050, with the possibility that irreversible, self-sustaining warming may be triggered by tipping points between 1.5 – 2°C. The current global trajectory is likely to result in catastrophic warming in excess of 3°C in the second half 21C, with little chance of changing that trajectory over the next two decades by mitigation alone. 4-5°C warming is possible before 2100. The dangerous impacts we are already experiencing are happening at only 1.2°C warming.

3°C warming would be catastrophic, perhaps leading to outright chaos in relations between nations, and 4°C is an existential threat to human civilisation, with many parts of the world becoming uninhabitable leading to mass migration and social conflict. Regional temperature increases on land will be considerably higher than these global means, increasingly beyond the limits within which human physiology can operate. These temperature increases cannot be adapted to, rendering financial system stress testing irrelevant.

The assumption behind the current enthusiasm for NZE2050 is that, with a bit of tweaking and gradual action, an orderly transition can ensue, leading to a perpetuation of the current economic system and its power structures.

That is no longer possible. The degree of change required to avoid catastrophic climate impacts, and the speed with which it must be implemented, means that emergency action, akin to a wartime level of mobilisation, is essential. A major discontinuity is inevitable; we must re-boot our societies on to genuinely sustainable pathways if human civilisation is to survive

NZE2050 could result in mean temperature increases above 3°C if global tipping points trigger within the 1.5 – 2°C Paris range. As our latest Briefing Note, “Net Zero 2050 – a dangerous illusion” indicates, net zero must be reached as soon as possible, ideally by 2030, if catastrophic outcomes are to be avoided. This is a massive task far greater than anything yet contemplated officially.

Sensible risk management in these circumstances demands a precautionary approach quite different from conventional risk-management practice. It must ensure, to the extent possible, that temperature outcomes do not trigger these tipping points, and is capable of returning the climate system to the stable climate conditions under which human civilisation flourished. This means emergency action to keep global temperature increase to a minimum, as close to 1.5°C as possible, coupled with drawdown of current atmospheric carbon concentrations from the current level around 420ppm CO2, to below 350ppm CO2. The technology to achieve such drawdown in the limited time available, is not yet fully to hand at scale, further adding to climate risk.

The Australian mainstream media, with a few exceptions, ignore these realities, consumed with the supposedly disastrous short-term economic implications of any climate action, oblivious to the infinitely greater cost of inaction. The Australian Financial Review (AFR), recently opined that “Coal, along with oil and gas, will continue to supply the world’s energy during the decades-long transition to net zero”, and that, “as the demonisation of coal and gas by Australian activists shows, extremism makes the politics of the energy transition more challenging”.

The real extremists are organisations like the AFR, the Murdoch press, ideologues and fossil fuel vested interests around the world whose denialist stance has succeeded in allowing carbon emissions to continue to rise at worst case rates, placing humanity in grave danger with their insatiable greed and determination to hang on to the reins of power at all costs. If these views prevail, human civilisation as we know it will not survive.

Quite apart from the implications for humanity, directors of these organisations, even those who claim leadership on climate action like Shell, BHP, Rio, Woodside and Santos, are now in clear breach of their fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders, because in so doing, they are destroying their shareholder’s, and their own, future. Ben van Beurden, Managing Director of Royal Dutch Shell conceded last year that: “Yeah, we knew. Everybody knew. And somehow we all ignored it.” That is not good enough, particularly as they had access to the best available science and for years have known perfectly well the implications of their actions. A failure made even more egregious by their current refusal to cut emissions rapidly, or far worse, their determination to massively increase fossil fuel use with gas-led recoveries on the erroneous, self-serving grounds it will reduce carbon emissions globally.

But nowhere is this leadership failure, and the moral and ethical vacuum behind it, more evident that with the current Australia Federal government.

Australia is one of the regions most exposed to climate threats, as the community is only too well aware from our recent drought, bushfire and flood experience. Yet politically, it is as if this never happened. For example, none of the recommendations of the Bushfire Royal Commission have been implemented, and many communities remain without adequate recovery support.

Policy, to the extent it exists, is decided by political advisers, with little real-world experience, align with fossil-fuel interests, and ideologically committed to the neoliberal unregulated market which has created the climate crisis, and proved incapable of solving it. Scared of the future, they have no vision for Australia other than a perpetuation of its fossil fuel past. Not surprising, given that former fossil fuel executives dominate government appointments, from the Prime Minister’s office down.

So reality is swept under the carpet as the government rushes headlong into its own gas-led recovery, quite deliberately designed to maximise the use of fossil fuels before the shutters finally come down on the industry.

However, the government recognised rising community concern over climate, and the electoral danger that poses if those concerns are ignored, so something had to be done. Ergo, multiple initiatives are announced, with great fanfare, to demonstrate their climate bona fides; resilience, disaster management, Great Barrier Reef research etc, all of which address the symptoms of climate change, but ignore its fundamental cause, which is excessive atmospheric carbon concentrations and the failure to rapidly reduce emissions

The Minister for Emission Reduction, Angus Taylor, even pours fuel on the fire by presiding over emission increases, re-assuring us that any climate issues will be solved with “technology not taxes “. This ignores the fact that for these technologies to work at scale, and in the short time now available, “taxes” in the form of carbon pricing are essential otherwise the massive subsidy enjoyed by fossil fuels, by not accounting for the damage caused by their use, will continue, markedly slowing the transition to a low-carbon future .

The Minister for the Environment, Sussan Ley, passes any responsibility for climate change to the Minister for increasing emissions, despite the fact it is the greatest threat to our environment; decries any duty of care to protect Australia’s children from climate harm as a result of her deliberations on approving coal mines; then makes common cause with a motley crew of climate denialist countries to prevent the UNESCO World Heritage Committee placing the Great Barrier Reef on the “in danger” list, despite the fact that it is obvious to all but the most entrenched ideologues that the reef is now in terminal decline due to climate change.

Geopolitically, the government’s immaturity and ignorance of Asia has totally disrupted relations with our largest trading partner, China, with subsequent Australian sabre-rattling designed to divert attention away from the far greater threat of climate change. After four years of Australian servility to the Trumpian cause and a long history of Western abuse, it is unsurprising that China is taking a more assertive stance in global affairs, whilst recognising that China has its own problems and wolf warrior diplomacy is not the mark of mature global leadership. But both sides sidestep the real threat of climate change, instead focussing on geopolitical point scoring. Overcoming that threat will require unprecedented global co-operation, otherwise everyone loses.

Part of which is to completely re-think the concept of defence. Vast amounts spent on ever-more sophisticated ways of killing one another are useless on a dead planet. Those resources are desperately needed to stave off the climate threat and implement genuinely sustainable, equitable, economic systems.

It is clear from its actions that the Federal government has absolutely no intention of taking climate change seriously. It has yet to commit to NZE2050, but may well do so finally at the November climate summit in Glasgow, attempting to present it, with yet more fanfare, as “Australian climate leadership”, much as John Howard did with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol “Australia Clause”, the greatest strategic mistake this country ever made which initiated three decades of climate denial.

The government has no appetite to address the big issues confronting this country, and is quite happy to destroy the prosperity and future of Australian society, its children and their own, in the interests of retaining power in the short-term.

The parallels with the Covid crisis are legion. With Covid, the government has shown itself manifestly incapable of leading or managing its core responsibilities, beset by corruption and secrecy. The climate challenge is far greater than Covid, and there are no vaccinations or quarantine against climate impacts, which from now on will increase inexorably absent decisive leadership.

The community must now seek that leadership elsewhere.

Ian Dunlop is Chair, Advisory Board, Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration.
David Spratt is Research Director of Breakthrough.

This article was published in Pearls & Irritations on 8th August 2021

Earth Day 2021: Australia falls further out of line with the world

It is entirely appropriate that President Biden launches his global climate summit on Earth Day 2021. Earth Day began in the US in 1970, triggered by massive pollution across the country, and the need to fundamentally change concepts of industrial development if society was to prosper, rapidly leading by the end of 1970, to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency, with bipartisan political support.

Similar, but longer term concerns, resulted in the publication in 1972 of the “Limits to Growth” (LtG) report by the Club of Rome, a group of scientists and businessmen whose specific focus was on the “Predicament of Mankind”: the implications of exponential growth in both population and consumption within a finite world. It concluded:

  1. If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime in the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrolled decline in both population and industrial capacity.
  2. It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on Earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realise his individual human potential.
  3. If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success.

A further insight was that as a limit is approached, societies would initially spend a great deal of time discussing it whilst expansion continued, thus leading to overshoot before collapse.

The report comprised twelve scenarios for the future, as perceived in 1972. Recent analysis has shown that the “standard run” scenario has been remarkably close to reality as it evolved over the intervening fifty years. The problem is that around about now, that scenario suggested the global system would break down, something that is increasingly evident, largely as a result of climate change impacts, biodiversity loss and resource depletion.

Initially, both the “Earth Day” and “Limits to Growth” warnings were received positively, but acrimony then set in, with conservatives in particular seeing them as a threat to the established order. The result is that the warnings were totally ignored as neoliberal ideology gained ascendancy under both democratic and authoritarian political systems, and unconstrained, supposedly free markets became the dominant economic paradigm. Today, human civilisation is under immediate threat from the problems these markets have created, such as climate change, and which they cannot solve.

Energy is the driver of our economic prosperity. To date that has meant fossil fuels, with the attendant carbon emissions and climate change. Little wonder that countries with the greatest abundance of, and reliance upon, fossil fuels emerged as the greatest opponents to any idea of “limits”, particularly where their fossil fuel industries had accrued sufficient power to dominate domestic politics, as in Australia.

Hence the UN climate negotiations over the last three decades, as the LtG envisaged, have achieved precisely nothing in terms of the key priority, which is carbon emission reductions. Emissions continue to rise in line with worst case scenarios, largely due to the denial and deliberate undermining of serious climate action by the fossil fuel lobby, so we are now well into overshoot.

The Biden Summit is a crunch point. The US in recent years, particularly under Trump, has been a major impediment to such action, but even before Trump was in thrall to climate denialist conservatives. Whether Biden can break through these barriers remains to be seen, albeit initial indications are encouraging.

However, the challenge is far greater than even the Biden Administration has been prepared to admit. The latest science makes it clear that the currently fashionable target of achieving net zero emissions by 2050, in the process supposedly meeting the Paris Climate Agreement objectives of keeping temperature increase below 2oC and ideally toward 1.5oC, is totally inadequate. 1.5oC is already locked in before 2030, and to avoid the threat of triggering irreversible, self-sustaining warming beyond human influence, net zero emissions will have to be reached far sooner, ideally by 2030. The Biden Summit must start a conversation around these realities, and the emergency response required, otherwise the world will have only moved from the hard climate denial of the last three decades, to soft denial – pretending that we now understand the climate threat, but yet again doing nothing of substance to address it.

Where is Australia placed?

Australia used to pride itself, justifiably, as a leader in so many areas, whether medicine, science, engineering, diplomacy, social innovation and politics, punching far above its weight in global affairs. Over the last three decades, under the growing influence of neoliberalism, conservative media and the fossil fuel lobby, our values have slipped dramatically, to the point that we have become little more than greedy free-riders, primarily intent on peddling our fossil fuels to the world, irrespective of the consequences for humanity.

John Howard started this decline in 1997, demanding special treatment in the form of the Australia Clause, as our price to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol. That clause allowed Australia to increase emissions disproportionately when almost everyone else committed to a reduction. Today, the free-rider mentality pervades every element of our inadequate climate and energy policies, which are shot through with inconsistencies:

First, Australian leaders, whether in politics, business or finance, ignore or prefer not to understand, the implications of climate change science, and hence the real risks and uncertainties we face. It is as if the drought, the bushfires, the pandemic and floods, all of which were climate-related, never occurred. We reacted well in recovering from them, but were totally unprepared despite the fact they had long been predicted. Such events will escalate as climate impacts worsen, yet there is no mention of mitigating the threat, only inadequate adaptation.

Second, the Federal government will not commit to any net zero emission target date, so we have an open-ended Technology Roadmap with no emission reduction time frame. The technologies may well be valuable components of the climate solution, but only if they are prioritised to meet a specific target date – the action required to meet net zero by 2030 will be totally different from that for 2050.

Third, without debate the government commits to a gas-led recovery which increases fossil use, domestically and for export, when there is no carbon budget left to stay below both 1.5 and 2.0oC on any realistic risk management basis. Emissions should be reducing rapidly, not increasing.

Fourth, the government maintains the solution is “technology not taxes”, “taxes” meaning carbon pricing. Carbon pricing is not a tax, but the removal of the enormous subsidy the fossil fuel industry has enjoyed for decades, by not accounting for the external damage arising from its activities. For example the cost of the bushfires, floods and health impacts which can fairly be attributed to fossil fuel use via climate change, recently estimated at around A$38 billion annually, more than Australia spends on defence. So the government massively subsidises fossil fuels, criticises any assistance given to the renewable industries, and makes the community to carry the cost of the damage resulting from this subterfuge. Likewise, carbon capture and storage is unlikely to be workable without carbon pricing, and in any event is technically difficult unless using depleted oil and gas reservoirs, of which few exist close to emission sources. Yet the government insists it is a key element of the Technology Roadmap

Fifth, whilst some States are taking serious climate action, it is compromised by short sighted politics. In NSW, Minister Kean’s welcome initiatives to accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy are more than negated by the long list of new coal mining projects being promoted by his government and the fossil fuel industry. The justification apparently being that we should continue selling fossil fuels to the world until the markets dry up. Likewise with LNG exports from Queensland and WA. The ultimate free-ride, devoid of any moral or ethical responsibility, not just to humanity but to our own community.

Sixth, every institution involved in climate and energy policy within the Federal orbit is stacked with ex-fossil fuel lobbyists, from the Prime Minister’s office down. But as Albert Einstein observed: “the problem will not be solved with the same thinking which created it”.

Seventh, it is clear from recent ALP policy statements and the Upper Hunter by-election that, with a few exceptions, both sides of politics still regard climate change as just another item on the political agenda to be boxed and diced for electoral advantage. Which it most decidedly is not. Climate change is now an immediate existential threat to the Australian community, and to civilisation as we know it.

As such, it should be above politics. The first priority of any government is the security of the people, but both Government and Opposition are failing abysmally in that primary responsibility. The only explanation for our totally dysfunctional policies is that, astonishingly in 2021, a large proportion of our political leaders still do not believe the climate threat is real. In short, our leaders are not fit for purpose

Addressing the real climate challenge requires leadership unlike anything on display in Australia today. The Biden Summit provides an opportunity for such leadership to emerge at the global level, which should dismiss the current Australian policy charade for the self-serving denialism it is.

Perhaps international pressure might force leadership change in Australia, but it is most likely up to the Australian community to reflect upon the long-neglected messages of Earth Day and the Limits to Growth and pick leaders suitable for the times – sooner rather than later.

This article was published in Pearls & Irritations on 25th April 2021

Have we a government fit for purpose, or the greatest danger to our national security?

The current bushfires are unprecedented in terms of their extent, intensity, fire season length, economic and social impact. They are, without doubt, intensified by human-induced climate change. However, they are not unexpected; this is what the climate science has been telling us for years. Likewise with the drought. The fact that these warnings have been ignored by government has left the country totally unprepared to handle these disasters.

Once the initial shock at the size and speed of the fires passed, emergency action kicked-in, providing late but welcome assistance to the volunteers who have been battling fires since September. This is what Australia does well, once the decision is made, and it must be an absolute priority.

But the equally important debate around the linkage between drought, bushfires and climate change has sunk back into the swamp of government denial and diversionary tactics which created this disaster in the first place. The overwhelming evidence is that these issues are all linked. Weasel words from the Prime Minister that the links had always been obvious, were immediately negated by his underwhelming commitment to “evolve” his inadequate climate policy. In short, nothing will change, hopefully concerns will ease as the summer progresses, then politics-as-usual can resume.

But it will not, because the real implications are still ignored. Climate change is now an immediate existential threat to human civilisation and the greatest threat facing this country. Our drought and bushfires are a foretaste of the accelerating climate emergency which, after three decades of inaction, is locked-in for years to come. They are early signs that irreversible climatic tipping points, which have concerned scientists for years, are starting to manifest themselves locally.

To avert escalating disasters, we must reduce carbon emissions rapidly, way beyond current policy, greater than 50% by 2030, and encourage the same action globally. In particular, all fossil fuel expansion must stop; coal, oil, gas: Adani, NW Shelf LNG, Great Australian Bight oil, fracking, the long list of NSW and Queensland coal projects, etc. To do otherwise is simply suicidal. Australia is already more than 1.5degC above pre-industrial levels, the lower temperature limit of the 2015 Paris Agreement, and will probably hit 2degC by 2030 or earlier, the upper Paris limit, levels which will create far greater social and economic chaos than we are already seeing.

And we must act early, otherwise tipping points will trigger, moving climate change irreversibly beyond human influence. The longer action is delayed, the faster events move beyond our control. Which means we must talk about climate change right now, particularly about mitigating its impact, not just adapting to events we can no longer avoid.

Which begs the question, do we have a government fit-for-purpose, capable of facing up to this threat honestly, and managing the transformation it implies?

In short, no.

The Prime Minister, in recent comments, culminating in his National Press Club address, demonstrates that he does not understand climate risk and its implications. Further, he shows no inclination to do so with the continual harping back to, and misrepresentation of, totally inadequate mitigation policies and a concentration on important, but secondary, emergency response and adaptation issues.

Why secondary? Because current global policies, and ours are amongst the worst, are leading to temperature increases of 3-5degC, way beyond the Paris limits, and to the triggering of climate tipping points. It is not possible for humanity to adapt to such conditions; civilisation as we know it will collapse. Unless we start to cut emissions immediately, those outcomes will become locked-in; emergency responses and adaptation are then irrelevant. Far more stringent global mitigation measures must be taken now, but particularly here as Australia is one of the countries most exposed to climate risk, as we are already seeing, and the fourth largest global emitter if you include exports, which is the only sensible measure in emergency circumstances .

The Coalition, with its dominance of climate deniers, dismisses such analysis out of hand. Furthermore, successive Coalition governments have created systemic barriers to climate action, not least by continually winding back Australia’s climate change research capacity by emasculating the CSIRO, disbanding the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility and much more, just when we need it most.

In particular, the Australian Public Service for years has been deliberately politicised by both main political parties, hence Scott Morrison’s edict last August that politicians decide policy and the public service just deliver as they are told.

The results speak for themselves.

The Prime Minister’s office is effectively run as a branch of the Minerals Council and other conservative interests, climate denialists to the core.

Senator Bridget McKenzie and her political advisers take it upon themselves to allocate sports grants to gain electoral advantage, irrespective of public service recommendations, apparently because everything was “within the rules”. Blatant pork-barrelling in a moral and ethical vacuum.

Then there is Angus Taylor and his letter to Clover Moore with falsified travel expenditure, questions around water misallocation, Defence procurement, former ministers’ potential conflict-of-interest with private sector employment, such as Christopher Pyne, Julie Bishop and now Brendan Nelson, the list goes on.

The Prime Minister, Matt Canavan, Josh Frydenberg, Angus Taylor and others irresponsibly promote massive fossil fuel development when they have been clearly told by scientific, risk, economic, health and many other experts in both public and private sectors of the risks that represents to the country, the economy and the communities they are supposed to represent, now witnessed by the evidence all around us.

The “frank and fearless advice” which the public service historically provided to counteract such political excess has long since evaporated.

The government’s weak Statement of Ministerial Standards is a poor substitute. It states that the government must: “act with integrity and in the best interests of the people they serve. —- at all times to the highest standards of probity.” Further: “This Statement is principles-based and is not a complete list of rules.

Ministers must:
act with integrity.
• observe fairness in making official decisions, that is to act honestly and reasonably – taking proper account of the merits of the decision.
• accept accountability for the exercise of power, and ensure conduct, representation and decisions are open to public scrutiny and explanation
• take decisions in terms of advancing the public interest, based on their best judgement of what will advance the common good of the people.

Despite this soaring rhetoric, it is then left to the Prime Minister to judge whether any ministerial action is reasonable in meeting these obligations. And of course his big stay-out-of-jail card is that: “ministers take decisions based on their best judgement of what will advance the common good”. Not surprising, if you are a climate denier, that your “best judgement” would include a large dose of fossil fuel expansion, despite the suicidal implications for the common good of the Australian and global communities.

These Standards represent a massive conflict of interest, as jurists have pointed out, with the foxes firmly in charge of the hen-house. Little wonder the government violently opposes any effective national integrity commission which might interfere with their entitlement to plunder the public purse.

Senator McKenzie’s actions contradict these principles at every level, particularly the mantra that “no rules were broken” . She and others would resign of their own volition if they had a modicum of commitment to the public interest, but clearly that will not happen, nor will they be dismissed by a weak Prime Minister. Many commentators seem to think this is acceptable, and that her misdemeanours are just of passing interest, typical of the way politics is played these days. Not so. Sports rorting is certainly a minor issue in the wide panoply of political decision-making, but the principles involved are fundamental to the entire basis of our democracy and its ability to take the hard decisions ahead of us on issues like climate change.

The words of Lord Acton come to mind: “When you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men (and women) with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Our parliamentarians lack any understanding of the ethical and fiduciary responsibilities of holding public office. No doubt there are good people in parliament, but they are not making themselves heard above the slurping at the trough of political entitlement; as a result, trust in the entire political class has plummeted.

In the near future, we have to make the most difficult decision ever to confront the Australian people – how to transform our fossil-fuel dominated economy to a low-carbon footing at emergency speed. The cost of so doing will be substantial, involving sacrifice, effort, co-operation and most of all, trust. We do have solutions if they are implemented effectively; otherwise the cost will be far greater, probably leading to the collapse of society as we know it. Fossil fuel expansion, in particular, will only hasten the collapse.

That is our choice. A successful outcome is impossible with our corrupt political system and the vested interests to which it is beholden. When climate change, the greatest threat facing the country, is not even accepted by the leadership as an issue, that leadership is untrustworthy, incapable of making ethically and morally responsible decisions, and emergency action akin to wartime is required, they must step aside.

In response to questions at the National Press Club, the Prime Minister insisted that, on climate change: “Australia is carrying its load and more. We are doing what you would expect a country like Australia to do, but what I won’t do is this: I am not going to sell out Australians”. Absolute nonsense; this has to be the first time in Australia’s proud history that it has so cravenly shrunk from its international responsibilities on a major global issue. Selling out Australians is exactly what the Prime Minister is doing by refusing to face climate reality, making this government the greatest danger to our national security.

New governance is urgently needed, bringing together the best leaders and expertise to build a consensus for change and apply solutions effectively, fairly and rapidly.

The revolving earth pitted with its tragedies, cried in a far voice from the middle of space; “you cannot leave me to the politicians……. It cannot be left to them; not solely to them. You have to bring in the wise men”.
Neil Gunn

Published on Pearls and Irritations, 31st January 2020

A call to the Australian people – demand serious action on climate change before it is too late.

After three decades of inaction, human-induced climate change is the greatest threat, and opportunity, facing this country, far outweighing the issues dominating our domestic political discourse, such as the US/China impasse, a faltering economy and religious freedom. The world faces the same threat. 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.

Climate Emergency Action
Context & Governance


The Real Climate Challenge
After three decades of inaction, human-induced climate change is the greatest threat, and opportunity, facing this country, far outweighing the issues dominating our domestic political discourse, such as the US/China impasse, a faltering economy and religious freedom. The world faces the same threat. 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.

In stark contrast, the disastrous lack of serious climate change policy in Australia stems entirely from the fact that Federal parliamentarians of both persuasions, despite access to the best possible scientific, economic, social and health advice, refuse to accept, even today, that climate change and its risks are real, let alone doing anything to address them. That denial is responsible for the increasingly maniacal contortions of ministers pretending to take climate action, but in essence intent upon doing nothing, despite the massive damage inflicted on the community by extreme weather.

The vitriolic exchanges between politicians regarding the linkage of drought, bushfires and climate change, confirm that our current political system is incapable of managing this threat. Likewise with much corporate, finance and media leadership, whose business strategies either totally contradict their rhetoric urging climate action, or are ideologically locked-in to climate denial.

The starting point in overcoming this extremely dangerous situation, must be acceptance of the real climate challenge we, and the rest of the world, face. A challenge far more serious than acknowledged by our Federal and State governments.

Climate change as an immediate, existential risk
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 3.5°C, relative to pre-industrial conditions, by 2100 if not earlier – a world which leading national security experts describe as “outright social chaos”. At present, we are on track for around a 4.5°C 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 1°C temperature increase already experienced. The 2°C Paris upper limit now represents the boundary of extremely dangerous climate change.

• To stay below 2°C, global emissions must peak now and be reduced by around 9% annually, something no country has ever achieved. The lower 1.5°C Paris target requires even more rapid reduction. Meanwhile, emissions rise 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 2°C, let alone 1.5°C. 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, including 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 0.5°C. 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 1.5°C 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 1.5°C report understates key risks in moving from 1.5°C to 2°C 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 1.5°C 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 1.5°C, and probably to 2°C 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.

Tipping points
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 flip abruptly from one relatively stable state to another far less conducive to human development. 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.

15 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. This emphasises 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 9 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 – 2°C, raising the prospect of a global cascade effect even below the upper 2°C 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, and Australian, 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 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 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 A$42 billion in Australia, more than our Defence budget)

• 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

• 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. As a result, the climate emergency call is being taken up widely. 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. The upside is that Australia has far greater potential to prosper in the low-carbon future than in the high-carbon past, as experts have long been pointing out. But realizing that potential requires an all-encompassing commitment to a low-carbon emergency transition. Certainly there will be costs, but the costs of ignoring climate change and continuing Australia’s current climate denialist stance will be far greater.

Addressing the Existential Climate Threat
The immediate existential threat of climate change is a global problem that cannot be solved by Australian action in isolation. It requires unprecedented levels of global co-operation to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. 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?

New leaders must accept some hard truths:

• Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is now fundamental to the economic and social prosperity of the country, indeed to our survival.

• Emissions reduction commitments must focus on absolute outcomes, not per capita or relative comparisons. The first round of Paris voluntary emission reduction commitments were woefully inadequate. Within that, the Australian contribution of 26-28% reduction by 2030 (less than half that amount if Kyoto carryover credits are applied) was one of the worst. To claim that “we are meeting our Paris commitments” is worthless as a real contribution to the global climate challenge

• With no global carbon budget left to stay below 2°C, the emissions of every major emitting country and company need to reduce, fast. Whether China, the US, EU, India, Australia, Exxon, Shell, BP, BHP, Rio Tinto etc.

• Further, a country’s climate impact must be assessed by including fossil fuel exports. Climate change is a global problem, and emissions have global impact irrespective of the point of consumption. Whilst it was convenient for the UNFCCC to adopt an accounting mechanism in the 1990s based upon consumption point, that is no longer relevant given the global climate risk we now face.

• On that basis, Australia will shortly become the third largest global carbon polluter if current coal and LNG expansion plans are realised. We are already one of the world’s highest per capita carbon polluters. Far from being an insignificant “1.3% of global emissions”, what Australia does matters in emission terms.

• Arguments that Australian, or any other country’s, coal exports, can expand on the grounds that a particular coal is better quality than others are nonsense in the circumstances where there is no global carbon budget. All coal consumption must reduce.

• Likewise with the expansion of LNG exports. Gas has less emissions per unit of energy than coal, but it is still a fossil fuel adding to the global emissions burden. Given the rate of emission reduction required, there is no justification for gas expansion. The argument that gas expansion is justified because it is replacing coal has no validity in the absence of a carbon budget.

• Similarily, fracking expansion, deep water oil exploration whether in the Great Australian Bight or the Arctic, make no sense in the current climate context.

• Negative emission technologies can no longer be used as a justification for fossil fuel expansion. There is no prospect of them being applied at scale in the limited time available. They may have longer term benefit, but the immediate risks are so high that they cannot be relied upon for the time being.

• There is a great deal of criticism directed at the supposedly excessive subsidies given to renewable energy technologies. These pale into insignificance compared to the massive A$42 billion subsidy given annually to the fossil fuel industries in Australia. The latter must be removed rapidly and more support given to renewables to accelerate the rate of change.

In an Australian context, it makes absolutely no sense to build our economy on fossil fuel resources and technologies which are fundamentally unsustainable. It is particularly untenable, in geopolitical terms, when Australia has some of the best low-carbon energy resources in the world, and is not using them.

Given that Australia is one of the countries most exposed to climate risk, Australia’s national interest, and national security, is best served now by reversing years of climate denial and taking strong global leadership in the transformation to the low carbon world.

In 1964, Donald Horne wrote:
“Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise”.

Is that still the case in the climate context, or do we have leadership and statesmanship potential capable of rising to the greatest threat, and opportunity, this country has ever faced? It is certainly true that current leaders have been taken by surprise at the ferocity of climate change impact, despite having been warned about it for years.

How good is Australia’s climate leadership?
In short, appalling, as the recent disputes on the linkage between climate change, drought, water availability and bushfires confirm only too well.

No single weather event can be exclusively attributed to human-induced climate change. However it is patently obvious, from the basic science and evidence, that climate change is intensifying extreme weather events around the world. There is no doubt that it is contributing, directly or indirectly, to the extreme events that are currently impacting Australia. From the unprecedented drought and bushfires, to the Townsville floods earlier this year, and the recent severe Sydney storm. To claim otherwise, whether as Prime Minister, Cabinet Minister or conservative media cheer-leader, demonstrates profound scientific and economic ignorance.

For three decades, attempts to use science, evidence and rational debate to gain political and corporate commitment to urgent action have failed abysmally in the face of massed fossil fuel interests, supposed “conservatism” and political self-interest – determined to preserve our high-carbon “status quo” whatever the cost to the community. Leaders have been repeatedly warned of the risks, but deliberately chosen to ignore them. We are now paying the price, with the Australian taxpayer and society picking up the bill for conservative ideological indulgence. Lives and livelihoods are being lost and impacts will get much worse, absent emergency action.

• Politics
The Prime Minister continues the Coalition’s climate denialist mindset, and masterly inaction, initiated by John Howard in the late 1990s. He refused to attend the critical UN Climate Summit last September, subsequently lecturing the UN that “Australia is doing its bit on climate change”. He cannot bring himself to admit the linkage with extreme weather events.

Minister Taylor assures us that Australia has “a track record on climate of which all Australians can be proud”. In reality, the Australian government for years has deliberately set out to prevent any serious global climate agreement being reached. He tells us Australia will meet it wholly inadequate Paris emission reduction commitments “at a canter”, when it is patently obvious it will not, even including unused Kyoto carryover credits. The very fact that the government attempts to justify the use of these credits at the current UN Madrid COP25 climate meeting underlines its brazen denialism. John Howard extorted these credits, via the Australia Clause, by holding the world to ransom at the last minute in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol negotiations – unjustified then and absolutely unjustified now in the face of a climate emergency.

Emissions, we are told, are falling when they are going up. Minister Hawke insists the Australian government is doing “more than anyone else” on climate change. Minister Littleproud, in charge of drought and natural disasters, cannot make his mind up if climate change is even relevant to his responsibilities. Minister Canavan claims that expanding coal and gas use would be a sensible response to climate change, and refuses to plan for a transition away from fossil fuels. Minister Birmingham considers France’s push for Australia to adopt more realistic climate change targets, as part of an EU trade deal, as “unprecedented”, implying it would be contrary to the national interest.

So the propaganda ramps up, worthy of any totalitarian regime, completely ignoring reality, highlighting the absence of any credible climate and energy policy as ministers shoot from the hip for short-term electoral advantage.

Australia, on any objective measure, with its 26-28% emissions reduction target by 2030, in practice more than halved if unused Kyoto credits are applied, is abjectly failing to contribute its fair share to global climate action, as it has done consistently since the 1990s. Not just failing, but now adding fuel to the fire by attempting to massively expand coal and gas use when emissions must fall dramatically if even worse catastrophes are to be avoid than those already happening. We are not “just an inconsequential 1.3% of global emissions” as Ministers insist; if the government has its way, we will shortly be the third largest carbon polluter in the world, exports included which is the only realistic way of assessing our climate impact.

The Prime Minister’s knee-jerk response to mounting pressure for climate action is to invoke the perennial defence of national sovereignty to stop dastardly “global institutions” from interfering in our affairs. But climate change is a global problem, requiring unprecedented collective action. Without it, and without leaders capable of understanding that reality, we are headed for global and national collapse. Nobody is seeking to “elevate global institutions above the authority of nation states”. It is the nation states that are failing their communities.

The Opposition are little better, having made contradictory bets during the May election by claiming strong climate change credentials, yet simultaneously supporting development of Adani and other coal mine projects. Their post-election reversion to a pro-fossil fuel stance does not suggest strong climate leadership potential. Anthony Albanese’s latest support for the continuation of coal exports demonstrates profound ignorance of climate science, risk and energy markets, in the process doing nothing for the future prospects of coal miners.

But perhaps the best indicators of political leadership failure on climate change, are the recent antics of the National Party. Not content with the Prime Minister and Barnaby Joyce throwing a lump of coal around in parliament last year, at an executive dinner following their September 2019 Federal conference, a lump of coal in a glass jar, and a “Start Adani” tee shirt worn by self-proclaimed “Minister for Coal” Matt Canavan and Queensland Coal, were auctioned by Barnaby Joyce, no less. Great hilarity all around, just confirming the utter contempt in which this Government hold the Australian people as they grapple with the threat of climate change.

At the State level, the understanding of a climate emergency has yet to penetrate the fossil fuel States. NSW and Queensland are intent on massively expanding coal and CSG, likewise with LNG in WA. Environmental regulators in NSW and WA have exercised their independent mandates to stop some new coal mine development, and seek greater transparency in the handling Scope 3 (exported) emissions, partly in regard to climate change concerns given the absence of any realistic federal climate and energy policy. In both cases the State Government has moved to defuse these initiatives by proposing legal changes allowing unfettered fossil fuel expansion, confirming their ignorance of climate realities, and their subservience to fossil fuel interests.

Business attitudes toward climate change until recently, with a few notable exceptions, have followed, and frequently dictated, the Federal Government’s denialist stance. The resource sector in particular has done everything possible, for years, to prevent or slow the introduction of sensible climate policy, via lowest common denominator industry bodies such as the Business Council of Australia, the Minerals Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, the Institute of Public Affairs and so on.

The exceptions are companies such as BHP and Rio Tinto, who have taken far stronger climate action, but even they have yet to accept the reality of a climate emergency.

Attitudes are beginning to change. First, the legal implications, and liabilities, of ignoring climate risk are better understood, as emphasised by Kenneth Hayne. Second, investors are increasingly nervous about their exposure to carbon risk as the climate science and evidence evolves, and are moving away from fossil fuels. Third, Australian financial regulators, in common with their colleagues globally, are calling for far greater transparency on climate risk to avoid potential financial market collapse. Companies are increasingly complying with the voluntary recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-Related Risk Disclosure, albeit at present most are reactive, rather than proactive, responses. Fourth, the competitiveness of low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels has vastly improved, bringing a range of new players into the arena, diluting the strangehold on government policy previously enjoyed by the resource industries, and spurring the transformation to a low-carbon world.

Perhaps most important, it is gradually dawning on corporate leaders that unless climate change is addressed urgently, social collapse will destroy the markets they rely upon for their prosperity.

All of which may result in more enlightened business leadership emerging, albeit not evident as yet. The resource sector continue to pursue rapid fossil fuel expansion, even though it is now clearly contrary to their own best interests, and to those of their shareholders.

Since the advent of the Howard government, the senior levels of the Australian Public Service have been progressively politicised and are now generally unwilling to offer free and frank advice, or to carry out work, that is contrary to the government’s desires. As a consequence, thinking that would have once been done about eventualities that may face the government is not being done well, especially in regard to climate change.

Hence the government has been caught off-guard, unprepared and playing catchup on key climate-related issues which will henceforth dominate the political agenda, including drought, bushfire risk and the Pacific.

Initiating work on climate change that is not specifically mandated by ministers is in general not occurring. Where it does happen, a key task is to ensure that it is not overtly identified as climate focussed. This is a particularly stark expression of the government’s denial on climate risks and how it has neutered public policy advice.

Likewise the security and intelligence community have not been on the front foot in regard to the implications of climate change for national security.

Department of the Environment Deputy Secretary Jo Evans demonstrated in a recent Senate Estimates hearing, in response to a question as to whether the climate situation was getting worse, the excruciating contortions which senior public servants are forced into by the government’s climate denial agenda.

The conservative media, notably the Murdoch press, have for years played a major climate denial role, which is becoming ever more hysterical as the prospect of serious climate action nears. The preparedness of newspapers such as The Australian to continually distort, obfuscate and undermine the climate science is completely at odds with any notion of responsible journalism. Which is complemented by the statement by Chairman Rupert Murdoch, in response to a question at the recent News Corp New York AGM, that “there are no climate deniers here”. From a corporate governance perspective, one of the most misleading and deceptive statements ever made by a listed company chairman.

Other media groups have taken a far more balanced approach, notably the ABC, The Guardian, Crikey and Fairfax prior to the Nine takeover. The Australian Financial Review on the other hand tends more to the Murdoch denialist line.

However, apart from The Guardian, they have yet to fully embrace the need for emergency action.

To conclude, it is patently obvious that the Australian political system, as represented by the two main parties, has left the country totally unprepared to face the impact of climate change. It does not have leaders who can be trusted to, or are capable of, managing the climate emergency domestically, let alone having the statesmanship required to contribute to global collective action. There is little chance of such leadership emerging, given the short-termist, adversarial nature of current politics.

On the other hand, the bureaucracy has many capable people who are currently constrained from addressing the climate emergency. They need to be freed up to do so

Business has been sitting on the fence re climate change for far too long. That is beginning to change, but not fast enough. Fossil fuel industry denialism and disruption of sensible climate policy must stop.

Strong media understanding of, and support for, emergency action is essential if it is to be successful. Not least to counter the malevolent influence of the Murdoch press.

Governance for the Climate Emergency
The first responsibility of any government, and opposition, is the security of the people they represent. Recent commentary by senior Coalition politicians from the Prime Minister down indicates that either they have absolutely no idea of the implications of the climate science, or they are deliberately ignoring those implications, prepared to put the immediate security of the Australian people, and their future prosperity, at grave risk.

If the former, they are in breach of their fiduciary responsibility to the community to understand the risks facing the country and to act honestly to address those risks. They have access to the best possible scientific advice; it is criminally irresponsible to ignore that advice, hiding behind denialist ideology, pretending the problem does not exist.

If the latter, they are morally and ethically bankrupt, prepared to sacrifice Australian lives and livelihoods in the interests of short-term political advantage, pressured by vested interests in the fossil fuel industry and media. Given the increasingly hysterical political push-back from these interests as the time for emergency action arrives, this is the most likely explanation.

Having dug themselves a massive climate denialist hole, and lacking the honesty and integrity to climb out, they are now doubling down, determined to drag the rest of the community in with them. They assume that climate change is just another item on the political agenda which can be handled with the time-honoured process of wheeling and dealing for political advantage, which it patently cannot.

In confronting the greatest threat this country will ever experience, the unfortunate reality is that those managing the affairs of this nation have absolutely no interest in addressing that threat, or the capability to do so even if they chose. Further, investors and business, using current approaches, are not going to effectively contribute to managing the climate challenge in the limited time now available.

Most importantly in the climate context, an emergency implies acting early rather than later, otherwise mitigation becomes secondary to adaptation, as incumbencies throw their resources at managing symptoms, the climate impacts, rather than paying adequate attention to the underlying climate change cause . This would lead into a “death spiral” toward social collapse, as climate impacts escalate unconstrained. The beginnings of this can already be seen in responses around the world in the last few weeks as drought and bushfires enter uncharted territory. Australia and California, for example, are totally unprepared for the ferocity of the fires now being experienced.

The only way climate change can be addressed, domestically and globally, with any realistic chance of avoiding the worst impacts, is akin to a wartime response. In wartime:

• An over-riding issue is identified, a threat to national and/or human security, which has to be the absolute focus of national, and in this case, global activity. There is nothing more important.

• Climate change is now such an issue.

• To address it, the best possible expertise must be brought together in:

• A governance structure, possibly a government of national unity, comprising the best leadership from politics, business, finance, academia and community.
• A technical support framework, to identify and act upon the optimal solutions to the climate challenge

Obviously such changes are far from anything being contemplated officially. However, the existential, immediate nature of climate risk provides the catalyst to break through established denialist barriers, creating a new framework for action.

The government claims a mandate from the electorate for its supposed climate change policies as set out at the May 2019 election. In reality the government deliberately refused to articulate to the community the real implications of climate change. These were spelt out in numerous reports from the government’s own risk advisors, along with scientific advice, most recently in the various reports relating to the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework published in 2018/19. To quote, inter alia:

“The cost of disasters to society and the economy are growing and it is becoming increasingly apparent we need to urgently do more than change at the margin”

“Natural hazards intersecting with societies are not only possible, but are highly plausible, and their effect will likely exceed the capacity of the nation. The consequential damage, loss and suffering would be immense and enduring”.

The government ignored the advice; the costs to the community from this misleading and deceptive conduct are now in plain view as drought and bushfires escalate. The opposition likewise refused to articulate the real implications of climate change, whilst supporting the opening up of the Galilee Basin coal deposits which will heap further damage on the community.

Neither party has a mandate to destroy the future of Australian society, which is the implication of their current policies. Both have deliberately misled the people, and failed in their primary responsibility to ensure the security of the nation. For which there is no excuse.

When parliamentarians act in this irresponsible manner, they have no right to remain in office, even more so when the issue is the greatest threat facing the nation.

Accordingly, the Australian people must now demand that the responsibility for handling all matters relating to climate change be vested in a wartime governance structure as above. Constitutional advice on the mechanism for establishing such a structure would be required from the Governor General and other experts. Given the all-encompassing nature of climate action, this may mean both Government and Opposition stand aside in the interests of national security.

During their Christmas break, parliamentarians might contemplate why the best interests of constituents are now served by them stepping aside.

On Australian climate change leadership, Donald Horne is still right “—— most of its leaders so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise”. Indeed, but perhaps that might now change.

Published in Pearls & Irritations, 12th & 13th December 2019

A local mayor can see we face a climate emergency. Why can’t the PM?

Despite soaring rhetoric about Australian values and the absolute priority of securing the future of the Australian people, it is crystal clear that the Federal Government, the Opposition and much of our corporate and media leadership have absolutely no understanding of the greatest threat facing this country, namely human-induced climate change. Having dug themselves a massive climate denial hole, and lacking the honesty to climb out, they are now intent on dragging the rest of the community down with them.

Not so the mayor of Glenn Innes Severn Council. Coming to grips with the loss of two lives and 20 properties including her own in this weekend’s devastating fires Carol Sparks had no doubt of the emergency we face. “”We are so impacted by drought and the lack of rain,” she said. “It’s climate change, there’s no doubt about it. The whole of the country is going to be affected. We need to take a serious look at our future.”

As the mayor indicated, the key immediate threats are drought, water availability and the absence of any realistic climate change and energy policy. Climate change is the driver behind all three, whose impact has increased remorselessly since John Howard initiated Australia’s dominant climate denial mindset, and masterly inaction, in the 1990s. To the point that lives are now being lost, livelihoods destroyed and large parts of Australia condemned to economic and social decline.

For three decades, attempts to use science, evidence and rational debate to gain political and corporate commitment to urgent action have failed abysmally in the face of massed fossil fuel interests, supposed “conservatism” and political self-interest – determined to preserve our high-carbon “status quo” whatever the cost to the community. Leaders have been repeatedly warned of the risks, but deliberately chosen to ignore them. We are now paying the price, and impacts will get much worse, absent emergency action.

The scientific rationale for emergency action has been well established for years. The world is currently on track for a temperature increase of 4.5°C by 2100 which would trigger global collapse long beforehand. Even if the Paris Climate Agreement voluntary commitments were implemented, and there is little sign of that happening, temperature increase would be 3.5°C probably long before 2100, a world of social chaos. A 1.5°C increase, which now implies extremely dangerous climate change, is assured by 2030, irrespective of any action taken.

And yet the denial escalates. Asked if there was any link between climate change and the fires, the Prime Minister dodged the question. “My only thoughts today are with those who have lost their lives and their families, the firefighters who are fighting the fires (and) the response effort that has to be delivered.”

He lectures the UN that “Australia is doing its bit on climate change”. Minister Taylor assures us that Australia will meet it wholly inadequate Paris emission reduction commitments “at a canter” when it is patently obvious it will not, even including unused Kyoto carryover credits. Emissions, we are told, are falling when they are going up. Minister Hawke insists the Australian government is doing “more than anyone else” on climate change. So the propaganda ramps up, completely ignoring reality.

The facts are that Australia, on any objective measure, is abjectly failing to contribute its fair share to global climate action. Not just failing, but adding fuel to the fire by attempting to massively expand coal and gas use when emissions must now fall dramatically if even worse catastrophes are to be avoid than those already happening. We are not “just 1.3% of global emissions”; if the government has its way, we will shortly be the third largest carbon polluter in the world if exports are included, which is the only realistic way of assessing our climate impact.

The Prime Minister’s knee-jerk response to mounting pressure for climate action is to invoke the perennial defence of national sovereignty to stop dastardly “global institutions” from interfering in our affairs; always handy when you have been caught with your pants down.

Sorry Prime Minister, climate change is a global problem which requires cooperation as never before. Without it we are headed for global collapse. Nobody is seeking to “elevate global institutions above the authority of nation states”. It is the nation states that are failing their communities.

People are waking up to that reality. As disasters mount, global protest at the inaction and climate denial of political, business and media leaders is escalating rapidly. From the schoolchildren strikes, to Greta Thunberg’s impassioned pleas and increasing civil disobedience from groups like Extinction Rebellion, community anger is rising.

Responsible politicians would not to fall into the trap of banning protest as the Prime Minister proposes, not dodge an opportunity to make the case for action, but face up to the abject failure of imagination and leadership which has characterised politics around this issue for decades, and commit to a genuine emergency response, akin to wartime. The solutions offer great opportunity, but implementation requires denialist politicians to get out of the way and let real Australian innovation take over. Most importantly, start addressing the real cause and stop the political blame game over the symptoms .

We are not going to sit as rabbits in the headlights to be run over by the climate leviathan at the behest of self-centred politics. Expect more protest, not less.


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 10th November 2019

A Parliament Without Trust or Legitimacy Must Go

The insults hurled by David Leyonhjelm at Sarah Hanson-Young recently put parliamentary discourse in the gutter. Leyonhjelm was roundly condemned, but not by our leaders. A limp rap across the knuckles from Turnbull and Shorten, then on to more pressing matters, hoping it will all go away.

But not so fast; in governance parlance “the fish rots from the head”. Our leaders need to acknowledge the amoral, unethical parliamentary morass they have created, and its implications.

Australian society today is not a pretty sight. Despite the hype around Australian “values”, years of neoliberal policy have seen money corrupt everything. The Banking Royal Commission, long resisted by the incumbency, is exposing not just a few bad apples but an industry rotten to the core from excessive remuneration, greed which is certainly not restricted to the finance sector. In sport, winning is everything, whatever the cost, but it long ceased to be sport in any true sense. Violence against women and minorities escalates, egged on by the Leyonhjelms of this world. Population pressure sees tolerance disappear. Inequality increases in leaps and bounds, exacerbated by mythical “trickle-down” economics. Drug and alcohol abuse is widespread. Terrorism threats and migration justify massive over-reaction in restricting individual liberties. Crass commercial media and shock jocks incite vindictive extremism. Continuing scandals suggest that few people in positions of public trust have any idea of the moral and ethical responsibilities which go with those roles.

Above it all sits a national parliament incapable of sane discussion on anything. Screamed abuse replaces reasoned debate, any sense of civility long gone. Little wonder societal standards decline when “leaders” set such an appalling example. But there are far more fundamental implications.

Concepts of left and right in politics long since became irrelevant to solving the critical issues facing Australia. The imperative is that those issues do actually get addressed, which is patently not happening.

The first priority of government, we are told, is to ensure the security of the people. In theory, we elect politicians to govern on our behalf to provide that security; politicians who, pre-election, profess undying commitment to public service.

What we get, with a few notable exceptions, are politicians who, once elected, focus largely on party machinations, getting re-elected or otherwise feathering their nest. Much sound and fury around minor issues, whilst the critical ones are ignored. It was not always thus; historically in politics and business there were statesmen and women prepared to set aside their personal interests in favour of the common good, but they are long gone since money came to dominate. Good people are elected to parliament, but their good qualities are rapidly subsumed by party politics.

Behind it all, the creeping cancer of the neoliberal agenda dominates the current government. Driven by right wing apparatchiks in the Institute of Public Affairs, the Minerals Council of Australia, the Business Council of Australia, the Murdoch press and elsewhere, every opportunity is taken to push deregulation, reduce the size of government, emasculate and politicise the public service making it subservient to ideologically-blinkered political advisers, with no regard for the “common good”. Power is concentrated in a few wealthy hands in the interests of “conservatism”, shorthand for maintaining the status quo for the benefit of existing elites. So dissent must be suppressed, activist groups muzzled, the ABC silenced, academic freedom undermined, public debate dumbed down and the public treated as fools. Few are even aware it is happening, except when the occasional stuff-up occurs as with Tony Abbott spilling the beans on the real intentions of the Ramsay project for the promotion of Western Civilisation.

This is where facism begins; the cancer must be stopped if we want a prosperous, sustainable and fair society.

In this, Australia is following the US, where the process is far more advanced. The insidious efforts of right wing billionaires such as the Koch brothers, to seize the levers of power has been going on for decades, the inevitable outcome flagged by Lord Acton long ago: “Remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

The deterioration of US society, with increasing inequality, violence, crumbling infrastructure and much more has, to a significant extent been brought about by this venality. US and Australian neoliberals are inextricably linked in moving this agenda forward.

Except that the status quo can no longer be maintained, as neoliberalism has long since sown the seeds of its own destruction. The inevitable result of decades of exponential growth in both population and consumption is that we are now hitting the limits of the global biosphere, which cannot be circumvented. This is manifest in multiple ways, inter alia: increasing water stress, massive biodiversity loss, decreasing productivity of agricultural land, escalating social conflict over declining resources and associated migration. To the point that the economic growth model under which our economies operate is no longer sustainable, despite desperate efforts to keep it afloat with massive financial interventions such as “quantitative easing”.

Overshadowing it all is human-induced climate change.

Its risks are intensifying and the physical impact worsening, with global climate-related losses running at record levels. Despite 30 years of political and corporate rhetoric, nothing has been done to seriously address it, notwithstanding increasingly urgent warnings.

The result is that climate change is now an immediate existential risk to humanity. That is, a risk posing large negative consequences which will be irreversible, resulting inter alia in major reductions in global and national population, species extinction, disruption of economies and social chaos, unless carbon emissions are rapidly reduced. The risk is immediate in that it is being locked in today by our insistence on expanding the use of fossil fuels when the carbon budget to stay below sensible temperature limits is already exhausted.

To prevent temperatures rising above the upper 2degC limit of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, it is no longer possible to follow a gradual transition path. We have left it too late; emergency action, akin to wartime regulation, is inevitable. Market-based measures alone are insufficient.

Those still sceptical of this reality only have to look at the Northern Hemisphere now, particularly the Arctic, Asia and the US, as extreme temperatures trigger positive feedback loops, creating global climate conditions which make normal life impossible.

Neoliberals in the US and Australian fossil fuel industries long ago saw climate change as the greatest threat to the stranglehold on power from which they have benefited for so long. Accordingly billions of dollars have been devoted to discrediting climate science, raising doubts about its authenticity through every possible means, with much US money flowing in to support Australian campaigns. A process which has been remarkably successful, albeit nothing less than a crime against humanity.

But even the Koch brothers, the IPA and the MCA cannot change the laws of physics. The climate science has been rock-solid for decades and the cost of neoliberal disinformation is now coming home to roost. Unfortunately that cost is being borne by the poor who can least afford it, and groups like Australian farmers, rather than the elites who created it.

As Churchill put it: “Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong—these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history

Which places Australia in an extremely dangerous position. We are one of the countries most exposed to the impacts of climate change, particularly our agricultural sector. Yet our dysfunctional parliament has left the country totally unprepared for what is to come.

The crux of the problem is that our government is in total climate change denial. Climate and energy policy is a shambles, the result of endless contortions trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. Namely expanding our fossil-fuel based economy, particularly coal, whilst pretending to meet our wholly inadequate voluntary commitments under the Paris Agreement. An Agreement which the government is doing its damndest to undermine, despite having ratified it in 2016.

Policy is dictated by scientifically and economically illiterate right wing hard-coalers, such as Messrs Canavan, Abbott, McCormack, Kelly, Christensen and Abetz who cannot understand that reliable, dispatchable and lower-cost power is now available from renewable energy sources far more effectively and cheaply than from coal. Even when coal continues to be massively subsidised, far more than renewables, by the lack of a sensible carbon price to account for its externalities, namely the enormous damage done by the health and climate impacts of coal use, which have been ignored since the Industrial Revolution. None of which matters if you are in climate denial.

They stamp their feet like petulant schoolboys whose favourite coal toy is being taken away. They lie and dissemble, misrepresenting and cherry-picking sound technical reports, twisting them to achieve their preferred pro-coal outcomes, irrespective of the severe implications for the wider Australian community, egged on by the serried ranks of the neoliberal cheer squad.

Just because we have large coal resources does not give us the right to use them if the result is an existential threat to humanity. Commodities come and go; coal is no different. Coal has created great wealth, but it’s time has passed as its climate impact, along with that of other fossil fuels, is now destroying the societies it helped create. The development of Galilee Basin coal, along with CSG in NSW and Queensland, and shale gas in the NT and WA, would be suicidal in current circumstances.

As Sheikh Yamani put it in the oil context: “The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil”.

Australia was built upon the innovative application of science. That is also its future, which the government is destroying with third-rate, anti-science policy such as the National Energy Guarantee. The certainty for energy investment which business and politicians crave will be non-existent until action on climate change is accepted as the absolute priority in determining energy policy.  The solutions are available and blindingly obvious, including a realistic price on carbon and bans on any further fossil fuel expansion.

We have many opportunities to invest in low-carbon alternatives for both domestic and export use which provide far greater potential than traditional commodities such as coal. Particularly in providing distributed energy across the rural community. This is where our aspirations must lie, not in massive investment in propping up coal-fired power stations or investing in new ones. The cost to Australia as these investments inevitably become stranded assets, will be enormous, along with physical damage to the country from their climate impact. Rather than holding back renewable energy development, which is clearly the objective of current policy, we should be accelerating it to the maximum extent possible along with dramatic improvements to energy efficiency and conservation.

Neoliberal climate denialists insist that Australia’s domestic carbon emissions, 1.3% of the global total, are such as small amount that nothing we do will have any effect in addresssing climate change globally. That is nonsense; if exports are included, which they must be given the rapidly accelerating climate impact, Australia is already the sixth largest carbon polluter globally and will soon be fourth given the ramping up of our LNG exports. In short, we are a very big emissions player. What Australia does mattters.

The pretence that the government is serious about addressing climate change becomes ever more ludicrous. The most recent example is the $500 million allocated in a futile attempt to repair climate damage to the Great Barrier Reef, via the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, whilst simultaneously advocating the opening up of massive new coal mines in the Galilee Basin which would compound that damage, totally decimating the reef, along with tourism and other industries far more valuable than coal.

Likewise the announcement from Minister for Agriculture , David Littleproud, about an agreement with state ministers to help farmers adapt to climate change. Why was this needed? Because the climate is changing. What are we doing to stop it? Nothing, just attempting to adapt whilst making the problem far worse by building new coal-fired power stations and mines. Just how long can this cognitive dissonance continue?

The Prime Minister proclaimed in 2010 that: “Our efforts to deal with climate change have been betrayed by a lack of leadership, a political cowardice, the like of which I have never seen — “. He promised never to lead a political party that did not take climate change seriously. He now revels in doing exactly that, placing the future of generations of Australians in jeopardy. An abject failure of principled leadership.

The Opposition are little better, continually sitting on the fence denying the urgency for climate action, and ambivalent toward new coal development such as Adani. Equally lacking in leadership and principle.

Many parliamentarians are climate deniers, but that does not absolve them of the fiduciary responsibility to set aside their personal prejudices and to act in the public interest with integrity, fairness and accountability. This requires them to understand the latest climate science; it is not acceptable for those in positions of public trust to dismiss scientific warnings in the cavalier manner which has typified the last few years. Particularly when the risk is existential.

Ministers in particular do not seem to understand that they have that fiduciary responsibility, along with the related public duty and a public trust.

As Sir Gerard Brennan puts it: “A fiduciary is a person to whom power is entrusted for the benefit of another. ——- Power is reposed in members of Parliament by the public for exercise in the interests of the public and not primarily for the interests of members or the parties to which they belong. The cry ‘whatever it takes’ is not consistent with the performance of fiduciary duty ———- All decisions and exercises of power should be taken in the interests of the public, and that duty cannot be subordinated to, or qualified by, the interests of the (parliamentarian or Minister)

Effective action on climate change must be raised above political infighting if the government’s first responsibility to ensure the security of the Australian people is to have meaning. But nowhere in the political spectrum is there evidence of leadership that might step up to the challenge.

In the corporate sector, the widespread abuse of power, declining ethical standards and falling community trust in business is calling into question corporations’ “social licence to operate”, and their right to enjoy the privilege of limited liability, which has been the cornerstone of business since the early 1800s, on the grounds that it should be a privilege to be earned, not an inalienable right.

Trust “is a belief that a person or institution will perform their role or function in accordance with its obligations, or where not bound by duty, in a predictable manner”.

Beyond trust is legitimacy “a recognised and well-founded right to claim a certain status, role or function.

Our parliament must be held to higher standards than the corporate world. But community trust in parliamentarians is non-existent. Further, a parliament that is incapable of firstly, understanding, secondly, addressing and thirdly, is deliberately worsening, the critical issues which Australia faces, particularly climate change, has forfeited any legitimacy. It has no right to continue in its present form.

When the risks are existential, it is not acceptable to allow parliamentary renewal to await the next election and the likely continuation of dysfunctional government. The parliament is on Winter Break; it should not reconvene. The Governor General should disband it and consider alternative national governance arrangements.

Different forms of democratic structure are being canvassed widely, recognising the profound weaknesses of the current system. This expertise should be used to create something akin to a wartime Government of National Unity, with leaders of foresight and integrity.

Because the brutal reality is that climate risk now has to be handled as an emergency. Either we act, or we face a bleak future. Parliament must work for the people, not destroy them.

Sometimes we have to do what is required” 

Published in Pearls & Irritations, 9th August 2019

Climate Risk – MCA Directors Breach Duties of Care and Due Diligence

After 30 years of inaction, the focus on climate risk is accelerating as the physical impact of climate change worsens and the transition risks to a low-carbon world intensify. Despite effusive official rhetoric, nothing has been done to seriously address climate change, notwithstanding increasingly urgent warnings . Global climate-related losses are running at record levels .

To prevent temperatures rising above the upper 2degC limit of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, it is no longer possible to follow a gradual, incrementalist glide path. We have left it too late; emergency action, akin to wartime regulation, is inevitable, which further increases the transition risk. Market-based measures alone are insufficient.

Despite years of denial in the top echelons of corporate Australia, legal opinion has confirmed that: “company directors who fail to properly consider and disclose foreseeable climate-related risks to their business could be held personally liable for breaching their statutory duty of care and diligence under the Corporations Act.” . Regulators are finally waking up that climate risk has the potential to create a crisis far greater than the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, emphasising that: “climate risks are foreseeable, material and actionable now” .They have yet to honestly face up to the existential implications.

Curious then that the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) should recently publish an astonishingly misleading report on Market Demand for Australian Export Thermal Coal, 2017-2030. In 52 pages, from consultant Commodity Insights, there is not a single mention of the greatest threat to thermal coal exports, namely climate change risk . Government estimates of thermal coal expansion are used to produce a single-line estimate of a massive 60% increase in thermal coal import demand by 2030 for countries across the Asian region. A strongly supportive media release from MCA Coal Director Greg Evans, confirms that “Australian coal is ideally placed to meet this growing demand”, albeit the report is silent on Australia’s possible share of this growth.

The report optimistically includes new powerstation builds but fails to properly net out older powerstations closures. It contradicts authoritative studies such as the International Energy Agency (IEA) 2017 World Energy Outlook, which suggests that to meet Paris climate change commitments, global thermal coal trade, far from expanding, will reduce by 28% by 2025 and 59% by 2040 . Even the IEA central New Policies scenario shows no growth.

The MCA is a company limited by guarantee, incorporated and domiciled in Australia, hence subject to the Corporations Act. To promulgate such material without qualification is misleading and deceptive. MCA’s directors must consider how climate change impacts MCA’s business, and the business of its members. This reports demonstrates an ignorance of climate risk and failure by the directors’ to discharge their duty of care and diligence in overseeing the company’s operations. The report is a blatant attempt to influence the current toxic political debate on climate and energy policy in favour of coal expansion.

The MCA has form in this regard, for three decades having been a serial offender preventing the introduction of serious climate policy in Australia. To the point that the two major MCA members, BHP and Rio Tinto, under pressure from their own shareholders, finally reconsidered their MCA involvement given the stark contrast between MCA climate policy and their own. Following reframing of MCA policy, which includes the duty to consider climate risk, both BHP and Rio retained their involvement.

Yet this report deliberately breaches the updated policy. Thus, MCA’s directors are increasingly exposed to personal liability for failing to govern the company in a manner that adequately considers climate risk.

Some MCA directors have short memories. In November 2015, the New York State Attorney General, via the US Securities and Exchange Commission, secured undertakings from the world’s largest coal company, Peabody Energy, for violating state laws prohibiting false and misleading conduct in regard to Peabody’s public statements on risks posed by climate change . In part by misrepresenting the findings and projections of the IEA. Peabody Energy Australia, a subsidiary of Peabody Energy, is a member of the MCA, with a director on the MCA Board.

The implications of South Asia following a Chinese pattern of coal expansion, which is what this report implies, are horrendous in terms of climate impact; the result would be: “a world incompatible with any organised global society” . Far more people would die from the use of coal than will ever be pulled out of poverty. The market for seaborne coal, far from growing, would disappear. The cost to Australia, in terms of stranded assets, would be massive.

In the national interest, regulators must now stop the stream of MCA disinformation once and for all.


This article was published in Pearls and Irritations and RenewEconomy in July 2018

Facing Reality: Reframing Climate Change as an Immediate Existential Risk

The Big Question:

“Who at the highest levels of leadership in corporates and public service will take the bold risks that are required, not gradually or incrementally, but decisively in line with the new scale and speed that ‘unthinkables’ emerge.”

ITD – Climate Change Emergency Response Rationale June 2018