Submission to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements – Bushfire Royal Commission

Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements.

The 2019/20 Australian bushfire season was unprecedented in terms of the intensity of the fires, their areal extent and their impact on the Australian community . Initial attribution studies confirm the significant role of anthropogenic climate change in fuelling these fires . Severe drought over large parts of the continent for some years beforehand set the context for the extreme fires that developed.

Experts had warned, for some time, of the potentially catastrophic fire danger for the 2019/20 season, but these warnings were not acted upon . Whilst preparations had been made, they proved to be wholly inadequate for the unprecedented conditions which eventuated, necessitating emergency action.

The firefighting effort on the ground was exemplary from the outset. Unfortunately the national response left much to be desired, until it accelerated once the full extent of the disaster became clear. However, why were the initial warnings ignored?

Recovery from the fires was still in progress as the coronavirus pandemic hit, further compounding the impact on fire-affected communities, and on Australian society at large.

The Terms of Reference for this Royal Commission focus on “— preparedness for, response to, resilience to, and recovery from natural disasters”. Further, “— arrangements for improving resilience and adapting to changing climatic conditions, what actions should be taken to mitigate the impact of natural disasters, —-“.

Whilst these are clearly important considerations, they are essentially reactive. They cannot be meaningfully addressed unless there is an understanding, and acceptance, of the real risks which are causing these natural disasters. This must be the foundation for realistic national arrangements – to proactively provide the best chance of avoiding such disasters by mitigating the risks themselves, as opposed to mitigating the impact of the disasters, then adapting to manage the disasters we cannot avoid.

For the last three decades, Australian leaders, political and corporate, have refused to accept, and act upon, expert advice on the major risks our society faces, from climate change in particular. The resulting damage is now obvious, but this is only the beginning, as climate change, along with a number of critical, inter-related risks, will probably manifest themselves henceforth as escalating compound events, as we already see with the pandemic.

This requires entirely different emergency risk management from techniques currently employed.
The following commentary is submitted as a “relevant matter”, as per Paragraph (d) of the Commission terms of reference.

Global Catastrophic Risks
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted, in brutal fashion, that there are immediate catastrophic, potentially existential, risks confronting the Australian community for which we are totally unprepared.
The recently-formed Commission for the Human Future summarised them as follows :

Decline of key natural resources and an emerging global resource crisis, especially in water
• Collapse of ecosystems that support life and the mass extinction of species
• Human population growth and demand, beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity
• Global warming, sea level rise and changes in the Earth’s climate affecting all human activity
• Universal pollution of the Earth system and all life
• Rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality
• Nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction
• Pandemics of new and untreatable disease
• Advent of powerful, uncontrollable new technologies
• National and global failure to understand and act preventively on these risks.

The concurrence of recovery from the bushfires with the arrival of the pandemic demonstrates these events compounding, one upon another. The pandemic in particular has highlighted the fragility of a global economic system built upon the exponential increase in both human population and consumption. For decades, concerns have been expressed about the implications , which have been ignored as the global community constructed an economic system of perverse incentives guaranteed to ensure its own destruction.

The point has now been reached where that system is indeed destroying itself, in that it cannot handle the contradictions it has created. Multiple risks are compounding in inter-related ways never previously experienced.

The availability of cheap fossil fuels triggered the exponential increases in population and consumption, one result being anthropogenic climate change. In turn, the encroachment of humanity into the natural environment, along with increasing temperature, initiated zoonotic diseases such as SARS and Covid19 . Water and food resources are also under pressure, as evidenced currently in Australia.

As one domino falls, others begin to topple. The opportunity that the current pandemic presents must be used to rethink the road ahead, not just revert to business-as-usual.

With both bushfires and pandemic, Australia was not prepared, as leaders had ignored expert advice, albeit we reacted rapidly once the events were upon us. However this will not be good enough in future, as the potential impacts will be far worse in the years ahead unless we take mitigating action to avoid the risks to the extent possible.

The risks set out above all require urgent attention. However climate change is arguably the most urgent, as explained below:

The Rapidly Changing Context of Global Climate Change
After three decades of inaction, human-induced climate change is the greatest threat, and opportunity, facing the world. Climate change now represents an existential challenge which, if not addressed as a genuine emergency immediately, will destroy human civilisation as we know it within decades. Immediate, in that the actions we take today, particularly expanding fossil fuel use thereby increasing global carbon emissions, are locking-in that outcome. The rationale for that view is as follows:

Climate change is happening faster than anticipated, driven primarily by human carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion, agriculture and land clearing. Uncertainties relate not to the basic climate science, which has been well-understood for decades, but to the speed and extent of climate impact, both of which have been badly underestimated.

The first round of voluntary emission reduction commitments in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, if implemented would lead to a temperature increase of around 3.5degC, relative to pre-industrial conditions, probably before 2100 – a world which leading national security experts describe as “outright social chaos”. At present, we are on track for around a 4.5degC increase, which would be “a world incompatible with any organised society”, resulting in a substantial reduction in global population, toward 1 billion from the current 7.5 billion .

Dangerous climate change is occurring at the 1oC temperature increase already experienced. The 2degC Paris upper limit now represents the boundary of extremely dangerous climate change.

To stay below 2degC, global emissions must peak now and be reduced by around 9% annually, something no country has ever achieved. The lower 1.5degC Paris target requires even more rapid reduction. Meanwhile, until the pandemic, emissions have been rising in line with worst case scenarios.

This Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) analysis assumes only a 50-66% chance of meeting the targets. Not good odds for the future of humanity. To have a sensible 90% chance, there is no carbon budget left today to stay below 2degC, let alone 1.5degC. Thus all fossil fuel consumption should stop immediately. Obviously that is not going to happen, but new investment must stop now, and the existing industry wound down as fast as possible.

Emissions from continued fossil fuel investment, coal, oil or gas, lock-in irreversible, existential climatic outcomes today. Due to climate inertia, by the time the climatic impact of these investments becomes clear, it will be too late to take avoiding action. Hence the risk is immediate.

Atmospheric aerosols produced by burning coal and oil are cooling the planet by around 0.3 to 0.5degC. As aerosol concentrations reduce with the phase-out of fossil fuels, a commensurate one-off increase in temperature is likely, compounding the problem of staying below warming limits.

Proposed solutions to meet the 1.5degC target rely heavily on carbon removal from the atmosphere using negative emissions technologies, none of which exist at scale today. This is extremely dangerous, creating a false sense of security.

The recent IPCC 1.5degC report understates key risks in moving from 1.5degC to 2degC warming. For example, increasing climate-driven refugees, exceeding tipping points that could push the world on to an irreversible path to a “Hothouse Earth” , Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet instability triggering multi-metre sea level increase. Exceeding 1.5degC poses huge risks both for humans and natural systems, but it is likely that will occur within a decade.

In summary, it is now impossible to limit temperature increases to 1.5degC, and probably to 2degC unless global leaders accelerate action on climate change to an emergency footing, akin to wartime.

This is no extreme, alarmist view, but objective risk management analysis of the science and evidence. It is also not new; it has been clear for at least a decade that these were the risks, yet officialdom globally has deliberately ignored them at the behest of fossil fuel interests and conservative acolytes.

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 “tip” abruptly from one relatively stable state to another far less conducive to human prosperity, or survival. For example, Arctic sea ice is melting rapidly as temperatures rise 2-3 times faster than the global average. As a result, less solar radiation is reflected back to space off the white ice; instead it warms the oceans, which in turn warm the seabed and surrounding land, melting permafrost, leading to further carbon emissions and accelerated warming.

Fifteen non-linear tipping points were identified around the world some years ago. They represent the greatest risks of climate change in that, once triggered, they become irreversible, beyond humanity’s influence, with catastrophic outcomes. Some are inter-related; once one triggers, others may follow in a cascading effect globally.

Unfortunately, the implications of tipping points are not quantified in IPCC analyses, in part because scientists do not know enough about their mechanisms to accurately assess the potential impact. Hence the importance of exercising the precautionary principle, by early reduction of carbon emissions. As Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research puts it : “This is particularly true when the issue is the very survival of our civilisation, where conventional means of analysis may become useless”.

The latest assessment by leading scientists suggests that tipping points may occur earlier than previously thought. Indeed, there are indications that nine inter-related tipping points are underway, with one, the West Antarctic ice sheet, now irreversible, leading eventually to a 3 metre sea level rise. Others may be triggered between 1 – 2degC, raising the prospect of a global cascade effect even below the upper 2degC limit of the Paris Agreement. Hence the importance of staying below that limit, however difficult. They conclude:

“In our view, the evidence from tipping points alone suggests that we are in a state of planetary emergency; both the risk and urgency of the situation are acute.
We argue that the intervention time left to prevent tipping could already have shrunk toward zero, whereas the reaction time to achieve net zero emissions is 30 years at best. Hence we might have already lost control of whether tipping happens. A saving grace is that the rate at which damage accumulates from tipping – and hence the risk posed – could still be under our control to some extent.
The stability and resilience of our planet is in peril. International action – not just words – must reflect this.”

In short, prayers and platitudes from global leaders no longer suffice.

The prevalent idea that the world can still make an ordered, gradual transition to a low-carbon world, for example to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, is now totally unrealistic. We have left it far too late and have to take emergency action to reduce carbon emissions as fast as possible.

This means the big emitters, whether private fossil fuel companies or state entities, must take the brunt of the cuts. Other contributions, from communities, agriculture, transport, manufacturing etc are important, but will not achieve the required reductions in the limited time available. Solutions would be along the following lines;

Accelerate innovation to further reduce cost of low-carbon energy alternatives

Ban investment in new fossil fuel capacity from 2020, then phase-out coal, then oil & gas as fast as possible as alternatives become available

Remove subsidies to fossil fuel industries, currently US$5 trillion globally

Introduce realistic carbon pricing

• Tighten controls on fugitive emissions from fossil fuel operations

Accelerate electrification to eliminate fossil fuel rapidly.

Redesign agricultural practices, emphasis on soil carbon, ocean sequestration and reforestation, to draw down carbon already in the atmosphere to more acceptable levels.

Strong emphasis on energy conservation and efficiency

Encourage debate and reframing of values toward evolution of sustainable societies in support of this transition

Provide, and plan for, a fair transition for those people and regions adversely affected.

The immediate priority must be to stop fossil fuel expansion – coal, oil or gas – both here and overseas.

What Does Emergency Action Mean?
The climate threat is increasingly obvious as extreme events escalate globally, not least the 2019/20 Australian bushfires and subsequent floods, the unprecedented nature of which suggest tipping points are beginning to trigger at a regional level . As a result, the climate emergency call is being taken up widely by communities and institutions globally as damage mounts. In essence it means, akin to wartime, the suspension of business-as-usual, politically, corporately and socially, to do whatever it takes to resolve the climate crisis. There is no higher priority.

This does mean massive societal and cultural change, and fundamental reframing of virtually every policy arena; climate, energy, foreign affairs, defence, health, immigration, agriculture to name but a few. That requires an all-encompassing commitment to a low-carbon emergency transition. Certainly there will be costs, but the costs of ignoring climate change will be far greater. Unfortunately much economic modelling, supposedly based upon the science, has badly understated the costs of inaction, whilst amplifying the costs of action, which has further distorted global climate policy-making.

Addressing the Existential Climate Threat
The immediate existential threat of climate change is a global problem that cannot be solved by any one country in isolation. It requires unprecedented levels of global co-operation to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and atmospheric carbon concentrations. This may seem fanciful at a time when many leading countries are moving toward isolationism. However this existential threat is unlike anything humanity has experienced historically; if human civilisation as we know it is to survive, it is in everyone’s interest to overcome it.

Climate change has the potential to create major conflict over issues such as migration, water and other resource availability. It has already been a major factor behind the Syrian crisis, Brexit and Trump’s Mexican Wall, though this is rarely acknowledged . As climate impacts mount, if the outcome is increasing isolationism and conflict, then civilisation will collapse. The question is whether, and how, leadership and statesmanship will emerge to trigger co-operation and avoid collapse?

Existential Risk Management
Climate change is existential risk management on a global scale. The risk implications outlined above require that existential risk should now be the primary consideration in managing climate change, moving beyond the official IPCC & UN conclusions. It should be built around existential risk management policy unlike anything being contemplated officially at present. The components would encompass:

Normative Goal Setting. “Politically realistic”, incremental change from “business-as-usual” is not tenable. This must be replaced with a normative view of limits which must be adhered to if catastrophic consequences are to be avoided, based on the latest science. Action is then determined by the imperative to stay within the limits, not by incremental, art-of-the-possible, change from business-as-usual.

Change Mindsets, to now regard the climate change challenge as a genuine global emergency, to be addressed with an emergency global response.

Genuine Global Leadership. Current responses reflect the dominance of managerialism – an emphasis on optimising the conventional political and corporate paradigms by incremental change, rather than adopting the fundamentally different normative leadership needed to contend with the potential for catastrophic failure.

Integrated Policy. Climate change, though difficult, is only one of a number of critical, inter-related, issues now confronting the global community, which threaten the sustainability of humanity, as indicated above. Rather than viewing these issues separately in individual “silos” as at present, integrated policy is essential if realistic solutions are to be implemented.

Honesty. There needs to be an honest articulation of the catastrophic risks and the integrated sustainability challenge we now face, with extensive community education to develop the platform for commitment to the major changes ahead. That has not happened thus far. Investors, corporates and regulators have a crucial role to play in articulating reality and in adopting constructive solutions.

Request to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements
In the above context, I make the following suggestions for the Royal Commission’s recommendations on National Natural Disaster Arrangements:

The foundation for any national arrangements must be objective science and evidence-based assessments of the real risks causing natural disasters. Henceforth, political, ideological or vested interest considerations must be excluded.

The full range of potentially catastrophic and/or existential threats must be understood, along with their inter-relationships.

Preparedness, response, recovery, resilience and adaptation are all important. But emergency mitigation of risk is essential, otherwise irreversible existential impacts may soon be locked-in.

Hence emergency action must become the modus operandi in addressing these inter-related risks, along the lines suggested above.

I would be pleased to discuss mechanisms under which these suggestions might be developed, at your convenience.

Ian T Dunlop



Climate Change: The Fiduciary Responsibility of Politicians & Bureaucrats in the Era of Existential Climate Risks

“Fiduciary: 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”

Sir Gerard Brennan AC, KBE, QC

After three decades of global inaction, none more so than in Australia, human-induced climate change is now an 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 reduced on an emergency basis. 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 increase limits is already exhausted.

As one of the countries most exposed to climate impact, and in the top half dozen carbon polluters worldwide when exports are included, as they must be, this should be of major concern to Australia. Instead, politicians and bureaucrats urge massive fossil fuel expansion to supply domestic and Asian markets, the latter justified on the grounds of poverty alleviation and the drug peddlers argument that: “if we don’t supply it, others will”. Blind to the fact that fossil fuels are now creating far more poverty than they are alleviating. In so doing Australia would be complicit in destroying the conditions which make human life possible. There is no greater crime against humanity.

Regulators now recognise that climate risk far outweighs the financial risks which triggered the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and demand action. Company directors have a fiduciary responsibility to understand, assess and act upon climate risk. Overseas, directors are already facing legal action, and personal liability, for having refused to do so, or for misrepresenting that risk. Compensation is being sought from carbon polluters for damage incurred from climate impact. Similar action will be taken here.

But what of our politicians and bureacrats and their contribution to this crime? The last few years have seen an unprecendented stream of lies and disinformation emanating from our official bodies around climate and energy policy, in blatant disregard of the facts, with seemingly no end to distortions designed to achieve short-term political advantage. What fiduciary responsibility do they have to the community they are supposed to serve?

Ministers repeatedly remind us that the first responsibility of government is the security of the people. On any balanced assessment of the science and evidence, climate change is now the greatest threat to that security and to our future prosperity.

Australia signed and ratified the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, presumably with the intent of meeting its objectives to limit global average temperature increase to “well below 2degC above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5degC”, and “to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible —– in accordance with best available science”, recognising that “climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet”.

The voluntary Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) made by Paris participants, if implemented, would not meet the objectives, leading to a global temperature increase in the 3-4degC range, a world incompatible with an organised global community. The Australian commitment, of a 26-28% emission reduction by 2030 on 2005 levels is derisory on any fair international comparison.

Regional temperature variations would be far greater than these global averages, rendering many parts of the world uninhabitable even at 2degC, beyond the capacity of human physiology to function effectively. This may well be the case across much of Australia.   Since Paris, our Federal Government has ignored the Agreement, brushing off the increasingly urgent warnings of “the best available science” and ramping up fossil fuel expansion, whilst placing every possible obstacle in the way of low-carbon energy alternatives.

The fact that many Ministers and parliamentarians are climate deniers for ideological or party political reasons, 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 and to act accordingly. It is not acceptable for those in positions of public trust to dismiss these warnings in the cavalier manner which has typified the last few years. Particularly when the risk is existential.

The Prime Minister failed this test recently by implying the disastrous Tathra bushfires had nothing to do with climate change. Every extreme weather event today has some element of climate change involved; it is irresponsible to imply otherwise.

Ministers justify their approach by misrepresenting international studies to support their fossil fuel expansion ambitions. Notably by citing the work of the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA sets out its perspective on the energy sector over the next 25 years in its annual World Energy Outlook (WEO), exploring the implications of alternative climate and energy scenarios. Key scenarios are: current policies (CP) which assumes business-as-usual (4-5degC temperature increase), new policies (NP) which extends CP with policy committed to but not yet implemented (3.5-4degC temperature increase), and sustainable development (SDS) which is the pathway to meet various sustainable development goals. SDS claims to keep global average temperature increase below 2degC, but only with a 50% chance of success by relying on massive investment in sequestration technologies which have yet to be invented. In reality, SDS would result in temperature increase substantially above 2degC. There is no scenario which realistically achieves the Paris objectives.

The IEA is no paragon of virtue regarding climate change. It downplays both climate impact, and the potential of alternative energy sources, as a result of strong pressure politically from its developed country membership, and from vested interests who make up its advisory bodies such as the IEA Energy Business Council and the Coal Industry Advisory Board.

Consequently their scenarios are seized upon to justify further fossil fuel investment. For Australia, Asia Pacific coal demand is a key factor, this being our major export market. In the November 2017 WEO, under NP assumptions annual coal demand increases by 12% or 480 million tonnes by 2040, but under SDS assumptions it declines by 47% or 1880 million tonnes.

The IEA takes NP as their central scenario as this is where we are headed if governments implement their current commitments. However, in the fine print the IEA make it clear that NP is not a sustainable future. In the 2017 WEO, Executive Director Fatih Birol says: “Decision-makers also need to know where they would like to get to. — This is the point of the SDS scenario” – even though SDS does not meet the Paris objectives.

Having ratified Paris, presumably this is at least where Australia wants to get to. Not so our Ministers. At his National Press Club address on 28th March 2018, Resource Minister Canavan insisted on using the IEA NP Asia Pacific 480 million tonnes annual demand increase by 2040 to justify expansion of our coal industry, ignoring the SDS 1880 million tonnes decline. The latter is the minimum transition to approach a sustainable future; many existing operations become stranded assets before the end of their working life, and certainly no new coal investment. Ministers Frydenberg and Ciobo similarily insist on using NP estimates and ignore the SDS.

Canavan then assured the Press Club that in the first 40 years of this century, the world will use more coal than in the entire previous history of the coal industry. The IEA repeatedly emphasise that their scenarios are not forecasts. They are designed to give decision-makers an understanding of the implications of their actions, and they only cover part of the story. If the NP pathway is followed, there will be no market for export coal as Asia Pacific economies will shrink rapidly under the weight of climate impact. If more coal is used by 2040 than in previous history, humanity will become extinct. These are consequences the IEA does not discuss.

Such ministerial naivety is laughable, but it highlights a serious governance failure. As with company directors, it is incumbent upon ministers to understand these issues, in particular the risks to which the Australian community is exposed by their decisions. The only possible justification for Minister Canavan’s view is that he does not believe climate change is even a problem, let alone accept the need to rapidly reduce emissions. Further, he has no understanding of the implications of his proposed action. Whatever the Minister’s personal position, or the views of those who voted for him, given the overwhelming science and evidence confirming the urgency to address climate change, such ignorance is unacceptable and a fundamental breach of his fiduciary responsibility to the nation.

At the National Press Club, the Minister reacted angrily to a suggestion that the coal industry will phase out, objecting strongly to any thought of planning a transition. The mining industry will undoubtedly remain an essential part of the Australian economy, but markets for commodities come and go. Irrespective of political preferences, absent some unlikely technological breakthrough to sequester its emissions, coal will phase out, not instantaneously but relatively rapidly. Coal has been through many transitions in the past. The lesson from these disruptions is the need for thorough planning, retraining and support to avoid many people being badly hurt. Even more will be hurt, with massive climate impact, social and economic chaos, if the coal industry is expanded. It is irresponsible for the Minister to leave communities unprepared for these realities.

Minister Canavan then turned on “well funded” environmental groups “abusing” our “robust environmental laws” to prevent or slow down major projects, such as the Adani coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. Australia’s environmental laws were developed when human impact on the environment was far less than today. As that impact has grown, far from being robust, these laws are no longer “fit for purpose”. In particular, being domestically focused, they do not take account of the greatest environmental risk of all, which is climate change.

Under current UNFCCC rules, emissions from fossil fuel exports such as coal or gas are accounted for in the consuming country and are ignored by Australian courts and institutions in granting approvals for projects such as Adani.

However carbon emissions have global impact; coal exports from the Galilee Basin, would have major climate and environmental implications in Australia, as well as in consuming countries such as India. Our laws must be reframed accordingly if they are to be meaningful. As for “well funded”? Vested interests pour vastly more money into supporting fossil fuel expansion than has ever been available to environmental groups.

Parliamentarians, particularly ministers seem to have lost sight of the fact that they have a fiduciary responsibility to the public, which imposes upon them a public duty and a public trust. Sir Gerard Brennan again: “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/minister)”.

It is entirely appropriate, when the legal system fails, for affected parties to take action to correct such failure, as with Adani, and with CSG projects in many parts of the country. In fact these are the only groups who are genuinely acting in the public interest. That the Federal government is now trying to muzzle them indirectly via the proposed Foreign Donations Bill is a further breach of its fiduciary responsibility.

The public has the right to expect that Minister Canavan take an holistic view of the Adani project and the many other fossil fuel developments he is promoting, including an honest appraisal of their climate implications for the community. That is not happening.

Similarily with Environment and Energy Minister Frydenberg, who should be proactive in changing environmental laws to include the climate impact of fossil fuel exports on Australia, rather than advocating that Adani proceed on the grounds it has met current inadequate environmental approvals.

Minister Frydenberg, and the government generally, breach their fiduciary duty by promoting poor climate and energy policy as represented by the National Energy Guarantee, whatever that ultimately means. This lowest common denominator solution is only being considered because of the fiduciary irresponsibility of a minority group of right wing parliamentarians, inappropriately identified as the Monash Forum, who put their own self-serving ideological agenda ahead of the public interest.

To claim, as the Minister did in his National Press Club speech on 11th April 2018, that: “the future of energy policy must be determined by the proper consideration of the public’s best interest not ideologically-driven predisposition”, just adds insult to injury given that the Coalition is, and has been for two decades, in total ideological denial on climate which largely explains our current policy shambles. The cost to Australia of this self-indulgence is enormous.

The Minister also misrepresents IEA analysis of Australia’s energy policies. The IEA conducts a periodic review of individual member countries policies. The latest IEA Australian review in February 2018 was presented by Minister Frydenberg as “backing the government’s energy policies — commending Australia’s commitment to affordable, secure and clean energy”. The report itself did no such thing, being highly critical in many areas, including Australia’s continuing failure to comply with IEA membership oil stockholding obligations of 90 days net imports. We hold less than half that, thus rendering Australia incapable of contributing to IEA collective action in the event of an international oil crisis; a further major security threat to the Australia community which has not been addressed despite repeated representations over many years.

In the light of these ingrained fiduciary failings, what of the bureaucracy, historically reverred for providing “frank and fearless advice” to the political class? It seems that analogy no longer applies. In recent policy reviews, the refusal to accept and articulate the implications of climate change on Australia shines through.

The December 2017 Review of Climate Change Policy was one of the most dishonest reports ever published by government in the climate arena. What purported to be a comprehensive review of the climate change challenge, and responses to it, is nothing more than a re-iteration of Australia’s wholly inadequate and inconsistent policies. No discussion of the latest climate science and its implications, no preparedness to face up to the real action required. In short little more than political whitewash for public consumption, pretending to do something whilst doing little.

The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper acknowledged that climate change will be an important influence on international affairs, particularly in our region. It then anticipated: “buoyant demand for our exports of high-quality coal and LNG — ” based on the IEA NP scenario referred to above, around which policy is presumably centred, despite the fact that demand under this scenario would be decimated by climate impact. This should be unacceptable to DFAT as our lead Paris negotiator, as it is totally inconsistent with meeting Paris objectives.

The 2016 Defence White Paper for the first time did mention climate change in passing in one of its six key strategic drivers of Australia’s security environment to 2035 and it is understood the Department of Defence have since extended their planning to prepare for its impacts as a “threat multiplier”. This is encouraging, but far behind action being taken by the military overseas.

The overriding impression is that the Federal bureaucracy, with some notable exceptions, are not treating climate change with anywhere near the urgency it demands; whether because of political pressure to downplay the issue, or because of personal convictions, is not clear.

Either way, fiduciary responsibility arises again. The Australian Public Service Impartiality Value requires advice given to government to be: “apolitical, frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence”. Further, it must be: “objective and non-partisan; relevant comprehensive and unaffected by fear of consquences, not withholding important facts or bad news; mindful of the context in which policy is to be implemented, the broader policy direction set by government and its implications for the longer term”.

Henceforth, climate change will determine policy across the spectrum, encompassing national security, defence, energy, health, migration, water, agriculture, transport, urban design and much more. Given continued urgent warnings from scientists, including the government’s own experts, on the need for far more rapid action, the parlous state of our climate and energy debate and the shortcomings in policy formulation, the Federal bureaucracy is hardly meeting its own standards of fiduciary responsibility to the community.

So what can be done? Many argue that current failures are the nature of politics and we should expect little else. But when the key issues are existential, that is to consign democracy to the dustbin of history and to accept increasing social chaos. In contrast to earlier eras, the concepts of fiduciary responsibility, public interest and public trust, are clearly not understood by the incumbency, from the Prime Minister down. This has to be corrected.

A Federal Parliament with any degree of such responsibility, would recognise that climate change poses an unprecedented threat to Australia’s future prosperity, requiring emergency action. To those prepared to honour this obligation, there is ample information before parliament to warrant that conclusion. In the public interest, parliamentarians would set aside party political differences, adopting a bipartisan approach to structuring such action, with the bureaucracy in full support.

That is highly unlikely, so there remains legal action. Around the world the seriousness of the climate threat, and the inaction of governments, is prompting communities to take this step, with increasing success. The same will happen in Australia, absent an outburst of commonsense within the political class.

This article was published on Pearls & Irritations, RenewEconomy and Climate Code Red

Climate & Energy – Appeasement Does Not Work

The current chaos around climate and energy policy brings to mind George Santayana’s caution that: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. That is exactly what we are witnessing, albeit with far more profound implications even than the advent of the Second World War.

In November 1936, Winston Churchill, concerned at the dangers posed by the Third Reich, warned the House of Commons about the refusal of the British establishment to face up to reality:

They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent……Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have now entered upon a period of great danger ….. The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In it’s place we are entering a period of consequences….. We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now …..”

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, not to be diverted from the appeasement path, returned from Munich in September 1938 waving his “peace in our time” paper signed with Hitler. The rest is history; the war started a year later.

So it is with the National Energy Guarantee (NEG). Conjured out of nowhere, with experts press-ganged to provide underwhelming technical credibility, warning lights flashed red when the little Hitlers of the Coalition’s right wing, such as Craig Kelly, Barnaby Joyce and Tony Abbott himself, gave effusive support.

Most media commentators demonstrated their profound ignorance by instantly heralding the NEG as the answer to our energy prayers, despite a total absence of detail and minimal reference to the climate implications.

For climate is the key. Until climate drives energy policy, there will never be the certainty for investment, reliability, security and affordability, that everyone craves. Kelly gave the game away by letting slip the magic word “backloading”. Put simply, to satisfy these little Hitlers, when detail of the NEG does emerge, it will guarantee business as usual for energy supply, ramping up coal and CSG, with any attempt to reduce carbon emissions in line with our wholly inadequate Paris Agreement commitments, left until the last possible minute prior to the 2030 deadline.

The rationale being that the cost of compliance by then will be greatly reduced due to technology improvements.

In that one word, the government has completely abrogated its first responsibility to safeguard the people and their future wellbeing, for everything about this “elegant” solution is wrong.

Many parliamentarians still do not believe human-induced climate change even exists; a view closely correlated with massive political donations from the fossil fuel industry. For a country whose wealth has been based on the sensible application of science and technology, a parliament so corrupt and lacking in basic scientific, technical and economic understanding, and commonsense, is the greatest threat to our future security and prosperity.

In the real world, beyond the Canberra goldfish bowl, human-induced climate change is accelerating far faster than expected. The unprecedented hurricane season in the Atlantic, devastating bushfires in California and extreme heat in many parts of South Asia are only the most recent portents of what is to come.

The lower Paris objective, of limiting temperature increase to 1.5degC above pre-industrial levels, is no longer achievable. Staying below the upper objective of 2degC requires a halt to the burning of fossil fuels today. That will obviously not happen, but the more carbon that is pushed into the atmosphere, the greater the overshoot beyond 2degC and the greater the catastrophic conditions we create for ourselves.

For Australia, as one of the hottest and driest continents, this is extremely dangerous, particularly for our rural communities and for Northern Australia.

The climate impact of carbon emitted today does not manifest itself for years to come. In these circumstances, to seize upon “backloading” as a key policy plank, deliberately encouraging Adani and other Galilee Basin coal mines, the expansion of domestic coal-fired power, and CSG which is worse than coal from a warming perspective, is the height of irresponsibility, for it would automatically lock-in catastrophic outcomes.

Emissions have to be reduced now, not a decade hence. Lower energy costs will only come from a major investment in renewables, improved energy efficiency and changing social values, not from massively expanding fossil fuels and continuing to subsidise them by refusing to price carbon.

For the last twenty years, beginning with John Howard, both major parties have continually played the appeasement card on climate policy. Howard signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and as a result triggered the first design of an Australian emissions trading system, completed in 1999 (see disclosure below).

Despite strong business support, he shelved it when George W Bush refused to sign Kyoto. Business interest in climate action evaporated and fossil fuel industry resistance grew.

To appease the fossil fuel lobby, every proposal subsequently has been used as a starting point to further ratchet down sensible climate policy ambition, the most recent example being the Finkel Review. In good faith, Alan Finkel put forward an honest proposal for a politically acceptable climate and energy policy, albeit far from ideal. It was simply taken as the starting point to be ratcheted down again to the magical vision of the NEG.

Those who have any genuine concern for the future of this country need to call out climate appeasement for what it really is, namely the destruction of our security and prosperity by a bunch of ignorant, self-serving ideologues who have no regard for the Australian people they so earnestly claim to represent.

Appeasement never works. The devastation wrought by Hitler pales into insignificance compared with the risks to which we are now exposed by the government’s refusal to adopt sensible climate policy. The period of consequences is upon us and there are certainly no Churchills in sight.

(Disclosure: I chaired the AGO Experts Group which designed this first emissions trading system for Australia under the Howard government in 1998/99)

This article was published on RenewEconomy and Pearls & Irritations.  

Australia’s Coal & CSG Delusion

Energy policy is the issue to trump them all.  We have already lost several Prime Ministers in its cause, and more will likely walk the plank before commonsense prevails.  But the last few weeks have set new standards for national stupidity .

The political rhetoric grows ever more florid, starting with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last October: “Coal is going to be an important part of our energy mix, there is no question about that, for many, many, many decades to come, on any view”. Just as he launched an independent review into the future security of the national energy market by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel; no pre-conceived ideas here.

Then, at the National Press Club on 1st February 2017: “Old, high emissions coal-fired power plants are closing down, reducing baseload capacity. They cannot simply be replaced by gas –because it’s too expensive – or by wind and solar because they are intermittent.  Storage has a big role to play, but we will need more synchronous baseload power, and as the world’s largest coal exporter we have a vested interest in showing that we can provided both low emissions and reliable baseload power with state-of-the-art clean coal-fired technology. —- The next incarnation of our energy policy should be technology agnostic – Policy should be ‘all of the above’, working together to deliver the trifecta of secure and affordable power while meeting our emission reduction commitments” And to ram the point home : ”Those people who say coal and other fossil fuels have no future are delusional and they fly in the face of all of the economic forecasts”.

 Simultaneously, former Resource Minister Matt Canavan was spruiking the benefits of Galilee Basin coal, initially in the shape of the Adani Carmichael Mine, subsidised with a cheap loan from NAIF; then domestic High Efficiency Low Emissions (HELE) power stations; and finally the full blown development of five or six Galilee Basin mega-mines in addition to Adani. All very technology agnostic.

 Unfortunately the independent reports commissioned by the government from Finkel and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), did not toe the party line. The experts set out sensible steps to solve the problems of our energy market, with the electricity system moving toward increasing use of renewable energy and no need for additional investment in coal – the result being lower electricity prices and no energy crisis.  The pre-requisite is a sensible policy framework delivered by government; a big ask after two decades in which the abject failure of political leadership on these issues, from John Howard onwards, created the current mess.

Not to be diverted from the Minerals Council of Australia’s roadmap for a coal-based future, the government instantly twisted one AEMO recommendation, to establish a 1000MW flexible dispatchable reserve to maintain supply reliability in South Australia and Victoria over the coming summer, to claim we face a massive energy crisis.  In a mind-boggling non-sequitur, it is now using this lie to justified its attempt to force AGL to keep open the oldest, least efficient and dirtiest baseload coal–fired power station in Australia, at Liddell NSW, for a further five years after its planned 2022 closure date.  No one has apparently told the government that baseload coal-fired power is neither flexible nor dispatchable.

But the rhetoric soared: Matt Canavan assured us that “Renewables are just a short-term sugar hit”, Barnaby Joyce sternly lectured us that “We must not lose sight of the main game. Baseload coal-fired power it is, and will remain”. The Prime Minister insisted his energy policy was based on “engineering and economics, not ideology”.

Such visionary leadership brings to mind Field Marshal Earl Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front during WW1. In 1925, a decade after his disastrous WW1 campaigns, he still opined that: “Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse – the well-bred horse – as you ever have done in the past”. A sentiment that might appeal to the National Party, given its rural origins.

But the analogy goes far beyond horses.  Haig’s pigheaded arrogance and failure to imagine the consequences of his actions, contributed to the death or injury of hundreds of thousands of men in the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, including many Australians. Yet he learnt nothing from the experience.

Today, we see history repeating itself with the same pigheaded arrogance and failure of imagination, as both the Federal Government and Opposition avoid the over-riding issue which must determine energy policy, namely human-induced climate change, which the government is sweeping under the carpet to appease conservative climate deniers and their fossil fuel industry funders.

Climate change is no longer a benign theory which might have impact decades hence.  It is happening now, faster and more extensively than expected, as escalating extreme events such as the spate of unprecedented hurricanes in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, and the devastating monsoon on the Indian subcontinent demonstrate.  The cost of these disasters is already a major constraint on economic growth, even in the USA.  But worse lies ahead because climatic tipping points, where the climate jumps from one state to another far less conducive to human survival and prosperity, are beginning to trigger. Once such changes gather momentum, humanity’s ability to influence outcomes will rapidly disappear, bringing with it death and devastation on a massive scale. A substantial reduction in global population would result, with Australia, one of the driest and hottest continents on Earth, particularly impacted.  In an ironic reversal of “Stop-the-Boats”,  many Australians may find themselves having to migrate.

To have a realistic (90%) chance of staying below the 2oC temperature increase which is the upper limit of the Paris Climate Agreement, global carbon emissions must reduce rapidly, with an immediate halt to all new investment in fossil fuel projects, as we have no carbon budget left. It is not a question of whether we transition to a low-carbon world; we have no choice.  We have to make renewable technologies work as an absolute priority, dramatically improve the conservation and efficiency of energy use, and reboot our economic and social systems to operate within the biophysical constraints we now face.  Business craves policy certainty before investing; but certainty, secure and affordable power will be mirages until emissions reduction becomes the top priority of energy policy. And those reductions have to be far greater than our wholly inadequate Paris voluntary commitments.

Denying this reality, the government dances to the tune of the fossil-fuel industry, trying to establish as many new coal, Coal Seam Gas (CSG), LNG and oil projects as it can before the shutters finally come down on the industry, which they will.  But our leaders deliberately ignore the fact that the full climatic outcomes of these projects do not manifest themselves for decades hence. If they proceed, with lives of 30-40 years, the result will be suicidal globally – and nationally given the damaging impact of climate change on Australia’s water and soils.  The massive Adani mine alone, in the absence of any further carbon budget, will push the world above the 2oC limit. None of the arguments routinely trotted out to justify these projects, such as poverty alleviation or the HELE power stations being built in Asia and their supposed “emission reductions”, are credible in these circumstances.   Demands to expand CSG fracking are particularly flawed, given that experience demonstrates CSG’s global warming impact is worse than using coal, due to methane leakage, quite apart from its disastrous effects on agricultural productivity and water availability.

The current Federal government energy policy, to the extent it exists, is criminally negligent. So what should be done? We need bipartisan agreement to three principles on which policy must be based:

First, human-induced climate change now represents an immediate existential risk to humanity. Second, an emergency response is essential if that risk is to be managed realistically. Third, it must be based on action to achieve clearly defined objectives, rather than accepting “politically realistic”, and wholly ineffectual, pathways.

An existential risk poses large negative consequences to humanity which can never be undone, and which would either annihilate intelligent life or drastically curtail its potential. The risk is immediate as, in the absence of any carbon budget, our actions are locking-in irreversible, existential outcomes today.  Sensible risk management addresses risk in time to prevent it happening and that time is now.

Having accepted the principles, politicians should then get out of the way, taking their ideology with them, and let the experts, who really do understand engineering and economics, reform our energy system accordingly.  And that includes pricing carbon to remove the greatest subsidy of all, which the fossil fuel industry has enjoyed since the Industrial Revolution by not having to account for the full costs that they impose on society, such as health and climate impact.

Australia’s low-carbon energy resources mean its potential to prosper in the low-carbon 21st Century is far greater than in the high-carbon past. The Prime Minister’s real duty is to ensure the Australian people can realise that potential, not see it thrown away in the delusional pursuit of coal and CSG. His grandchildren, and mine, deserve better than the appalling leadership failure we are seeing at present – and the destructive, nihilistic nonsense being spouted by Tony Abbott. Unconscionable indeed!

Published in Pearls & Irritations and RenewEconomy


Facing “Disaster Alley”, Australia Shirks Responsibility


The first responsibility of a government is to safeguard the people and their future wellbeing. The ability to do so is increasingly threatened by human-induced climate change, the accelerating impacts of which are driving political instability and conflict globally. Climate change poses an existential risk to humanity which, unless addressed as an emergency, will have catastrophic consequences.

An existential risk is an adverse outcome that would either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.

In military terms, Australia and the adjacent Asia-Pacific region is considered to be “Disaster Alley”, where the most extreme impacts are already being experienced. These risks are either not understood or wilfully ignored at the leadership level in Australia, which is a profound failure of imagination, far worse than that which triggered the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. The management of existential risk cannot be handled with conventional, reactive, learn-from-failure techniques. We only play this game once, so we must get it right first time.

This should mean an honest, objective look at the real risks to which we are exposed, guarding especially against the more extreme possibilities which would have consequences damaging beyond quantification, and which human civilization as we know it would be lucky to survive.

Instead, the climate and energy policies adopted by successive Australian governments over the last twenty years, largely driven by ideology and corporate fossil fuel interests, have deliberately refused to acknowledge this existential threat to our future well-being, as the shouting match over the wholly inadequate reforms proposed by the Finkel Review demonstrates only too well. Our leaders have access to the best possible scientific advice and to the overwhelming evidence that we have badly underestimated both the speed and extent of climate change impact. In such circumstances, to ignore this threat is a fundamental breach of the fiduciary responsibility with which political, bureaucratic and corporate leaders are entrusted by the community they are supposed to serve.

A hotter planet has already taken us perilously close to, and in some cases over, tipping points which will cause profound changes in major climate systems: at the polar ice-caps, in the oceans, and the large permafrost carbon stores. Physical impacts of global warming include a hotter and more extreme climate, more frequent and severe droughts, desertification, increasing insecurity of food and water supplies, stronger storms and cyclones, and coastal inundation.

Climate change was a significant factor in triggering the war in Syria, the Mediterranean migrant crisis and the “Arab Spring”, albeit this aspect is rarely discussed. Our current global carbon emission trajectory, if left unchecked, will drive increasingly severe humanitarian crises, forced migrations, political instability and conflicts.

Australia is not immune, domestically or regionally. We already have extended heat waves above 400C, catastrophic bushfires, intense storms and flooding. The regional impacts do not receive much attention but they are striking hard at vulnerable communities in Asia and the Pacific, forcing them into a spiral of dislocation and migration. Impacts on China and South Asia will have profound consequences for employment and financial stability in Australia.

In the absence of emergency action to reduce Australian and global emissions far faster than currently proposed, the level of disruption and conflict will escalate to the point that outright regional chaos is likely. Militarised solutions will not be effective. Australia is failing in its duty to its own people, and as a world citizen, by downplaying these implications and in shirking its responsibility to act.

Yet people understand climate risks, even as political leaders wilfully underplay or ignore them. 84% of 8000 people in eight countries recently surveyed for the Global Challenges Foundation consider climate change a “global catastrophic risk”. The figure for Australia was 75%. Many people now see climate change as a bigger threat than other concerns such as epidemics, weapons of mass destruction and the rise of artificial intelligence threats.

So what is to be done if our leaders are incapable of rising to the task?

First, establish a high-level climate and conflict task-force in Australia to urgently assess the existential risks of climate change, and develop risk-management techniques and policy appropriate to that challenge.

Second, recognise that climate change is now a global emergency which threatens human civilisation, and  contribute to building practical steps internationally for a coordinated global emergency response

Third, launch a domestic emergency initiative to decarbonise the economy no later than 2030 and build the capacity to drawdown carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Fourth, build more resilient communities domestically, and also in the most vulnerable nations regionally by high-level commitments and development assistance; build a flexible capacity to support communities in likely hotspots of instability and conflict; and rethink refugee governance accordingly.

Fifth, ensure that Australia’s defence forces and government agencies are fully aware of and prepared for this changed environment; and ensure their ability to provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

Sixth, establish a national leadership group, outside conventional politics, drawn from across society, charged with implementing the national climate emergency programme.

A pious hope in current circumstances? Our leaders clearly do not want the responsibility to secure our future. So “Everything becomes possible, particularly when it is unavoidable”.


An edited version of this article appeared in Fairfax Media. It is extracted from “Disaster Alley: Climate change, conflict and risk”, by Ian Dunlop and David Spratt: 


Coal Industry – Wrong Way, Go Back!

Coal producers and lobbyists are yet again promoting “clean coal” as the justification for continued expansion of energy coal as we make the inevitable transition to the low-carbon economy. Conscious that they can no longer credibly reject the evidence of accelerating climate change, the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) and the World Coal Association (WCA) claim that the latest “clean coal” technologies, in the form of lower emission coal plants and carbon capture and storage (CCS), are an effective response.

Last week, the MCA released a paper by the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Clean Coal Centre contending that new high efficiency “ultra-supercritical” coal plants in 10 countries in South and East Asia, including India and China, could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1.1 billion tonnes per annum compared to less efficient “subcritical” coal plants. They also heralded the opening of a new coal-fired power generation CCS plant in Saskatchewan as evidence that commercial scale CCS is now available.

Whilst such technological advances are welcome, that argument displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the climate science, and is being economical with the truth to put it mildly.

The full IEA picture emphasises that to stay below 2°C of global warming, we can’t afford to add any additional coal plants to the existing stock, no matter how efficient they are, unless their emissions can be sequestered. Certainly we need to replace or convert older, dirtier plants to the new cleaner technologies, but no new ones. Every new unabated coal plant locks in decades of additional coal burning and carbon dioxide emissions that our planet cannot afford.

In the IEA’s scenario to meet the 2°C limit, by 2040 there is room for only 780 GW of unabated coal power generation, and all of this must be the most efficient ultra-supercritical coal plants. The size of the world’s current coal fleet is 1900 GW, with an additional 300 GW under construction. Therefore even if not another single additional coal plant was built from today, we still need to retire two-thirds of the world’s current coal fleet by 2040 in order to stay within 2°C.

CCS is presented as the solution to overcome this constraint and allow unbridled coal expansion. It is not rocket science; it has been done in the oil industry for decades, reinjecting carbon dioxide produced with oil and gas back into the geological formations from whence it came. However the global storage capacity in depleted oil and gas reservoirs is limited and they are rarely in close proximity to coal power generators. If other geological storage structures have to be used, and the carbon dioxide transported any distance, storage security, technical difficulties and costs escalate dramatically which is why progress has been slow and industry has been reluctant to invest strongly in its development.

Expert analysis suggests that to sequester around a fifth of global power generation emissions would require the creation of an industry far larger than today’s world oil industry; implying the construction of more than 3000 plants within the next 20 years to have any chance of making a realistic contribution to emissions reduction. It is not going to happen, not least because the MCA and WCA have continually undermined sensible efforts to introduce a price on carbon pollution, thereby weakening the incentive to develop CCS.

Despite decades of rhetoric, globally we have only the one coal power CCS operation in Saskatchewan and even that is sequestering its emissions in a depleted gas reservoir. The project cost $1.5 billion for a mere 110 MW of output. A study by Saskatchewan Community Wind found that investment in wind power instead of the CCS plant could have saved ratepayers more than $1 billion. CCS will be viable in limited, specific circumstances and should be encouraged where that is the case, but it is never going to contribute substantially to the emergency reduction of global emissions now required. The industry should stop pretending otherwise.

Commitments made so far by countries in the lead-up to the December Paris climate conference show global emissions continuing to grow to 2030, albeit at a slower rate than in the past, in stark contrast to the rapid reduction required to stay below 2°C. Yet dangerous climate change is already happening at the 1.0°C increase we are experiencing today. The refugee crisis engulfing Europe is fundamentally climate change driven, triggered over the last decade by the most severe drought in recorded history in and around Syria. India, supposedly the great market opportunity for Australian coal expansion, has experienced unprecedented climate change-related heat extremes in recent years and changes to its critical monsoon system. These are precursors of far worse to come unless emissions are reduced fast.

The coal industry justifies expansion on the basis of demand supposedly “forecast” under an IEA scenario which assumes only limited change from “business-as-usual”. As the IEA themselves put it, this cannot be allowed to happen: it would be a world where temperature increases by around 4°C on average, with greater extremes regionally, a world where economic activity as we know it ceases as global population rapidly declines.

In short, the world would be toast. Australia, as the hottest, driest continent on Earth, would be toasted first. Coal leaders need to rein in the MCA and WCA, and start restructuring their companies, and retraining their workforce for the real opportunities the low-carbon world opens up.

Ian Dunlop was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chair of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is a Member of the Club of Rome.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Melbourne Age on 25th September 2015.

Burning the Science Books

Didn’t work then, won’t work now

Australia has an enviable reputation for scientific research, extending long before the hey-day of the CSIRO in the 1950s under the visionary leadership of Sir Robert Menzies and Sir Ian Clunies-Ross. On the hottest and driest continent on Earth, our prosperity would be non-existent had it not been for the enlightened application of science. So it has been of mounting concern over recent years to see governments of all persuasions adopt increasingly anti-science agendas.

The Abbott government is taking anti-science to new heights. Its “scorched earth” approach discards virtually everything not in line with narrow, free-market ideology, centred on sustaining Australia’s 20th Century “dig-it-up and ship-it-out” economic growth model.

The Prime Minister’s supposedly visionary address to the World Economic Forum in Davos last January, outlined this agenda[1].  Free-markets create prosperity, but their full costs have only become apparent in recent years.  Over the last two decades, those costs have negated the benefits – we are actually getting poorer not wealthier [2].  The PM’s “vision” ignored such costs, along with the disastrous outcomes that the short-termism, inequity and corruption of free-markets delivers, witness the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and ICAC closer to home. Markets are important, but they must operate within sensible rules and continual vested-interest lobbying has got rid of those rules.

Official orthodoxy decrees that conventional economic growth take precedence over all else, without understanding that such growth is no longer possible.  In 1945 we had a relatively empty world of 2 billion people; we now have 7 billion. Exponential increases in both population and consumption, have delivered a “full” world, such that humanity today needs the biophysical capacity of 1.5 planets to survive, which is clearly not sustainable.

As a result, we are in the midst of a global discontinuity, where conventional growth has ground to a halt, notwithstanding futile efforts to reboot the system by printing money at will. We will emerge either with fundamentally different concepts of growth, or the system as we know it will collapse.

Excessive consumption has created global limits never previously experienced.  Cheap fossil-fuel energy, which delivered our supposed prosperity, has dried up. Its carbon emissions have triggered global warming which is happening far more rapidly and extensively than expected. The remaining fossil-fuel reserves cannot be used if catastrophic climate outcomes are to be avoided. Water and food security are already badly affected, as witnessed by growing social instability and conflict around the world.

Yet our political and corporate incumbency refuse to “join the dots”, oblivious that global warming is already having a major negative impact on this country, that our high-carbon exports are a significant contributor, in the process destroying our manufacturing and agricultural industries.

They cannot grasp that we have enormous opportunities to prosper in the 21st Century, built around the rapid development of a low-carbon economy.  We have the best low-carbon assets in the world, but to realise their potential, we need a new “vision” grounded, as never before, in science.  On that score we are in big trouble.

Global warming is the greatest concern; it has already changed the context in which every policy in this country will have to be re-thought – from climate policy itself through energy, agriculture, social, health, infrastructure, migration and defence.

The government ignores the leading-edge climate science developed by our Institutions and informed scientific bodies worldwide.  Particularly the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the most extensive scientific investigation probably ever undertaken. All of which point to the need for far more rapid action than acknowledged officially.

The science on an issue this complex is never “settled” as knowledge continually improves, but informed opinion is clear; we face potentially catastrophic risks, risks that are with us now, not one or two decades hence. We disregard them at our peril – which is exactly what the government is doing.

Science has disappeared from the government’s priorities just at the time we need it most.

Greg Hunt’s Direct Action White Paper has no scientific and economic grounding at all, whether from our own Institutions, the IPCC, the Garnaut and Stern Climate Change Reviews or numerous other global bodies such as the World Bank, IMF and the OECD.  It is the climate policy you have when you don’t want a policy.

The work of the former Climate Commission, providing independent, objective explanation of the climate science, has been archived away from public view. Scientific illiterates have been appointed to key climate and business policy advisory positions.  The Budget has gutted science funding in general, further emasculated the wholly inadequate Direct Action policy and rendered the CSIRO impotent.

The response from the supposedly scientifically literate Chairmen and CEOs of our major corporations, at the wanton destruction of their future innovation base, is a deafening silence.

Grandees such as John Howard and Cardinal Pell parade cynical climate denialism before international audiences [3] [4], putting more peer pressure on the current incumbents to toe that line and providing rare insight into the widespread denialist “groupthink” within senior conservative ranks.

Literally and figuratively, we are witnessing a “burning of the science books”, the like of which has not been seen since medieval times.  It did not work for the Catholic Church in the days of Copernicus and Galileo, nor in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.  It won’t work today.

Blinkered conservatism is recasting Australia in Donald Horne’s image of “A lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.” [5]. Except that our 20th Century luck has run out and we are fast throwing away our options for a sustainable future.  We need to insist that science is restored as the bedrock of our vision for the 21st Century.

Menzies and Clunies Ross never forgot that “Nature bats last”.

Ian Dunlop was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chair of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is a Member of the Club of Rome, a Director of Australia21 and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 2nd June 2014.

[1] Address to the World Economic Forum, Davos, 23rd January 2014:

[2] “Beyond GDP: Measuring & achieving global genuine progress”, Kubiszewski, Costanza et al, Ecological Economics, April 2013:

[3] “One Religion is Enough”, John Howard, Annual GWPF Lecture, London, 5th November 2013:

[4] “One Christian Perspective on Climate Change”, Cardinal George Pell, Annual GWPF Lecture, London, 26th October 2011:

[5] “The Lucky Country: Australia in the Sixties”, Chapter 9, Donald Horne, 1964:

From Global Drivers to Strategic Risks

Since the Industrial Revolution the world has undergone an unprecedented transformation, largely a result of human activity. To the point, as proposed by Paul Crutzen, that we are now arguably in a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene 1, where humanity is the dominant force in world evolution.

The changes have been particularly marked since WW11 as the developed world has enjoyed rapidly rising standards of living and wealth creation. But in the euphoria created by this good fortune, we have failed to recognize that the global drivers behind it have been gradually turning into major strategic risks; that is risks to external to any institution which have the potential to fundamentally change that institution, for better or worse, whether it be at the level of business models or national security. In essence, they reflect an increasing gulf between narrow self-interest and the common good.

As population rises from 7 billion today toward 9 billion by 2050, and possibly 10 billion by 2100, the inevitable logic of exponential growth in both population and consumption is now hitting the limits of global ecosystems and resource availability. The immediate pressure points are energy security, climate change, biodiversity loss, water and food availability, issues which along with the related matter of financial instability, are converging rapidly in an unprecedented manner. But these are only the tip of the broader global sustainability iceberg; further constraints and limits are fast becoming evident as major developing countries, particularly China and India move up the growth escalator.

This situation is not unexpected; it has been anticipated for decades going back before the 1972 publication of “The Limits to Growth”. In the meantime the developed world has created a political and capitalist system which has proved incapable, so far, of recognising that the most important factor for its own survival is the preservation of a biosphere fit for human habitation.

The aftermath of WWII bred statesmen and women in both government and business intent upon creating a better world, re-building society, avoiding further conflict and genuinely prepared to take a long-term view. The results were far from perfect, but that vision did provide the foundations for the increasing prosperity the West has enjoyed ever since.

But with prosperity came complacency; the assumption that growth within a finite system can continue indefinitely. Hardly surprising, given that power and influence accrue to those who prosper under capitalism, and that technology until recently has enabled us to push back or ignore any physical limits. Enormous political and personal capital is now vested in preserving the status quo. As a result, our institutions have become predominantly short-term focused; politically due to electoral cycles and corruption of the democratic process; corporately due to perverse subsidies and incentives, particularly the bonus culture which became the norm through the 1990’s. Managerialism – “doing things right”, replaced leadership – “doing the right things”, statesmen all but disappeared, ethical standards deteriorated, so that we now find ourselves uniquely ill-equipped to handle the long-term challenges which lie ahead.

As London Financial Times columnist Gillian Tett put it recently: “Just as the past four years have raised questions about the way modern finance works, they are raising profound questions about our systems of government: we have no institutions to plan for the future, nor institutions that can quickly respond to a crisis. This is one of the reasons faith in so many public institutions is collapsing, alongside faith in the bankers. It’s why you’ve got this Occupy Wall Street protest.”

The upshot is a series of escalating crises, most recently the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC), which is now cascading into a multitude of other crises as global leaders desperately attempt to reboot an outmoded 20th Century system of economic growth.

The developing world had been intent on slavishly following our example. However in the last decade that began to change as the reality of pollution, resource scarcity and increasing inequity hit home, and it became obvious that the developed world model has serious flaws.

The limits we now face are global, rather than regional, and cannot be circumvented as we have done in the past. What was workable in a relatively empty world of 2-3 billion people post-WWII is not workable in today’s full world of 7 billion, let alone the 9 or 10 billion to come. Humanity today requires on average the biophysical capacity of 1.5 planets to survive 7. If everyone lived at US levels, we would require 5 planets, at Australian levels around 4 planets. This cannot continue indefinitely as we are fast destroying the global “commons” of clean air, water and the fertile soil and oceans on which we depend for our food supply and life support.

Our ideological preoccupation with a market economy, based on political expediency and short-term profit maximization, is rapidly leading toward an uninhabitable planet, as sustainability issues of theoretical concern for decades manifest themselves physically, particularly in regard to climate and energy.

Source for graphic: Global Footprint Network

Realism needed on Carbon Capture and Storage

Sequestering say 20% of current global CO2 emissions requires an industry around 170% the size of the world oil industry. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) may make a significant contribution to addressing climate change, but:

  • not in the short term, to prevent atmospheric carbon concentrations above 450ppm CO2e
  • not at the scale to be the global panacea for coal & gas
  • Extremely dangerous to put all our eggs in the CCS basket, as we are doing
  • Irresponsible to lock-in carbon-ready facilities before viability of CCS at scale is proven
  • Research should be accelerated to prove its real potential we need to keep all our options open, but be objective !

We must have consistent industry & government commitment, support and funding, not lipservice, recognising we need an emergency response if we are serious about addressing climate risk.

CCS is a classic case of Moral Hazard.

The world’s leaders are counting on a fix for climate change that is at best uncertain and at worst unworkable

The Economist, 5th March 2009

Source for graphic: The Ecological Wealth of Nations, Global Footprint Network, 2010