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



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

Corporate Heads in the Sand:Global Warming, Risk & Governance

Global warming is about risk and uncertainty. Many factors are probably contributing to it, including natural variability. However, it is beyond reasonable doubt that the world is warming and that human carbon emissions are a major contributor. The risks of destabilizing the climatic equilibrium under which humanity as we know it has developed through the 11,000 years of the Holocene period are now escalating rapidly.

The glaring omission in current national discourse is any mention of these risks. The credible climate scientists have been sounding urgent warnings for some time. Politicians interpret these warnings in terms of “political reality”, proposing action which is far from that required. There is virtually no-one addressing the real risks. The science on an issue this complex will not be settled for a long time, but that requires even greater prudence in managing risk and uncertainty, particularly where climatic changes may be sudden and irreversible.

Sound corporate governance requires boards of directors to act honestly, in good faith and to the best of their ability in the interests of the company in perpetuity. They must also ensure risks are identified and suitable systems put in place to manage those risks. Global and national institutions are now indicating that global warming is one of the greatest risks we face, in both the short and long term. Thus its risk management should be a major concern and responsibility of the corporate sector, a responsibility the sector in Australia has steadfastly refused to acknowledge.

Which makes recent public pronouncements by some corporate luminaries of particular concern;

David Murray, Chair of the Future Fund, opined that carbon dioxide was not a pollutant, there was no correlation between carbon dioxide and global warming, and that the amount of ice in the world was slightly increasing, not decreasing (AFR “Lunch with David Murray” 10th June 2010)

Belinda Hutchison, Chair of QBE Insurance, stated that the recent natural disasters in Queensland had nothing to do with climate change, as demonstrated by “research received” (SMH “QBE blames La Nina for Disasters” 20th April 2011).

Dick Warburton, Chair of the Board of Taxation, Citigroup and other public companies, Peter Farrell, Chair of Resmed, and Geoff Lehmann, poet and tax specialist, re-iterated at length minority scientific opinion, accepting that carbon dioxide emissions have a warming effect on global temperature, but implying that the sensitivity of temperature to increasing carbon dioxide concentration was far less than claimed by majority scientific opinion, to the point that the effect was unimportant. The bottom line being that “Adaptation to adverse climate change, if and when it does occur, may be the best and only viable strategy.” (Quadrant “The Intelligent Voters Guide to Global Warming”, March/April 2011),

These categoric statements stand in stark contrast to the opinion of major Academies of Science around the world and key scientific organisations such as the CSIRO, WMO, BoM, NOAA etc. that most of the global warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities and that urgent action is required to reduce emissions if potentially catastrophic outcomes are to be avoided.

The risk equation is simple. If we take serious action to reduce emissions, the cost is likely to be a manageable 3-5% of GDP, increasing the longer action is delayed. If global warming turns out to be as the scientific majority believe, with major adverse implications, we are as prepared as we can be to minimise the effects, and to adapt to those we cannot avoid. If the minority view proves correct, with minimal climate impact, we end up with a cleaner, less polluted and healthier environment.

If we take no action and the minority view proves correct, then it is “business-as-usual”. On the other hand, if the majority view proves correct, the world faces catastrophic outcomes totally unprepared, with an impact potentially worse than the Great Depression, WW1 & WW2 combined and a global carrying capacity of less than 1 billion people compared with 7 billion today. The impact on Australia would be particularly severe.

The empirical evidence of what might be termed the key performance indicators of global warming – melting of the Arctic and Antarctic sea ice and ice sheets, mountain glaciers and permafrost, ocean acidification, declining natural carbon sinks – all suggests that the warming impact is accelerating ahead of the scientist’s previous expectations. This is reinforced by the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, particularly over the last decade.

In this context, the need for urgent precautionary action should be obvious.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion on this issue. It is reasonable to assume that the public statements above are reflected in the corporate approach to global warming being taken by organisations with which those individuals are involved. That would not be of great moment, except that those organisations exercise substantial influence and corporate power, with a major impact on Australian society.

Sound governance requires that directors take a balanced view of risk and uncertainty. To propose a strategy of either denial, or wait, see and adapt, in the light of current empirical evidence and the balance of expert advice, is a serious breach of fiduciary responsibility, both corporately and nationally – a breach which is only too evident in the current business approach to carbon pricing.

It is high time major Australian corporations acknowledged the real risks we confront, took leadership in implementing genuine precautionary measures urgently, and in particular woke up to the opportunities these present.

An edited version of this article was published in the Australian Financial Review on 23rd June 2011.