Australia’s 2019-20 megafires are a harbinger of life and death on a hotter Earth. The climate is already dangerous — in Australia and the Antarctic, in Asia and the Pacific — right around the world. The Earth is unacceptably too hot now.
The impacts of climate disruption are more severe than previously projected. At 1.5°C warming relative to pre-industrial levels, now likely only a decade away, the Great Barrier Reef will be lost, sea levels will be heading for a rise of many metres, and tipping points will be at hand for Greenland, and for the Amazon and other carbon stores.
The current Paris Agreement emission reduction commitments, if implemented, are a path to 3.5°C warming by 2100, possibly earlier. This could increase to 4–5°C when long-term climate-system feedbacks are considered. National security analysts warn that 3°C may result in “outright social chaos”, and 4°C is considered incompatible with the maintenance of human civilisation.
Leading scientists warn of a “Hot House Earth” scenario, a planetary threshold that may exist at a temperature rise as low as 2°C, in which further warming becomes self-sustaining. The challenge now is to return to a safe climate by cooling the Earth whilst avoiding tipping points which may initiate further warming.
This requires an emergency response, where climate is a primary concern of leadership at all levels.
Influential global leaders including political, corporate, media and financial leaders have deliberately refused to accept the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change and its risks, using predatory delay to prolong an unsustainable economic system. Driven by perverse short-term incentives and lacking the imagination to understand the implications, they have placed humanity in extreme jeopardy.
Many of Australia’s leaders are particularly culpable, having done everything possible over the last three decades to prevent the development of serious climate change policy, internationally and domestically, and to protect the fossil fuel industry. Notwithstanding the fact that Australia is the world’s fourth largest carbon polluter, exports included, and one of the countries most exposed to climate change.
The first duty of a government is to protect the people, their well-being and livelihoods. Instead, Australian governments have left the community largely unprepared for the disasters now unfolding, and for the extensive changes required to maintain a cohesive society as climate change impacts escalate.
In framing solutions to the climate emergency, a stronger democracy is needed, not weaker. The rights of citizens need to be protected to ensure that people are treated with respect, and treated fairly.
Climate change and its solutions will have profound implications for Australia – its peoples and its lands and waters. It is therefore critical to achieve and secure truly meaningful processes that empower indigenous voices, leadership and knowledge.
Australians collectively have a duty of care to protect people, nature and civilisation, both locally and globally. Calls to contribute to solutions to the climate threat need to be fair, taking account of people’s capacity.
Climate change is a global problem requiring unprecedented levels of global cooperation. It obviously cannot be solved by Australian acting alone, but Australia must be fully committed to such cooperation.
Priorities for action include:
- Cutting greenhouse gas emissions rapidly to zero. All fossil fuel expansion to be stopped immediately; policies which encourage fossil fuel use halted and subsidies removed; and the existing industry wound down rapidly with adjustment programmes for frontline communities. Strategies to minimise methane emissions need to be implemented urgently.
- Drawing down atmospheric carbon concentrations to a safe level from the current 413 ppm level through actions that include redesigning agricultural and forestry practices and implementing extensive soil, estuarine and ocean carbon sequestration.
- Working to prevent tipping points and damage while the zero emission and drawdown goals are being achieved.
- Integrating adaptation and resilience measures into the economic restructuring needed to restore a safe climate and repair ecosystems.
Early action is essential. The prevalent idea of a gradual transition to net zero emissions by 2050 is not tenable. A far faster transition is required, using measures appropriate to an existential threat.
Climate change must be accepted as an overriding threat to national and human security, with the response being the highest priority at national and global levels.