Recently the Climate Commission issued a report in its The Critical Decade series on Extreme Weather looking at the issues of
- Drought, and
- Sea level rise.
At Radio National’s The World Today Professor Lesley Hughes, a Macquarie University ecologist, talked to Eleanor Hall.
The report looks at extreme weather experience in recent times, such as that documented in the Commission’s report The Angry Summer, puts it in a broader context using the latest science and then uses that as a window to project into the future. The message is plain. The climate has shifted, expect more and more extreme weather and we need to act now.
we really need to view all these events not in isolation but as part of a trend for the future. We need to prepare for them and we need to do our absolute best to cut greenhouse gases to stabilise the climate to prevent them getting to the point at which we cannot adapt.(Emphasis added)
The results surprised the scientists working on the report, but if anything the predictions are conservative. The sooner we act the better.
Here’s a selection of what they found:
- Heat records are happening three times more often cold records.
- Heat waves, not flood and fire, are actually the most significant natural hazard in Australia in term of loss of life.
- Sea level rise of 0.5m could lead to increased incidence of flooding by several hundred times, up to 1000 times in some places. An increase of 100 times means a 1-in-100 year event happens once a year on average.
- Ninety countries, representing 90% of global emissions, are committed to reducing their emissions and have programs in place to achieve this. As the 15th largest emitter in the world, Australia has an important role to play.
- Much more substantial action will be required if we are to stabilise the climate by the second half of the century. Globally emissions must be cut rapidly and deeply to nearly zero by 2050, with Australia playing its part.
- The decisions we make this decade will largely determine the severity of climate change and its influence on extreme events that our grandchildren will experience. This is the critical decade to get on with the job.
The graph on sea level rise shows signs of bending upwards:
If a quickening trend is established scenes like this one from Mandurah, WA could become increasingly common:
In fact at some point, possibly in the second half of this century, we’ll lose our beaches. (That’s me, not the report.)
The University of Queensland survey found only about one third of Liberal/National politicians accepted the world was warming because of human activity. This compared to nine out of ten Labor politicians and practically all Greens.
Which raises the question as to how representative our politicians’ opinions are of the Australian community.
have the science about right – climate change is happening and humans and natural cycles play a role.
Only a tiny percentage – about 8 per cent or less depending on the criteria – could be considered genuine climate science deniers.
People simply trust scientists much more than they trust the media:
Some 53 per cent of people gave a score of five or six to the scientists – indicating a high level of trust. On the same measure, the Government rated poorly with just 9.4 per cent of people. The media scored a disastrous 5.1 per cent.
Then we have this from the United States:
a recent survey conducted by the Center for Climate Change Communication (4C) at George Mason University of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents found that a majority of respondents — 62% — said they felt America should be taking steps to address climate change.
In fact, more than three out of four survey respondents said that the United States should be using more renewable energy sources, and that those renewable sources should be implemented immediately.
The fact that nearly 80% of Americans have experienced extreme weather since 2007 may have affected opinion.
Paul Gilding thinks that victory is at hand for the climate movement.
Far from being at society’s margins [the climate movement] has the support, to various degrees, of virtually all governments, and many of the world’s most powerful political leaders, including the heads of state of the USA, China and other leading economies. It counts the CEO’s of many global companies and many of the world’s wealthiest people as active supporters – who between them direct hundreds of billions of dollars of capital every year towards practical climate action.
That is the reality of the climate movement – it is massive, global, powerful, and on the right side of history.
We are at the most important moment in this movement’s history – in the midst of two simultaneous tipping points that create the opportunity, if we respond correctly, to win – eliminating net CO2 emissions from the economy and securing a stable climate, though still a changed one.
Gilding thinks that the rapid acceleration of climate impacts leads us to understand that “the scientific consensus on climate has badly underestimated the timing and scale of climate impacts.” The melting of Arctic ice and the bad weather are just a taste of what’s to come as it becomes clear that we are heading for “a global temperature increase of 4°C or more”. Conservative bodies like the International Energy Agency, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have issued dire warnings. Christine Lagarde of the IMF has warned that
without strong action “future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled”. The World Bank was similarly blunt about the economic consequences of our current path: “there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.”
Indeed, key mainstream economic institutions are laying out the case for dismantling what is arguably the world’s most powerful business sector, saying that most of the global reserves of fossil fuels should be left in the ground.
At the same time renewable technologies are becoming extremely disruptive so that a fundamental economic shift is already underway in the global energy market.
There are two indicators of this, with the first being the much noted acceleration in the size of the renewable energy market with dramatic price reductions and the arrival of cost competitive solar and wind. It is hard to overstate the significance of this as it changes the game completely, as various recent reports have shown.
Rooftop solar for example has grown so fast it is now eroding the profitability of major utilities by taking away their high margin income – peak pricing – and reducing demand. This is already seeing major economic disruption to companies and national economic infrastructure as this report from UBS on developments in Europe shows, with major shutdowns of coal plants now inevitable.
Reading the signs, there is increasing awareness of “the awakening giant of carbon risk, with open discussion in mainstream financial circles of the increasing dangers in financial exposure to fossil fuels” both in financing new projects in coal, oil and yes, gas, and revenue loss in existing ones.
Gilding then moves, I think, from what might happen to what should happen. The science is clear, he says. What might take 60 years under market conditions must happen within 20 years.
If we follow the science, then in 20 years we must have removed the coal, oil and gas industries from the economy and replaced them. It’s simple, it’s urgent and perhaps most importantly, it’s now achievable. (Emphasis added)
Finally Gilding evokes Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of “creative destruction”. Change will not be smooth or pleasant for many participants:
It will rather be messy, highly controversial and see huge amounts of value and employment both destroyed and created as the economy restructures around the necessary reality of a post fossil fuel economy.
It’s all sorted, then. Gilding says it’s inevitable and we have no choice.
And there’s the rub, I think. Gilding tells us what he thinks must happen, but it will not happen at the required speed or on the necessary scale unless we do make a choice. So far, we have not.
Moreover, who is “we”?
It must be all nations, or we won’t get there. World-wide emissions show no sign of slowing, with more coal-burning power plants, especially in the developing world, the main reason and the oceans taking in less than average.
In Gilding’s book The Great Disruption he paints a picture of expected growth by 2050 producing an economy which would need to run at 500 to 700 % of the planet’s sustainable capacity, compared to 140% now. The economies of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India China) for example are likely to increase output 10 times between 2006 and 2050. That’s impossible. Either the planet needs to grow or we will need to make sustainable use of it. Real change, he says, will not happen until kick the economic growth addiction, which will not happen unless we are forced to change by a crisis.
Gilding says the end of growth started in 2008. In effect, he is urging us to make an early choice, or learn the hard way.
Finally, he says that zero carbon emissions is the easy bit. Peak everything is the real problem, and, some say, the opportunity.
Just in, a UNEP report finds that large companies are trashing the planet. If they brought to book the true cost their use of natural resources they would be making a financial loss.
If Gilding’s analysis is correct, the changes he sees as necessary involve a fundamental value reorientation. That will not come easily.