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Coalition attitude towards climate change is business as usual

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

The Australian Government needs to listen to the experts and become a world leader in climate change policy, writes Dr Victor Luca.

FIRE HAS ALWAYS BEEN a natural part of the ecology of the ancient Australian continent and essential for the reproduction of much of Australia’s flora. However, the scale and extent of the recent fires have clearly been unprecedented. Years of drought have left the bush tinder dry. This coupled with high temperatures and strong winds have led to the recent disastrous fire season that claimed many properties and lives. But what is at the heart of such unprecedented disasters?

Big data science and machine learning algorithms have suggested increasing Australian bushfire frequencies over the last decade and hint at a major climatic change in the not-too-distant future. Recent scientific results have shown that individual weather events can indeed be traced to anthropogenic climate change (ACC). Such science goes way beyond the anecdotal comments of friends and family who say that these are the worst fires they have seen in their lifetimes.

That ACC is being caused by greenhouse gas emission resulting from human activity is nothing new. Nobel prize-winning scientist Svante Arrhenius was calculating the warming effect of increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations more than 100 years ago. In recent decades, a strong scientific consensus on ACC has developed the likes of which does not happen every day in the sciences.

More than 97% of scientists working in climate and related scientific fields consider that there is a preponderance of evidence that humans are significantly altering the climate. The Union of Concerned Scientists first published an article in 1992 with the ominous title, World Scientists Warning to Humanity. This article was co-signed by 15,364 of the best minds in science from 84 countries and also the majority of the world’s Nobel laureates. If this didn’t catch the world’s attention, it has since been repeated and amplified many times.

CSIRO’s Climate Change Projections for Australia, dating at least as far back as 2001, have been highlighting the potentially catastrophic effects that ACC could inflict upon the already arid Australian continent and its fragile ecosystems. Even back in 2001, CSIRO was predicting dramatic increases in average temperatures in Australia of about 2ºC by 2030 together with increased water stress.

Early and recent models predict that by 2070, average temperatures could increase by as much as 6ºC, even in coastal zones. A fragile continent like Australia can ill afford to ignore such predictions coming from the country’s premier research institutions because Australia has a lot to lose. While meteorologists point to specific causes such as an Indian Ocean Dipole or Southern Annular Mode and other such phenomena, at their heart, the intensity of such specific effects is clearly exacerbated by ACC.

Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus within the ranks of Australia’s best and brightest, Prime Minister Scott Morrison – an economic geographer by training – and his party have adopted a business-as-usual (BAU) policy approach to ACC. This policy stance emphasises continued economic expansion and the continued use and export of coal and gas while working at the fringes on ACC.

The Morrison Government insists that Australia will meet its climate obligations but that nothing should get in the way of economic development. Despite Australian Government protestations that climate targets are being met, there are strong suggestions that these weak targets are not, in fact, not being met at all (see the Climate Action Tracker website). Accusations of cheating and/or creative accounting are embarrassing, to say the least.

Australia is one of the world’s major coal exporters and uses both black and brown domestically for the generation of the lion’s share of Australia’s base-load electricity production. We continue to export and give approval for massive controversial coal mines with the absurd argument that if we don’t supply coal then someone else will.

Scott Morrison emphasises economics and takes a soft stance on the global existential threat that is ACC. He has stated that there is no need to change the soft Australian Government policy stance. He is of the opinion that it is not “credible” to link ACC to the country's devastating bushfires, a view that is patently at odds with the best scientific brains in his country. So much for the duty of care he has to current and future generations of Australians.

More than a decade has now passed since the UK Government commissioned the Stern Review which found that cutting carbon emissions so that carbon dioxide peaked in the range of 450-550 parts per million would cost 1% of the GDP annually. It also stated that ignoring climate change could cause economic damage on the order of up to 20% of the GDP.

Ten years on from this comprehensive report and it seems that we have all forgotten its main messages. There is money to be made in fixing the climate and a lot to lose if nothing is done. I would bet that little will have changed were that review to be repeated today.

Despite such inescapable conclusions from even the economics community, of which Morrison is supposed to be a practitioner, the BAU mentality continues to dominate coalition government thinking. Global emissions continue to increase and Australia’s have resumed their upward trend also.

We are already past the point of talking about early action in order to minimise the risk of creating a potentially catastrophic situation and have now to face the fact that humans are changing the climate more rapidly than we initially thought. Science is telling us that tipping points are being approached that are simply too risky to bet on. We have been losing biodiversity at an alarming rate, waterways are becoming polluted and air pollution claims an estimated 7 million lives per year around the globe. Notwithstanding the health consequences of breathing in smoke from fires, the run-of-the-mill air pollution of some of Australia’s major cities kills thousands of Australians every year.

For decades, there has been the specious argument that since Australia is responsible for only about 1% of global emissions it can do nothing. As one of the largest per capita emitters on the planet and as a rich nation, Australia must show leadership. This would not be for moral reasons, but rather for self-interest. In providing an example to major emitters that reducing emissions to zero is possible and profitable, Australia helps save itself.

All that is required is a change of paradigm, some creativity and a desire to leave future generations a viable planet on which to live. That is, until such time as we can make the escape to another, probably inferior world that Stephen Hawking recommended. Elon Musk, the Tesla boss, has shown that entrepreneurial success can be achieved while at the same time helping to save the planet.

Rather than showing leadership, Australia has recently suffered the indignity of being criticised for planning to use an accounting loophole to meet emissions targets. Meanwhile, the domestic use of coal has not dropped and exports continue to surge. As Australia continues to do its bit to poison the atmosphere, it vacillates on the use of nuclear energy while at the same time being happy to make money off the export of uranium.

It is way past time to roll out a global Manhattan or Sputnik project that Australia needs to be a part of. Come on ScoMo, do something serious.

Dr Victor Luca is a New Zealand-born Australian who has spent his entire working life as a science researcher.

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