Will Wentworth force the Morrison Government to act on climate?

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Malcolm Turnbull's son Alex urges people to send the Liberal Party a strong message at the Wentworth by-election (Screenshot via YouTube)

Australia’s tepid response to the growing disaster of climate change should make every thinking voters mad as hell, writes Stephen Williams.

DIRE WARNINGS in a new report (SR15) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released on 8 October, should not surprise any sensible person.

I mean, how many warnings do we need?

To summarise: things are bad now and they are definitely going to get worse. The only question is — how bad are we going to let them get?

Our planet has experienced 1°C of warming already and we are on course for the nightmare of at least 3°C of warming under the current Paris Agreement pledges. The Paris Agreement pledges are, therefore, pathetic, yet Australia may not even reach that woeful target.

At the current rate of warming, the world will hit 1.5° by about 2040.

The IPCC’s new report says that it will take heroic efforts to have a reasonable chance of levelling off at 1.5° of warming, yet even that level of warming represents a somewhat bleak future and cannot be called safe.

From the IPCC media release:

‘Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.’


‘Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.’

And that’s for a 66 per cent chance of a still-nasty 1.5° rise. Would you fly on a plane if there was a 66 per cent chance of landing safely? Given Australia’s share of the world’s carbon budget, we would have to reach zero net emissions by 2038 to have that 66 per cent chance of limiting warming to 1.5°.

What would 1.5° of warming look like?

Things are bad enough with our current 1° of warming, but at 1.5°:

  • coral reefs are likely to decline by 70-90 per cent;
  • there will be more heatwaves, floods and droughts;
  • agriculture and fisheries will suffer;
  • it will be more difficult for poor nations to drag themselves out of poverty; and
  • there will be more climate refugees.

Obviously, every small increase in warming is bad news because the environment does not recognise arbitrary measures like 1.5° or 2°. Moreover, we don’t know where the tipping points might be that could cause uncontrollable accelerations in warming.

Recent polls, conducted by Lowy and Essential Media, show that a clear majority of Australians want more action on climate change, even (in the Lowy poll) if there are significant costs.

While a cost-benefit analysis of climate change mitigation is a tricky area, I don’t know many sane people who want to play Russian roulette with the planet’s life-support systems so that we can keep burning fossil fuels, when we have alternative fuels that seem to be getting cheaper by the day.

Our politicians have had decades of warnings about climate change but have done little, with the Coalition being worse than reckless. Criminally reckless? You be the judge.

Malcolm Turnbull’s son, Alex, has rightly described the IPCC report at "terrifying" and our feeble response to the danger as "insane". He has urged the voters of Wentworth to not vote Liberal at the by-election on 20 October as the best medicine for a sick party.

Sick? How else can you describe a party – and let’s not forget the Nationals too – where perhaps more than 50 per cent reject an overwhelming scientific consensus. How do you describe a bunch of people who choose ideology over facts, especially when that ideology will contribute to immense suffering?

It’s a shame Turnbull Snr couldn’t exercise some leadership there, but it is hard to lead people who have little truck with reality.

On a brighter note, an appeals court in the Netherlands has just upheld a decision where the Dutch Government has been ordered to significantly increase its cuts to emissions. Perhaps similar court challenges in Australia are needed, through member groups of the Environmental Defenders Office of Australia. No doubt this would be easier if Australia had a bill of rights, with the right to a healthy environment enshrined into law as most other countries have.

The sad part about all this – at least from the Australian perspective – is that our mad obsession with increasing the size of the economy is not increasing our per capita well-being, as measured by metrics like the Genuine Progress Indicator. Our genius politicians and economists don’t even turn their mind to measuring such things, although they increasingly do in some states of the USA.

Greenhouse gases are a form of pollution, so climate change is a pollution problem.

We can reduce pollution in various ways, including a planned but rapid transition to renewable energy, but we need to accept the insights from ecological economics that show:

  1. there are volume limits to a safe use of the earth’s resources;
  2. all of these resources, once processed, eventually end up as waste;
  3. technological progress can delay the production of waste, but not eliminate it; and
  4. despite what advertisers would have you believe, we are not happier if we consume resources beyond a fairly basic, but comfortable, level.

It appears we are putting our communities at grave risk for no good reason.

Stephen Williams is a freelance journalist focusing on politics, economics and the environment.

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