A public reading of a key scientific report is an appropriate response to our government’s pointed rejection of climate science
“Bear witness to the most important issue of our age,” says a video promoting an exceptional public event starting at Adelaide’s Flinders University on Thursday.
The promo continues: “The clock is ticking. Experience 1.5 Degrees Live! A five-day reading of this fascinating and devastating climate report. Performers, activists, authors, members of the public and more will raise their voices and bear witness to the most important issue of our age. Join us as we confront our history and our future.”
The video is an invitation to 1.5 Degrees Live! – 34 hours of public readings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report about what our planet will be like to live on when we have warmed another half-degree, or 1.5C above the average temperature 200 years ago.
The idea is based on a fringe event at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, in turn inspired by earlier public readings of the landmark UK Chilcot Report on the Iraq war.
People familiar with the IPCC report may see this as an invitation to watch grass grow. Trained to explore all possibilities, the report’s many authors came up with over 600 pages of densely written text, full of caveats and qualifications, with long lists of references. It is definitely not a page-turner.
Like IPCC reports and human history, climate unfolds at a slow pace. It can include highly charged moments, but mostly its story is a slow progression through anything from centuries to millions of years. Research is complex, scientific advances are incremental, and findings are rarely clear-cut.
That’s the impression most people – people who haven’t been directly and radically impacted by climate change – have been taking away from the climate story. But that apparent slowness is an illusion.
Earth’s system is now being transformed at exceptional speed, like the rare asteroid strike 66 million years ago that virtually wiped out dinosaurs. Most climate transformations have in the past taken millennia to unfold; this one is happening before our eyes over just a few decades.
This is what is exercising the minds of climate scientists, now speaking out as never before. No-one who has listened to them, or read and absorbed what they are writing, can remain unaffected.
The IPCC’s 2018 report says that the heating of air and ocean caused by humanity’s carbon emissions is a ticking time-bomb which we must defuse. If we don’t rapidly and decisively cut emissions, large parts of our planet will become uninhabitable and civilisation will break down.
We have already warmed over 1C. Another half-degree of warming is definitely not “safe”, the report says, but it is relatively far safer than a rise of 2C or more. Our present trajectory takes us to nearly 4C of warming, which would be catastrophic.
The report is not all gloom and doom. It highlights benefits from transforming how we do business – especially the way we harness energy – including more jobs, more accessible energy, better health and transportation. But the scale of this is unprecedented, demanding full government backing.
With many other concerns closer to home, most people put all this out of their minds. But it’s they – “most people” – who vote and decide governments. They need to appreciate what 1.5 Degrees Live! seeks to convey: the anxiety felt by the world’s scientists about our perilous situation.
Bear in mind that in the 17 months since that report – 17 months less time to turn around the global energy colossus – Australia has had a federal election. Climate change was prominent, but other things captured the electorate’s attention and kept the government in power.
Since the IPCC report Australia has continued to support extraction, use and export of fossil fuels while taking no decisive steps against emissions. It has told the global climate summit that it has a technology-driven climate policy, promoting pumped hydro and hydrogen production as viable options. But it has published no detailed, practical, convincing business plan for either.
A COVID-19 pandemic will have a severe impact on the lives of people everywhere, but climate change affects every species on the planet. The Morrison government is accepting without demur scientific advice on the virus. Yet it remains unresponsive to scientific advice on climate.
The government is a leadership in denial. It treats the IPCC as some sort of ideological opponent while pointedly and persistently ignoring the desperate urgings of global science about our planet’s future.
Against that madness, a public reading of a critical IPCC report doesn’t seem so crazy after all. In fact, it’s a damn fine idea.