How a pandemic and a lawsuit might work in our favour

Glimmers of light in these gloomy, tumultuous times.

Devastating fire seasons in two hemispheres followed by a worsening pandemic, economic collapse, racial division and increasingly erratic presidents… There is so much to be bothered about, it surely wouldn’t matter if one more item went on the list.

Unless that one item threatens to dominate our longer-term future. Amid all the other convulsions, climate change is setting up to engulf everything else.

Halfway through 2020 it’s clear this will be among our warmest years. The January-June average, reports the privately-funded US climate data centre Berkeley Earth, is tied with 2016 as the warmest start to a year. Significantly, 2016 experienced a massive El Nino weather event (El Nino is a strong warming influence), but 2020 is just as warm without any El Nino.

A big influence on global temperature this year has been a winter-spring heatwave across northern Asia. For six whole months, January to June, Siberia was more than 6C warmer than the long-term average, with maximums up to 38C, the all-time high for anywhere north of the Arctic Circle.

An attribution study published this month found that the chances of such a heatwave happening without the added warming triggered by high carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere (in other words, without human carbon emissions) would have been vanishingly small.

Which brings those emissions into sharp focus. Carbon dioxide is now present in the atmosphere at 414 parts per million and rising – 48 per cent higher than before the Industrial Revolution. At the current rate – a 12 per cent increase since just 2000 – we can expect CO2 to be double its pre-industrial level by 2070.

Last week, a 25-member multinational research team led by University of NSW senior climate scientist Steven Sherwood published the results of a landmark study seeking to pin down what would happen to global temperature with a doubling of atmospheric CO2. It involved painstaking analysis of temperature data going back millions of years.

Until now, science has relied on a 1979 US study concluding that twice the pre-industrial level of atmospheric CO2 would deliver between 1.5C and 4.5C of global warming. Sherwood’s new study rules out any prospect that the outcome could be as low as 1.5C. The lowest we can hope for is a much more dangerous 2.3C, probably much more, and we’re on track to reach that point by 2070.

At least, we were. There’s a silver lining to all the misery around the pandemic. A depressed global economy means emissions will be well down, and even just one year of low emissions would buy precious time in our battle with the climate.

Since COVID-19 struck seven months ago global carbon emissions have been sharply below where they were previously tracking. A study published in Nature has calculated that total 2020 emissions could be as much as 7 per cent below last year’s. It may turn out even lower; that analysis was done before the virus took serious hold in the US and Latin America.

Even governments totally wedded to climate action will be unable to resist public pressure to get national economies moving again, quickly. So the question is, how can these economies be reshaped to take advantage of the breathing space given to us by the pandemic?

The United States should be leading this charge, but its benighted administration has chosen to dismantle Obama-era energy and environmental reforms and put public money into fossil fuels. So the only hope from those quarters is a new president after the general election in November.

Though under some pressure from right-wing governments, Europe has stuck to progressive climate policies. In this year of the virus, renewable energy has surged past fossil fuels to become Europe’s main electricity source. The Morrison government has the option of taking that path, but remains stubbornly resistant to doing any such thing.

Enter a young Melbourne law student, Katta O’Donnell, who in the Federal Court last week launched a class action against the government for not disclosing the risk that climate change poses to otherwise secure long-term investments. The government borrows by selling bonds, and is obliged by law to disclose risks attached to these investments.

Australia’s special exposure to climate-related storm, flood, drought and bushfire already costs us dearly, yet we still have no effective, targeted, near-term and long-term national climate strategy. The O’Donnell case highlights another, potentially devastating risk: a flight of capital away from this country.

Our bean-counting government is exceptionally sensitive to financial pressures. Should the lawsuit force substantial climate change action, Katta O’Donnell will have done her country proud.

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