The continuing calamity of global warming

With temperatures rising at a fearsome rate, we need our political masters to cede policy power to real authorities.

As if the ructions caused by the global pandemic and political mayhem in the US weren’t enough, last week we were hit with the 2020 global temperature record.

Eventually we’ll probably get over the pandemic. The US along with the rest of the world might even settle back into some sort of business as usual. But economic and political news is really just an aside. The real deal is what’s happening to the global temperature.

On Friday the World Meteorological Organisation released its annual analysis of global mean temperature data from five leading state sources, coinciding with another report by the privately-funded, US-based Berkeley Earth. They all tell us that the planet’s fever is worsening.

The WMO concluded that 2020 ranked alongside 2016 as the warmest years on record, but that’s not the whole story. The 2016 record was set when the world was in the grip of a naturally-warming El Niño weather event, but from mid-2020 a cooling La Niña prevailed.

The final six years of the warmest decade on record, starting in 2011 and ending last year, were all warmer than any previous year. The WMO predicts that 2021 will still be among the hottest ever despite being cooled by the current La Niña.

It also holds out the possibility that the planet will exceed the “safe” Paris target of 1.5C of warming within just three years, and says we are now firmly on track to a catastrophic temperature rise of between 3C and 5C within a human lifetime. If that seems bearable, it isn’t. It would render most of the planet uninhabitable, and Australia would be among the hardest hit.

But the climate data, while concerning in itself, is just the tip of a mountain of growing evidence that as our collective activities and the sheer numbers of people on the planet continue to grow (despite the pandemic), we are undermining our life support systems.

Oceans and waterways are being contaminated with our toxic waste. Freshwater and food resources on every continent are diminishing. We are losing both wild nature and arable land at an unprecedented rate through urban sprawl and bad agricultural practices and policies, including excessive pesticide use, land-clearing and irrigation.

Our inability to respond effectively to these human impacts reflects badly on us all. The biggest burden must fall on those who govern the world’s most developed economies, including our own, and in the case of democratic countries, on the people who elected those governments. That’s us.

So what should our governments do? What should we be demanding of them?

The wickedest part of this wicked policy problem is the fact that the full outcome of our excessive carbon pollution today is not revealed in the temperature signal for many years. The pandemic has shown how difficult it is to maintain a disciplined policy approach when the delay in impact is just a few weeks. How much more difficult is it when the lag is so much longer?

Australia needs to look no further than its own shores. The virus is contained (fingers crossed) here because governments were sufficiently spooked to invite public health specialists into the inner sanctum of power, even ceding authority to them in front of television cameras on a daily basis.

In most other parts of the world this is not the case, and we only have to look at national infection and death data to see the horrific results. There is a parallel here with climate policy responses, except that the potential outcome in the case of climate is massively greater.

The incoming Biden administration in the US plans to respond to the climate crisis with new authorities able to enforce urgently-needed policy reforms, to cut emissions at home and resume that country’s leadership role globally.

Remember the Climate Change Authority, set up under Julia Gillard’s government in 2012? That had the potential to become something with real teeth, a centre of expertise and executive power able to direct governments on policy changes that would make a difference on the ground.

But it has never come to anything because no elected official has been willing to cede that power. Tony Abbott tried to abolish it; it survived but sits on the outermost rim of government, an empty shell ignored by its political masters.

While a slow-burning global environmental crisis threatens to engulf us, our government refuses to yield power to expertise. To understand the impact of this policy failure, we need look no further than those countries now reeling from a pandemic out of control.

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