After the IPCC report, some recalibrating

The prime minister and his deputy are now wrestling with the implications of an unfolding climate emergency. This is not going to be easy for them.

First, the good news. Australia’s political leaders have finally grasped the fact that a warming climate is not fake news or some vague future threat but something real and present, among us, right now. Just like the coronavirus.

They should have known anyway. If Australia’s droughts, heatwaves, fires, floods and coral bleaching of recent years hadn’t convinced them, the sight of similar conditions erupting through this northern summer would surely have nailed it.

The 750 scientists who compiled the sixth global survey of climate science, released last week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, needed no further persuasion about the imminence and magnitude of the climate emergency now enveloping the world. Their language in 2021 is firmer, their tone more urgent than in any previous such report.

In 2014 the assessment was that human greenhouse gas emissions were “extremely likely” to have caused warming. Now there is no doubt: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land” resulting in “widespread and rapid” changes.

But today’s most telling messages about the climate are not about things we currently know, but about questions yet to be answered. 

One of these questions is Arctic methane. The Arctic’s rate of warming, fastest on the planet, raises the question of whether its frozen methane deposits – equivalent to 240 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide – might erupt rapidly into the atmosphere, throwing into chaos all our calculations about future warming.

Another is the largely submerged West Antarctic ice sheet, containing enough ice to raise global sea level by several metres. We know next to nothing about the rate and nature of its decay – about when, how and how quickly it might break up.

The biggest unanswered question of all is how much warming we can expect from any given increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

A 2020 study concluded that doubling of those levels could raise the average global temperature by as much as 5.6C, or nearly a degree higher than previously calculated. If that projection is even close to the mark, the already-small window of time for cutting emissions so as to avoid the worst effects of climate change would be radically reduced.

Information such as this, in spirit if not in detail, is at long last filtering through the Coalition leadership, which presents those leaders with a significant challenge. People like the prime minister, Scott Morrison and his deputy, Barnaby Joyce, must now get their heads around what a changing climate means for the present and future of all Australians.

The PM had built up a head of steam when he fronted the media the morning after the IPCC report came out. Gone was the “coal forever” champion. Gone were the doubts he once had about climate science. It was as if they’d never existed. With the fervour of a recent convert, he was showing us he knew this all along, and we mustn’t worry because he has it all in hand.

The IPCC report, he said, presented “a serious challenge not just for Australia and advanced countries around the world, but all countries around the world… [It] affirms to me again my fundamental belief about how we must address this global challenge”. 

His declared strategy is not to tax Australians or make things any tougher for them, “but to enable them” by means of technology, “the game changer”. He and energy minister Angus Taylor ran through a checklist of possibilities including hydrogen and carbon capture. Which is all very well, but nothing significant is even on the horizon and time is against us.

Then there was the PM’s claim that Australia has actually lowered emissions by 20 per cent since 2005. What he didn’t say is that this was mainly because post-2005 Queensland vegetation laws caused a huge drop in land-clearing after that year. Without Queensland, Australian emissions would actually have risen by 7 percent, a performance well behind that of Europe, the UK and the US.

Scott Morrison would know that. I suspect he just chose not to tell us.

For his part, Barnaby Joyce was totally in the dark. “What exactly is the plan?” he threw out to a radio interviewer, implying that a 2050 emissions plan was a problem for others, not something to bother a deputy prime minister with. “We don’t actually come up with a plan,” he said. “The CSIRO, other competent people come up with a plan.”

The truth is that Barnaby Joyce and Scott Morrison alike are having to reinvent themselves on the run. After so many years ignoring the science and deriding efforts to contain emissions, this is not going to be easy for them.

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