Where is the climate policy debate?

Through the first week of Campaign ’22, our choice of government seems to be turning not on critical policy questions but on how leaders answer trivia questions.

For a sense of perspective on this, try reading the opening chapter of The Ministry for the Future, by Californian writer Kim Stanley Robinson. If you don’t have the book to hand, here in a nutshell is what that chapter is about.

Three years from now, in 2025, a town in India’s Ganges basin experiences a heatwave like no other, where the air is so hot and humid that even in shade people continue to get hotter. Desperate for cool air they seek refuge in a Western-run medical clinic. 

As small children and old people start dying, the US medic tries to refuel a generator to drive air conditioning, but a street gang assaults him and steals the AC units. In the evening he leads people to a nearby lake, where they all lie in the shallows. But with the water as hot as the outside air, people continue to expire, one by one. We learn that somewhere around 20 million Indians died that day.

Robinson’s near-future scenario is no flight of fancy. It describes the combination of high heat and high humidity at which the human body cannot cool itself because sweat cannot evaporate. Untreated, it will cause organ damage within an hour or two, then death.

This deadly heat, measured by a thermometer with a wet cloth over its bulb, is called wet-bulb temperature. The danger point is when the wet-bulb rises above 35C, equivalent to 43C at 50 per cent humidity, or 54C in dry air.

Until two years ago it was widely believed that wet-bulb 35C had not yet happened, and even with global warming would not be an issue till 2050 or so. Then a study published in the journal Science found that some hotter places had already reached that threshold, and that such events were becoming more frequent, more severe and longer-lasting.

This finding has critical implications for parts of Mexico, the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coasts, and north-western parts of both India and Australia. If monsoonal humidity were to coincide with a slow-moving heat system in heavily populated regions of India, for instance, a death toll in the millions would not be out of the question.

Spoiler alert: For all its grim beginnings, Robinson’s book turns out well: the human race is able to turn things around so that by 2100 the mean global temperature is about where it was in 2000 – greatly aided by a wonderfully simple, dramatically effective global “carbon currency” dreamed up by a real-life Australian, Brisbane engineer and hydrologist Delton Chen. That’s another story for another time.

It’s my belief, based on no scientific evidence, that Americans are inherently optimistic. In research for his book, Robinson unearthed a host of possibilities for making our climate safer, starting with the global shock of seeing millions of people killed by extreme, relentless heat. 

As his story describes, when whole populations of people can see clearly that climate change is real and present, not something fabricated or exaggerated by scientists with nothing better to do, a lot of things become possible.

We are seeing the first tremors of this sea change in the lead-up to this year’s federal election. When PM Scott Morrison had his first election victory Australia was suffering from a prolonged drought, which grew steadily worse through most of his first year in office. 

Then came the Black Summer fires – a huge shock to the world and most Australians including, by his own admission, to the prime minister. But it was no shock to an all-state team of recently-retired fire chiefs who had sought unsuccessfully to counsel him and his ministers and advisers on the approaching danger.

A brief burst of flooding rain and our epic battle with Covid preceded the third climate shock of this electoral cycle, devastating floods in SE Queensland and NSW’s Northern Rivers, giving weight to the widespread view among the world’s climate scientists that Australia is at the top of the list of countries most heavily impacted by global warming.

Now, in the face of a rising tide of climate action advocacy among a new breed of independent election candidates, two key climate institutes lose funding in the 2022 Federal Budget while the PM promises more money for oil refining, coal and gas extraction, and native forest logging. And both major parties support continuation of fossil fuel subsidies.

Heaven forbid that it takes the deaths of millions to turn such heads.

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