Unthinkable news calls for unthinkable decisions

Australians have seen enough storms and floods, droughts and fires to make climate change a top-order political issue, a survey for the World Economic Forum has revealed.

The Ipsos survey revealed six in 10 Australians expect climate change will severely affect their part of the country over the next 10 years, while nearly a third (29 per cent) expect climate change will cause them to be displaced from their home within 25 years.

In all 34 countries surveyed by Ipsos, a majority of adults expect the region they live in to be severely affected within a decade. In Chile, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, South Korea, Spain and Turkey, this figure was more than 80 per cent of the population.

Today’s evidence of change is only a hint of what’s to come, underlined by the World Meteorological Organisation’s release last week of a global multi-agency report highlighting a massive shortfall between national emission targets and reality. 

When the Paris Agreement was signed seven years ago it was understood that emission pledges would have to be strengthened over time to prevent warming from going above a relatively safe level of 1.5C.

A few countries took that seriously, but many others including Australia didn’t. The WMO report says that now, if we are to contain warming to that 1.5C threshold, the ambition of those national 2030 pledges in total needs to be… wait for it… seven times higher. Even to limit warming to 2C will require pledges four times stronger than current ones.

That’s only the beginning of the bad news. Here are a few of the report’s findings:

• The Covid emissions pause is over. Early this year global emissions were already back above the same period in 2019. In the year to May 2022 Tasmania’s Cape Grim station recorded a rise in atmospheric CO2 of over two parts per million, to a record 413.37 ppm.

• After record warming over the past seven years, there’s a near-even chance that in one of the next five years the annual mean surface temperature will be at or above the 1.5C safety threshold. 

• Tipping points or major long-term changes in the climate system are looming as real prospects in coming decades. These include weakening of key Atlantic currents like the Gulf Stream and major, rapid melting of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

• Over 1.6 billion people living in over 970 cities around the world will by the 2050s be regularly exposed to three-month average temperatures of at least 35C in the hottest season, with Delhi in India a special concern.

• Low-lying coastal cities including Bangkok, Houston and Venice can expect more frequent, more extensive flooding in coming years from intense rain, storm-surge, subsidence and sea-level rise.

• Weather disasters, which have increased five-fold over the past 50 years, can be expected to increase in frequency and severity.

We’re left with some uncomfortable truths. Since a safe level of global warming is not achievable – at least not for a very long time – we must adapt to a different, less friendly climate. This will have to include greater ability to forecast dangerous weather. 

While living with the nasty consequences of high emissions, we also have to keep cutting them to avoid those extremes getting worse and civil society descending to a brutish mess. 

We have to be clear about how we got here. It happened because enough of us believed we weren’t changing the climate, enough opportunists were willing to build that delusion, and enough resources – notably from fossil fuel interests – supported their efforts.

The people now governing Australia say they can see through the delusion, but to carry through with effective action is the really hard part. Facing huge decisions, both federal and state government leaders must conquer the same fears, prejudices and old mindsets that limit everyone’s horizons.

It’s almost unthinkable that a government anywhere would take on the giant corporate interests that have so shaped the modern world, or accept that those who stand in front of logging and mining machinery may be right after all. But that’s where we’re at.

An unprecedented situation calls for an unprecedented response. Climate change minister Chris Bowen must strengthen Australia’s 2030 target, sooner rather than later. Environment minister Tanya Plibersek must present a brick wall to new coal or gas projects. And Tasmanian ministers must stop their ridiculous bragging about climate “leadership”.

All of them must open up to a whole new paradigm in which the natural world is respected and people are not pilloried and punished for protecting it. If they don’t, in the words of Prince Charles in an interview ahead of last year’s Glasgow summit, “it’s all over Red Rover”.

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