In the fight to contain emissions, we are losing badly

The verdict is in: humans are not good people. That was US funnyman Bill Maher earlier this month, musing on why we can’t fix the climate. “I don’t know what will work,” he said, “but I know what didn’t work: asking people to be good.”

After bravely admitting “I fly private” – only in the US could a comedian afford it – he flashed up pictures of the likes of Bill McKibben, Sting, Taylor Swift, Bernie Sanders, King Charles and others at the doors of private jets: prominent celebrities “who speak about the need to reduce our carbon footprint but are always on private planes”. Flying private, he said, is addictive. “It’s like heroin – if you do it once you’ll never stop.”

I don’t fly private, and I don’t fly public much, but that doesn’t make me good. Australia’s average per-capita carbon footprint is 17 tonnes a year – 3.5 times the world’s average and over 160 times that of its poorest countries, in sub-Saharan Africa.

Two weeks ago I mentioned the repeated warnings of late Australian climatologist Will Steffen about the perilous state of the climate. His view is all over the world of science, supported at regular intervals by papers in global science journals like Nature, Science and PNAS

It’s confronting to hear scientific luminaries on the UN World Climate Research Programme YouTube channel methodically analysing the passage of climate tipping-points – ice sheets collapsing, massive methane burps from melting permafrost, oceans losing oxygen and going acidic, Indian monsoons failing, biodiversity hotspots vanishing.

To avoid this we have national emission targets. Contrary to official myths, if you take out poorly-verified and grossly-misused land use data, or “offsets”, which governments led by Australia threw into the mix in 1997, Australian emissions from fossil fuel use rose by 7 per cent from 2005 to 2020. So much for “meeting and beating” targets, as our leaders liked to say.

Even if we were to use no more fossil fuels from today – impossible but worth thinking about – the world would still warm by a further 0.6C as excess ocean heat is released to the atmosphere. So in effect, having already warmed by 1.2C, the world is now well over the 1.5C “safe” threshold. Realistically, the most favourable scientific conclusion puts warming at the catastrophic level of 2.8C within this century, with 4C more likely.

The Albanese government knows that even as it prepares with its Western allies for conflict in the Pacific – disastrous for global climate action – the world is in another kind of emergency that eventually will make any kind of war seem peripheral. It also knows (and Ukraine is the living-and-dying proof of this) that war demands a vast amount of fossil energy.

To maintain market value, coal and gas interests must exploit untapped reserves, and the propaganda effort to do that is leading not just federal and state governments but the wider population into a dangerous fantasyland. It is pure madness to open up new coal and gas fields given the present state of the climate, but active lobbying and publicity by a cashed-up industry have succeeded in making the insane seem normal. 

Hypocrisy is all over this; so is denial. Not just the denial of those who shout that the science is false, or politicians who change the subject while pretending they have things under control. We are all deniers – everyone who enjoys the comfort of a fossil-fuelled Western economy like Australia’s.

For many years I believed that holding back to preserve hope in the community was all-important. But this must be balanced against the dangerous illusion, encouraged by those who hold purse-strings, that we are making headway when we are patently doing the opposite.

Western prosperity itself will suffer as an increasingly unstable climate drives ever more extreme weather: perhaps the mother of all hurricanes taking out Miami or the Gulf Coast, or a prolonged drought making a desert of the Midwest, a heatwave killing millions in Europe or a deluge drowning the Rhine, Danube or Mississippi basins and all they contain. We should now know that scenarios like this are not mere speculation. 

We don’t choose to be “bad”, to use Bill Maher’s simplistic language. We do what we do because governments and corporate interests conceal from the public the full cost of fossil fuel extraction and use – in pollution, human health and, most critically, carbon emissions.

Self-preservation is a real turn-on. If a growing climate threat can spur us to switch off fossil fuel before everything falls apart there’s a glimmer of hope. Right now it’s a flickering, barely visible candle in the dark.

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