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Australians say climate change is catastrophic risk, even as government turns blind eye

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Climate Code Red

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Three in four Australians understand that climate warming poses a “catastrophic risk,” even as the Australian government turns a blind eye. That was the clear result from a new survey for the Global Challenges Forum (GCF), and the publications of its 2017 Global Catastrophic Risk report.

84% of 8000 people surveyed in eight countries for the GCF consider climate change a “global catastrophic risk”. The figure for the Australian sample was 75%.

Question were asked about a number of risks, including nuclear war, pandemics, biological weapons, climate change and environmental collapse. The climate question asked how much participants agreed or disagreed that “climate change, resulting in environmental damage, such as rising sea levels or melting of icecaps” could be considered as a global catastrophic risk”? A global catastrophic risk was described as “a future event that has the potential to affect 10% of the global population”.

For Australia, the results were: 39% “strongly agree” and 36% “tend to agree” (for total agree of 75%), whilst “tend to disagree” was 15%, “strongly disagree” was 6% and “don’t know” was 4%.

The  2017 Global Catastrophic Risk report summarises the the evidence for catastrophic climate change risk as:

Discussions of climate change usually focus on limiting temperature rises to 1-3˚C above pre-industrial levels. A rise of 3ºC would have major impacts, with most of Bangladesh and Florida under water, major coastal cities – Shanghai, Lagos, Mumbai – swamped, and potentially large flows of climate refugees. While the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change sought to keep global temperature rises below a threshold of 1.5–2 º C, national pledges have fallen short and set the world on a 3.6°C temperature rise track. There is also now scientific consensus that, when warming rises above a certain level, self-reinforcing feedback loops are likely to set in, triggered by the pushing of the Earth’s systems – ocean circulation, permafrost, ice sheets, rainforests and atmospheric circulation – across certain tipping points. The latest science shows that tipping points with potential to cause catastrophic climate change could be triggered at 2ºC global warming. These include the risk of losing all coral reef systems on Earth and irreversible melting of inland glaciers, Arctic sea ice and potentially the Greenland ice sheet. As well as the immediate risk to human societies, the fear is that crossing these tipping points would have major impacts on the pace of global warming itself. Although climate change action has now become part of mainstream economic and social strategies, too little emphasis is put on the risk of catastrophic climate change.

The same survey found 81% of the 1000 Australian participants in the poll agreed with the proposition: “Do you think we should try to prevent climate catastrophes, which might not occur for several decades or centuries, even if it requires making considerable changes that impact on our current living standards?” The figure across the 8000 people polled in eight countries (Australia, China, India, Brazil, South Africa, UK, Germany and USA) was 88%.
This shows a much strongly level of support for action that may impact on future living standards or have a personal material  cost that many other polls. This may be in part due to the framing of climate as a possibly catastrophic risk, which may provides a stronger basis for concern.

The GCF report found that many people now see climate change as a bigger threat than other concerns such as epidemics, population growth, use of weapons of mass destruction and the rise of artificial intelligence threats. GCF vice-president Mats Andersson says “there’s certainly a huge gap between what people expect from politicians and what politicians are doing”.

The report says that:

For the first time in human history, we have reached a level of scientific knowledge that allows us to develop an enlightened relationship to risks of catastrophic magnitude. Not only can we foresee many of the challenges ahead, but we are in a position to identify what needs to be done in order to mitigate or even eliminate some of those risks. Our enlightened status, however, also requires that we consider our own role in creating those risks, and collectively commit to reducing them.

However, “the institutions we rely on to ensure peace, security, development and environmental integrity are woefully inadequate for the scale of the challenges at hand”.

The dissonance between what Australian’s understand and what government is doing is remarkable. Australia is failing in its responsibility to safeguard its people and protect their way of life. It is also failing as a world citizen, by downplaying the profound global impacts of climate change and shirking its responsibility to act.

Australia’s per capita greenhouse emissions are in the highest rank in the world, and its commitment to reduce emissions are rated as inadequate by Climate Action Tracker, which says that “Australia’s current policies will fall well short of meeting” its Paris Agreement target, that the Emissions Reduction Fund “does not set Australia on a path that would meet its targets” and “without accelerating climate action and additional policies, Australia will miss its 2030 target by a large margin”.

Australia’s biggest corporations are no better. The S&P/ASX All Australian 50 has the “highest embedded carbon” of any group in the S&P Global 1200, according to the S&P Dow Jones Carbon Scorecard report, which assesses global companies’ carbon footprint, fossil fuel reserve emissions, coal revenue exposure, energy transition and green-brown revenue strain (Investor Daily 2017). At the 2017 Santos annual general meeting, chairman Peter Coates asserted that it is “sensible” and “consistent with good value” to assume for planning purposes a 4°C-warmer world.

AAP Image/Dean Lewins, File

AAP Image/Dean Lewins, File

Former senior fossil fuel industry executive Ian Dunlop has recently noted that the most dangerous aspect of fossil-fuel investments made today is that their impacts do not manifest themselves for decades to come. If we wait for catastrophe to happen — as we are doing — it will be too late to act. Time is the most important commodity; to avoid catastrophic outcomes requires emergency action to force the pace of change. In these circumstances, opening up a major new coal province is nothing less than a crime against humanity.

  

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  • Shane White

    The survey results from Australians confuse me. These governments of ours are voted in, chosen by the people. So either –
    a) We vote for one set of values and then demand the opposite, or
    b) The 1,000 surveyed happened to not mostly be coalition voters, or
    c) Our democratic system is such that the sitting federal party don’t represent the majority of people, or
    d) Understanding of, and worry about climate change has radically changed since the last federal election?

    If the survey’s representative then rapid action on climate change isn’t impeded by society, nor a lack of technology, it’s impeded by spineless and or ignorant politicians, and given the prominence of climate change it’d be hard to empathise with a politician claiming to be ignorant. We need political change, or a change to our political system URGENTLY – just look at the changes happening to the oceans, coral, Arctic sea ice and the glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica. Our window of opportunity will soon be SHUT.

    • onesecond

      Agree 100%. It is unbelievable which parties the Australian people put in charge, but that is kind of a theme lately.

    • Alastair Leith

      Capture of major political parties by the moneyed class is the short, uncomplicated answer. ALP could have campaigned heavily on Climate to differentiate with Turnbull at last Federal election and it may have been enough to win more seats, but no. Did this most serious of issues, and parent of many hot-topic issues like refugees even get more than token coverage or expression from any of the potential governing parties during the entire Federal campaign?

      Right wing of ALP insists it’s not an issue for the voting public.

    • Joe

      I think I am right in saying that people understand the concept of insurance. For example people take out life insurance and property insurance for good reason. Hope for the best but do plan / take action for the worst even if there is a financial cost attached in doing so. So what is the logic behind the resistance to taking action against dangerous climate change due to the supposed cost involved. The survey result makes little ‘logical’ sense. If people are concerned about catastrophic risk then how do they reconcile that with the continued election of Federal Liberal Governments that talks RE but walks FOSSIL ENERGY…The Adani coalmine just says it all about The Liberals. The IPCC continually warns that the costs of inaction will be greater than the costs of action in combating dangerous climate change. Do people not read or understand risk management ?

  • The_Lorax

    If the “considerable changes that impact on our current living standards” were properly explained to Australians (or anyone really) 99 out of 100 would be against it. There is a massive gap between what the science says high per-capita emitting countries like Australia need to do, and what politicians and citizens think they need to do.

    • Mike Shackleton

      I think there is a severe gap in citizen’s knowledge. Look at shows like the “War on Waste” – people maintain wasteful habits without realising it. When they are shown the impacts of their habits, and that they can make big changes without having to give up anything, people get on board enthusiastically and quickly. We underestimate people’s ability to change.

  • Alastair Leith

    This contrasts favorably with what CSIRO told us the numbers they get consistently over the last decade or more in their opinion on Climate Change surveys.

    “At the 2017 Santos annual general meeting, chairman Peter Coates asserted that it is “sensible” and “consistent with good value” to assume for planning purposes a 4°C-warmer world.”

    Does Peter Coates have any idea how bad 4º C looks for endemic species, entire ecosystems and civilisation?

    • Shane White

      “This contrasts favorably with what CSIRO told us the numbers they get consistently over the last decade or more in their opinion on Climate Change surveys.”

      Thus our political parties are no longer relevant. It’s time they MOVED OUT OF THE WAY. LEAVE!!!!!!!

    • Mary-Anne

      I’m sure he does but my guess is he’s old enough that he won’t be around to suffer the consequences of our derailed climate. These companies should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity.

      • Alastair Leith

        IME CEOs of fossil companies are profoundly ignorant on Climate Change, they know their businesses are in trouble but they don’t know crap about the science in many cases, which allows for such silly comments in public. Anybody who thinks sustained economic growth as usual over the next decade or two is compatible with rapid decarbonisation which is necessary to avoid the worst of catastrophic climate change is nuts.

  • “catastrophic risk,” implies to me URGENT action. When are the next elections in AU ?? I am really shocked, based upon the number of Aussie’s I have known that they taken control and voted this the government out. ???

  • Mary-Anne Deacon

    So many Australians loathe our political parties and see politicians as contemptuous and self-serving cockroaches, a characterisation that is well-deserved. Our politicians are holding our country and its citizens in bondage to the fossil fuel industry against the expressed wishes of the Australian people. They are criminals who by their obstructionism and lack of action will bring about immense suffering for millions of people all over the world as the consequences of climate change become ever more severe. They continue with calculated and deliberate attacks on renewable energy and use scare monger tactics claiming that renewables will cost consumers a fortune, are not reliable and will destabilise the grid, all outright lies.
    There is only one answer to the hijacking of our democracy by these puppet politicians and the fossil fuel industry and that is to outlaw the political donation rort. Stand up my fellow Australians and be counted. We need to clean up our political system to ensure politicians are not manipulated by big business with big donations. The fossil fuel industry has no place in our future and appropriate and urgent action must be taken to tackle climate change or we will all suffer. Ban the Adani mine and keep fossil fuels in the ground. Divest your investments from the fossil fuel industry and send a deafening message to the criminals in Canberra that we will not tolerate such a crime against humanity.