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What lies beneath: The dangers of understating climate risks

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Three decades ago when serious debate on human-induced climate change began globally, a great deal of statesmanship was on display. A preparedness to recognise that this was an issue which transcended nation states, ideologies and political parties. An issue which had to be addressed proactively in the long-term interests of humanity, even if the existential nature of climate risk was far less clear cut than it is today.

Antarctic_Iceberg_18 copy

Antarctic Iceberg: Wikimedia Commons

Then, as global institutions were put in place to take up this challenge, and the extent of change this would impose on the fossil-fuel dominated world became more obvious, the forces of resistance mobilised. Today, despite the diplomatic triumph of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, debate around climate change policy has never been more dysfunctional, indeed Orwellian, particularly in Australia.

In his book 1984, George Orwell describes a double-speak totalitarian state where most of the population accepts “the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane.”

Orwell could have been writing about climate change and policymaking. International agreements talk of limiting global warming to 1.5–2°C, but in reality they set the world on a path of 3–5°C. Goals are reaffirmed, only to be abandoned. Coal, by definition, is “clean”. Just 1°C of warming is already dangerous, but this cannot be said. The planetary future is hostage to myopic, national self-interest. Action is delayed on the assumption that as yet unproven technologies will save the day, decades hence. The risks are existential, but it is “alarmist” to say so. A one-in-two chance of missing a goal is normalised as reasonable.

Climate policymaking for years now has been cognitively dissonant, “a flagrant violation of reality”. So the lack of  understanding amongst the public and elites of the full measure of the climate challenge is unsurprising. Yet most Australians sense where we are heading: three-quarters of people see climate change as a catastrophic risk, and half see our way of life ending within the next 100 years.

The previous norms of statesmanship and long-term thinking have long since disappeared, replaced by an obsession with short-term political and commercial advantage   Particularly where climate and energy policy is concerned.

An emergency-scale transition to a post-fossil fuel world is essential to address climate change. But this is considered to be too disruptive. The orthodoxy is that there is time for an orderly economic transition within the current short-termist political paradigm. Discussion of what would be safe –– less warming that we presently experience –– is non-existent.  And so we have a policy failure of epic proportions.

In the magical thinking of Australian policymakers, a pathway of gradual change, constructed over many decades in a growing, prosperous, coal-fired world stretches enticingly before us. The world not imagined is the one that now exists: of looming financial instability; of a global crisis of political legitimacy; of a sustainability crisis that extends far beyond climate change to include all the fundamentals of human existence, and of severe global energy sector dislocation.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was established by the UN in 1988, charged with regularly assessing the global consensus on climate science as a basis for policy-making.  The IPCC Assessment Reports produced every 5-6 years, play a critical part in the public framing of the climate narrative. The IPCC has done indispensable work in pulling together a periodic consensus of what must be the most exhaustive scientific investigation in history.

However, the process suffers from all the dangers of consensus-building in such a wide-ranging and complex arena.  For example, it’s reports, of necessity, do not always contain the latest available information.  Consensus-building can lead to “least drama” lowest-common-denominator outcomes which overlook critical issues, particularly the implications of the “fat-tails” of probability distributions, namely high impact but relatively low-probability events where scientific knowledge is limited.  Vested interest pressure is acute; climate denialists accuse the IPCC of alarmism, whereas climate action proponents consider the IPCC to be far too conservative. To cap it all, the IPCC conclusions are subject to intense political oversight before being released, which has had the effect of substantially watering-down sound scientific findings.

These limitations were not of overriding importance in earlier years.  However it is now clear that the risks are far greater than previously anticipated.  Climate change has moved from the twilight period of much talk but limited impact; it is now turning nasty, as witnessed with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and in South Asia, not to forget Cyclone Debbie in Australia earlier this year.

The distinction between climate science and risk is now the critical issue, for the two are not the same.  Scientific reticence, the reluctance to spell out the full risk implications of climate science in the absence of perfect information, has become a major problem, allowing politicians to ignore the real dangers we face.  But waiting for perfect information means it will be too late to act, as any sensible risk manager or military leader knows only too well. Like an iceberg, there is great danger in ignoring “What lies beneath”.

The irresponsible invective passing for political debate on climate and energy policy is replete with assurances that politicians are devoted to ensuring the security of the Australian people.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Those assurances are meaningless unless climate risk is honestly addressed and that must happen long before we are confronted with our own equivalent of Irma. At present that risk is totally ignored.

This article is extracted from: “What Lies Beneath – The Scientific Understatement of Climate Risks”, authored by Ian Dunlop, Advisory Board Member and David Spratt, Research Director, and published this week by Breakthrough: National Centre for Climate Restoration:  https://www.breakthroughonline.org.au/whatliesbeneath  

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  • juxx0r

    Yes, the green movement got it wrong. If they had instead focussed on the pollutants going up chimneys and out exhausts, we’d be a lot further along the path of decarbonisation.

    • Jo

      Are you really saying the green movement has not complained about pollution?

      • juxx0r

        No.
        But they focused on climate not pollution. For example Tony reckons climate science is crap. Pollution is real, and Tony would have been disarmed if the other approach had been taken.

        • nakedChimp

          Nope, they did focus on that and got sulfur out of the exhaust and particulates.. but in the end, the capitalistic model cheated, bought policy making and major cities in Europe are not much better than Chinese ones.

          So no, you can’t blame this on the greens having touted the wrong horn AFTERWARDS.

          And it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
          Our currencies have a systematic problem that causes profits over live and everything else, it’s the zero lower bound interest problem.
          100 years ago deciphered and explained in papers/books.
          Keynes knew about it.
          Change money and you change the world.
          Anything else is just delaying.

        • Andy Bowe

          The issue is what you call pollution perhaps, its definition “Pollution is the introduction of contaminants into the natural environment that cause adverse change.”
          Climate science is the method that identifies what the pollutant is doing. Australians already argue 1.5% of worlds emissions are produced here so why bother we are small fry? What hope if you didnt even argue climate change. Clean coal that would be less clean than proposed.

          • juxx0r

            What effect does mercury have on the climate?
            how about arsenic?, cadmium? lead?

    • DugS

      Juxxor your reasoning is flawed by the term Green Movement. The perfect example is Al Gore. He has been banging on about the connection between human activities, your pollution, and the resulting effects to our climate for years. Many a US republican would lump him into the Green camp as a result but he is just an intelligent informed individual who can make his point heard. As David Suzuki says, if we can just agree that we all need clean water, clean air and clean food then there quickly becomes little to argue about in terms of caring for the natural environment which of course includes the climate. The point of the article above is that the discussion about climate change has become deliberately polarised and thus toxic.Your unhelpful comment only goes to reinforce that truth. A more practical and beneficial response would be to share the excellent article amongst our political leaders and demand they serve their constituents by considering climate change in every aspect of their roles.

      • juxx0r

        Why can’t they consider pollution instead of climate change? Which you know, was the point of my post, which you fail to have noticed.

        • nakedChimp

          Because pollution won’t solve the carbon problem we’re having.
          Pollution is being measured and then circumvented by technical tricks and only found out years later by some scientists – again.

        • Andy Bowe

          I would consider CO2 as a pollutant when exhausted from smoke stacks etc. Try breath it in a larger quantities and you will agree. The real issue is as addressed in the article Short term politics and economics are determining our long term fate.

    • Ken Fabian

      I suspect if the green movement hadn’t done so much to make climate a prominent issue we’d be even less far along in dealing with it.

      No-one has prevented non-green mainstream political parties taking climate change seriously and choosing to lead the way, and pursuing their own preferred means of addressing it.

      Community concern by “green” and “left” people – before the cost plunge by Renewables and pre-Fukushima – even saw attitudes shifting towards acceptance of nuclear, even if much of that was grudging and ambivalent. What did the allegedly nuclear option preferring political Right do then? Emphasise that climate change was serious and push harder to fix it with nuclear? No! They doubled down on their rejection of climate science and got more determined to undermine public acceptance of genuine need for change. And reaffirmed their absolute support for fossil fuels.

      • juxx0r

        Sounds like someone needs some more Cadmium on their weeties.

    • onesecond

      You didn’t understand the article at all.

  • DugS

    Here is a template for a letter you guys can send to your local federal representatives:

    Dear (insert name of representative) ,
    as the member for (your federal electorate) you are my representative in the federal parliament and so this is why I have forwarded the attached article.

    Being a member of the federal parliament you will no doubt be aware of the critical importance the issue of climate change is to the Australian people and indeed the entire human race. In fact it is described as an existential threat to humanity and so cannot be over exaggerated in terms of its importance. Unfortunately, as is clearly discussed in the article, the merchants of doubt whom wish to preserve the status quo and their nice comfortable existence have succeeded in reducing the dire warnings into articles of faith that may be believed or not as one whimsically may choose rather than heed the evidence.

    As my elected representative I request that you clearly and persistently raise the issue of the threat of climate change as part and parcel of your duties within and beyond the federal parliament. As a clear and present threat to our way of life, if not our very existence, climate change is of an order of magnitude that is perhaps frightening in its enormity but which you must seize with a vigour of conviction as becomes a member of the Australian Parliament.

    I look forward to hearing of your implacable determination to bring climate change to the attention of every one of your colleagues and opponents from the Prime Minister down.

    (Don’t forget to include your name and address)

  • onesecond