“Critical decade” or “lost decade”? (3) Is the future unspeakable?

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Labor’s climate policy steps were slow and incremental, when they needed to be transformative, and an Abbott government will be worse. So what’s important now?

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(This is the third of a three part series by David Spratt. The first two can be found here and here)

As the federal Labor government and a significant period in climate policy-making in Australia very likely come to a close this year, there is an opportunity for the climate action and advocacy movement to reflect and plan together. One important chance is from 18-20 May in Kurri Kurri in the Hunter Valley of NSW, where community activists from around Australia will gather for three days of discussion under the banner Our Land, Our Water, Our Future: Beyond Coal and Gas.
But this very topic – of not quadrupling Australia’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions with an explosion in coal and gas exports (see Part two), let alone the additional contributions from domestic coal seam gas and dirty coal power stations – is a great example of the central problem in climate policy-making in Australia. And the problem is this: as a nation we are unable or unwilling to even talk about climate change in a meaningful way.

Take coal exports: apart from the grassroots climate action movement, some but not all climate advocacy groups, The Greens, researcher Guy Pearce and The Australia Institute, there is a void in public discourse on this most central issue. Remember the shellacking Bob Brown and then Greenpeace got from Labor, the LNP, business, unions, the commentariat and all-and-sundry when they dared to raise the issue?

This final part in a series on “‘Critical decade’ or ‘lost decade’?” is devoted to the observation that as a society we do not talk with comprehension about global warming, and so cannot act with the attention, speed and scale required. By not articulating the full problem, we are bound to fail to solving it. In 2012, I described this cognitive dissonance:

Globally, and in Australia, the gap between the action required for a safe climate and what is actually being done is growing wider at an alarming rate. Nothing is spoken about any of this. Public leadership in Australia on climate is thin. Ask friends to identify who they could name as public figures in Australia who have shown courageous and consistent public leadership on climate. Some will say Christine Milne, and then struggle for another name.
The problem is now so big and action required is so far outside business- and politics-as-usual that for most of the climate movement the only way to be “relevant” is to not describe the problem as it is, and not describe the scale and urgency of the solutions. We have achieved a collective cognitive dissonance where the real challenge we face is excluded from discourse. This is our Climate Policy Paradigm.
Most eNGOs and activists consciously seek not to specifically engage about the scale of the problem and the urgency of the action required because it is not an immediately winnable goal or kosher inside the political beltway and in the daily news cycle. This Catch-22 means that what really needs to be done is rarely articulated. It’s pretty crazy when you know – on the present political and economic settings – that we are heading towards an apocalypse and the public discourse is so deluded that you are excluded or marginalised for saying so.
US environmentalist and former deputy director of Greenpeace USA, Ken Ward, describes the problem:

There are powerful arguments against the anything-is-better-than-nothing philosophy, but there is an even more basic problem with our “policy-first” approach. The world can only draw back from the climate tipping point by transformative political action.. (yet) For twenty years we have approached the problem by pre-negotiating with ourselves on behalf of our opposition. We don’t think about it in those terms, but that is what climate policy is all about. We calculate what concessions are necessary to placate whichever interest, power or nation is thought must be mollified, and then devise a scheme to fit within those limits… Over decades, layers of accommodation and polite behavior have built up by accretion, while our rough edges have been worn down. The net result is a worldview – we may call it the “Climate Policy Paradigm” – that is so universally accepted that it goes unnoticed, yet its power is so great that we have abandoned the precautionary principle, environmentalism’s central guide for action, with barely a murmur when the two came in conflict.

So what climate talk do we do in Australia now? By which I mean the climate issues that have some currency in the public conversation, that are substantially discussed and understood apart from those sectors with an immediate professional or partisan interest. Here’s my guess as to the level of engagement and understanding on a number of key issues (based on the headline proposition in bold and not necessarily the detail), both in the public conversation and in the climate action and advocacy movement. Some of my very subjective scores may seem wildly inaccurate, so please use comments to have you say! 

  • A record amount of ice is melting in the Arctic, which is passing dangerous tipping points.  Arctic warming is now contributing to prolonged, extreme weather events in many parts of the world. Sea-ice-free Arctic summer periods are imminent, and the complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet will occur at lower global temperatures than previously thought. Increasing methane releases from the Arctic are an ominous sign that larger-scale permafrost melt may be under way.
    [Score: public conversation 2/5; climate movement 5/5]
  • Human actions are triggering the sixth mass extinction event in the planet’s history.  The world’s biodiversity has dropped 30% over the last four decades, a rate not seen in 60 million years. Extinctions worldwide are occurring at a pace that is 1000 times as great as the background rate. Eminent Naturalist E.O. Wilson predicts that our present course will lead to the extinction of half of all plant and animal species by the year 2100.
    [Score: public conversation 1/5; climate movement 4/5]
  • Oceans are more acidic than they have been for at least 20 million years and coral reefs are close to destruction. Oceans are acidifying ten times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred. It is predicted 10% of the Arctic Ocean will be corrosively acidic by 2018, and 50% by 2050. Half of the world’s coral reefs have already been lost.
    [Score: public conversation 1/5; climate movement  3/5]
    • Global warming is getting worse at an accelerating rate. Greenhouse gas emissions rose 1% per year in the 1990s  but 3.1% since 2000. The rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide has lifted above 2 parts per million per year and long-term NASA climate science head Jim Hansen expects it to be rising by 3 parts per million per year.
      [Score: public conversation 0/5; climate movement 2/5]
    • Best current emission-reduction commitments by governments will still lead to 4 degrees of warming by 2100 and as early as 2060. A 4-degree warmer world may reduce the planet’s carrying capacity to one billion people or less, and would over time lead to the loss of all ice sheets and an eventual 70-metre sea level rise, amongst many devastating impacts. AsProf. Kevin Anderson has noted: “There is a widespread view that a 4°C future is incompatible with an organised global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of eco-systems and has a high probability of not being stable”.
      [Score: public conversation 1/5; climate movement 3/5]


  • Warming of 2 degrees is not a safe target but “a recipe for disaster”.Two degrees of warming will create a sea-ice free Arctic (we are almost there at just 0.8C of warming), push Greenland and West Antarctic melting passed their tipping points, destroy the world’s coral systems, and produce an eventual sea-level rise of around 25 metres, and many other devastating impacts.
    [Score: public conversation 0/5; climate movement 2/5]
  • We have already gone too far. At current temperatures, there is no “cushion” left to avoid dangerous climate change. It is hard to argue that anything above the Holocene maximum (of around 0.5 degrees above the pre-industrial temperature) can preserve a safe climate, and that we have already gone too far.  The notion that 1.5C is a safe target is out the window, and even 1 degree is an unacceptably high risk when we seek what is happening around the world at just 0.8C.
    [Score: public conversation 0/5; climate movement 1/5]
  • A primary short-term goal is to avoid crucial climate tipping points that would lead to large-scale scale carbon cycle feedbacks or warming which are irreversible on human time scales. Warming in the Arctic suggests we are at or close to some of these points right now.  This is a big challenge to those policy paradigms which emphasise long-term change (zero growth, lower population, a sustainable economic system, cultural change, etc) as a pre-condition for climate action.
    [Score: public conversation 1/5; climate movement 3/5]
  • To avoid crucial climate tipping points employing geo-engineering will be necessary as the least worst option. Geo-engineering is no substitute for a crash program to reduce human emissions to zero as fast as possible if we are to restore a safe climate, but the latter will likely not stop critical tipping points being breached. This is a contentious issue.
    [Score: public conversation 0/5; climate movement 0/5]

  • Large-scale carbon drawdown (sequestration) is necessary for a safe-climate. Because greenhouse gas levels are now above 450ppm and a safe climate is well under 350ppm, getting carbon out of the atmosphere in large measure is a key measure. One published scenario for an under 350ppm target includes 100 billion tonnes of re-afforestation as a necessary component.
    [Score: public conversation 0/5; climate movement 2/5]
  •  You can’t negotiate with the laws of physics and chemistry. Yep, this is an odd one, but it seems to me that this proposition is constantly denied in public policy-making, for example in acknowledging the (too conservative) 2007 IPCC figure of a 25% cut in emissions by 2020, but then in a bi-partisan manner agreeing on only a 5% reduction.
    [Score: public conversation 0/5; climate movement 4/5]
  • Government fossil fuel subsidies in Australia are greater than the total revenue collected from the carbon tax.  Labor will hand a $2.3–5.4 billion profit bonanza to Australia’s dirtiest power stations from carbon price compensation. Australia Institute research found total government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry of around $13.3 billion a year, compared to revenue from the carbon tax of just $7.7 billion a year (on fossil fuel industry pollution).
    [Score: public conversation 0/5; climate movement  2/5]
  • An energy revolution is making renewable energy technologies cheaper than energy from fossil fuels. The speed of innovation and deployment and lowering of costs will transform the world’s energy systems over coming decades, but left to a free market it will not happen quickly enough.
    [Score: public conversation 2/5; climate movement 5/5]
  • A carbon budget approach to emissions reduction for even the unsafe 2-degree target means Australia achieving zero emissions within a decade. There is just beginning a public discussion about a “carbon budget”, but generally for unsafe targets and without “doing the maths” for Australia.
    [Score: public conversation 0/5; climate movement 2/5]
  • Only action at emergency speed and scale is now capable of preventing a climate catastrophe. What needs to be done cannot be achieved in today’s neo-conservative capitalist economy. A rapid transition will required a great deal of planning, coordination and allocation of labour and skills, investment, and materials and resources, that can’t just be left to markets and pricing. There is a choice between two dystopias: some very significant social and economic disruptions now while we make the transition quickly, or a state of permanent and escalating disruption as the planet’s climate heads into territory where most people and most species will not survive. So this will not be painless, and citizens will need to actively understand and participate in some personally-disruptive measures, but they will do so because they have learned that the transition plans are both fair and necessary, and the other choice is unspeakable.  Paul Gilding addressed some of these issues in The Great Disruption, but few were prepared to continue the conversation.
    [Score: public conversation 0/5; climate movement 1/5]

This is a quick attempt to demonstrate the proposition that cognitive dissonance characterises the public conversation on global warming and climate action in Australia. It’s not for want of trying by many climate activists at the local community level, for they are desperate for a broad and serious public engagement with the climate crisis. They  have the desire, but often insufficient power, to be heard widely in public policy circles.

On coal seam gas it has been the energy and commitment of so many people in so many affected communities united under one banner that has made it a front-page story and re-written the politics and the business prospects of the industry. But how is this done when it not an in-your-backyard issue and easily related to personal lives?

One approach is to make the connections between the extreme weather events people are experiencing and climate change. This is helping to improve public understanding of climate change and support for action, according to recent polling. Another is the hard slog of organising, connecting, and activating communities on the big issues for them, whether it is the impact of coal dust on their lives, or concern that using and exporting more and more coal and gas is incompatible with a decent life for future generations.

There is also an irreducible role for those who already have some cultural capital in the public conversation, in providing ideas leadership. In 2002-03 it was easy to observe how the mass community protests against the coming Iraq war were given a boost when support came from unexpected quarters amongst people who had or could quickly gain public standing and access; people like General Stratton, former intelligence officer Andrew Wilkie and former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, to name just three.

The same is true today. Where are the leaders in the public conversation prepared to consistently talk about the sorts of issues sketched above?

Let me take one example, not because I want to particularly single him out, but because he has said a good deal of interest on the public record. Professor Ross Garnaut, through his work on two series of reports for the Labor government, probably did more than any other person to focus public attention on climate policy-making over the last six years.

In his first round of reports, the science he was fed was pretty conservative, what Garnaut later came to call “reticent” (see below). It was behind the times, like the 2007 IPCC report on which much of it was based.  After publication of his 2008 reports, Garnaut realised this and, despite not being a scientist, frankly recognised what he called the “bad possibilities” in climate science with “immense impacts” and “highly adverse outcomes” in his verbal presentations. At a public meeting he held in Sydney in mid-2008, I asked from the floor what it would mean for his policy prescriptions if those “bad possibilities” were to come true. His matter-of-fact answer was words to the effect that it would “make them irrelevant”.

Now we know that those “bad possibilities” have come true. Garnaut recognised this and incorporated them into his second round of reports in early 2011, concluding his“Update paper 5: The science of climate change” with an extraordinary section on “Reflections on scholarly reticence”:

It is remarkable that the review of developments in the science—new observations and results of new research—have all either confirmed established scientific wisdom, or shifted the established wisdom in the direction of greater concern… In an area of uncertainty, this is not what one would expect. One would expect some new knowledge to surprise by being more worrying than the central points in the mainstream science, and some new knowledge to surprise because it is less worrying. When all the new knowledge that challenges the old is on the more worrying side, one worries about whether the asymmetry reflects some systematic bias.
… Publications lags introduce unfortunate delays between discovery and influence in the policy discussion, but there is no reason to expect them to cause systematic bias in the direction in which new knowledge changes the established wisdom.
      I have come to wonder whether the reason why most of the new knowledge confirms the established science or changes it for the worse is scholarly reticence. I wonder whether we are seeing the effects of a professional reticence about stepping too far in front of received wisdom in one stride…
There must be a possibility that scholarly reticence, extended by publications lags, has led to understatement of the risks.
That is not a reason to clutch for knowledge outside the mainstream wisdom: if our discussion ceases to be grounded in the established science, we have no firm, common ground from which to work on the most difficult policy problem of our times.
We should, however, be alert to the possibility that the reputable science in future will suggest that it is in Australians’ and humanity’s interests to take much stronger and much more urgent action on climate change than might seem warranted from today’s peer-reviewed published literature. We have to be ready to adjust expectations and policy in response to changes in the wisdom from the mainstream science. (emphasis added)

To summarise, Garnaut here recognises – especially in the last paragraph – that what will need to be done is much stronger than was being proposed, just as his “bad possibilities” response did three years earlier. So all along, Garnaut has been aware that the climate policy paradigm on which he was asked to report by Labor within fairly narrow boundaries was a parallel universe to the real world challenge.

There are many others with standing in the public conversation who know this too, especially as more very sobering scientific research and observations become available, such as events in the Arctic. Why do such public figures, whether they be commentators or business leaders, past and present politicians, or public sector figures, not step up now? One reason is that individually they fear, as Garnaut says, “about stepping too far in front of received wisdom” and becoming isolated and marginalised amonst their peers. Some have institutional restraints in working for government organisations, and others have business or professional interests that are incompatible with calling a spade a spade when it comes to the greatest threat that humans have ever faced.

But together, there is the capacity for a public opinion leadership group to take shape, end the unbearable silence, and beat down the walls of cognitive dissonance within which the climate discussion lives in darkness. Such ideas leadership is far from sufficient, but an absolutely necessary, action as we all ponder our own roles in determining whether this will be the “critical decade” or the “lost decade”

As Ross Garnaut has remarked in presenting his second round of reports: “The failure of our generation on climate change mitigation would lead to consequences that would haunt humanity to the end of time.”

This article was originally posted on Climate Code Red. Re-posted with permission.

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  1. Dave Johnson 7 years ago

    Short version: we’re screwed, but too delusional to notice yet.

    Nor will sucking carbon back out of the air revive any species that are already extinct.

    In other words, it’s not the temperature that will kill us, but the loss of biodiversity (which will wreck our food supply, among other things), so once we mess that up there will be no fixing the problem.

    Is that a fair summary of the situation?

    • Pedro Schwindt 7 years ago


      I find it tragic that many species will meet their evolutionary dead end because of humanities greed, selfishness and total lack of respect of another species intrinsic right to exist. Then add a good climate change kick in the head to make sure they don’t come back

      Perhaps a human population sub 1 billion is a good thing for all other life forms.

  2. Pedro Schwindt 7 years ago

    An excellent series of articles and well articulated.

    I have been working in the RE industry for 15 years now to help be part of the solution. I have been ear bashing friends,family and anybody who wants to listen about the consequences of climate change for 20 years now. Also been writing letters to do with RE and climate change to both political parties over the years. Even among my enviro science student friends there was a significant level of climate change skepticism in the late 90’s. My father a committed greenie doesn’t even have solar PV on his awesome nth facing roof when he could have got it at cost and installed for nothing by me. I have to conclude from my own small efforts that the general public has a huge amount of reluctance to believe that the climate is changing and even if they do, do not take any action. Most rooftop PV systems sold today are not bought because of climate concerns but due to being a cheap way to reduce energy bills.

    I have what I call the “Atlantis hypothesis”. That climate change action will only happen at great urgency when our coastal cities start to sink beneath the waves. Good news for the gondola business no doubt.

  3. D. John Hunwick 7 years ago

    This series of three articles is hard to comment on in full. It can be a fruitful source of dioscussion for days to come. Let me take just one of three topics just itching to be discussed. “Global warming is getting worse at an accelerating rate” This is too glib and can be used against the author as not knowing the real situation. New Scientist is saying that there has been a slowing down in warming in the last few years – dus to changes in CO2 asorption by the oceans (as I understand it). The straight forward linear idea of warming continuing up in a straight line is NOT like Nature at all. We need to take this into account in our narrative of climate change or be pillored by those who know less about it all. This does NOT invalidate the underlying truth, that the situation is getting worse but how we express it to the wider community is important.

    If I may, I will write another response later because what has been said is basic to individuals coming together to work out how to proceed – and there is a lot to take in.

  4. David Hamilton 7 years ago

    Thank you very much, David, for an excellent series, and even more for being prepared to stare in the face of the reality of our predicament. You are absolutely correct about our collective cognitive dissonance, and I think we all struggle from time to time with thinking about the gravity of the situation.

    I also agree with you that our first priority must be to hammer at the glass wall of cognitive dissonance. My proposed strategy is to push the two key comments made by the International Energy Agency in last November’s world energy outlook: (1) that if the world is to stay below the 2 degrees target we need to leave at least two-thirds of known oil, gas and coal reserves in the ground, and (2) if immediate, significant action is not taken, then by 2017 our build-out of equipment which burns oil, gas, or coal will have committed us to exceeding the 2 degrees target, so at that point we would have to stop building cars, trucks, planes, ships, power stations, etc, etc.

    Your points about the 2 degrees target are, of course, correct, and others have also criticised the risk of exceeding 2 degrees assumed by the IEA in arriving at their two-thirds figure, arguing that the figure should be higher than two-thirds. However, I think the IEA’s points, together with their standing as a conservative institution may help get through the mental barriers.

    My suggested strategy, therefore is to use every available opportunity to point out the IEA’s observations and to tell politicians they must respond effectively to them.

  5. D. John Hunwick 7 years ago

    Back again. I am presently hostile to any form of geo-engineering. I am not sure any “demonstrations” will be big enough to convince me that they should be continued, nor do I think the planet should be subjected to any more abuse on the chance it will do it any good. We know what to do – the human race just wants to have its cake and eat it too. I also believe that investment of time, energy and money in geo-engineering can be used as an excuse to delay more meaningful action. If Greenpeace can sabotagge Japanses Whaling then some form of Earth First should make it their task to see that all geo-engineering is stopped in its tracks.

    • Dave Johnson 7 years ago

      I agree that geo-engineering is a dangerous distraction, and for a very precise reason.

      Namely, most geo-engineering ideas do nothing to remove carbon from the system, so major problems like ocean acidification will go right on wrecking the biodiversity of the planet.

      As noted in my comment above, and in the article, it is the loss of biodiversity that is the deep, irreversible threat.

      So, any proposed solution that fails to address loss of biodiversity is a loser by definition.

  6. Graham Palmer 7 years ago

    From my reading on getting action to address climate change it is important to sell the solutions not keep reiterating the problems. A considerable number in the population are still not aware but fear won’t help move them. Those who are aware may still not be doing anything as they are probably hoping someone else will fix it, thinking there is not much they can do anyway.

    As for governments with short electoral cycles, there is no upside for them to tell people what needs to be done to reduce carbon emissions, not by the piddly 5% by 2020 but 100% by 2030 or sooner.

    Governments these days follow not lead so the hard yards will need to be done by individuals and communities in advance of government action. How would it have been in 1939 if the decision to to appease or go to war with Germany was left to focus groups?
    If we leave it to governments we will probably be hearing the same in 2030 as we did in Doha 2012.

  7. Peter 7 years ago

    As the future is unspeakable, so are the coal exports. When Arnie says 6-9 degrees in the LA Times – “Schwarzenegger: California’s silent disaster” – you’d hope people would (start to) listen.

  8. John D 7 years ago

    What I like about REnewEconomy is that it is generally about what is happening and the accelerating level of climate action. It also has lots of articles that talk about the possibilities.
    What I don’t like about articles like this one is that it reinforces the big lie that we have to choose between saving the planet and destroying the economy right now. My gut reaction to the article was “let us drink and be merry because tomorrow we die.”
    The truth is that the best way to bring the world out of its chronic economic recession would be to move onto a “war footing against climate disaster”. The truth is that Australia could move to 100% renewable power and transport without destroying the economy of forcing reductions in our quality of life. This is the message that has got to get out.

    • Ron Horgan 7 years ago

      I agree with you John D.
      The situation requires a “war footing “approach and that if we had the political will it could be done.
      Tough love but better than the alternative.

      • John D 7 years ago

        Thanks for the support Ron. However,I don’t actually think that what I am talking about is “tough love”. The “save the planet war” will actually boost the world economy and make a lot of people much better off.

        • Ron Horgan 7 years ago

          John, I guess that you have the Zero Carbon Australia Stationary energy Plan.
          This documents a 10 year plan for 100% renewable energy at a cost of $8 per household per week.
          This has detailed material labor and costs for the proposed designs and could be the basis for action.
          The main problem is the vested interests dedicated to the status quo. Australia is largely an off shore quarry for international traders. The government is subservient to the miners.
          Somehow we have to engage the self interest of the investors who will profit from the adoption of renewable energy without subsidies. Solar PV is virtually there.
          Ironically the notionally communist Chinese look like being the people most likely to seize the initiative and profit from the necessity for change.

          • John D 7 years ago

            I am very familiar with the BZE stationary energy plan and agree with both the timing and the general thrust. One of the important messages from the plan is that both the technology mix and location need to be got right. It is not going to be got right by pushing up the price of carbon and hope that it will all go to plan. If all we do is push up the price of carbon what will tend to happen is for the most profitable technology to be built in the most profitable location
            What needs to be done to to make this (or similar) happen is for the whole process to be managed as a major project similar to the Snowy Mountain Scheme. With expenditure in mining expansion slowing down the idea of a Snowy Mountain Scheme would ring a bell with those in the construction industry – These are the people who stand to gain.

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