22 April 2019

Is the Australian Public Service fit-for-purpose to handle existential climate risk?

by Ian Dunlop and David Spratt, first published at Pearls and Irritations

Credit: One World House
The first duty of a government is to “protect the people”, their safety and well-being. Nowhere is this duty more important than in addressing climate change, which now constitutes a near-term existential threat to human civilisation. It is an open, and pressing, question whether the Australian Public Service (APS), and particularly the intelligence services, currently have the capacity to properly consider and assess the climate threat to the people of Australia, and to offer sound advice on action to minimise that threat.

 Recently, UN Secretary General António Guterres noted that “We face a direct existential threat” from climate change as “we career towards the edge of the abyss”. A recent research paper is typical of concerns which have been expressed by scientists for years, yet ignored by incumbent leaders:
Only a drastic, economy-wide makeover within the next decade, consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C, would avoid the transition of the Earth System to the Pliocene-like conditions that prevailed 3-3.3 million years ago, when temperatures were ~3°C and sea levels 25 metres higher. Unmitigated scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions produce climates like those of the Eocene, which suggests that we are effectively rewinding the climate clock to approximately 50 million years ago, reversing a multimillion year cooling trend in less than two centuries.
The 2018 Global Catastrophic Risks report found that in midrange climate  scenarios, “entire ecosystems would collapse, much agricultural land would be lost, as would most reliable freshwater sources, leading to large-scale suffering and instability. Major coastal cities – New York, Shanghai, Mumbai – would find themselves largely under water, and the populations of low-lying coastal regions – currently more than a billion people – may need to be relocated. In high-end scenarios, the scale of destruction is beyond our capacity to model, with a high likelihood of human civilization coming to an end.”]

No wonder that Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, climate adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel and to Pope Francis says that: “Climate change is now reaching the end-game where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.”

Climate change is now an existential threat to human civilisation, and Australia is one of the most exposed continents. The duty of government to protect the people from this threat, should be the top national and human security priority. After three decades of predatory delay in addressing the issue, there is nothing more important.

Existential risk management is fundamentally different from conventional risk management. But there is little evidence that the APS understands the threat, let alone the risk-management response required to address it.  Likewise the intelligence services, and the broader intelligence community, seem oblivious to what is now the greatest threat confronting this country, and indeed the rest of the world.

Unease about Australia’s bureaucratic preparedness was not ameliorated by Geraldine Doogue’s recent interview on ABC’s Saturday Extra programme with Nick Warner, the Director-General of the Office of National Intelligence (ONI). In the interview, Warner named Australia’s biggest threats as intensifying China-US competition, Indo-Pacific great power competition, India-Pakistan, North Korea, a rules-based order under threat, challenges of South Pacific, accelerating technological change, and terrorism.

Climate change didn’t get a guernsey. By way of comparison, the 2019 risk survey of international private and public sector leaders by the World Economic Forum found that the top five risks were extreme weather events, the future of climate change mitigation and adaptation, natural disasters, data fraud or theft, and cyber-attacks. In terms of impact, the top five were weapons of mass destruction, future of climate change mitigation and adaptation, extreme weather events, water crises, and natural disasters.

Intelligence organisations globally have woken up to the reality that climate change is now a major threat multiplier, and is behind many of the current flashpoints, such as the Syrian conflict, Brexit and Trump’s Mexican wall.  It is fundamentally altering policy across the board, whether defence, security, migration, agriculture, health, economic, social, urban and transport, let alone our current fixation on climate and energy policy or the lack thereof.

On the risk methodology of the ONI, the interview including this exchange:
Warner:“What any intelligence assessment organisation does is produce assessments based on all sources, tells truth to power, it doesn’t look at worst-case scenarios.”
Doogue: “Doesn’t it, because I have been told that is exactly what a good intelligence agency does.”
Warner:“That is exactly what we don’t do, what we do is tell the government how we see the situation now and how we think it will develop, not the worst case .. what we think actually is happening now, what actually will happen in the future.  If you go around putting forth worst-case scenarios all the time you will alarm and probably alarm needlessly so that is exactly what we don’t do.”
Whilst this may be understandable in some circumstances, in a climate context it is disastrous, for it is the worst-case, “fat-tail”, tipping point scenarios we have to guard against. If ONI, as the primary threat advisor to the government, are not focused on the worst-case implications of our greatest threat, then who is?

The comments reinforce our concern that emerged around the Senate Inquiry into the Implications of Climate Change for National Security last year, that the real implications of climate change are not understood within Australia’s political and bureaucratic incumbency. Climate change was acknowledged as an existential threat, yet the inquiry recommendations completely ignored the implications.

The posturing around climate change in the current election campaign is largely irrelevant to solving the problem.  Events will force us to make far greater change, far faster, than anything currently proposed. We urgently need an honest discussion on what is really required, and proactive leadership to achieve it.

ONI has a critical role to play. It would be reassuring to think ONI does understand the full climate threat and the “fat-tail” risks, and is doing a lot more to address it than it is prepared to acknowledge publicly. But it is hard to be confident this is the case.

Contrary to the prevailing neoliberal mantra, the transformation to a low-carbon economy cannot be handled by the market alone. It will require strong government and an equally strong public service, equipped to deal with the existential threat ahead. The adversarial political nihilism of the last two decades, and the continual emasculation of the APS, has to be reversed, with leaders prepared to co-operate in addressing a threat which is far beyond party politics.  The election campaign is proof, if proof were needed, that our current political system is unlikely to rise to this challenge.

We need leaders with the integrity to honestly talk with the community about the real climate threat, and to act accordingly. This is unlikely to come from the two main political parties in the short-term. However it will emerge, probably elsewhere, as extreme climatic events take an increasing toll.
Meanwhile, the various reviews in train should ensure the APS is fit-for-purpose to handle the very different world ahead, particularly to understand and address existential climate risk.
Ian Dunlop was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chair of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is a senior member of the advisory board of Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration.   David Spratt is Research Director of Breakthrough. They are co-authors of “What Lies Beneath: the understatement of existential climate risk” (Breakthrough, 2018)