03 June 2019

We must mobilise for the climate emergency like we do in wartime. Where is the climate minister?

Canberra, February 2009
by Ian Dunlop and David Spratt, first published at The Guardian

The second Morrison ministry contains no one with nominal responsibility for “climate” in any sense, despite the fact that it is the greatest threat facing the country. Angus Taylor, who spent much of his pre-parliamentary career fighting windfarms, claiming repeatedly that there is “too much wind and solar” in the system, is now minister for energy and emissions reduction. No mention of climate here, despite the fact that climate is what it is all about, or should be.

Sussan Ley has been made the environment minister but more intriguing, David Littleproud is minister for water resources, drought, rural finance, natural disaster and emergency management. Let’s take another look at this: water (or lack thereof) … drought … disaster … emergency management.

 Is it possible that someone is starting to join the dots – a tacit admission of an escalating climate emergency? In the National party, where competition to develop sensible climate policy is nonexistent, Littleproud has at least pushed for serious policy to address climate impacts on farmers. His title, truth be known, should be the minister for the rural climate emergency.

But when he gets a briefing from disaster management officials, he may be in for a shock. During the 2017-2018 Senate inquiry on the implications of climate change for Australia’s national security, the most compelling evidence was led by Mark Crosweller, the head of a resilience taskforce in the Department of Home Affairs, who used to be the director general of Emergency Management Australia.

He described potential worst-case climate scenarios as being of an “existential nature”. This analysis was taken up in the inquiry’s final report.

In contrast, the submission to the Senate inquiry by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade downplayed concerns about the impact on Australia’s economy of climate security threats, noting our dependence on strong international trade and investment and stating that:
Climate-related costs have the potential to be a disruptive economic force, albeit accompanied by opportunities presented by global transition to a lower emissions, more climate-resilient economy
 This rather misses the point. By mid-century, a plausible scenario is one of escalating extreme weather events, related conflict and migration, so affecting the international order and global trade that Australia itself would face dramatic political, economic, social and human security consequences in an increasingly chaotic world overwhelmed by climate impact.
If Littleproud is to take his rural climate emergency duties seriously, he needs to understand why that might be so.
We have addressed these issues in a new Breakthrough policy paper . In the foreword, retired Admiral Chris Barrie says the paper has:
laid bare the unvarnished truth about the desperate situation humans, and our planet, are in, painting a disturbing picture of the real possibility that human life on earth may be on the way to extinction, in the most horrible way.
 A realistic assessment of climate-related impacts and threats depends on understanding the strengths and weaknesses of climate science projections. Unfortunately, much scientific knowledge produced for climate policy-making is conservative and reticent.

In reality, climate change now represents a near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilisation. A new approach to climate-related risk management is required, paying particular attention to the high-end and difficult-to-quantify “fat-tail” possibilities, such as climate tipping points. This should be the key task of the minister’s new department. What sort of approach should the government bring to emergency risk management in the face of existential climate risk?

It is essential these high-end, bad possibilities, not just middle-of-the-road probabilities, are seriously considered. This may be most effectively explored by scenario analysis. In our paper, a 2050 scenario is outlined in which accelerating climate-change impacts pose large negative consequences to humanity which might not be undone for centuries.

To reduce such risks and to sustain human civilisation, including the Australian farming sector which is the minister’s particular concern, it is essential to build a zero-emissions industrial system very quickly. This requires the mobilisation of resources on an emergency basis, akin to wartime, rather than reactively responding to disasters when they arise. By that time it will be too late to avoid the worst climate impacts. This requires a whole of government taskforce, cutting across conventional ministerial and departmental boundaries, charged with the overriding objective of planning and implementing a rational response to the climate emergency. The plan would encompass the full gamut of national activity, including defence, industry, economic, financial, scientific and social considerations.

For the best form of natural disaster and emergency management is proactive prevention, and that is only possible if the threat is first understood and acknowledged.

Clearly the Morrison government, along with the ALP, have yet to reach that point as they contemplate further expansion of our fossil fuel industry in the Galilee Basin and elsewhere, which will only exacerbate climate pressure on our farmers.

Littleproud arguably has the most crucial and important role in Cabinet. How to convince his colleagues of the real climate disasters which now confront this country, and particularly the agricultural sector, unless we rapidly move away from our fossil fuel past.

If he does not, he and his cabinet colleagues will fail catastrophically in their primary responsibility, which is their duty of care to protect the Australian people, their safety and well-being.
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)