11 August 2020

Canary in the coalmine: A former senior fosil fuel executive speaks out

by Ian Dunlop

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This post is the introduction, by Ian Dunlop, to the publication this week by Breakthrough of a collection of Ian's media commentary articles.  Ian is is a senior member of the Breakthrough Advisory Board and a Member of the Club of Rome. He 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 co-author of “What Lies Beneath: the understatement of existential climate risk”, and of the Club of Rome’s “Climate Emergency Plan”.

This publication brings together some of my commentaries over the last three years on the need for real action on climate change. Not the normal variety of political action, but an emergency approach, akin to a wartime level of response, which before long will have to be adopted as impacts escalate around this hot, dry and vulnerable continent, and around the world.

Climate change is now an existential risk to humanity which, unless addressed immediately as a genuine emergency, will likely destroy civilisation as we know it within decades. We are not going to let that happen. 

My life seems to have revolved around these types of risks. As a toddler, I was hugely impressed with the appearance of four duckponds in a line across my grandfather’s farm in the east of England as a German bomber jettisoned its cargo while trying to avoid a pursuing Hurricane. Fortunately no-one was hurt, but it could easily have been otherwise. It prompted my rapid evacuation to Wales. Living on a former German airbase with my Royal Air Force parents immediately after World War Two, school was shared with displaced children who had lost everything in the war. Then came the Cold War, with that same airbase on 24-hour alert keeping supply lines open as part of the Berlin airlift, interrupted by regular emergency alarms. 

Training as an engineer, and recognising in the 1950s that the world ran on energy, not money, I joined the oil industry, which for years was a hugely satisfying career, taking me to remote and fascinating parts of the world. I was also fortunate early on to become involved in long-term scenario planning which thought about issues like climate change, and the unsustainability of an economic system reliant upon perpetual economic growth. Not as immediate priorities, but as issues which sooner or later would become a constraint on global society, as the Club of Rome was identifying around the same time. 

Risk-management experience was eventful. I was on the first semi-submersible oil rig offshore of Scotland soon after it started operations when the proverbial one-in-a-hundred year storm hit, dragging the rig on an inadvertent voyage, 300 kilometres down the North Sea. Then there was coal-mining in Australia, where well-established geological conditions could suddenly change into deadly working environments overnight. 

By the end of the 1980s, as James Hansen gave his first testimony on climate change to the US Senate, climate science was becoming ever more definitive and the evidence of climate impact was mounting. The risks had reached the point where action to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels was essential. Accordingly I left the industry in the early 1990s, to work toward that end, and more broadly the evolution of genuinely sustainable societies.

After working constructively with other industry leaders in the late 1980s on responses of the coal industry to climate change, I rather naively assumed that their successors would continue with a progressive approach. But it was not to be. As the 1990s progressed, the introduction in Australia of perverse short-term incentives, combined with myopic conservative politics, ensured that climate concerns took a back seat to the expansion of fossil fuels and climate denialism reigned supreme. The same is true globally. Since the UN climate negotiations were initiated in 1990, the world has emitted as much carbon to the atmosphere as had occurred from the Industrial Revolution till 1990. And global emissions are still increasing. 

The result is an immediate existential threat to our civilisation as irreversible climate tipping points begin to trigger. The drought and bushfires devastating large parts of Australia are early signs that these tipping points are starting to manifest themselves here. 

The lesson I learnt from the energy industry is that the successful management of high risks requires brutal honesty in assessing those risks at the outset, otherwise inadequate solutions are adopted and chaos ensues, as we are now seeing. 

The further lesson is that in a genuine emergency, early action is essential, otherwise the impacts become so overwhelming that all resources are devoted to addressing symptoms, particularly recovery from disaster, rather than paying adequate attention to the underlying cause. The result is a “death-spiral” toward social collapse, as impacts escalate unconstrained. This is already evident in our politicians’ response to the growing bushfire threat, as they perform ever more grotesque contortions to avoid emergency climate action. 

After three decades of deliberate refusal to face reality, it is clear that our political system is not prepared to learn these lessons, rendering it incapable of managing the climate threat. Even worse, the government and its conservative business and media paymasters appear hellbent on maintaining their denialist, pro-fossil fuel stance irrespective of the immense damage it will do to global and local communities. 

We no longer have time for interminable royal commissions and inquiries, whose conclusions are invariably ignored. The government and opposition must make way for a new governance structure with leadership and expertise capable of handling the immediate climate emergency.  

This is a drastic step which I do not propose lightly. I hope these articles will explain why it is now essential. The status quo is not an option.