09 September 2020

We live in “disaster alley”: Australia and the region are particularly vulnerable

Coastal NSW rivers stopped flowing
during 2019 record-breaking drought:
The Barnard River, a tributary
of the Manning River, at Bretti
Reserve. Photo: Darren Ray
by David Spratt

The following is the text of a presentation today to the opening session of the Smart Energy Council’s 2020 Virtual Conference and Exhibition. 

In this Covid-19 period, I should start by re-affirming that the first duty of government is to protect the people: their health, safety and well-being. This requires management of high-end risks —  such as nuclear and biochemical weapons, pandemics, climate disruption, ecological and economic collapse  and so on  — where the threat may be catastrophic or existential. 

In managing such risks, Covid19 provides some alarming insights into this challenge. Last year the Inaugural Global Health Security Index of pandemic preparedness found, in their words,  “severe weaknesses in countries’ abilities to prevent, detect, and respond to significant disease outbreaks” with an average global score of 40/100.

Remarkably, given what has eventuated since, it found the USA the “most prepared” nation, and the UK second most prepared. Nations and experts believed they were prepared, but were not. That parallels the politics of climate disruption. 

The IPCC says countries in the southern hemisphere subtropics, such as Australia, are projected to experience the largest impacts on economic growth due to climate change. Australia is already hot and dry and the most vulnerable continent. We have been warned of the dangers for decades.

In 2009, pioneer coral researcher Charlie Veron told the Royal Society in London that coral systems are healthy only when warming is less than half a degree Celsius. Now with warming at 1.2 degrees Celsius (°C), the Great Barrier Reef’s extent has been reduced to one-fifth of its area 50 years ago. 

 Ocean heatwaves that cause severe coral bleaching are likely to occur about once every three years, but corals take more than a decade to recover. This is a death cycle, and the Barrier Reef as an ecosystem will likely be gone by 2030.

After the 2016 Tasmanian World Heritage bushfires, fire ecologist David Bowman declared “this is system collapse”. Seven years earlier, just after Black Saturday, David Karoly told a European conference “We are unleashing hell on Australia”, with catastrophic wildfires ravaging the landscape.

Yet last year the federal government refused to meet with retired senior firefighters who were ringing alarm bells. For eighteen months, a national government plan to respond to the  increasingly dire effects of fires and other natural disasters lay gathering dust.

There has been a 10% long-term drying trend in Australia’s southeast. 2019 was the hottest and driest on record in Australia. NSW experienced the driest soil conditions on record in NSW with farms devoid of stock, temperatures too hot for cattle to breed and coastal rivers not flowing. 

The unprecedented 2019-20 summer bushfire storm killed or displaced 3 billion animals and 85,000 square kilometers of forest was lost. Those forest ecologies are, like the Barrier Reef,  now also are likely in a death cycle. Climate and fire conditions similar to 2019 are likely to occur more often than the time it takes the forest to recover. 

Prof. Ross Garnaut warned of the Murray Darling  Basin’s likely fate more than a decade ago. On the current  high-emissions trajectory, irrigated agriculture output in the Basin would halve by 2050. And it would end by 2100, accompanied by a 40% drop in pasture productivity in south-east Australia.

Most of Australia can expect extreme temperatures of more than 50°C by century’s end.
Climate disruption starts with growing food and water insecurity, and social upheaval follows. Think of Syria.  

The Paris goal is to hold warming to 1.5-2°C, but the WMO says current commitments by nations are on a warming path of 3-5°C. 

At 4°C of warming, annual rainfall in southern Australia falls by half, particularly in winter and spring. The Australian wheat industry is highly sensitive to climatic influences. In Garnaut’s hot, dry scenario, wheat yields fall to zero in many regions. 

Global warming of 2°C implies an average 3°C warming over land, 4-5°C in the regions that are drying, 5-6°C in summer average temperatures in dry regions, and 6-8°C hotter for individual days during heatwave conditions in dry regions such as Australia.

We live in the most vulnerable region of the world, where the climate impacts at 3°C warming will be eye-watering on Australia’s trading partners, on forced population displacement and and on state breakdown.

Because we are currently heading for 3-5°C, here is a snapshot of a 3°C world.

At 3°C aridification emerges over more than 30 percent of the world’s land surface. Desertification is worst in the southern Mediterranean, west Asia, the Middle East and inland Australia. Deadly heat conditions persist for more than 100 days per year in the Middle East and South Asia. Heat and desertification make some poorer nations and regions unviable.

This together with rising sea levels contributes to perhaps a billion people being displaced.

At 3°C water availability decreases sharply in the most affected regions at lower latitudes, especially the dry tropics and subtropics where agriculture becomes nonviable. This will affect about two billion people worldwide. 

At 3°C food production is inadequate to feed the global population due to a global average one-fifth decline in crop yields, a decline in the nutrition content of crops, a catastrophic decline in insect populations, desertification, monsoon failure and chronic water shortages.

Due to sea-level rises, the lower reaches of the agriculturally-important river deltas such as the Mekong, Ganges and Nile are inundated, and significant sectors of some of the world’s most populous cities — including Chennai, Mumbai, Jakarta, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, Lagos, Bangkok and Manila — are abandoned. 

According to the Global Challenges Foundation’s  Global Catastrophic Risks 2018 report, even with 2°C of warming, more than a billion people may need to be relocated due to sea-level rise. In high-end scenarios “the scale of destruction is beyond our capacity to model, with a high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an  end”.

 We should have no doubts that our current 3°C or more of warming will be catastrophic in many senses of the word, including the capacity of societies to govern themselves, let alone peacefully coexist with others. 

So let me turn to the really sharp dilemma, and I will be as brief as I can, and as brutal as is necessary.

1. At the current level of warming of 1.2°C we have passed tipping points for system change in a number of planetary elements.

    •    These are critical thresholds which result in step changes in the climate system that are irreversible on human timescales without herculean human interventions.

    •    They include Arctic sea-ice and ecosystems, coral reefs, and the West Antarctic ice sheet.

    •    In a recent study, scientists warn that “Other tipping points could be triggered at low levels of global warming… a cluster of abrupt shifts (exist) between 1.5 and 2°C ...”    

    •    They note that “permafrost across the Arctic is beginning to irreversibly thaw and release carbon dioxide and methane… the boreal forest in the subarctic is increasingly vulnerable.”  

2. Scientists also describe a “hothouse Earth” scenario, in which system feedbacks and their mutual interaction drive the Earth’s climate to a “point of no return”, so that further warming becomes self-sustaining. This planetary threshold could exist at a temperature rise as low as 2°C, possibly even lower. So for two big reasons — tipping points and the “hothouse Earth” scenario — we do not want to get to 

3. The world will reach 1.5°C by around 2030 regardless of the mitigation path in the next few years. And it will hit  2°C mid-century without actions way beyond anything currently being contemplated. 
 To have any chance of staying below below 2°C, itself far from safe,
 global emissions would have to more than cut in half in the next ten years, 
and much more in the high-emitting rich nations like Australia. 

4. Those decarbonisation rates alone — of 5-10% of the total economy every year for ten years — are unprecedented in economic history and reveal the climate emergency requires unprecedented action.  

5. A strong argument can be made that high-end risks — such as higher climate sensitivity, looming carbon cycle feedbacks and increased heat absorption in the Arctic due to loss of summer sea ice — mean there is no safe carbon budget at all for the 2 degree target. In other words, advocating for emissions not to reach zero till 2050 is a recipe for catastrophe.

Last November, in the journal Nature, leading scientists wrote: “we are in a climate emergency… this is an existential threat to civilization.”  Can we, as we have done in response to Cocid, act on climate recognising that it too as an emergency-level threat?

In his recent book, Upheaval: How nations cope with crisis and change, geographer and anthropologist Jarod Diamond concludes that the key predictors of success in facing crises are “acknowledgment rather than denial of a crisis’s reality, acceptance of responsibility to take action; honest self-appraisal”, plus the “presence or absence of a shared national identity” which can help a nation’s people recognise shared self-interest and unite in overcoming a crisis.

The question is whether we have the capacity to acknowledge rather than deny the reality of the climate crisis as it exists in its full, existential form, and act accordingly.