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Time to flick climate emergency switch: a plea to our new Parliament

As international climate impact specialist Stefan Ramstorf tweeted: “A country so vulnerable to drought and wildfire, to floods and tropical storms and sheer heat, voting for coal: that’s turkeys voting for Christmas.”

In the new Morrison ministry, climate does not rate a mention, but henceforth it will dominate our lives. Industry continues to demand policy clarity, built around the fourth-rate compromise of the so-called National Energy Guarantee.

Energy Minister Angus Taylor is not even prepared to contemplate even that. Resources Minister Matt Canavan demands new coal-fired power and coal mines in the Galilee Basin. And the ALP shows every sign of walking away from its more ambitious, but still inadequate, climate policy.

Yet the newly elected members of this Parliament will, in time, be held accountable for their actions on climate – or their failure to act. As it stands, they will fail catastrophically in their duty of care to citizens, even as the Prime Minister commits his ministry to act in the interests of all Australians. Here, for the benefit of MPs, is a summary of the emergency that confronts them:

The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement is farm from adequate. Its emission-reduction commitments, if implemented, would lead to a temperature increase of 3.5C by 2100 – described by global security experts at the US Centre for Strategic and International Studies as “outright social chaos”.

We are currently on track for a 4.5C increase, a world “incompatible with any organised society”, according to a Royal Society paper, resulting in a substantial reduction in global population before 2100.

Dangerous climate change is already occurring at the 1C rise experienced so far. The 2C upper Paris limit is the boundary of extremely dangerous climate change.

To stay below 2C, global emissions must peak now and be rapidly reduced. The lower 1.5C Paris target requires even more rapid reduction. Instead, emissions are rising in line with worst-case scenarios.

The planet has only a 50 to 66 per cent chance of meeting these targets, the International Panel on Climate Change analysis assumes. Not good odds for the future of humanity.

To have a sensible 90 per cent chance, there is no carbon budget left today to stay below 2C, let alone 1.5C. Thus all fossil fuel consumption should stop immediately. Obviously that is not going to happen, but new investment must stop now, and the existing industry should be wound down.

Emissions from continued fossil fuel investment lock in irreversible outcomes. By the time their impact becomes clear, it will be too late to take avoiding action.

Atmospheric aerosols produced by burning coal and oil are cooling the planet by about 0.5C. As aerosol concentrations reduce with the phase-out of fossil fuels, a commensurate one-off increase in temperature is likely, compounding the problem of staying below warming limits.

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Proposed solutions to meet the emission targets rely heavily on carbon removal from the atmosphere using technology that does not exist today at sufficient scale. This creates a false and dangerous sense of security.

Three decades of dangerous delays mean it is now impossible to limit temperature increases to 1.5C, and probably to 2C, unless global leaders commit to emergency action. Australia is not exempt.

But there has been minimal discussion of what emergency action actually means.

Nation states will soon come to realise that it means action akin to wartime.  Business as usual must be suspended – politically, socially and corporately. It requires an all-encompassing commitment to reduce emissions and address the threat.

It will require a new modus operandi that dispenses with conventional right and left politics. The best leaders – not necessarily politicians – will need to be convened in a governance structure that  may resemble a government of national unity, supported by the best scientific, technical, economic, financial and social expertise.

This is way beyond anything yet contemplated in international negotiations, or in national policies,  but it is the inevitable outcome of the evolving climate threat.

The Parliament we have just elected needs to understand the emergency, and to address it. And yet it cannot even agree on the beginnings of an energy policy.

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Ian Dunlop is a former oil, gas and coal industry executive. He was chairman of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

He is co-author of the report What Lies Beneath: the understatement of existential climate risk, published by the Breakthrough Centre for Climate Restoration, and a member of the Club of Rome’s Climate Emergency Plan.

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