The week Australia failed on climate change
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, as Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg addressed world leaders at a climate summit in New York, and Scott Morrison toured a McDonald’s drive-through in Chicago, some of the planet’s top climate scientists were locked in “tense” negotiations in Monaco.
History tends to happen all at once, although its parts are by no means equal.
At the Grimaldi Forum, which hugs the water in Monaco’s eastern beach quartier, more than 100 scientists from almost 40 countries met to debate the final wording of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on oceans and ice systems. It asks a critical question: What happens to the Earth’s oceans, glaciers, surface ice and permafrost – on which a latticework of ecosystems depend – if humans fail to halt warming?
The director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute, Professor Mark Howden, was in the room, going over the text word by word, line by line, into the early morning.
“We have got a problem,” he tells The Saturday Paper from Monaco. “Change is happening, it is happening quickly, and the implications are profound.”
That the report says as much is an achievement. All governments and scientists involved in the process must vet and ultimately approve the document before its release. Diplomatically, Howden notes there were “different views and different emphases” from various quarters.
“It was particularly true for some countries that have a vested interest in continuing to burn and sell fossil fuels,” he says.
These were the nations squarely in the sights of activist Greta Thunberg in New York.
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones,” she told the United Nations Climate Action Summit. “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing.
“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Although more strident, none of what she said was at odds with the IPCC’s expert report.
In 1170 pages, the report speaks with an urgency rarely seen in such documents. The word “unprecedented” is used 48 times.
It is “very likely”, for instance, that the levels of Arctic Sea ice have been falling by almost 13 per cent each decade, a rate scientists say has not been seen in the past 1000 years. Meanwhile, between 2006 and 2015, the rate of global mean sea-level rise hit about 3.6 millimetres each year. This is “unprecedented over the last century” and more than double the rise seen between 1901 and 1990.
Each scenario covered in the report represents its own clear and near-present threat. The finely linked feedback loops across the world operate like a Rube Goldberg machine, each change poised to nudge several others or trigger a cascading series of catastrophes, which could fall beyond the scope of human intervention.
In parts of the system, the report says, the “acceleration of ice flow and retreat in Antarctica, which has the potential to lead to sea-level rise of several metres within a few centuries, is observed”.
“… These changes may be the onset of an irreversible ice sheet instability.”
Crucially, earlier reports did not expect these sea-level rises to happen this century.
In this instance, as with dramatic and “widespread permafrost thaw”, which the report also predicts, the complex interactions between this degradation and later collapse are simply not known.
What scientists do understand, with some confidence, is that somewhere between 1460 and 1600 gigatons of organic carbon are stored within Arctic and boreal permafrost. This is almost twice the amount of all the carbon in the atmosphere, which will be released if this permafrost melts.
There will be tipping points.
As it stands, the global temperature is one degree warmer than it was in pre-industrial times. But these averages can have the unfortunate effect of masking the true scale of the extremes that are built into the calculation.
“That one-degree average is across the entire globe,” says Howden. “If you look only at the land area, that has gone up to 1.5 degrees Celsius. So immediately you can see the usefulness of relying on a worldwide figure.
“Look at the last ice age on this planet, that featured average temperatures 5 to 6 degrees colder than they are now. So now when we consider the scenarios of the future – of 3, 4 and 5 degrees – all of a sudden you are getting a feel for the scale of the change at an earth systems level.”
Climate change and its language of averages is a bell curve, which has been shifted along its axis by human emissions, totally altering the normal distribution. While the middle may not change appreciably, what was once an extreme becomes more common. Spikes, previously unseen in the data, start to emerge.
According to the IPCC, once-in-a-century events are projected to occur at least once a year by 2050, regardless of any further progress the world makes in controlling carbon output.
It is already too late, even if humans manage to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, to stop warm-water corals – such as those that form the Great Barrier Reef – from moving into the “very high risk” category with significant losses and local extinctions.
The report cites Tasmania as a case study, noting a marine heatwave that stretched for 256 days from 2015 and into 2016. This coincided with drought, fires and floods in Tasmania. The total damage bill was $US300 million.
Man-made climate change meant the duration of that heatwave was 330 times more likely and its intensity almost seven times more likely than it otherwise would have been.
This was the week into which Prime Minister Scott Morrison flew on the Australian government’s new VIP jet, an Airbus A330 his office has taken to calling “Shark One”, for a series of events with United States President Donald Trump.
Australia was not invited to speak at the climate summit in New York – along with Japan, Saudi Arabia and the US – because only those nations with ambitious emissions reduction plans were given the floor.
Morrison addressed the UN General Assembly on Thursday, after the climate summit, and said Australia is “doing our bit”.
“We are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030,” he said.
“This is a credible, fair, responsible and achievable contribution to global climate change action.”
Morrison pointed out that Australia is responsible for just 1.3 per cent of global emissions and the nation’s coal exports make up 5.5 per cent of worldwide output. Of course, the Morrison government wishes that figure were higher.
As the prime minister’s trip to the US entered full swing, freedom of information documents released to the Australian Conservation Foundation revealed the extent to which the Australian government is pushing coal exports overseas.
The background briefs for Resources Minister Matt Canavan’s August visit to Bangladesh, India and Singapore highlighted the potential of coal exports to India growing even further on the back of the nation’s investment in the Adani project in the Galilee Basin. This, despite “sensitivities” concerning environmental groups.
Ahead of Morrison’s trip to Vietnam, also in August, a briefing notes: “We strongly recommend a focus on coal exports to Vietnam as part of the Prime Minister’s planned visit.”
Speaking at the UN this week, Morrison appeared to direct a specific comment at Thunberg, and her fellow young climate activists.
“We should let our kids be kids, teenagers be teenagers,” he said.
Earlier, he cautioned against “needless anxiety”.
According to the world’s leading climate scientists, though, there is urgent need for alarm.
Professor Howden says the world is now “way outside the historical envelope” for intense variation in climate patterns.
The reality of climate change evolves in ways that may not be immediately obvious. New systems are challenged by the very issues they are meant to address.
Take the largest supercomputer in the southern hemisphere, for instance. Data that underpins global climate analysis for the IPCC – too big for any one nation to handle – is stored on a network around the world. The Australasian contingent is held by the Raijin installation at the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI) facility located on the Australian National University campus in Canberra.
Changes to the atmosphere will mean the state-of-the-art evaporative cooling system – installed to keep this data from melting down – “will become problematic sooner” on back-up tape drives. Essentially, atmospheric changes mean the system could fail.
Researchers have raised the alarm with The Saturday Paper that there is no true offsite back-up of this data, nor any of the Bureau of Meteorology archives, Landsat images and other globally and nationally significant collections.
Despite considerable federal government funding, none of this has been designated critical infrastructure.
Located just a kilometre to the east of Black Mountain’s lowest reaches, the centre is on the edge of a bushfire-prone zone, which stops just before the ANU campus. The ACT government says these are reviewed frequently. Put bluntly though, the data that records climate change could be destroyed by climate change.
In 2003, a deadly firestorm ripped through the ACT, the worst in the territory’s history, killing four and razing almost 500 houses along Canberra’s fringe.
In the aftermath, an inquiry was asked to account for what was and what might have been. Its report noted perhaps the only thing that stopped the fires ripping across Black Mountain and into central Canberra was a blaze that had gutted large swaths of Stromlo Forest Park on Christmas Day two years earlier, burning right up to the lawns of the Australian Mint.
A spokesman for the NCI told The Saturday Paper that tape back-ups are held on two sites on the same campus with a third, much smaller site in a secret location, also in Canberra.
“For data on disk we have no other copy,” they said, adding that the NCI attempts to make the system as robust as possible. “But ultimately it is a single copy of data.”
Compare this with the data centres for the online retailer Amazon, which in Australia are located on three different flood plains with three different power supplies, among other fail-safes.
“Unfortunately, Australian research is not funded at the same levels as Amazon data centres,” the NCI spokesman said.
“A ‘simple’ replication of the system to another location would entail not only just the $70 million [currently being spent on the NCI’s upgrade] but also the associated data and cloud infrastructures, and would run to at least $100 million.”
The researchers note a “significant portion” of Australian research into earth systems and environmental issues simply could not be done without the NCI.
The implications of this research are broad.
Fiona Armstrong, executive director of the Climate and Health Alliance, says climate change is already affecting the health of hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
Take the Townsville floods earlier this year. Melioidosis, a deadly disease borne from bacteria that gets stirred up in floodwater, killed one person and left about eight in intensive care. Severe ramping at Townsville Hospital left many others in need of care that just wasn’t available in the weeks after the heatwave last summer. This led to a war of words between Queensland politicians, with the opposition claiming the state had not invested in hospital services. The Palaszczuk government rebuked this, saying it was an unprecedented event.
“That’s how climate change works. Everything about it is unpredictable and unprecedented,” Armstrong says.
“We are seeing really devastating impacts right now at one degree of warming with regional variations of up to 10 degrees in places like northern Europe, which makes those places actually uninhabitable for some people.
“There appears to be a long tail for heatwave impacts, particularly for people with chronic conditions who can suffer adverse health effects for some weeks after the main event.”
Meanwhile, faced with rising risk of climate disaster, insurance companies have become increasingly averse to covering homes in potentially hazardous regions of Australia.
Following the 2011 floods in Roma and Emerald, Suncorp stopped writing new policies for any property in those areas until a new flood levee was built.
Submissions released this week from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s inquiry into insurance in northern Australia reveal how serious insurance affordability has become, owing almost entirely to a changing climate.
“Suncorp understands in north Queensland alone there could be approximately 100,000 homes that may not meet current wind-load codes for roofs and other building features,” the insurance firm says in its submission to the inquiry.
“These homes remain vulnerable to suffering major damage in the next cyclone and as an insurer we must price for this risk.”
According to Suncorp, and almost all of the other insurers, it is simply not enough to provide government-backed subsidies to homeowners, as these would need to remain in place forever.
In its submission, Suncorp noted one home in the US state of Texas, which has been flooded and rebuilt 40 times using more than $US1 million in government aid. The house itself is worth only $72,400.
“There is a very real risk that, without appropriate planning and infrastructure, regions which are vulnerable to severe weather events, may become ‘uninsurable’,” the Insurance Australia Group says in its submission.
“Our changing climate is likely to increase hazard exposure, which will necessarily drive an increase in insurance premiums,” the Insurance Council of Australia says.
In its report on the costs of inaction earlier this year, the Climate Council found that one in 19 property owners will not be able to afford insurance by the end of the next decade.
As it stands, many homes are insured for so-called one-in-100-year events, but that will need to change to cover disasters that were previously unthinkable. Insurers must now look to one-in-500-year events and even one-in-a-thousand year disasters.
The insurance industry is built on anxiety. In this scenario, it is entirely necessary.
On their own, these are crises. The future will require all nations to deal with them at the same time, and a litany of others.
Faced with the monumental, Australia is committed to the incremental: creating a “circular plastics economy” and tackling overfishing, as Morrison spruiked at the UN, while ignoring the threat of rising emissions.
If the world follows our lead, the planet will experience 3 to 4 degrees of warming – a catastrophe in every sense of the word.
Professor Howden says there is hope, however, and that another kind of tipping point has been reached.
“The combination of climate extreme after climate extreme right across the globe…” he says. “With the climate strikes, kids, Greta and industry getting behind this, as well as the nation’s regulators, change is coming.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 28, 2019 as "The week Australia failed on climate change". Subscribe here.