It has taken decades, yet finally the Fourth Assessment Report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has delivered to humanity an undisputedly-high level of statistical certainty on global warming.
The panel’s 2,000 or more scientific experts from around the world are 90 per cent-plus sure, which makes it “very likely”, that people are causing a dangerous build-up of greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere.
Six years ago, when the Third Assessment Report was released, the verdict on the key question of whether human activities were the underlying cause of unnaturally rapid global warming was a less compelling “likely”. Though, in any case, the world wasn’t really listening as it focused on other serious matters like 9-11 and its aftermath in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This latest report, however, has fallen on incredibly fertile ground. In Australia, and around the world, the past six months has delivered extraordinary and unprecedented change in the level of public and political engagement with the climate change challenge.
This is true even in President George W. Bush’s America, although outside of California and some progressive north-east states its real global warming awakening is still to come. The fascinating question now is this: what happens when an issue that for so long struggled to be taken seriously because of scientific uncertainty suddenly becomes seen as very certain? What do we do when we have to shift from managing yet another troubling issue among the general noise of an ever-busy global agenda, to actually addressing a fast-emerging crisis for human civilisation?
It’s ironic then that a few days after the report’s release in Paris on February 2, the Australian Parliament resumed sittings for the first time in 2007, an election year with a most intriguing set of political possibilities. Intriguing because environment is finally shaping as the top election issue, carried along by water and climate fears; and ironic because the Coalition and Labor sides immediately launched into a classic parliamentary verbal slugfest on climate change - as though it were an ideological issue instead of a scientific one.
Labor damned the Government benches as a nest of diehard climate sceptics, while the Coalition hit-back with accusations of Labor climate fanaticism and anti-nuclear hypocrisy. Stirring rhetoric, but rather missing the point. This being that climate change is not a subjective issue like industrial relations or even economic management, where ideology legitimately shapes policy positions. Rather, it represents a fundamental physical shift in what the world we live in, and therefore our lives, will be like.
No amount of partisan political squabbling will sway the planet’s climate from adjusting itself to match a new atmospheric composition, just as eloquently-argued political points were never going to stop the Japanese from invading Australia in World War II, or the Germans from overrunning all of Europe including the UK. Such threats lie beyond rhetoric and demand action; armed forces on land, sea and air in the case of military invasion threats, and dramatic efforts to cut greenhouse gas pollution in the case of climate ones.
Military-style war, not political point-scoring, is the right framing within which to think about resisting climate apocalypse; merely talking, or trying to appease the enemy, or pandering to collaborators, will only make things worse.
In the past six months, this war analogy for our climate challenge has been everywhere. Al Gore says global warming will be tougher to defeat than Hitler. Lord Oxburgh, retired chairman of oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, warns we face World War II-plus. Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, has toted up a $9 trillion future bill that matches the cost of world wars or a Great Depression.
A colleague of mine, a former head of Greenpeace International Paul Gilding, talks of a “long emergency with a World War II level of mobilisation”. I see a nation already at war - with the drought-driven devastation in the Murray-Darling Basin, the raging bushfires across much of the nation that began back in early spring, and the threat that hotter temperatures pose to icons like the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu and the Australian Alps.
The potential cost, in environmental and economic terms, is likely to be staggering. Unthinkable even, just as losing World War II was unthinkable for the Allies and would have meant a very different world if it had gone that way.