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Climate inertia and politics

By Mike Pope - posted Thursday, 7 January 2010

Over the next 20-30 years, maybe sooner, Saibai and Boigu in the Torres Straits will almost certainly be the first of the permanently inhabited islands to be drowned by rising sea levels.

At the same time, Australia will experience increasingly frequent and severe climate incidents. These will include:

  • heat, sapping water from the ground, increasing evaporation of surface water and killing the old, the infirm and agricultural crops;
  • drought, causing bush fires, crop and stock losses, loss of fertile top soil and destruction of property;
  • high winds, including damaging cyclones and storm surges causing higher tides, coastal erosion and property losses;
  • rising sea levels, threatening the destruction of 700,000 buildings, thousands of kilometres of road and rail, coastal erosion and pollution of fresh water sources; and
  • ocean acidification, resulting in destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, marine ecological imbalance and the loss of fish species as a food source.

There is a touch of irony that Queensland, where government and opposition are both committed to fostering greenhouse gas (CO2-e) emissions through their policies, should face a more severe risk of property and economic damage from rising sea levels than any other part of Australia. On page 36 of its report (PDF 750KB), the House of Representatives Committee on Climate Change summarises the ravages expected from rising sea levels. It deserves careful consideration when it comes to formulating public policy and private voting intentions.

Don’t expect other countries to express a shred of sympathy for the growing effects of climate change or its threats to Australia.

On the one hand we have an Opposition led by Tony Abbott, better known as the “Mad Monk”, and an even madder Nick Minchin, who assert that global warming and the need to reduce CO2-e emissions are a left wing international conspiracy and an abomination. Neither has put forward a cogent policy to effectively deal with climate change, though both are agreed we should defer action for as long as possible and oppose any measures put forward by government which do not permit business as usual.

We have a government which, allegedly, accepts the scientific explanation of global warming and is fully briefed on the dire consequences of doing too little. Yet it refuses to reduce our emissions by more than a totally ineffective 5 per cent below 1990 levels until the rest of the world agrees on a higher target. Prime Minister Rudd even assures us he will not sign any agreement unless it is in the “national interest” while studiously ignoring the interests of the planet and the ability of our species to survive on it.

With breathtaking nonchalance (or is it wilful irresponsibility?) both government and opposition ignore the immense damage which climate change is likely to inflict on Australia and its economy in the future. To be fair, this view is voiced as an excuse or justification for doing too little or nothing to reduce CO2-e emissions by the largest emitters, China, USA, India, Japan and Russia. Between them, they are responsible for 57 per cent of global emissions.

All assert that reducing emissions would jeopardise their economic growth. In other words, economic growth in the short (next 10 years) to medium (next 30 years) term is deemed more important than catastrophic economic damage and uncontrollable climate change resulting from refusal to start curbing CO2-e emissions now. None of them, Australia included, are prepared to accept that economic growth can be achieved, while reducing emissions.


None of them are prepared to accept that base load electricity can be generated in the quantities required for economic growth without significantly reducing the burning of fossil fuels. Yet France has been doing so for decades by generating nearly all its electricity needs from nuclear, tidal and hydro sources. Moreover, it has done so without suffering any of the economic disadvantages such as massive unemployment, loss of industries through so-called “carbon leakage” or irreparable damage to competitiveness in the market place.

Our political leaders continue to use the threat of these outcomes as an excuse for refusing to take effective action to reduce CO2-e emissions to a level which limits global warming to less than 2C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. If global temperature rises above this - and at present CO2-e emission levels, they will certainly exceed 5C - the consequences will be very serious. Climate change will become uncontrollable and have catastrophic effects.

The result will be rapid speed-up in melting of land based snow and ice, particularly the polar ice caps, causing a destructive rise in sea levels. The more rapidly global warming occurs and the more it exceeds 2C by 2100, the sooner these affects will be evident and increase in severity. Then it will be too late. We will be faced with the dire socio-economic consequences of our current inertia.

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About the Author

Mike Pope trained as an economist (Cambridge and UPNG) worked as a business planner (1966-2006), prepared and maintained business plan for the Olympic Coordinating Authority 1997-2000. He is now semi-retired with an interest in ways of ameliorating and dealing with climate change.

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