Climate Change and Its Implications for Australia
- At 10 September 2008
- medium Opinion
Annual University Lecture at the Australian Defence Force Academy
10 September 2008
In 1956 a woman in Minneapolis began to receive communications from an extra-terrestrial being named Sananda. Marion Keech heard that a great flood would cleanse
the world of earthlings at mid-night on 21 December. Only those who believed in
Sananda would be saved; they would be taken to another planet in a spaceship that would
arrive just before the flood.
A cult formed around Mrs Keech. Apart from a single press release, they shunned
publicity. They prepared for judgment day by quitting their jobs, selling their houses and
splitting from their families. On the day of judgment they gathered in Mrs Keech’s house
to await the arrival of the spaceship. The news media gathered on the front-lawn. The
clock ticked down to mid-night but neither the space-ship nor the flood arrived. Inside the
house, some cult members wept, others stared at the ceiling.
The cult had been infiltrated by a young psychologist, Leon Festinger, who was intrigued
at how cult-members would accommodate the prophesy’s failure. Now he would find out.
As it dawned on them that the world would not be ending that night, how would they
react? The rational response would be to face up to the truth that they had been duped and
sink into a deep despondency because they had made enormous sacrifices for nothing.
In fact, the opposite occurred. The cult members became excited, throwing open the
curtains and inviting the television cameras in. They said Marion Keech had just received
an urgent message from a high-density being telling her that the world had been spared
the flood because the group “had spread so much light that god saved the world from
destruction”. Previously reclusive, over the next days Mrs Keech and other cult members told as many media outlets as they could that their devotion and sacrifice was not in vain,
for through it they had saved the world.
These counter-intuitive events stimulated Festinger to develop the theory of cognitive
dissonance, a term that describes the uncomfortable feeling we have when we begin to
understand that something we believe to be true is contradicted by the evidence. Festinger
hypothesized that those whose firmly held views are repudiated by the emergence of facts
often begin to proselytise even more fervently after the facts become incontrovertible. He
wrote that we spend our lives paying attention to information that is consonant with our
beliefs and avoiding that which is not. We surround ourselves with people who think as
we do and avoid those who make us feel uncomfortable.
Festinger’s analysis of cognitive dissonance helps us understand the modern phenomenon
of climate change denialism. If humans are rational creatures we would expect that, as the
scientific evidence confirming human-induced global warming has become
overwhelming, the denialists would adjust their beliefs to accommodate the facts.
Yet, as Festinger would have predicted, instead of falling silent, perhaps even admitting
error, the denialists have become more vehement in their attacks on climate scientists,
environmentalists and anyone who accepts the evidence for global warming. They have
ways of explaining away the facts: the scientists have distorted their results to obtain
more research funding; other scientists in possession of the truth have been silenced;
governments have caved in to pressure from environmentalists.
Wherever there is an uncertainty in the body of scientific evidence, the denialists will
insert a crow-bar into the chink and try to open up a crack that will bring the edifice down. They proselytize about the disastrous consequences if the world fails to listen to
them, with predictions of economic collapse if governments are foolish enough to try to
cut greenhouse gas emissions.
As the evidence of warming accumulates, the denialists cling ever more firmly to their
contrarian views. They bombard newspaper editors with angry letters and work
themselves into frenzies on blogs and interactive websites. They meet together at venues
like the Lavoisier Group where they bond and engage in mutual reinforcement,
convinced that they possess a special knowledge that the rest of the world urgently needs
However, the facts can be resisted for only so long and in the case of global warming the
evidence from the climate scientists is becoming stronger and more frightening by the
Officially the scientific consensus is expressed in the reports of the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brings together around 2000 climate scientists
and related specialists to sift through and assess the scientific evidence. Its last report was
in early 2007 although due to unavoidable delays in analyzing data, publishing research,
then synthesising it all, the science reported by the IPCC in 2007 is based on data at least
five years old.
Yet in the last two years climate change science has been radically revised to account for
the possibility, now approaching a likelihood, of a number of threshold events occurring
any one of which would be catastrophic. The prime contenders are the melting of the
West Antarctic ice-sheet, the melting of the Greenland ice-sheet (whose collapse some
scientists believe will now be hard to prevent), and the thawing of peat bogs in western
Siberia resulting in massive releases of methane and CO2 . Either of the first two would
result eventually in sea-level rise of several metres, the consequences of which hardly
need spelling out.
James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and arguably the
world’s most eminent climate scientist, has recently expressed the challenge in the
“Decision-makers do not appreciate the gravity of the situation. … Continued
growth of greenhouse gas emissions, for just another decade, practically
eliminates the possibility of near-term return of atmospheric composition beneath
the tipping level for catastrophic effects”.
A theme common to a number of recent articles and books is that the official science
presented in the reports of the IPCC is far too cautious. Some leading climate scientists
see the IPCC as a “deeply conservative body”. Last year James Hansen wrote that climate
scientists are naturally reticent—fearful of criticism, defunding and rejection by academic
journals if they are seen to overstate their conclusions. This caution has led them to
downplay the risks of sea level rise of several metres due to the collapse of the West
Antarctic ice sheet. Scientists, he wrote, would sooner be accused of fiddling while Rome
burns than of crying wolf.
Contrary to the accusations of sceptics, including those who fill the pages of The
Australian newspaper, climate scientists and environmentalists are not guilty of
exaggerating the dangers of global warming; in truth they are guilty of understating them.
Perhaps alone among environmental issues, all parties have been unwilling to spell out
the full extent of the disasters we face. Even environmental organisations have played
down the dangers for fear of immobilising people. But now the scientists are speaking
out, ringing the alarm bells more loudly, and pleading with decision makers and the
public to recognise the magnitude of the looming threat.
Early this year the interim report of the Garnaut Climate Change Review examined the
future warming scenarios that underpin the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change. 2 Of the half-dozen or so main IPCC scenarios, the “worst-case scenario”
is known as A1FI. It assumes strong rates of global economic growth with continued high
dependency on fossil-fuel based forms of energy over the next decades. After inspection
of the actual greenhouse gas emissions data over the last decade or so, Garnaut says that
the reality is worse than the worst-case scenario.
“A1FI was generally considered to be ‘extreme’ prior to the work of this Review.
In fact, emissions have been growing even faster in recent years than under [this]
The growth in greenhouse gas emissions is driven especially, but not solely, by very high
growth rates in China and India, with energy supply coming predominantly from coal and oil. In the absence of determined action, this “worst-case” scenario should now be
regarded as the “business-as-usual” one.
What are we facing under such a scenario? The projections show a global warming range
of 3.5°C to 5.5°C by the end of the century with a median value of 4.5°C. This might not
sound so bad; after all, the variation between maximum summer and winter temperatures
is much more this. But an increase of this magnitude would profoundly transform the climate for life on Earth. The last time the Earth’s temperature deviated that much from
the average of recent millennia was during the last ice age. The Earth then was only 5°C
cooler yet what is now New York City was one mile under ice.
Garnaut stressed that, among developed countries, Australia will be perhaps the most
severely damaged by climate change. Expected impacts on Australia of warming at this
level include: the shut-down of the Murray-Darling river system; disappearance of
Kakadu’s freshwater wetlands under rising seas; loss of most of the core habitat of
vertebrate species; a 40+ per cent decline in livestock carrying capacity; trebling of
deaths in capital cities due to heat waves; and large-scale relocation of coastal settlements
These of course are merely instances of a wider transformation of the climate. And the
scenario assumes none of the abrupt changes to the climate due to positive feedback
effects such as those I have mentioned.
So it seems the Cassandras (the pessimists) are proving to be right and the Pollyannas
(the optimists) wrong. In the context of global warming it’s worth noting that in Greek
myth Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, but when she failed to return
his love Apollo put a curse on her so that no one would believe her prophesies. I think the
climate scientists who for two decades have been sending warnings about global warming
and its impacts must sometimes feel like Cassandras cursed by Apollo.
The crucial question that no one seems willing to address explicitly is whether our
political institutions are capable of responding to the crisis with the urgency the science
demands. If we are to have a good chance of heading off the worst effects of global
warming, global emissions must be cut by at least 60 per cent by 2030. Sixty per cent by
2050 is not enough. Sixty per cent globally by 2030 means cuts of 90 per cent in rich
countries like Australia.
Can this be done? Technologically and economically it is achievable, but is it politically
feasible? To implement cuts approaching these levels within two decades would require
all major democratic nations to elect governments wholly committed to dramatic
structural change and resolved to over-ride the most strenuous objections from powerful
interests. Similar commitments by governments in major nations with authoritarian
systems are also essential.
All rich countries would have to commit now to build no more coal-fired power plants
and phase out existing ones in the next 2-3 decades (carbon capture and storage simply
will not be ready in time), and the same commitment would need to be made within a few
years by China, India, Brazil and other big developing countries. All this would need to
be done within an international legally binding framework committing all nations to the
emission cutting process, and it will have to be agreed in full at the international climate
change conference in Copenhagen late next year.
The Copenhagen conference, 12 years after the Kyoto conference, is the world
community’s last chance. According to the climate scientists a few more years of inaction
will take us irrevocably past one or more of the catastrophic tipping points I have
In a recent book titled Six Degrees, which reviews the very latest science, Mark Lynas
describes the world under warming scenarios ranging from 1°C (bad) to 6°C
(unimaginably bad). He sums up the task with brutal candour: “the conclusion of this
book is that we have only seven years left to peak global emissions before facing escalating dangers of runaway global warming. I am the first to admit that this task looks
A number of factors point to a pessimistic outlook. China seems locked in to a fossil-fuel
intensive industrialisation process that shows little sign of abating. China opens a new
coal-fired power station every week, and we in Australia are happy to supply the fuel.
India is about to mass produce cars priced at around $3,000 leading to a huge expansion
of car ownership. In Australia we have seen how the bold intentions of the Rudd
Government have been rapidly reined in after scare campaigns from business groups and
populist panic over petrol prices. If it is hard in Australia it is diabolical in the United
States, even with a President and a Congress sympathetic to taking action.
Protecting the climate is a task that seems to be beyond normal political processes.
Increasingly we hear talk of the need for the kind of industrial retooling that transformed
whole economies at the start of World War II. But we do not face an imminent invasion
that would prompt the shift to a war-footing. The enemies are within ─ powerful interests
who prefer greenwash to legislation and, it must be said, a public that wants to believe we
can ‘save the planet’ by changing our light-bulbs, as if we could put out a bushfire by
spitting on it.
We are starting to hear talk of the need to suspend democratic processes in order to
implement emergency measures. But how would this come about? Can we imagine some
outbreak of “people power”? If enough people felt strongly enough to seize government
then enough people would feel strongly enough to elect a government with the necessary
resolve. At present, the people remain part of the problem rather than the solution.
Could the army intervene? Only if a series of disasters befell us and the government still
refused to act. I can’t see that happening. Besides, military forces around the world have
had their governments exempt them from the need to cut their own carbon emissions,
which are very large. So until we see tanks that run on biodiesel and battle-ships with
sails the military is part of the problem too.
At its core, the crisis we now face arises from the clash between our extraordinary
capacity to transform the Earth for our own material benefit and the rigidity of the
institutions, and power structures they embody, to respond to the scientific evidence.
Climate change is the consequence of our psychological predisposition to ignore
uncomfortable truths and our obsession with economic growth—even the smallest
reduction in the rate of growth is enough for a scare campaign that paralyses government.
I began by comparing climate sceptics with the denialism of a doomsday cult. In fact, the
sceptics’ repudiation of climate science is not the only form of denial that has prevented a
response proportionate to the problem, nor the most dangerous. While the sceptics engage
in active forms of denial the public and our political leaders routinely engage in passive
forms. In his 2001 book States of Denial, Stanley Cohen distinguishes between three
types of denial. First, by insisting that the claims of climate scientists are simply untrue,
the sceptics are guilty of ‘literal denial’.
‘Interpretive denial’, which is widespread in the community, reframes the facts so that
they mean something different and less threatening. When confronted by the facts of
climate science we think to ourselves: ‘environmentalists always exaggerate’, ‘Australia
has always had droughts’, ‘a bit of warming would be good for us’ and ‘humans have
solved these sorts of problems in the past’.
Even if we accept the facts and their true meaning we may still engage in ‘implicatory
denial’, Cohen’s third type, whereby we disavow the moral and political implications of
them, a tactic used repeatedly by the previous government: ‘Australia’s emissions are
very small’, ‘we’d do too much damage to the economy’, and ‘China is to blame’.
Individuals also indulge in this form of denial, telling themselves: ‘I’m doing my bit’,
‘it’s a long way off’, and ‘I should be alright’.
To these forms of blame-shifting we might add the deployment of selective rationality
best illustrated by the public’s support for a tax on fossil fuels while at the same time
demanding measures to cut petrol prices. This contradiction, so exasperating to those who
understand the need for urgency, has been pointed out repeatedly; there is no answer to it,
it makes no sense, so it is simply ignored in the public debate where
compartmentalisation allows us to resolve the cognitive dissonance it creates.
The prevalence of these forms of denial help to explain the vast gulf between the
prognostications of the scientists, whose warnings become more frightening by the
month, and the inability of the political system to respond adequately. To be sure, these
forms of denial have been systematically promoted by sceptics and the fossil fuel lobby,
but the public collaborates in them because they are psychologically reassuring. We can
turn our attention to less troubling aspects of life.
This phenomenon of ‘climate numbing’ is explicable because truly opening oneself to the
science demands a distressing transformation of our unspoken assumptions about the
future, ones conditioned by two centuries of technological advance and higher living
standards. It is too difficult to contemplate the possibility of the end of progress, yet when
I talk to those who cannot avoid the implications of the science, the scientists themselves,
there is a palpable mood of panic.
Donald Rumsfeld famously distinguished between three influences on decisions—known
knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The various forms of denial allow us
to complete the square by defining ‘unknown knowns’, the facts we ‘know’ but push
from our consciousness.
In the course of researching a book I wrote on the politics of climate change, I came upon
a confidential report prepared by the Office of National Assessments (ONA) entitled Fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect. The most striking feature of this document is the
date on it – November 1981. It turns out that the Federal Government had been alerted by
its primary intelligence-gathering agency to the problem of global warming much earlier
than anyone thought.
The document, extraordinary for its prescience, begins with a simple and accurate
statement of the problem and the likely consequences, an assessment that is essentially unchanged today. The ONA foresaw far-reaching economic and political effects,
predicting that by the end of the twentieth century, concerns about greenhouse “could
culminate in pressure for action to restrict fossil fuel use”. It went on to observe:
“There are potentially adverse implications from these developments (if realised)
for the security of Australia’s export markets for coal beyond the end of the entury”.
After noting that many countries planned to expand their use of fossil fuels, the ONA
considered likely political responses to global warming.
“So far there is no anti-fossil fuel lobby comparable to the anti-nuclear groups,
although some environmental groups are beginning to express concern. Perhaps
… public alarm will only be generated by manifest change, or a threat of it, such
as a rise in the sea level.”
Apart from this astonishing piece of foresight, virtually no one in the security or
intelligence agencies gave global warming any thought until 2004 when London’s
Observer newspaper broke the story of a leaked report commissioned by the Pentagon on
the security implications of climate change.
More alarming than any claim made by environmental activists, the Pentagon report
canvassed scenarios in which Australia and the United States “are likely to build
defensive fortresses around their countries” to protect their resources from desperate
outsiders and aggressive states created by rapid and unpredictable climate change. It
analysed the prospects for aggression “if carrying capacities everywhere were suddenly
lowered drastically by abrupt climate change. Humanity would revert to the norm of
constant battles for diminishing resources … Once again, warfare would define human
The Pentagon report was commissioned by senior Pentagon adviser Andrew Marshall,
who in his decades in the US Department of Defense acquired the status of a guru; in fact
his nickname is “Yoda”. It signalled a dramatic shift in the international debate over
climate change, with defence and intelligence experts at the highest level becoming alarmed at the implications for global security. It’s worth pointing out that when the
Pentagon report and its references to fortress Australia were drawn to the attention of the
media in this country they completely ignored it.
In the public domain the most substantial Australian contribution to the issue is the 2006
Lowy Institute paper by Alan Dupont and Graeme Pearman. (Incidentally, Graeme
Pearman is perhaps Australia’s most eminent climate scientist. For many years he was the
chief of the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research before he was sacked by the
Howard Government for continuing to inform the public about the results and
implications of the Division’s research on global warming.)
The Lowy Institute report argues that expected climate change “poses fundamental
questions of human security, survival and the stability of nation states” and identifies
food shortages, extreme weather events and rising sea-levels as potential causes of large-scale, unregulated population movements in Asia and destabilisation of governments
unable to respond.
Dupont and Pearman appeal to policy makers to “think the unthinkable”. Yet in the face
of their reluctance to face up to what the scientists have been saying the greater challenge
is to persuade our decision-makers to think the thinkable.
Europe is increasingly focused on the security implications of warming. Last year, the
German Government’s Advisory Council on Global Change released a report titled Climate Change as a Security Risk which identifies six threats to international stability
and security from global warming. They include a proliferation of weak and fragile
states, growing tensions between those responsible for global warming and those
suffering the consequences, and an increase in the number of migration hotspots around
Although it concluded that the increased risk of conventional wars is small, the report
argued that classic security policy will be unable to deal with the likely conflict
constellations. The German report is one of the first shots to be fired in an imminent
struggle between those whose inclination is to militarise the response to climate change and those who want to tackle it through international mechanisms based on co-operation
The most compelling assessment of the human and security implications of our failure to
deal with global warming is set out by in a new book, published this month, called Climate Wars written by the highly respected international affairs and military analyst
Gwynne Dyer. In a deeply disturbing analysis of what is likely to happen as the scientific
projections unfold, Dyer foresees a world around the middle of this century of vast
migrations triggering fortress defenses, wars over dwindling water resources and crop
failures leading to collapsing populations. This is not the scariest scenario he lays out; it
could well be much worse.
Dyer notes that climate change scenarios are already playing a large and increasing role
in military planning. Even a 2°C temperature increase is likely to cause natural disasters,
sea-level rise and food shortages, possibly creating the circumstances for war. For
example, a rise of only 2°C would cut food production in India by 25 per cent. The rivers
supplying water to agriculture in Pakistan all run through India. The Earth has already
warmed 0.8°C since pre-industrial times and another 0.4 or 0.5°C is locked in due to past
emissions, making a total of 1.2 or 1.3°C of warming we can do nothing about.
The disappearance of sea-ice in the Arctic, which only a few years ago was not expected
to occur for 30 or more years, almost occurred this northern summer and is now expected to happen within five years. Last year in an aggressive stunt Russia sent a submarine to
plant a flag on the sea bed under the North Pole, anticipating that an ice-free Arctic
would open up the region to oil drilling.
Dyer’s analysis reflects the scientists’ greatest concern, that we will cross one or more of
those tipping points that generate uncontrollable changes in the climate. He writes:
“Runaway climate change threatens to sweep away our stable, familiar world and
replace it with a terrifying chaos of famine, mass migration and war that could cut
the human population to a fraction of its present numbers by the end of this century.”
As I wrote this lecture, I looked out the window to a cool Canberra spring day and
thought “the scientists must be wrong”. Then I remembered the terrifying fire-storm that
roared out of nowhere on 18 January 2003 devastating the western-most suburbs of the
city. One suburb back from the inferno, I sat on the roof of my house with a garden hose,
pathetic against the scorching winds and smoke-darkened sun. It felt like the end of the
world, but it was just a portent of the future.
How does one respond, practically and emotionally, to the facts about global warming
given to us with such authority by experts like James Hansen and Graeme Pearman?
Ignoring them is enticing, although if we try to unknow the knowns we still cannot shake
off a dull sense of dread. Anger drives the climate activists who understand that it is
possible to prevent the global disasters of three degrees turning into a six-degree
Preparing for a radically transformed and less pleasant world is a further response, one
some military and security planners are now beginning to consider. There are early signs
that some individuals are doing the same.
Another emerging response is to accept the possibility that civilisation and perhaps the
human species could be wiped out, a future set out in James Lovelock’s book The Revenge of Gaia. In a conception receiving strong support from a number of sciences,
Lovelock argues that the Earth should be considered a single, self-regulating system
comprising the Earth’s surface, including its minerals and the oceans, and the thin layer
of atmosphere that surrounds it. The whole system of animate and inanimate parts
regulates itself to sustain life. By transforming the atmosphere, we have unknowingly
declared war on Gaia. Lovelock argues that Gaia will survive in one form or another, but
not necessarily with the human species.
As an intellectual exercise the Gaia theory is emotionally comforting, yet when we return
to the world of real humans the decline of the species means billions of people must suffer drawn-out and painful deaths. We are all bravado when we contemplate our own
deaths, until we remember the agony we may have to endure to get to the other side.
So where does this leave us? We have one last chance to avoid the worst, and it comes at
the Copenhagen conference at the end of 2009. There we must secure a global agreement
that commits industrialised nations to immediately begin cutting their emissions and
commits developing countries to slowing the growth of their emissions and, within a
decade or so, beginning to reduce them.
There is a chance of success. I have stressed the difficulties, but with the scientists
ringing the alarm bells more loudly than ever, governments in the United States and
Australia no longer attempting to sabotage international agreement, and developing
nations accepting that sooner or later they too must balance economic growth against
environmental protection, the conditions for such an agreement have never been more
If we really are homo sapiens, wise humans, we will understand that the costs of failure
are scarcely imaginable. The Copenhagen conference will be the ultimate test of
humanity’s ability to use our reason to preserve the world that created us.
1 Charles Sturt Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics.
2 Garnaut Climate Change Review, Interim report to the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments of Australia, February 2008.