How do we prepare for life on a hot planet?

There has always been a sense of unreality about our climate change predicament, especially through the long years of denial, disputation and delay. More recently, Australia seems to have jumped from the delusions of denial to faith in increasingly implausible”solutions”, bypassing sober assessment of the seriousness of the reality we confront.

It should be obvious by now that dangerous warming of the Earth is inevitable and irreversible, at least over a timescale of centuries. The global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to avoid a continuing escalation of extreme weather events is lost.

We are seeing the early signs of what it means to live on a different kind of Earth, one where the forces of nature have been disrupted by human activity. The climate we are accustomed to in Australia — the one that has shaped the way we live and work in cities, towns and the bush — will be transformed in the next decades into one more alien and chaotic.

Australians have always lived with heat, fire, flood and drought, but climate change is supercharging them to the point where they are overwhelming our usual ways of coping. The truth is that there is virtually nothing we in Australia can do to prevent this happening.

Despite endless studies showing that it is still possible in principle to do so, the world shows no signs of decarbonising fast enough. Any progress in the rich world is more than outweighed by the continuing rise in fossil fuel emissions in China, India and other nations of the global South. Petroleum and gas companies are expanding their investments. Australia is powerless to stop these global trends.

In short, decisions about how soon global carbon emissions reach a peak and how quickly they then decline will be made not in Canberra but in Delhi, Moscow, Washington, Brussels and, above all, Beijing. Accounting for about 3% of global emissions including our fossil fuel exports or less than 1% counting only our domestic emissions, Australia may once have had the opportunity to show global leadership, but that time has passed.

Even if the world were to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly, elevated levels of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere — up from 270 parts per million before the industrial revolution to 420 parts per million today — will keep global temperatures high for centuries. Slow processes like melting ice masses, thawing tundra and rising sea levels are, in effect, irreversible once they begin. There are signs that some tipping points may have been breached already.

And yet debate in Australia over climate policy is built on an implicit belief that what we do in this country to reduce our emissions will affect the climate Australians will be living through in 50 and a hundred years hence. The Labor government’s climate policy, for instance, is promoted as “a plan to secure our nation’s future”, as if it could make a discernible difference to Australia’s climate.

As long-term observers of the climate change debate, we are impressed by the tenacity of wishful thinking and the commitment by so many to implausible solutions belied by the facts, with the seemingly indestructible faith in carbon capture and storage the most striking example. To this has been added new articles of faith, notably hydrogen and electrification, as we’ll explain.

These “solutions”, emanating from reputable sources yet at times verging on the magical, are put forward both as official government policy and as “radical” schemes advanced by experts. Among the latter, the “crash decarbonisation” schemes advocated by Ross Garnaut, Alan Finkel and Saul Griffith have dazzled the public with their promise of a golden green future for Australia. Regrettably, they each turn out to be beyond what is feasible and plausible, certainly in the timeframes proposed, and with unwelcome side effects.

Our concern is that the hopeful mood generated by the Labor government’s partial decarbonisation policy — one that over-promises, neglects important emission sources, undervalues energy efficiency and fails to build in resilience — is lulling the public into a false sense that enough is being done to make a difference to our future climate.

For the minority who understand the urgency of global decarbonisation, we are worried that the ambitious crash decarbonisation schemes of the experts are distracting us from what we really should be doing. We are concerned that those schemes would do lasting damage to aspects of the natural environment that we will value even more as our climate shifts.

If cutting our emissions can have no appreciable effect on global heating, should we just go for broke with fossil fuels? No. There are good reasons why Australia should continue to cut emissions, even if the usual arguments, that the world will be inspired by our example or that we can pioneer clean energy technologies for export, are not plausible.

Firstly, it’s the right thing to do: if Australia made little effort, as we did for many years, we would be free-riding on other nations, benefiting from their efforts without doing our fair share.

Secondly, cutting emissions rapidly gives Australia credibility as a player in the international system of agreement to reduce emissions, which may put a little more pressure on the big emitters.

Thirdly, it’s in our economic interests, because without rapid adoption of clean energy technology, our industries would quickly become outdated. And increasingly, manufactured exports with high embodied carbon will face import penalties in some markets, such as the European Union.

Fourthly, the renewables-based, less-centralised energy system being developed has the potential to be more resilient during natural disasters, providing we design it in the right way.

In this book we make the case for rebalancing our priorities to put much more emphasis on preparing Australia for the more perilous climate we know is coming. The pace and nature of decarbonisation should not cause further damage to the natural world. Nor should it jeopardise the food security that Australians will need and value ever more highly as the world enters a long era of climatic transformation. Policy measures to sharply reduce our demand for energy would make it easier to decarbonise while protecting the environment and food security.

Cutting emissions should of course remain an objective for Australia, but it needs to be tempered by realism about its pace and its costs in view of its marginal global impact. Putting our faith and our scarce public resources into the hope of becoming some kind of renewable energy ‘superpower’ depends on the shaky assumption that the global economy will be immune to the disruptions of climate change, and that growth will sail on undisturbed.

The illusion that we are finally tackling the climate problem is preventing us from coming to grips with the one thing that really could “secure our nation’s future”: implementing a far-reaching national program to adapt Australia for life in a hotter climate. Making the nation resilient means transforming everything, from where we live and the dwellings we live in, to city planning, transport infrastructure, water management, farming, and land management, to mention the more obvious ones.

We ought to be in the best position to survive and even thrive in the new conditions we will certainly face in the decades to come. We should be ensuring that the energy transition now underway, important as it is, does not harm the landscape, waterways, forests, biota and ecosystems that we rely on and cherish.

While it’s natural to focus on transforming our physical world, it’s also essential to adapt our social and political systems to cope with the coming climate. We need to change how planning decisions are made, how we care for the vulnerable, how we organise ourselves to survive extreme events, and much more.

In all these areas, we have barely begun to think about what we must do. That’s because we are, for the most part, psychologically unprepared for the world we are moving into. Continuing denial, comforting distractions, wishful thinking and untethered optimism are preventing us from building the resilient society we need to cope with the storms ahead.

Since the 1990s, we have each been advocating strong mitigation measures, especially rapid reductions in our energy system’s dependence on fossil fuels. We have watched in dismay as Australia’s emissions, and the world’s, have continued to rise year after year, even as the scientific warnings became more dire. Globally, everything should be done today to reduce carbon emissions as fast as feasible to limit warming.

However, irrespective of what the rest of the world does, we need to make sweeping plans to prepare Australia for life in a hot world, wherever climate change might land on the scale from bad to very bad indeed. If we carry on as we are, by the middle of the century Australian society is likely to become so stressed that the cohesion of the nation will be at risk.

Fairness demands we act early; if we do not prepare together for life in an increasingly difficult climate, the rich will spend up on their own protection while the poor and vulnerable will be left to fend for themselves. Making ourselves ready for what we know is coming, and doing so in democratic and cooperative ways, is not only common sense but an insurance policy for social justice in times of growing danger.

This is an edited extract, published in Crikey (4 June 2024) from Living Hot by Clive Hamilton and George Wilkenfeld.


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