18 May, 2021

What keeps climate scientists like me awake at night - and why the next 10 years are so critical

Every day, thousands of Australians find or experience a bodily symptom that could be a harbinger of something serious. Perhaps a suspicious lump, or a mole that has changed colour, or unusual gut pain. The sensible strategy, and one that most of us would take, would be to hightail it to our doctor at the earliest opportunity to get it checked out. Should the news be bad, most people would seek the life-saving treatment they need.


But what if you decide to wait – let’s say for a few years, or even a decade to two, perhaps to 2050 or beyond. By then, you might reason, imaging technology and treatments will have improved, so no point rushing things. This second strategy is clearly reckless, potentially putting your health, and perhaps life, in real danger - and unnecessarily so.

But this is exactly what our federal government is doing by delaying real action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – putting our livelihoods, our environmental support system, and our children’s futures at risk – and unnecessarily so.

The latest report from the Climate Council of Australia, Aim High, Go Fast: Why Emissions Need to Plummet This Decade, lays out the science behind the necessity of urgent near-term climate action. The diagnosis is in, now the treatment must be ramped up with a greater sense of urgency than ever before, and we have to do it in the next 10 years.

Why this decade? Imagine that the accumulated greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere is a mountain that we need to scale and then descend as quickly as possible. The problem is that this mountain is not a solid, stable piece of terrain but is getting higher and steeper every day. The longer we delay getting to the top and start to head down, the higher the mountain becomes, and the tougher the challenge.

What we have to lose by not getting over the mountain has been laid out in forensic detail by climate scientists for decades – more frequent and severe weather events like floods, bushfires, heatwaves, droughts. Declining crops, loss of species, degraded ecosystems, and higher insurance bills are just some of the consequences. For Australia, this could manifest in the loss of coral reefs, uncontrollable bushfires every year, a ravaged coastline, and uninsurable assets.

With just over 1C of global warming we have already lost half the hard coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef, a global icon that provides billions to the Australian economy and employs tens of thousands of people. After the hottest and driest year on record in 2019, the Black Summer bushfires affected 8 million Australians, with more than 30 killed directly and another 400 deaths attributable to smoke inhalation. Half our ancient Gondwanan rainforests were burnt, probably irreparably, and three billion vertebrate animals were killed or displaced.

Unless we radically reduce emissions in the next few years, we are on track for about 3 degrees of warming by the end of this century. With the impacts of just over 1 degree already a clear and present danger, you don’t need to be a climate scientist to do the future maths.

All this should be serious enough to warrant significant action. But if I can stretch the mountain analogy a bit further, the thing that keeps climate scientists awake at night is the real prospect that the summit could become so high and so unstable that an avalanche – a tipping point – could be triggered. At worst, a runaway greenhouse effect could take the Earth’s climate system beyond a point where human life and civilisation could be sustained.To do our fair global share, Australia needs to triple the level of its current ambition to cut emissions and aim for a 75 per cent reduction by 2030, and net zero by 2035. Net zero by 2050 is at least a decade too late.

This means no new coal mines, no “gas-led recovery”, no more magical thinking about some new method of carbon capture and storage. We’ve got the sun, wind, land and water. We’ve got the brains, the science and the technology to do it now.

US President Joe Biden’s upcoming climate summit is a golden opportunity for Australia to finally shed its status as – in his climate envoy John Kerry’s words – a “roadblock” to climate action. We need to commit to a 2030 target that is ambitious and fair. There is no safe level of global warming, and every fraction of a degree of avoided heating will be measured in lives, ecosystems and communities saved.With concerted action we can still hold global average temperature to well below 2C. We need to act in our national interest by being a leader of solutions, not clinging to 18th century technology.

The task ahead is undoubtedly challenging, but just as a healthy lifestyle has more benefits than just longevity, so too does concerted climate action – clean jobs, clean manufacturing, new export opportunities and regenerated landscapes.

Delay is the new denial. Putting off treatment for a serious medical problem is reckless. The climate emergency must be approached with the same sense of urgency.

Lesley Hughes, a spokeswoman for the Climate Council, is a professor of biology and pro vice-chancellor at Macquarie University.

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