The latest evidence on climate change demands a radical reappraisal of our approach.
By Ian Dunlop
The Arctic has been warming 2-3 times faster than the rest of the world. In the last few weeks melting of the Arctic sea ice has accelerated dramatically, reducing the area and volume to levels never previously experienced. Some 80% of the summer sea-ice has been lost since 1979; on current trends the Arctic will be ice-free in summer by 2015, and ice-free all year by 2030, events which were not expected to occur for another 100 years. More concerning, the Greenland ice sheet this year has seen unprecedented melting and glacial ice calving, adding to a trend which will substantially increase sea level rise.
Beyond the Arctic, the world is in the fifth year of a severe food crisis, largely climate change driven, which is about to become far worse as the full impact of recent extreme drought in the US food bowl works its way through the global food chain, leading to substantial price rises. Drought around the Mediterranean contributed to this food crisis, and has played a large part in triggering the Arab Spring, and the Syrian conflicts. Globally, the escalation of extreme weather continues.
Science is clearly linking these events to climate change, with human carbon emissions as the prime cause.
Does any of this matter? Yes – It is the most urgent issue now confronting the world, for the evidence indicates that climate change has moved into a new and highly dangerous phase. The polar icecaps are one of the vital regulators of global climate; if the ice disappears, the absorption of far more solar radiation accelerates ocean warming, with increasing risk of large-scale release of carbon dioxide and methane from melting permafrost. This in turn may initiate irreversible runaway warming. Energy, food and water security are also poised on a knife-edge in both the developed and developing worlds
These changes are occurring at the 0.8oC temperature increase, relative to pre-industrial conditions, already experienced, let alone the additional 1.2oC which will probably result from our historic emissions. The “official” target, of limiting temperature increase to no more than 2oC, is way too high. Current policies, proposed by governments around the world, are far worse and would result in a 4oC plus temperature increase. Official panaceas, such as carbon capture and storage, are not working.
Political and business leaders glibly talk about adapting to a 4oC world with little idea of what it means – which is a world of 1 billion people rather than the current 7 billion. Not much fun for the 6 billion departing.
To paraphrase Churchill: “— the era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. We are now in an age of consequences”. We know how to establish genuine low-carbon economies, which would stave off the worst impacts of climate change, but we have left it too late for gradual implementation. They have to be set up at emergency speed, akin to the mobilization of economies on a war-footing pre-WW2.
Yet we hear nothing of this from the political, business or NGO institutions who should be leading our response. Why?
Financial incentives are the main culprit, in particular the bonus culture which has spread through the Anglo-Saxon world since the early 1990s. Recently there has been some recognition that this might be a problem. The Chairman of Rio Tinto acknowledged that “the spiral in executive remuneration over the last two decades, simply cannot continue”, and chief executives are graciously deciding to forgo their annual bonuses in the light of adverse corporate performance. Very worthy, but the damage caused by this culture is far more insidious than a debate about quantum. It threatens the very foundations of democratic society.
The bonus mentality inevitably led to short-termism – few directors or executives are prepared to give serious attention to long-term issues such as climate change when their rewards are based almost entirely on short-term performance. As Upton Sinclair put it: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it”.
Many privately agree that climate change needs far more urgent action that we are seeing, but few are prepared to speak out for fear of derailing “business-as-usual”. This is a fundamental failure of governance – directors have a fiduciary responsibility to objectively assess the critical risks to which their companies are exposed, and take action to ensure these risks are adequately managed. But if they acknowledge climate change as a serious risk, they are bound to act, which requires a radical redirection of business away from our addiction to high-carbon fossil-fuels, powerful vested interests losing out in the process. Better then to stick to absolute denial, irrespective of the consequences.
This flows through to politicians, NGOs and bureaucracies, who are subjected to immense pressure from the corporate sector not to rock the “business-as-usual” boat, the result being politically expedient and contradictory climate policies.
Ethically and morally indefensible it may be, but that is what a deregulated market has delivered, and why it is so dangerous for the health of democracy.
Adversarial politics and corporate myopia are incapable of addressing life-threatening issues such as climate change. It is time for communities to go around these barriers and demand leadership prepared to take emergency action, before the poisoned chalice we are passing to our grandchildren becomes even more toxic.
Ian Dunlop is an independent commentator, Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development, Director of Australia21, and a Member of the Club of Rome. He chaired the Australian Coal Association 1987-88, the Australian Greenhouse Office Experts Group on Emissions Trading 1998-2000 and was CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors 1997-2001.