The Sceptic Gets Real


Last Friday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report on climate change was released around the world. It is a report that contains dire news for this generation, and even worse for our children and grandchildren. The brightest scientific minds in the world have concluded that our grandchildren will be forced to live on a planet that is between 1.8 and 6.4 degrees Celsius hotter than today.

Having read this and the three previous reports, I still struggle to imagine the world they will confront certainly hotter and drier, with wild storms and mega fires, and no doubt a loss of security we can only guess at. But the science cannot tell us about the private moments of loss and grief that await, should we fail to act. Numbers alone can’t describe the loss of land and livelihood and perhaps worst of all, the loss of a predictable and stable weather system.

Quite rightly, almost every world leader has said, climate change poses the greatest threat to our security, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. This is why I find Prime Minister John Howard’s attitude to climate change so reckless.

Last Monday night, on ABC TV’s Lateline program, Tony Jones asked the Prime Minister: ‘What do you think living in Australia would be like by the end of this century for your own grandchildren … if the temperatures, the average mean temperatures, around the world do rise by somewhere between four and possibly more than six degrees Celsius?’

The Prime Minister answered by saying, ‘It would be less comfortable for some than it is now.’

He then went on to challenge the accuracy of the IPCC Report by saying: ‘I think it’s very, very hard for us in 2007 to try with that kind of mathematical accuracy, with great respect to the scientists, to sort of extrapolate what things might be like.’

Such dishonesty cannot be allowed to pass unchallenged.

Based on the findings of studies done by the CSIRO, even a three degree increase in temperature could produce: 3,185 to 5,185 more heatwave deaths per year in Australia’s major cities; a 40 per cent reduction in livestock carrying capacity in native pasture systems; functional extinction of the Great Barrier Reef; a 15–70 per cent increase in the number of very high/extreme fire days in the southeast of Australia; tropical cyclone rainfall increases of 20 to 30 per cent as wind speeds increase by 5–10 per cent; and flows to the Murray-Darling Basin falling by 16–48 per cent.

And that’s just in Australia.

The reason climate change is considered a greater threat to international security than terrorism by the world’s security experts including the Lowy Institute’s, Alan Dupont is because a hotter, drier and wilder climate will have a devastating effect on the world’s fresh water and food supplies. Sea level rise and food insecurity could lead to refugee flows of up to 200 million people.

This is the world and the future the Prime Minister describes as ‘uncomfortable for some.’

Thanks to Sean Leahy

As far as his claim that it is very hard to, ‘extrapolate what things might be like’ by 2099, this is precisely what the world’s scientists have been doing for the last decade. If the Prime Minister gets around to reading the IPCC Report he will notice the use of the word ‘unequivocal’. By this the world’s leading scientists mean, beyond doubt. We now know what ‘things might be like’ by the end of this century and it is disingenuous of the Prime Minister to pretend otherwise.

In the same Lateline interview, John Howard described himself as a climate change ‘realist’. He told Tony Jones that while he had, ‘always accepted that greenhouse gas emissions, carbon emissions, were potentially damaging,’ it was during the course of the last year that he ceased being a climate change sceptic.

This is a scandal on two counts.

The Prime Minister has known about climate change for 10 years. He has learnt about it the same way the rest of us have learnt about it, through the previous three IPCC Reports, through reports put out by the Australian Greenhouse Office, his own Government’s report of 2005 called, Climate Risk and Vulnerability, not to mention numerous reports done by the CSIRO. He has also had Australian business talking to him about it through the Business Roundtable, and he’s heard Australian farmers as they battled this once-in-100-year drought.

And yes, like our farming community, I do understand that Australia has always had droughts, but climate change is recalibrating the weather system in which these droughts now occur.

But perhaps what makes Howard’s claim of being a climate change realist so scandalous is his belligerent refusal to treat the issue realistically.

After all, it was Howard who walked away from the deal Australia had extracted from the Kyoto Protocol negotiations in 1997; it was Howard who locked Australian business and farmers out of the only carbon market in the world — a market that was worth US$30 billion last year alone; it is the Howard Government that has happily watched as Australian companies, technologies and intellectual capital are forced to leave Australia in order to realise their commercial potential; and it is Howard who continues to sneeringly dismiss the anxieties of the Australian community as alarmist.

And it was John Howard who used the first day of Parliament in 2007 to declare, ‘ the jury is still out’ on the connection between emissions and climate change (and, yes, he did return five hours later to recant).

Being a lawyer, the Prime Minister would be well aware of the notion of a duty of care. This is the legal principle that says where someone is aware of a risk and capable of controlling that risk, they have a duty to do so.

The threat of climate change poses a profound risk. The science tells us very clearly — as did the Stern Review — that action taken today is vital to control that risk. I argue the Prime Minister has a duty of care to educate himself about it and then act on the best science, the best business solutions and in the best interests of our children and grandchildren.

Anything less is a breach of his duty of care.

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