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Paris: Turnbull's chance to build a new climate consensus

Paris: Turnbull's chance to build a new climate consensus
Published 27 Nov 2015 

It's been disappointing, and a little depressing, to see how parochial and partisan the issue of climate change has become in recent years in Australia, to the detriment of good policy and intelligent national debate.

There is far too much name-calling by opposing advocacy groups locked into entrenched ideological positions, and too little analysis or understanding of the science. But the greatest failing has been the inability of both Labor and Coalition governments to frame the issue in a way that makes sense to Australians and provides context for the technical discussions about emission reductions, economic costs and burden sharing that are likely to dominate the Paris climate summit.

At its heart, climate change is a national security issue. Without strong action to cap and then reverse still climbing greenhouse gas emissions, a rapidly warming planet will have adverse implications for all of us (including on the stability of states) requiring judgements about strategic risk as well as economic costs.

Graeme Pearman and I spelt out these risks in a major paper for the Lowy Institute a decade ago (Heating up the planet: Climate Change and Security). The bad news is that a review of the latest science suggests that, if anything, these risks have become both more probable and consequential because the current rapid rate of warming is now 'unequivocal'. Furthermore, the cause of this warming is 'extremely likely' (at least 95% probable) to be mainly the result of human activities, not natural climate variability.

This, by the way, is not just my opinion but the considered view of all 193 members of the UN and, increasingly, their hard headed military and national security establishments. [fold]

As examples, the US National Intelligence Committee stated in 2008 that 'global climate change will have wide ranging implications for U.S. national security interests over the next 20 years.' And the 2015 US National Security Strategy argues that climate change is 'an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources.'

Unfortunately, these realities have been distorted and masked in Australia by the polemical nature of the debate and by a failure of not only governments, but also scientists and policy makers, to effectively communicate the science and broaden the climate change narrative to include its all-important security dimension. The result? Public confusion about the causes and consequences of climate change, and a decline in those who believe that recent climate change is mainly caused by humans, not natural variability.

As a proven communicator and supporter of the scientific consensus, the Paris summit gives Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull the opportunity to initiate a more constructive and informed public debate, and to develop a new political consensus in Australia on climate change policy.

How can he do this? By framing climate change as a risk management issue. In doing so he should draw on the national security approach to risk which typically evaluates and prioritises security challenges by weighing the likelihood of a threat against its impact. Climate change would rate highly on both measures and even higher if emissions are not brought down quickly.

The questions Turnbull should pose to contrarians and sceptics are these: are you prepared to bet against the consensus of the world's most knowledgeable climate scientists that you are right and they are wrong? And, if so, are you also prepared to bet that future climate change impacts will be benign or that the risk can be managed solely by adaptation?

If not, then the Paris summit will figure much more prominently in your thinking, because whatever we do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions lowers the risk of dangerous climate change outcomes. The higher the emissions, the higher the prospect of widespread species loss, water and food insecurity, energy disruptions, increased refugee flows, infrastructure failure and more conflicts.

Over to you Malcolm.

Photo courtesy of Getty/Sean Gallup.

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