Climate Change: A second-tier irritation or a global emergency?

David Teather
Emeritus Professor and long-standing NPA member

Between now and 2052 “an ever-greater proportion of GDP will be needed to solve problems caused by resource depletion, pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss and social/economic inequity”. So wrote Professor Jorgen Randers in his brilliant book “2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years”.

Randers argues: “Slow and insufficient response to our challenges will dominate global developments over the next forty years”, involving much unnecessary suffering. (“2052” was reviewed in Nature NSW, Autumn 2013.)

The consensus science

Back in 1959, Plass reviewed theories to explain global climate change, predicting: “We shall be able to test the carbon dioxide theory against other theories of climate change quite conclusively during the next half-century.” 

Successive reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), following the first in 1990, have demonstrated increasing confidence in three conclusions:

  1. The temperature of the biosphere is increasing at a rate greater than at any time in the last 10,000 years.
  2. The warming of the biosphere is being caused by an increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere – mainly carbon dioxide (CO2), also methane and nitrous oxide.
  3. The increasing concentration of carbon dioxide is being caused by humans; mostly by the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas), but also by industrial processes, land clearing and agriculture.

(See Nature NSW, Summer 2013, for more on the science of climate change.)

The latest Consensus Statement on Climate Change by the Academies of Science of the Commonwealth [of Nations] states that in order to limit global warming to below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, as agreed in Paris in 2015, “developed member countries of the Commonwealth [including Australia] will need to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions at or shortly after the middle of this Century”.

Economics, good intentions and vested interests

As we enter the Anthropocene, changes initiated by mankind are on a scale sufficiently large to affect the basic metabolism of the biosphere (see Speth, Angus). The problem arises because we are close to, or have already exceeded, the “carrying capacity” of the earth. There are too many people, consuming too many resources and producing too much pollution.

Considerations arise that go beyond science. In his Final Report to the Australian Government in 2008, Professor Ross Garnaut gave detailed consideration of the economics of climate change.

Climate change demands a global response in which each country does its fair share. But over the last three decades, successive Australian governments have simply failed to respond in a way that is commensurate with the scale and the nature of the problem.

Despite a high level of awareness of climate change in Australia by the late 1980s, good intentions were largely thwarted by vested interests. The title of Taylor’s book says it all: “Global warming and climate change: what Australia knew and buried …. then framed a new reality for the public”.

The main focus of necessary action has three elements: to reduce the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions, to build resilience in communities to lessen the associated damage (e.g. rising sea levels, extreme weather), and to achieve a sustainable future (see Jackson, Simms, Cunningham).

A recent study by Canadell has identified 18 countries with developed economies whose carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels decreased significantly in the ten years, 2005-15. The USA was one such country; the others were all in Europe and included France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. These countries share three characteristics: high penetration of renewable energy in the electricity generating sector, a decline in the amount of energy consumed, and a high number of established energy and climate policies.

Across these 18 countries, emissions decreased by 2.4 per cent each year, from 2005 to 2015.  Meanwhile, in Australia, carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels remained largely unchanged.

Inertia, Risk and ‘Known Unknowns’

The article “Big World, Small Planet” in Nature NSW, Summer 2015, shows that climate change is not the only serious problem to be addressed in the relationship between humans and the natural environment. But it is one of the most pressing. Furthermore, we know both its cause and, if we act in time, its solution.

The earth’s biosphere is a huge and complex system. It behaves like an ocean freighter in that it takes some time for a command to change direction to have any noticeable effect. Even if, by the wave of a magic wand, the burning of fossil fuels were to cease tomorrow, it would be decades before the temperature stops rising, the glaciers stop shrinking, the sea level stabilises and the oceans stop becoming more acidic.

That said, the further the systems operating in the biosphere are shifted from their former (i.e. pre-industrial) dynamic equilibria, the greater the risk that they will pass tipping points of no return – when change will beget further changes, until they settle into a new steady state. This new steady state is unlikely to be as supportive of the development of human civilisation as the previous 10,000 years.

A 2018 study, co-authored by Johan Rockström, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, argues that 2 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels, as agreed in Paris, is too permissive. Two degrees might already be the “threshold” at which self-reinforcing climate feedbacks set in; to give one example, releasing very large quantities of greenhouse gases trapped in permafrost and undersea sediments. This additional warming could be sufficient to shift the world’s climate system until it stabilises in a hothouse climate state, rendering parts of the world uninhabitable, raising sea levels by up to 60 metres, and raising global temperatures by 4 to 5 degrees C to levels that are higher than in any interglacial period of the past 1.2 million years. The risk of this horror scenario is not “fake news”.

Scientists have predicted what global warming could mean for Australia if our present inadequate response continues. “Four Degrees of Global Warming: Australia in a Hot World”, edited by Peter Christoff of Melbourne University and with chapters by Garnaut, Steffen and others, makes sober reading (see also Glikson).

Australia’s recent emissions

With only 0.3 per cent of the world’s population, Australia contributes 1.3 per cent of total global emissions each year. In addition, Australia is also the world’s largest exporter of coal and a large and growing exporter of gas. By a quirk of international carbon accounting, this exported coal and gas is not included in Australia’s emissions.

We hear the refrain “Australia can do little until the big emitters, China and USA, are willing to act.” However, 60 per cent of current global emissions are from countries other than China and USA. Indeed nearly a quarter of global emissions are from countries that each, individually, contributes less than one per cent of the total. Every country has its contribution to make.

On the watches of successive prime ministers, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, Australia’s emissions have increased every year. In the absence of new policies, the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory projection for Australia’s total emissions in the year 2030 is 569Mt. Australia’s Paris target for 2030 is 447Mt.

Australia has the dubious distinction, during this decade, of enacting a carbon price under one government and rescinding it under the next. In the Australian Financial Review (6 December 2018), Warwick McKibbin of the Australian National University argues: “Australia can’t run away from a carbon price any longer”.



Angus, I. (2016) “Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil capitalism and the crisis of the earth system.” 277pp. Monthly Review Press, New York.

Canadell, P. and others (2019) Eighteen countries showing the way to carbon zero. The Conversation, February 26.

Christoff, P. [Ed.] (2014) “Four Degrees of Global Warming: Australia in a hot world.” 286pp. Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon.

Commonwealth Academies of Science Consensus Statement on Climate Change, 12 March 2018. See and

Cunningham, C. (2019) “Climate Change and the Cargo Cult: A geographic perspective.” 369pp. Austin Macauley Publishers, London.

Garnaut, R. (2008) “The Garnaut Climate Change Review: Final Report.” 680pp. Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, Vic.

Glikson, A.Y. (2017) “The Plutocene: Blueprints for a post-anthropocene greenhouse earth.” 170pp. Springer International Publishing AG, Cham.

Jackson, T. (2009) “Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a finite planet.” 284pp. Earthscan, London.

Plass, G.N. (1959) Carbon dioxide and climate. Reprinted in “Man and the Ecosphere: Readings from Scientific American,” (1971) pages 173-179. W.H. Freeman & Co, San Francisco.

Randers, J. (2012) “2052: A global forecast for the next forty years.” 408pp. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont.

Simms, A. (2009) “Ecological Debt: Global warming and the wealth of nations.” 332pp. Pluto Press, London.

Speth, J.G. (2008) “The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the environment, and crossing from crisis to sustainability.” 317pp. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Taylor, M. (2014) “Global Warming and Climate Change: what Australia knew and buried …. and then framed a new reality for the public.” 230pp. Australian National University Press, Canberra.

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