Minimising Risks To Survival: Changes Needed On Climate Change

Planet Earth with a fever, held in handsHave you ever had seen one of those movies where the hero is trapped, facing what looks to be certain death?  Perhaps they have trapped in a secret chamber with apparently no way out when suddenly water starts pouring in.  Or maybe they have been bound in chains, attached to a heavy weight and tossed into the ocean.  Or then there’s that old favourite where the villain locks them onto a conveyor belt and leaves them to the machinations that will lead them to the giant saw or swinging blade that will turn them into mincemeat.

Is our hero ever content to just wait calmly in the hope that it will all turn out alright?  That the water pouring into the chamber will stop as suddenly as it started? That the chains that bind them will suddenly loosen? That the machines taking them to death will abruptly stop?  That someone will rescue them?

No.  They do everything they can to ensure that they survive.  As would most of us – or any animal – facing a life-or-death situation.  It’s our basic survival instinct at work.

So why do we, humans in a similar situation on planet Earth, not do everything we can to ensure that life on Earth as we know it can continue?  Especially when we created the life-or-death situation in the first place – and when it’s only us that is going to get us out of it.

Yet that’s exactly what so many of our leaders – particularly our political and business leaders – are doing as we face increasing climate change and other environmental crises.

And even most of those that are working on remedies do not seem to understand the urgency and magnitude of the changes needed.

One place where we see this very clearly is in the negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  These are supposed to lead to cooperative action to limit global warming and the ensuing climate change and to cope with the impacts.  And yet negotiations have been going on since 1992. Children have been born and become adults during that time.  And we still have no effective, cooperative international action.  In fact, it can be argued that the way the negotiations have been working has limited effective action by individual countries, companies and other organisations.

Why?  Because, in a delightful analogy I heard in very recently, the negotiators and the interests have had most sway with governments, have been focussing on the intricacies of the waves breaking on the sea-shore rather than taking notice of the rising tide.

They have missed the big picture, the overarching goal that should be guiding all our decisions: survival.

Climate change poses immensely significant risks

There is a level of risk associated with any level of climate change, including the 0.8 oC increase in global warming above pre-industrialised levels and the degree of ocean acidification that we are currently experiencing.  To have the best chance of ensuring a habitable planet, we need to minimise that risk.

In setting targets for greenhouse gas emissions, our governments need to:

  • accept that continued growth in global emissions creates real risks for all countries and that it is in the interests of people on Earth and their nations to contribute to global action to limit the increase in global average temperature compared with pre-industrial levels
  • pay attention to the precautionary principle and risk management
  • build contingency built into the targets and actions.

Given the impacts that are likely to result from a 2oC warming, that we are currently experiencing significant impacts (at 0.8 oC warming) and heading for 4oC warming, and that there seems to be no contingency buffer for actions or international cooperation to not work properly, a 67% chance of maybe having a habitable climate is not a good enough bet.  We need to be working for a 100% chance (or as close as we can get it, given the inertia we have already built into global warming and ocean acidification).

Recent evidence of the impacts of global warming to date and positive feedback loops suggest that even a 2oC rise above the pre-industrial average temperature will be too much to sustain life as we know it.

There is mounting evidence that even limiting warming to 2oC will be catastrophic.  It is not known when critical tipping points will be reached and it is quite possible that irreversible and catastrophic climate change may be precipitated below 2oC warming.

Even with the 0.8oC warming we have to date:

  • we are already experiencing dramatic environmental changes and associated social and economic costs.  These include ocean acidification; shifting rainfall and temperature patterns; more intense storms, droughts, and heatwaves; and greater bushfire risks.  These in turn are posing substantial risks to water and food supplies, health, property, infrastructure, and natural ecosystems – and those risks are being increasingly realised.
  • positive feedback loops previously unknown are becoming evident (even at 0.8oC) and increase the likelihood of runaway climate change.

Are we taking a risk management approach to survival?

Despite this knowledge, the overwhelming majority of scientific modelling indicates that we will exceed even 2oC level of warming within the next few decades unless we take effective action right now to change our emissions of greenhouse gases. The International Energy Agency is but one organisation now warning us about an unthinkable 4 oC or more rise in temperatures if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.

Recent experiences of extreme weather events and changing climates are a mild foretaste of what this will mean.  These impacts tend to adversely affect those least likely to be able to deal with it, like the poor and subsistence farmers in developing countries.  Pacific Islanders and Australians and their infrastructure are also extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change – and that vulnerability is highlighted in recent scientific reports and the recent devastation on Vanuatu and in the Philippines caused by massive tropical cyclones – yet you would not know this from the Australian government’s current position and actions on climate change.

Scientists agree that as global warming increases we will experience more extreme, more damaging and – importantly – more frequent extreme weather events.  They will increasingly adversely affect ability to have the clean water, food and shelter we need to survive and the infrastructure that enables our civilisations to function.  This, in turn, will threaten security at national, international, species and ecosystem levels.

We need effective measures to reduce the threat of catastrophic climate change

Climate change is the greatest problem that has ever faced humanity.  It is not just another discreet economic or political or environmental problem.  It is a systemic crisis that requires concerted action locally and globally.  It is about this planet and its ability to support life as we know it.  It is about our children and our fellow humans and other life forms that inhabit Earth.

Civilisation itself and all forms of life, including our own, are entirely dependent on the ecological integrity of the natural world.  We are not separate from the Earth’s ecosystems – we are part of, and dependent upon, them.

We must therefore care for the ecosystems on which life depends, particularly for:

  • people who are bearing the negative impacts of climate change earliest and hardest
  • future generations
  • other species with which we share the Earth.

The longer emissions diverge from a pathway heading towards a safe climate, the greater the efforts to reduce emissions in future will be needed – and if we leave it too long we will at rule out the possibility of limiting warming to a safe level.

The later we leave our targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero, the harder it will be to turn around our changing climate and oceans, the more drastic the actions will need to be and the greater the cost will be.  Delaying taking strong action does not mean that we can delay the time by which we need to reach zero emissions in order to ensure a habitable planet : the planet does not work like that.

The decisions and actions we take now are vital if life on Earth as we know it is to survive.  Evidence is increasing that climate change is accelerating.  This amplifies the imperative to act quickly and boldly : we are beyond the stage where we can take a ‘gently, gently’ approach.

Strong action internationally, and especially by the major emitting economies such as Australia, will be important for us having any chance of limiting global emissions to keep warming to a safe level.

People around the world are looking for quick and decisive action to lead the way in looking after our planet’s climate.  This is needed in order to protect our world as we have known it throughout human civilisation.  It is the current climate that allows us to have our civilisation, including the economy and standard of living that many of us are privileged to have: if the climate changes, so does human civilisation – and that will make economic challenges like the ‘Global Financial Crisis’ look miniscule.

If we do not change the way we live, the economic security systems on which most political leaders focus will no longer be there.  And that is without even looking at the human toll, through such things as dramatically increased deaths, adverse health impacts and population displacement, let alone the impacts on the Earth’s ability to support life as we know it.

As Yeb Sano has said:

Despite the gargantuan challenge that climate change is, it offers the people of this planet the rare but golden opportunity to achieve transformative change.

The climate change challenge will make the world a better place. Simply because it is our only option.

It is a great time to be a part of this growing global movement – for our generation will be the generation that will find the political will and the courage to confront the challenges we face.

We, humans, started this crisis. We will end this crisis.

What we face now is a Global Future Crisis, and it needs serious action.

Such huge risks require decisive and effective unilateral and multilateral action.  Essentially, we must move to a ‘war footing’ where everyone works together to take all actions that that could be needed to have any chance of winning this ‘war’, the war for our survival.

Fighting the ‘war’ against climate change is not about protecting fossil fuel industries and native vegetation destruction; quite the reverse.  It is about shifting to sustainable energy and sustainable practices.  And it is about providing some equity between generations, and between those who are contributing most to the problem and those who will suffer its impacts most severely.

We need strong, multi-partisan leadership needed to urgently transform current human-made systems from ones that are destroying our planet’s resilience and ability to support us to ones that sustain life.

That is why I am one of a growing movement of thousands of people from all over the world undertaking fasts as a way of calling on world leaders take the bold decisions needed to solve the climate crisis.  This movement began at the UNFCCC conference in November 2014 and has continued with fasts on the first day of each month.  In the year between the UNFCCC conference in Lima and the upcoming critical UNFCCC conference in Paris in December, at least on person is fasting every day to show the diversity of the movement.  Today it’s my turn as the 365 days of #fastfortheclimate around the world passes through the Pacific region.

It’s also why I continue to change how I going about my daily life so that I can reduce my impact on the Earth and do what I can to repair the damage we have already done.

And it’s why I work as a sustainability facilitator, bringing together people and ideas together for game-changing visions and strategies to help us survive and thrive in the face of ecological crises, particularly climate change.

It’s also why we all need to work together.

And it means letting our political leaders know that we want urgent, effective action to reduce climate change.

So pick up the phone, go online, or grab a pen and paper to let your national leaders know:

  1. how concerned you are about global warming
  2. that you want them to take urgent, strong, and concrete action to reverse climate change so that life as we know it has the best possible chance of surviving.

UPDATE June 2017: link to Fast For The Climate removed because the website is no longer operational.