The new strain of scepticism



There are basic truths about global warming we’ve come to accept. It’s real, it’s made worse by human activity, and each degree of warming invites further calamity. These facts are so well enshrined in the scientific literature that international government bodies like the UN General Assembly will not entertain outright denialism. 


But there’s a more nuanced strain of climate scepticism that’s gained popularity, especially in the wake of recent protests. One which accepts that climate change is an issue but not something that requires urgent action nor economic reform. 


This is a particularly attractive argument for fossil fuel exporting nations. It allows governments to implement unambitious emissions reductions targets while continuing to develop their primary industries. 


Australia is a prime example. Although the Coalition government acknowledges the need to reduce emissions, it opposes downsizing the fossil fuels industry in order to safeguard economic prosperity. Indeed, Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently made global headlines by assuring the Queensland Resources Council that he would “outlaw (the) selfish and indulgent practices” of “apocalyptic” climate protestors attempting to sway businesses from supporting coal.


But as Australia is increasingly ravaged by climate-related droughts and bushfires, the pro-coal argument leaves much to be desired. If we want to face environmental catastrophes with stronger policy, then we have a responsibility to debunk the myth that climate change does not require urgent action nor economic reform. 


Does climate change require urgent action?

Let’s start with the question of whether those who demand reform are reasonably concerned, or whether they’re pushing an “apocalyptic” agenda. The best authorities on the matter are international bodies comprised of thousands of climate experts: the Independent Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). 


The most recent IPCC special report stated with high confidence that an increase of 1.5°C by 2050 (the ideal lower limit) poses a threat to global health, livelihoods, food security, water supplies, human security and economic growth. Any warming beyond 1.5°C, which we are currently headed towards, compounds these risks. 


More chilling was the WMO landmark report released ahead of the 2019 Climate Summit in New York. The report found that international efforts needed to be tripled to keep warming below 2°C and highlighted the “urgent need for the development of concrete actions that halt the worst effects of climate change”. 


These findings are widely supported by the international scientific community. Just last week a further 11,000 scientists from around the world banded together in the BioScience journal to declare that we are most certainly in a climate crisis. 


Our experts are telling us that we’re headed towards disaster if we don’t act quickly, so the argument that climate protesters are catastrophising simply doesn’t add up. But what about the economic argument against taking urgent action to reduce emissions?


Won’t downsizing the fossil fuel industry harm the economy?

This is where the conversation gets more complex, but let’s start with the obvious. Fossil fuels represent a lucrative industry which generates employment. So naturally, to move away from these industries would incur a cost. 


Australia is, regrettably, a prime example of why phasing out fossil fuels is difficult from a political and economic standpoint. Coal (both thermal and coking) is Australia’s most valuable export, worth $67 billion in 2018. By limiting the coal industry Australia would be sacrificing some of its comparative advantages as an energy exporter.


But that only scratches the surface of the economic argument. To say that dramatically reducing emissions and capping coal production is not economically viable is dangerously short-sighted. 


Like many nations, extreme weather events spurred by global warming will continue to cause severe shocks to our economy. Earlier this year the Australian Climate Council released a report outlining the projected damages due to unabated climate change; including $611 billion to the property sector and $211 billion in agricultural business and productivity by 2050. The Reserve Bank Deputy Governor said it best: climate change poses a “systemic risk” to our economy.  


By not acting now we’re setting an economic time bomb for future generations to deal with. We can choose to collect the bill now or pay a much higher rate down the line. 


Finally, we need to acknowledge Australia’s potential as a renewable giant. As one of the sunniest and windiest continents with great expanses of empty land, we are uniquely placed to harness and (in time) export renewable energy. Our abundance of minerals used in clean technology such as lithium, titanium, vanadium, nickel, cobalt and copper also affords us the opportunity to be a major mineral supplier in a post-carbon world. 


Ben Grace is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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