Imagine if scientists had just informed the world that there was a huge meteor heading our way that would likely wipe out life as we knew it. Or if the sun started doing really dangerous and frightening things that were likely to fry us. What would we do? Party like there was really no tomorrow? Or just crawl under the doona to wait out the inevitable?
The silver lining to the climate change catastrophe is that it’s not caused by a meteor, or the sun. It’s us. And because we’ve caused it, and we know how, we can fix it – or at least slow it down a lot.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a particularly heavy read. As an author on two of the previous IPCC assessments, I can relate first-hand to the extraordinary collective effort that goes into a report like this – hundreds of scientists, over many years, synthesising thousands of research papers describing the accelerating calamity of our own making.
This report is more frightening than the last one, which was more frightening than the previous one, and so on. Sometimes I think: does the world really need another “we told you so”?
But embedded in the gloom and doom of the latest tome is the glimmer of a hopeful message – that there is no physical reason why we must accept the inevitable demise of life on the planet.
If we can truly make strong and sustained reductions in emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, and soon, we could see global temperatures stabilise in 20 to 30 years – that is, within most of our lifetimes.
This would also greatly reduce the escalating risks from extreme climate events – the floods, fires, droughts and heatwaves.
The imperative to reduce this risk can be seen almost nightly on our TV screens. Earlier this month, those watching the spectacular closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics were treated to a thrilling fireworks spectacle.
But just days before, the ancient city of Olympia, where the games began, was threatened with far more dangerous pyrotechnics, ringed by the wildfires that have swept across Europe, devastating Greece, Turkey and Italy, triggered by scorching heatwaves.
Back home, memories of the Black Summer bushfires still scar the psyches of many. At $100bn and counting, these fires constitute Australia’s costliest climate-related disaster so far – and that’s without the unquantifiable costs of the 33 lives lost, the almost 3 billion native animals killed, the long-term impacts on mental health and the smoke inhalation suffered.
Then there’s the disastrous impact of three major bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef over the last six years, and the cost to our agricultural industry and rural communities of severe droughts and ongoing rainfall decline in regions such as the Murray-Darling Basin.
Awful as these impacts are, even they pale into comparison with the prospect that whole countries in the Pacific and Indian Oceans could be lost to rising waves. I could go on.
So what would it take to turn things around?
Every tonne of CO2 emitted adds to global warming and is doing us harm. Every fraction of a degree matters. I’m reminded of a successful anti-smoking campaign from a few years ago that made the point that while every cigarette is doing terrible things to your body, as soon as you stop, things start to get better. It’s not a perfect analogy, but if every molecule of emitted greenhouse gas is contributing to killing life on Earth, then every molecule that we avoid emitting is part of the solution.
So here’s my top 10 things to do (Mr Morrison, the first three are for you):
1. Electrify everything – energy, transport and manufacturing.
2. Power it all from renewables, obviously.
3. Remove all fossil fuel subsidies (more than $10bn from taxpayers per year) and use this money to transform the grid.
4. Stop, or at least greatly reduce, eating the products of methane-belching cows, the farming of which is also responsible for most land-clearing in Australia.
5. Plant trees – still the best way to draw down CO2.
6. Stop buying so much stuff – everything has a carbon cost.
7. Reuse, retain, recycle. You know the drill.
8. Move your money out of banks, insurance companies and superannuation funds that invest in fossil fuels – it only takes a few clicks.
9. Give your time, your talent or your treasure to organisations that are fighting the good fight – there is power in the collective.
10. And most of all, ask yourself: is my elected representative threatening the lives of my children and grandchildren, either by actively blocking climate action, or by simply delaying in the hope that some uninvented technology will fall from sky? You can help save the world with a pencil. Vote. Them. Out.
Humans can be dumb, greedy and selfish, but also smart, innovative and caring.
Desmond Tutu once exhorted: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” The IPCC report tells us we can, collectively, put our bits of good together and find a way out of this mess.