Opinion Amid a global pandemic, the climate emergency is well upon us
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Amid a global pandemic, the climate emergency is well upon us

climate emergency
Seeing polar bears in the wild was simultaneously a glorious and devastating experience.
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In news that will surprise absolutely no one with a grip on reality, the World Meteorological Organisation has warned that climate targets set in the Paris Agreement are likely to be missed.

What’s more surprising is that we continue to allow our governments to lead us into what is an increasingly unavoidable abyss.

“Unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will be impossible, with catastrophic consequences for people and the planet on which we depend,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement.

And yet, Australia continues to not only rely on, but expand the use of fossil fuels.

This week, Environment Minister Sussan Ley approved an application from Whitehaven Coal to construct an open cut mine near Gunnedah in NSW to extract 168 million tonnes of coal over 25 years.

This is in direct spite of a class action against the company’s expansion plans brought by eight teenagers. In May, the Federal Court refused the teenagers’ application for an injunction on the mine but ruled that the minister had an obligation to children to consider the harm caused by climate change. The government is appealing the ruling.

Nine years from catastrophe

Last month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report projected that the Earth’s temperature could rise 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030 based on current patterns.

That’s in nine years, just to be clear.

It’s a depressing outlook at an already bleak time.

But amid a pandemic that has been consuming our attention, the climate emergency is well upon us.

And if you feel like you’re living in a science fiction film amid COVID, imagine the climate sequel.

Exactly two years ago I was in the Arctic, making a film for the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program on the Trump administration’s plans to allow drilling for oil and gas in the pristine Arctic Wildlife Refuge. Drilling has since been suspended by President Joe Biden, who has made climate policy a priority.

Seeing polar bears in the wild was simultaneously a glorious and devastating experience.

Sea ice, once present all year round on the waters around Barter Island on Alaska’s North Slope, is now hundreds of kilometres away during summer, leaving the bears to scrabble for survival on muddy shores.

This northern summer, temperatures in parts of the Arctic spiked at levels rarely seen.

On Alaska’s North Slope, treacherous holes have opened, where once solid permafrost has melted.

Back home, in some parts of Queensland, the bushfire season has already begun and higher than average inland rainfall and lush growth have created increased grassfire risk in several states.

In Victoria, new research from the Country Fire Authority suggests the number of high-risk bushfire days could triple by the end of the century.

And it’s not just heat. The IPCC predicts that climate change will continue to bring more serious and frequent floods and storms as well as fires and droughts.

The stuff of nightmares

Having been on the ground after cyclones, hurricanes, and typhoons across three continents, I can say firsthand that this is less fodder for disaster movies than nightmares.

In Australia, business is already running ahead of government on mitigation of climate-related risk. Reports suggest that even the Murdoch press has read the room.

And yet, Australia’s government continues to back fossil fuel production, fearing short-term political backlash, and shows little interest in generating change through strategic long-term thinking. This is no longer optional.

Soon after my visit to Alaska in 2019 I was on the ground in California with former NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner Greg Mullins after major fires that burnt out swathes of farmland and vineyards north of San Francisco.

Back then he was warning about the prospect of a disastrous fire season in Australia and calling for extra equipment and preparation.

Unfortunately, his predictions played out almost exactly as stated, causing devastation along the NSW and Victorian coasts in early 2020.

The government was told, yet failed to act. Avoiding the inconvenient truth of the IPCC report is the same thing writ large.

COVID has shown how important clear decision making and brave apolitical leadership are in an emergency. But while the pandemic blindsided all of us, the climate emergency has been playing out for decades. Successive governments have had time to prepare and evolve but have chosen not to.

In a few weeks the UN climate conference will begin in Glasgow.

Joe Biden should remember the Prime Minister’s name rather than calling him ‘pal’. It’s time for some tough talk from our mates.

Because us grown-ups should be held accountable.