Climate change an ‘existential risk’, but Australia continues to do nothing

A Senate report released in May acknowledges climate change as an “existential risk” – something which, it says, “threatens the premature extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development”. 

James Plested spoke to David Spratt, climate activist, author and research director at the National Centre for Climate Restoration (Breakthrough), about the report’s significance and the broader direction of the climate movement today.

It seems like a win. There appear to be some parliamentary representatives without their heads buried firmly in the sand on climate change.

That members of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee – a mix of Coalition, Labor, Green and independent senators – would let the term “existential risk” be used to describe the threat posed by climate change, says something about the mounting evidence in this direction. Neither the government nor the opposition Labor Party have been inclined to let such evidence get in the way of a good (fossil fuel-boosting) story.

This is far, however, from the quantum leap we need. Even to describe it as baby steps may be overly generous. 

The report, titled “Implications of climate change for Australia’s national security”, merely recognises what scientists have been saying for years: if we don’t change course rapidly – shifting from the fossil fuel-based global energy system to one based on renewables – the world is heading for environmental and social breakdown.

Climate activist David Spratt played a role in pushing the committee to accept the pile of evidence accumulating before it. He believes the report is a step forward.

“One of the problems in climate change is that people look at physical impacts – water, land and where you’re going to live – and then there’s the question about political impacts. But those analyses aren’t brought together”, he tells me.

The report, he thinks, achieves that. Is it a problem, though, that recognition of the “existential” nature of the challenge we face from climate change appears here in a discussion of national security?

It’s notable that, despite the report’s candour about the risks of climate change, the coalition senators on the committee did not release a dissenting view. A cynic might see this as evidence that they’re more willing to admit the realities of climate change if it might help justify the massive sums being poured into Australia’s military budget.

The inspiration for this report came from work by the US Department of Defense – in particular a 2007 report titled “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change”. The advisory board issuing the report was headed by former deputy undersecretary of defense Sherri Goodman, who toured Australia in 2017 talking up the need for Australia to undertake similar work.

One might question whether it’s useful for those wishing to tackle the root causes of climate change, rather than its consequences for national security, to talk, as the Centre for Policy Development (CPC) did in its submission to the committee, of the need to “catch up to the best practice of the US” military.

Perhaps the CPC should have asked the people of New Orleans what their military’s “best practice” might mean in a climate-related disaster. Recall the scenes following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when survivors were left to fend for themselves and the US national guard was sent in with orders to “shoot to kill” looters (people desperately trying to get emergency supplies).

For Spratt, however, the upsides of putting the idea of existential risk on record in the Australian Senate outweigh the negatives of the “national security” oriented discussion. 

“We’ve got two parties that don’t want to talk about it, so any mechanism for keeping climate on the agenda is useful”, he says.

“I think ‘existential risk’ puts to the side the idea that climate change is just another issue … it actually says, ‘Okay, we as human society are facing the greatest threat we’ve ever faced’. It ups the stakes and starts to speak to the seriousness of the issue. So I don’t think ‘existential risk’ is just a military plot to get more money.”

The challenge for the left, as he sees it, is to shift the discussion away from “national security”, where the focus is on the possible need for the Australian military to intervene in failed states, increased migration flows and so on, to a focus on what might be termed “human security”, which for Spratt encompasses “the values of health, safety, wellbeing – the protection values”.

“Of course there’s going to be a battle about how climate change is framed in terms of international politics, but I think that, given the impact climate change will have on questions of war and peace, we all – left and right – need to engage these issues seriously and understand them.

“What is going to occur will destroy nations … If you get 3 degrees of warming – and the present trajectory post-Paris is 3 degrees without climate cycle feedbacks, 5 degrees with – and half a metre of sea level rise, the international situation will be one of outright chaos.

“So of course we should be interested, but do we think the answer is to build bigger armies? No we don’t.”

As Spratt sees it, the big problem with the report lies in the recommendations. Despite talking of the possible “premature extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life”, it says little about actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Out of 11 recommendations, only one refers to emissions reductions – specifically, that “the Department of Defence establish emissions reductions targets across stationary and operational energy use, and report against these in its annual report”.

Other notable recommendations include: providing “adequate funding for climate science and research organisations” (as if the science on climate change isn’t already well established); a climate security white paper; the development of a “National Climate, Health and Well-being Plan”; “a dedicated climate security leadership position in the Home Affairs Portfolio to facilitate coordination on climate resilience issues”; and ensuring “national security agencies increase their climate security knowledge and capability by encouraging participation of staff in available courses”.

Hardly inspired stuff considering the challenge. It’s more “Yes, minister” than “Yes, we can”.

“That cognitive dissonance, that gap between word and deed which is characteristic of all national and international climate policy making, is expressed in this report as well”, Spratt says. “The lack of substantive action, I think, reflects the views of the two major parties.”

On the question of what kind of change we need, Spratt is unequivocal. The current policy set-up, and in particular the UN’s Paris Agreement, has failed: 

“After 25 years [of global climate negotiations], emissions and temperatures are still going up, and they may both be accelerating. Paris is a voluntary agreement between diplomats to do something which isn’t enforceable, for a target which would bring outright chaos to the world. That’s what Paris objectively did.

“Insofar as commitments were made in Paris, they were based on the proposition that fossil fuels would continue to grow and be significant for many decades to come and somehow in the second half of the century some miracle technologies would solve the problem. That’s a cargo cult. The absolute need is for emissions reductions at the greatest possible speed and scale now.”

Recent cost declines in solar and wind power generation have led some in the environment movement to argue that the change we need is already occurring thanks to the market. Spratt dismisses this idea: 

“It’s true that new solar and new wind is cheaper than new coal, but there’s a lot of inertia in the energy system because of what is there now. Fossil fuels are still close to 90 percent of the world’s energy supply, so the idea that we’re about to flip into happy mode is false.

“Are we getting there quickly enough? Absolutely not. We know that 1.5 degrees isn’t safe. We’re going to be at 1.5 degrees in 10 years, roughly speaking. 1.5 degrees means no coral systems in the world, effectively. One hundred million people in the coral triangle, to the north of Australia, rely on coral significantly for food or livelihood.

“1.5 degrees means there will be no sea ice in the Arctic. We already have scientists telling us that West Antarctic glaciers are past their tipping points. In the long run, every 1 degree of climate change produces 10 to 20 metres of sea level rise. 1 degree isn’t safe, and we’re there. So how fast do we need to be there? Yesterday.

“If you think you face an existential threat and that we’ve run out of time to solve the problem … then a rational society would apply whatever resources it needed to do it.

“In the Second World War, countries like Australia and the US spent 30-35 percent of their national product solving what they perceived to be a problem – in Germany and Japan it got up to 60 percent. If a society wants to devote a lot of resources, you can … We have the economic capacity, we have the technical capacity – we don’t have the political will.”

Spratt is critical of the focus of major environmental organisations on lobbying “inside the tent” of mainstream politics. One aspect of this has been a tendency to downplay the risks to make their proposals more politically palatable.

Another aspect has been a reluctance to propose anything that involves a break with the dominant, neoliberal economic model. “You’ve got the problem of policy making being established within a neoliberal frame that says ‘yes, we can do anything we like, as long as it doesn’t interrupt global growth and the global economy’”, Spratt says.

“There’s been a tendency to fall into market-first solutions. It’s very clear, if you want to reduce emissions, a carbon price is probably a very bad way to get emissions down fast. Simply saying ‘no more coal or gas mining’ – a strong regulatory approach – will always drive faster change than a market-based approach.”

In an article written in the aftermath of the election of Tony “coal is good for humanity” Abbott in 2013, Spratt reflected on the failure of the environment movement over the preceding decades: 

“The movement seems to have an incapacity to unite consistently around a successful strategy. Most of the movement consists of big and small NGOs dependent on philanthropists and donor/supporters operating within a climate advocacy marketplace in which NGOs compete against each other for a pool of funders, supporters and dollars.”

This is hardly a model for driving the radical change we need. As Spratt puts it, “We need a fundamentally different approach, an approach that says neoliberalism is actually the problem, and we need direct, strong, courageous public sector leadership on this”.

The lack of leadership, exemplified by the recommendations of the Senate’s report, gives little cause for hope on this front. “Antonio Gramsci in prison coined the phrase ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the spirit’”, Spratt says with a wry smile. “I read an article recently that said the issue isn’t really about hope, it’s about courage, and I think that’s not a bad answer.”

One thing seems certain. We can’t rely on the leadership of people who can recognise something as an “existential risk” to the future of humanity, yet in effect propose to do nothing about it. What’s needed is a “ground up” approach – mobilising the widest possible numbers at every level of society to force change, whether our leaders want it or not.