The world’s leading scientists have issued a “statement of fact”: the Earth’s climate is changing in every region at a rate not seen in potentially hundreds of thousands of years.

And as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report indicates, some of the changes already taking place will be irreversible for generations.

The report, released last night, projects that the world will cross the 1.5°C global warming threshold within 10 years if the world fails to act now.

Indeed, the report’s summary for the world’s policymakers opens with an unambiguous statement:

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.”

Climate damage is underway

Among the necessary actions are the immediate ending of new coal and gas projects - a global policy endorsed by the International Energy Agency.

Among the findings of the latest report are:

  • Since 1900, human activity has been responsible for 1.1°C of global warming.
  • If 1.5°C of global warming is exceeded, there will be more heatwaves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons.
  • If 2°C of global warming is exceeded, heat extremes would reach “critical tolerance thresholds” for agriculture and human health.
  • Australia will experience more intense and longer bushfires, more heatwaves and greater ocean acidification and warming.
  • Carbon dioxide emissions remain the primary driver of climate change, along with other greenhouse gases such as methane (‘natural gas’).  

This report is the premier understanding of climate change

The climate report was produced by 234 of the world’s leading climate scientists, evaluating the findings of more than 14,000 climate research papers.

Other experts submitted almost 75,000 comments through the drafting stages of the report.

CSIRO Chief Research David Karoly reviewed one chapter of the report and wrote in The Conversation last week that the report reflects both the best science and the agreed consensus of the world’s governments.

Comments from government representatives are considered, and changes must be approved by consensus of all governments,” Professor Karoly said.

“It’s clear the IPCC brings the best of global science together. It’s vital that governments keep the findings of this report front of mind in their decision-making, if the world is to avoid the worst-case climate scenarios.

Action is underway, but Australia’s government is still MIA

The Morrison Government has not committed Australia to a formal net zero target, and the release of the IPCC’s new report suggests that net zero must be achieved well before 2050 to avoid 1.5°C of global warming.

With cheap renewable power flooding the Australian market, the Australian Electricity Market Operator has called for the national electricity grid to be capable of handling 100% renewable energy by 2025.

“A combination of technical innovation, economics, government policies and consumer choice, is driving this energy transition faster than it ever has before,” AEMO chief executive Daniel Westerman said in July.

“AEMO will work closely and collaboratively with governments, industry and communities to design the affordable, reliable energy system that Australia needs… capable of handling 100% renewable energy, at any moment of the day, by 2025.”

With Australia’s abundant access to natural solar and wind-driven power opportunities, and a workforce in regional and metropolitan areas capable of transitioning to new energy industries.

Already, South Australia has achieved a world-first 100% renewably powered grid in October 2020.

And increasingly, financiers are re-evaluating their investment in fossil fuel industries, with Australia’s largest superfund pledging to fully divest its investment in thermal coal.

It is actions like these, combined with dedicated and effective government policy that will be essential in achieving the necessary reduction in climate pollution needed by 2035 – around two-thirds of existing levels.

“Australia can become a global clean energy superpower in the next decade by replacing coal and gas with renewable energy,” said Australian Conservation Foundation climate change program manager Gavan McFadzean.

“We have abundant clean energy, tools and talent to do the job, but we cannot delay any longer.”

Five policies Australia can implement now

The Australian Conservation Foundation has articulated five policies the Australian Government can implement to effectively reduce the nation’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

The Renew Australia policy agenda outlines achievable objectives, including:

  • Becoming a global clean energy superpower by 2031 by replacing coal, gas and uranium exports with a green hydrogen, steel and aluminium industry.
  • Powering energy independent communities with renewable electricity, and replacing coal and gas-burning power stations with renewable energy storage.
  • Replacing carbon-emitting transport with more accessible, renewably-powered public transit, subsidised electric vehicles and nationwide electric vehicle charging stations.
  • Moving bank and superannuation fund investments in fossil fuel projects to renewable industries and jobs, and ending the connection between political parties and fossil fuel industries by reforming political donations and halting subsidies to polluters.
  • Creating strong national nature-protection laws and an independent national regulator that stop Australia’s extinction crisis and preserve valuable natural carbon sinks such as bushland, wetlands and forests.

“The world’s top climate scientists have issued their starkest warning yet about the need for urgent action to avert a global climate catastrophe,” said McFadzean.

“This report reconfirms carbon dioxide as the biggest driver of global warming and says other climate pollutants, such as methane gas, must also be reduced as quickly as possible.

“These projections are a stark warning and must act as a wake-up call to all politicians.

“If the rest of the world follows in Australia’s climate policy footsteps, the planet and all its inhabitants face a catastrophic future.

“In many cases, those least responsible will bear the greatest burden, such as our Pacific Island neighbours, who face an existential threat from sea level rise.

“The Morrison government’s gas led recovery has no place to hide after these findings. It must be replaced by an urgent transition to renewables for our domestic use and exports.”

A net zero carbon emissions target means Australia would achieve a scientific equilibrium between emitted and sequestered carbon.

What about individuals?

Australians are living through unprecedented times, with COVID-19 lockdowns affecting half the country in July and August.

But anxiety about climate change has been found to outstrip that related to the pandemic three times over. 

Studies have found that as well as seeking professional mental health support for climate anxiety, Australians are also also seeking to ease their worry by spending time in natural environments and taking positive climate action where they can.

And while the release of the IPCC Climate Report may be worrying right now, but there are proactive things people can do to take individual action.

Those actions include starting a conversation with others about why climate action is important, writing to parliament and joining a community group.

Need to talk to someone after reading this? If this article has raised issues for you, or you have concerns for another person, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Kids Helpline (ages 5-25) 1800 55 1800, or head to ReachOut for more resources on climate anxiety.

Matthew Agius

Australian Conservation Foundation