Our planet has warmed by one degree since the industrial revolution, when humans began to burn coal in large quantities.
One tiny degree. It doesn’t sound like much. To those living in southern Australia, it might sound like a welcome reprieve from bone shivering cold in the middle of winter.
But in Australia that one tiny degree of global warming fuels hotter days that are many degrees above normal summer temperatures. Penrith was recently the hottest place on earth, peaking at 48.9 C. And these hot days are not just one-offs, they blend into weeks as heatwaves.
One tiny degree of global warming has dried our continent, ripening it for the horrific fires that have been burning in eastern Australia for months.
Bushfires made worse by climate change are a fact, studied by scientists and directly experienced by brave fire fighters. There are few climate deniers at the business end of a fire hose.
For people who have lost their homes, communities and livelihoods to the fires, that one tiny degree of global warming is barely liveable. For at least 33 people and a billion native animals, it hasn’t been survivable.
That one tiny degree of global warming is bloody dangerous. So can you image a future with more than three degrees of global warming? That’s where our planet is headed if countries like Australia don’t take urgent climate action.
The UN has calculated that if every country fulfils its current pledges under the Paris Agreement — and some, including Australia, are not on track to do so — the globe will warm by 3.2 degrees.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is encouraging Australians to adapt to the ‘new normal’ climate we are currently experiencing.
But in a three-degree warmer world, there are some things to which we simply cannot adapt.
Many elderly people and infants cannot adapt to heatwaves that last beyond a few days.
People who live in the bush can’t adapt to fire seasons that spread across half the year.
Our incredible wildlife, loved by Australians and international visitors, can’t switch on the air conditioner when we reach 50-degree days.
For all the Prime Minister’s talk of ‘meeting and beating’ our climate targets, they are so weak that Australia is leading the pack to a three-degree warmer world.
We are experiencing a climate emergency and we need emergency scale action to cut climate pollution.
Climate scientists warn global climate pollution must decline by 50 per cent by 2030 to avoid three degrees of warming. Australia’s targets are nowhere near that.
When it comes to cutting pollution, Australia really matters. For all the talk that Australia is too small to make a difference, we are in the top 20 biggest polluters in the world and we rocket up to fifth if you count the pollution in our coal and gas exports. We matter.
Australians are proud of our country and our history of leading to address global problems. We are reminded of this each year on the 25th of April as we remember those who died in war to make the world safer. And we are an ingenious bunch, giving wi-fi, solar panels and the Hills hoist to the world.
Climate damage is here, now, but so are the climate solutions.
We have world class renewable energy resources in the sun and wind that could not only power Australia with clean energy but could power the world.
We still have forests that can suck carbon straight out of the atmosphere and vast landscapes, not suitable for agriculture, that can be replanted as new forests.
We have the money to invest, the smarts to transition to new clean tech industries and the compassion to make sure no one is left behind.
The start of the new decade has been harrowing for millions of Aussies directly affected by the fires or breathing polluted air. It’s almost enough to throw up our hands in despair and just give up on stronger climate action. Almost.
But we must unite and rally around urgent climate action because it’s the right thing to do.
Because we love our kids and we want them to have a safe future.
Because we can’t imagine Australia without koalas. And we pride ourselves on the fair go for each other and the world.
Yes, we have entered a period of climate danger. Decades of climate procrastination and half measures has guaranteed that.
But this coming decade is the most important decade in human history. It is the decade in which we can transform ourselves, our industries and our planet for the better. It is 100 per cent possible.
We simply need to act – like our home is on fire.
Kelly O’Shanassy is the CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation.
This piece was first published by the New Daily.