The fatal flaw in the current global warming debate is that most of the key players are singing off the wrong songsheet. Current policy proposals are based on scientific information which at least five years out-of-date. The latest information indicates that we now run a rapidly increasing risk of sudden and total failure of some part of the climatic system, from which recovery may be impossible — in short, a risk of catastrophe which may seriously damage society as we know it.

The evidence is mounting daily:

  • The Arctic sea-ice melt is far more rapid than predicted, to the point the Arctic may be ice-free in summer within a few years, giving a major boost to global warming; this was not supposed to happen until the end of the century.
  • Human carbon emissions are accelerating far faster than predicted.
  • Natural carbon sinks appear to be absorbing less carbon than previously, thereby increasing atmospheric carbon concentrations.
  • Ice-sheets are forecast to melt and disintegrate at lower temperatures than expected due to non-linear feedback effects, with consequent increase in sea level rise.
  • Ocean acidification is accelerating with consequent destruction of marine organisms.
  • Perhaps most concerning, carbon dioxide emissions from the Arctic permafrost and methane hydrate emissions from the Arctic seabed appear to be accelerating rapidly.

Exactly what form this climatic failure might take is unclear, due to scientific uncertainty around these issues, so this is a matter of managing risk in the face of uncertainty. As a former Chief of Staff of the US Army put it in a recent global warming report: “If you wait for 100% certainty on the battlefield, something bad is going to happen”.

Well, bad things are happening: Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar last year killed some 78,000 people with millions homeless; Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh in 2007 killed some 3000 people and destroyed 500,000 homes; the Californian bushfires in 2007 killed nine people and destroyed 1500 homes; Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005 killed 1500 people and devastated the city of New Orleans. Now it is our turn, with 209 killed in the Victorian bushfires and 1800 homes lost, and devastating flooding in North Queensland, to add to the grinding agony of extended drought.

All this is at only the existing 0.8oC warming, let alone the further 0.6oC to which we are already committed.

None of these disasters can be put down exclusively to climate change, but they are all in line with the forecast evolution of global warming, with increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events. Most, particularly the Victorian bushfires, are way beyond the bounds of normal statistical variation. But the immediate concern is the rapid summer melt of Arctic sea-ice and the increasing evidence of methane hydrate and permafrost carbon dioxide emissions. If this takes off, global warming will probably move beyond our control, with catastrophic consequences. We continue to ignore these warnings at our peril.

Honesty about this challenge is essential, otherwise we will never develop realistic solutions.

We face nothing less than a global emergency which must be addressed with a global emergency response, akin to national mobilisations pre-WWII or the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of post-war Europe. This is not extremist nonsense, but a call echoed by an increasing numbers of world leaders as the science becomes better understood.

Solutions are available and should be built around emissions trading, but it will only work if the carbon price signals are strong and clear and the Federal Government’s CPRS proposals meet neither criteria. In the face of catastrophic risk, emission reduction targets should be based on the latest, considered, science, not on a political view of the art-of-the-possible.

The target for stabilisation of atmospheric carbon to avoid catastrophic consequences and maintain a safe climate is now a concentration of less than 300ppm CO2, not the outdated 450-550ppm CO2e on which current proposals are based. This means emission reductions for Australia must be in the range 45-50% by 2020 and almost complete decarbonisation by 2050, rather than the 5-15% by 2020 and 60% by 2050 currently proposed.

Many will dismiss these targets as unattainable given that current concentrations are 385ppm CO2; it will require not only the rapid curtailment of emissions, but the re-absorption of some carbon already in the atmosphere. We have the technology to achieve this and the targets are only unattainable when viewed with a business-as-usual mindset. When real emergencies loom then remarkable change is possible.

But emissions trading alone is not enough. Given the size and speed of the change required, it must be complemented with regulatory initiatives and other incentives to accelerate energy efficiency, conservation and alternative energy supply, improve building codes, improve vehicle and aviation emission standards, personal carbon trading opportunities etc. This does not mean picking winners, but setting the right framework for rapid change.

The focus must be on the opportunities and benefits of creating new industries rather than the problems and costs of moving away from the old. It can be achieved at far less cost than the horror stories propagated by the existing sunset fossil-fuel lobby and in many cases with a net economic benefit. Employment is likely to rise as these new industries are far more labour-intensive than the industries they replace.

But compensation must be minimised — public funding should encourage a viable future, not prop up an unsustainable past, particularly when that funding is going to be in short supply. There is absolutely no justification for compensation to trade-exposed industries, or domestic high-emitters, in the emergency situation we now face. The world will be crying out for low-carbon product, which will be a source of competitive advantage.

Carbon taxes make no sense in current circumstances. They do not deliver guaranteed emission reductions and the inevitable continued tinkering with tax levels would be politically and commercially untenable.

The best tribute we can pay to the victims of the Victorian bushfires is to now start taking global warming seriously and stop playing political games.

Ian Dunlop was formerly a senior international oil, gas and coal industry executive. He chaired the Australian Coal Association in 1987-88, chaired the Australian Greenhouse Office Experts Group on Emissions Trading from 1998-2000 which developed the first Australian emissions trading concepts and was CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors from 1997-2001. He advises internationally on climate, energy and sustainability.