This week in New York, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is honoured with co-chairmanship of a global leaders round table, seeking to revitalise negotiations on a climate change agreement to be finalised at Copenhagen in December. But if he brings to this task the government’s prevailing climate policy mindset, it will further diminish the already shaky prospects for any realistic agreement at Copenhagen.

The weak, inconsistent compromises represented by the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) and the Renewable Energy Targets, built around out-dated science, are wholly inadequate responses to escalating climate risk and certainly not exemplar policies for the world community. Ironically, a dysfunctional Opposition allows the government to claim the high ground as a “climate saviour” when nothing could be further from the truth.

The hypocrisy of government and Opposition policy is laid bare in the light of the scientific warnings, which are now coming in thick and fast. Here are such a selection of reports on the increasing risk:

  • The International Panel on Climate Change flagged in 2007 that global warming was unequivocal, with more than 90% certainty that it was due to human greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The Copenhagen Climate Science Congress in March 2009 stated that we now face an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts.
  • Chief scientist Penny Sackett, addressing parliamentarians in March, warned that if we do not act quickly and decisively the effect will be devastating.
  • Professor Will Steffen’s report, released by Penny Wong in July 2009, states that the majority of indicators point toward more rapid and severe climate change and more costly and dangerous impacts.
  • The Global Health Commission view climate change as the biggest global health threat of the 21st Century.
  • Recent US research indicates faster warming ahead than previously predicted, with ocean temperatures at record high levels and unprecedented melting of Arctic sea ice. Evidence of CO2 and methane emissions from the Arctic permafrost and seabed continues to unfold, along with evidence that human emissions have reversed a long-term Arctic cooling trend.
  • Recent warnings from Victorian and NSW fire authorities indicate a severe bushfire season ahead after record winter warmth.
  • The Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2009 states that the overall outlook for the Reef is poor and that catastrophic damage may not be averted. The World Bank urges rapid action.

How many reports are needed before our leaders wake up?

Big changes are happening even at the 0.8oC warming we have already experienced relative to pre-industrial levels, let alone the further 0.6oC or more to which we are committed as a result of historic emissions.

While there remains much uncertainty over climate science, there is a high degree of certainty on key issues, strongly indicating that human emissions are a major factor creating current warming. Other explanations advanced by sceptics are, on the balance of probabilities, highly unlikely and none explain the evidence around us.

Government and Opposition, along with major corporations, are well aware, from their scientific advisers, of this rapidly deteriorating picture and the need for far more aggressive policy and action.

Why then are these warnings ignored?

First, established vested interests are intent on maintaining the status quo. The economic system developed over decades, based conventional growth and incremental change. Power and influence evolved accordingly. The changes now required are transformative, not incremental, in which established players will lose and new players gain. Inevitably there is reluctance to break with the past, as the old players continue to exercise power and adopt defensive rather than leadership roles.

Second, political and corporate mindsets today are overwhelmingly short-term, driven by all-pervasive short-term incentives, to the exclusion of long-term considerations such as climate change.

Third, free market ideology still dominates. Markets are important, but to be effective they must operate within realistic rules; those rules have been progressively dismantled over the past decade. Despite vehement protestations by corporate leaders that markets are the preferred solution, there is great reluctance to include the true costs of externalities, such as carbon pollution.

Fourth, corporate and political culture, while lauding leadership, rapidly retreats into managerialism — the incremental improvement of the status quo, oblivious to the fact that the status quo is unsustainable.

Fifth, the assumption that technology will save the day. Technology is essential, but not sufficient. It must be accompanied by different values, moving away from growth and consumption to an emphasis on long-term sustainability.

So it’s not surprising than any sceptical view of the mainstream science is seized upon with alacrity to justify further procrastination. Despite 20 years of global negotiations, virtually nothing has been done so far to address climate change. Having weighed the latest evidence of the risks we run, scepticism now has to give way to decision and real action.

The continuing reluctance of our leaders to honestly acknowledge these realities raises fundamental concerns over national and corporate governance.

The first priority of responsible government is to address major threats to national security. Climate change and the related issues of peak oil and energy security are arguably the greatest threats Australia will face in the next decade, with potentially catastrophic implications. The legitimacy of any government now depends on its preparedness to acknowledge these threats and take appropriate action. That is not happening.

To implement policy in the full knowledge that it is inadequate, as proposed with the CPRS, is a serious breach of fiduciary responsibility to the electorate. We need effective emissions trading. Overseas experience demonstrates that the concept only works if emission reduction targets are aggressive, with minimal escape clauses and compensation.

The CPRS fails on all counts; implementation in its current form will do little to reduce emissions, it will slow innovation, in the process undermining the credibility of emissions trading and destroying investment confidence.

Corporately, directors have a fiduciary duty to act honestly, in good faith and to the best of their ability in the interests of the company in perpetuity — the last two words have been conveniently forgotten in recent years. Climate change is likely to be the most material issue affecting companies in the coming decade.

Yet there is little acknowledgment of this by corporate Australia; quite the reverse. The image projected is one of delay, denial and special pleading for unwarranted compensation. Any sense of urgency to alert shareholders to the real climate risk is absent. Again, a serious breach of fiduciary responsibility.

Climate risk cannot be managed by incrementalism and the “art-of-the-politically-possible”: it is not just another item on the political and corporate agendas. It is bigger than any political party, corporation or ideology. It has the potential to destroy companies and countries unless we act quickly. We need transformative, bipartisan leadership and co-operation — honestly acknowledging the challenge, setting out the solutions, however unpalatable, building support for and implementing rapid change.

Above all, climate policy must be re-structured, built upon the latest science. As Winston Churchill put it: “It is no use saying ‘we are doing our best’. You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary”.

Ian Dunlop was formerly an 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 and was CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors from 1997-2001. He is deputy convenor of the Australian Association for the Study of Peak Oil.

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