The 29-page summary for policymakers from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report on climate change impacts gets straight to the point:

“Human interference with the climate system is occurring, and climate change poses risks for human and natural systems …”

And these risks are significant. This report underlines the point that climate change impacts are occurring now, not in some distant future. But the most visible of these impacts — severe weather events and warmer summers — are just the tip of the (shrinking) iceberg, so to speak. Impacts are already occurring on natural and human systems on all continents, and this is likely to accelerate as warming continues.

“This report has a lot of bad news in it,” co-author Chris Field told a news conference on Monday. “We are no longer living in a world where climate change is hypothetical.”

Water systems and crops are being impacted; land and ocean species are already shifting their geographic ranges; and food and water supplies, along with infrastructure and health, are becoming more vulnerable. It is not just animal species under threat, its section on health suggests; climate change is also a long-term threat to human survival.

The report, released in Japan this week following years of work and review by several thousand scientists, and a huge influx — a near doubling — of new evidence, introduces a new element to the way the issues is addressed: the management of risk. The report says:

“Some risks of climate change are considerable at 1 or 2C above pre-industrial levels (pretty much what has already been built in). But global climate risks are high to very high with a global mean temperature rise of 4C or more, with failing crops, and huge risks to global and regional food security.

“The precise levels of climate change sufficient to trigger tipping points (thresholds for abrupt and irreversible change) remain uncertain, but the risk associated with cross multiple tipping points in the earth system, or in interlinked human and natural systems increases with rising temperature.”

Why is risk management important? Because for the last several decades, those opposed to climate action — primarily the fossil fuel industry and those in the business and political world that hang on to its coattails — have asked us to ignore this risk. They have managed (quite successfully) to cast doubt over specific and detailed forecasts to suggest that the risk either does not exist, or can be safely ignored — as though people should decide not to insure their houses or cars because the insurer couldn’t tell them when the goods were likely to be stolen or damaged.

The irony is that this is an industry that goes to the trouble of building new infrastructure — such as coal loaders — designed to take into account likely future sea level rises, then asks the world — or more particularly, the politicians and the financiers and the shareholders that enable this to happen — to ignore those very same risks.

It can do so because it is protected by politicians who, like the oil and coal executives themselves, are focused on short-term outcomes.

“Australia has excellent mechanisms to provide incentives to accelerate this transition to a decarbonised economy — but no minister speaks in those terms.”

The fossil fuel industry — and their boosters in the mainstream media — like to insist that they are “here to stay”. They do this by justifying their own business plans and investments with “official forecasts” — such as those from the International Energy Agency — that predict the dominance of fossil fuels for decades to come. Yet the IEA itself suggests these forecasts are based on “do nothing” or “do little” scenarios — either of which, it says, are completely untenable.

There is, of course, something that can be done about it, as this new IPCC report points out. Acting to reduce the rate of climate change will reduce the scale of adaptation (and cost) that might be required, and might just enable the world to escape the worst of the impacts.

The IPCC report says there are things the world  can do to manage these risk — across the political, economic, social and technological level. And not only will these make the world more climate resilient, it will help improve lives and social wellbeing. And it will cost less. It’s a win-win-win-win situation. But it needs to be done quickly.

This is a crucial and underplayed point. So much effort has been put into demonising any efforts to address climate change as costly and destructive to the economy and society. In Australia, the demonisation of the carbon price and the Renewable Energy Target on short-term (and not very honest) cost appraisals — by the very ministers who say they accept the science — is a case in point.

There are two things that can be done to reduce emissions and manage that risk: burn less fossil fuel, and become more energy efficient. Australia has excellent mechanisms to provide incentives to accelerate this transition to a decarbonised economy — but no minister speaks in those terms. It is still all about short-term targets, even patently inadequate ones such as the 5% reduction target by 2020.

There is an increasing sense in the wider population that this is claptrap. The success of solar energy — and the economic advantages it can offer to households — is a classic case in point. Households have a sense that this is having a positive impact, as well as saving them money and making a contribution to an important issue. And the technology is having a massive impact on incumbent industries, perhaps more than any climate policy might have done in such a short period.

The fossil fuel industry understands this — which is why they are so desperate to take such technologies out of the market and “back to the test tube”, as the likes of sceptic Bjorn Lomborg would have us believe. They want to do the same for that other “no-brainer”, energy efficiency. Australian governments are guilty on all fronts.

But this new IPCC report just may galvanise action at a global level. In China and the United States — the two principal players — there is no doubt that the impacts of climate change are here and now. In Beijing and other parts of China, the impact of fossil fuels is all too visible. There is a lot of work happening behind the scenes to ensure that the next major deadline for international agreement — Paris, 2015 — is not derailed in the same fashion as Copenhagen.

*This article was originally published at RenewEconomy

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey