With 2015 set to be the hottest year on record, world leaders will meet in Paris this weekend to try to forge a new international agreement on how to combat climate change.
The Newsroom’s World editor Jake Nelson spoke to John Connor, CEO of the Climate Institute, which focuses on climate research and building strategic partnerships in the fight against global warming, about the politics of climate change and the possible outcomes from Paris.
TN: You’ve spoken about the “rollercoaster” of Australian politics on climate change – how has your role changed under Malcolm Turnbull as opposed to Tony Abbott?
JC: We’re still to see the real ramifications, but it’s changed the community discussion, it’s changed corporate attitudes – [under Abbott] it was literally almost like a fatwa, business couldn’t talk about this because the Prime Minister’s office would ring them up and say “what the hell are you talking about that stuff for”. But Malcolm Turnbull was elected within his party, with the right wing saying “you can’t change too much”, and so he’s had to be very careful with that. So the substance hasn’t changed a lot, but the atmospherics are much better at this stage. They’re putting off a lot of the review, they’re trying to bluff their way until after the next election where he might have a mandate to make some broader changes.
TN: On that subject, Malcolm Turnbull is continuing with Tony Abbott’s “Direct Action” policy – will that work?
JC: Well, the centrepiece of that is the emissions reduction fund, which is the taxpayers’ money. We’ve just had the second auctions underneath that last week, and essentially now they’re saying they might spend about five billion dollars out to 2030 for their reductions, and they say they want to avoid two degrees, but we’ve done the numbers and after these two auctions they’ve spent about 25 per cent of their budget with about two per cent of the reductions we’d need. So it’s time to get serious about the policies that are really going to drive that, policies that send a signal to the rest of the economy that they’ve got to take responsibility for their emissions.
TN: Why have the existence and causes of climate change become a matter of politics rather than fact?
JC: I think in a lot of ways it’s because it’s threatening the status quo. Lots of decisions have been made because they didn’t have to factor in these costs, and when you do factor those in, then it’s a dramatic change for what needs to be the business models and economic engines going forward. It was funny – I went to China five years ago, and there I’d heard the reverse, it was like Alice in Wonderland: here, people were saying “this is just a bunch of socialists trying to undermine capitalism”, and you go to China, there was a few people who thought this was just a trick of capitalists trying to undermine socialism. So it’s about status quo, it’s about inertia, and then people grabbing for things to not have to do the change.
TN: Do we have to choose between the environment and the economy?
JC: Absolutely not. We can make these changes and still grow. But it’ll be a different growth, not as materialistic, it’ll be much more service and information and culture, and I think we can have a prosperous economy which gives many more opportunities for people, and richer lives as well. The problem is we’ve got an economic engine focused on churning out and consuming things, and not thinking about some of the limits. If we can accept those limits, we can look at this in a different way.
TN: What outcomes are you looking for from the Paris climate conference?
JC: What we want out of it is something that’s bankable, accountable and fair. Bankable, so there’s a clearer long-term signal for investors that this is the direction governments are going to be putting in their policies; accountable, so countries will know that no one’s cheating and free riding; and fair, so that it does actually support the interests of developing countries and those most exposed. We won’t actually see a lot of numbers from different countries changing; one of the benefits of hindsight from Copenhagen in 2009, the last time we tried to get such an international agreement, the idea was that we sort out everyone’s numbers in the international agreement – and that meant every country held on to the very end, and actually had the least ambition possible. This process has been one of setting up an initial target that countries think they can do, then the people can sit back and have a look at that and… set the rules that compare and contrast and drive greater ambition from different countries. There’s two big numbers: two, which is avoiding two degrees warming, and the big round number which is zero [emissions].
TN: The Paris conference will be going ahead despite the terror attacks, and I want to pick up on something Bernie Sanders said a day or so beforehand, which is that climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism. What are your thoughts on the relationship between climate change and national security?
JC: Well, he was probably quoting some officials in the Pentagon, and others – we’ve seen around the world admirals and generals, the Pentagon, security agencies pointing out that the warming temperature, which is putting weather on steroids and driving more extremes is unsettling people and displacing people. It’s only going to continue to grow, and will continue to grow the security implications. If you look at the heat wave forecast into the Middle East, you just know that is going to be more and more unstable, and I’m not saying it’s the cause of some of these conflicts, as there’s obviously religious and other things that are driving them, but we’re really putting all that on steroids.
TN: What are some of the worst-case climate change scenarios for Australia?
JC: Well, with one degree warming, we’re already seeing heat waves doubling, we’re seeing greater storms – warmer atmosphere carries more moisture when the systems are there – we’ve seen bushfire danger increase significantly, where we’ve had to develop new parts of that wagon wheel when you drive around, and it now has Very Extreme and Catastrophic, and the thing is all of this is exponential. It’s not a linear relationship. All of those things are coming together, and Australia is one of the countries which is most exposed, because we’re such a big country and an agricultural country as well.
TN: Is it too late to avoid the worst?
JC: No, it’s not too late to avoid the worst. There are some truly catastrophic scenarios. It will be a long, long time before we get back to the stable climatic zones, and Australia has always been a country of extreme weather, but we can avoid the worst impacts if we take significant action now. – Jake Nelson
Top photo of John Connor by Lachlan Brunton.