A proxy for the future

Governmental and community denial of the fundamental truths of climate change can’t last forever.

Climate change impacts are going to operate over the long term. That’s why we can’t immediately envisage the danger and it’s why climate change isn’t regarded as being as pressing as balancing the budget or “securing our borders”. It is primarily for this reason that the world has missed opportunity after opportunity to respond appropriately, to the point that it is universally regarded as too late to prevent cascading climate change from occurring. Instead of falling rapidly, worldwide carbon emissions continue to accelerate. This does not mean that we should stop trying to save the environment; the eventual extent of the destruction can yet be ameliorated. But governments and populaces worldwide are deliberately kept in a state of confusion by entrenched interest groups, and confusion allows governments and populations to continue to operate in a state of denial.

At the moment in Australia, denial manifests itself in a “business as usual” approach. The Coalition is busily dismantling anything that conflicts with the idea of status quo – business as usual doesn’t include things like climate commissions, carbon prices or renewable energy research. (For the Coalition, “business as usual” also doesn’t include things like modern broadband, up-to-date healthcare or new ways of doing education either, but that’s another blog post.)

Despite this, there are things that we do now that operate on the same timescale as climate change effects, and these may begin to act as a proxy for the future. Whilst it is possible to take a “business as usual” approach to these things, doing so is neither prudent nor effective for the future.

Case in point: demographic and developmental planning for cities in Australia’s north. Under both Labor and the Coalition, development of the north of Australia is an expectation. Growth in population, increasing urbanisation, technological advance and infrastructure dissemination are a part of governmental planning. But whilst these plans are being laid, cold-eyed scientists are looking at the north of Australia and saying bluntly that, far from developing into a new demographic powerhouse, whole latitudes may need to be abandoned as not suitable for human habitation. The best laid plans of our politicians are likely to be sabotaged by the remorseless, uncaring forces of the unleashed beast of nature. It is only stubborn denial that allows governments to continue to plan future expansions that will simply not be viable.

This kind of planning quandary extends into every aspect of the future. Urban planning in cities needs to take into account projected rises in sea levels. Whilst a 20cm rise by 2030 might not seem like a huge amount, it will reshape the coastlines of the country and threaten beachfront properties. More importantly, storm surges and flooding will have much wider implications. In a country where seasonal flooding has already claimed lives, the damage wrought by these changes may be significant. And that’s only twenty years into the future. By 2100, geologists are projecting a 1.1 metre rise in sea levels. Some people alive today will still be here in 2100, misadventure aside. Those planning to buy a property for long-term retention need to bear the future of our coasts in mind. Or else, deny that anything is happening and invest in land that will be swamp sooner than people might think. Cities need to think now about disaster planning, about water supply protection, about drainage and transport and power distribution, in order to be prepared for the future that’s coming.

Urban planning is but one area where future expectations will need to be revised to cope with the new truths of a +4°C world. Other areas that come to mind include:

  • The future of mining and resource exploitation;
  • Food security;
  • Refugee and migration policy; and
  • National security.

The latter of these warrants a post of its own. Suffice to say here, that we live in a world where current generations of Australians are not ready for the concept of a war of defense. Since the 1940s, Australia has not been seriously under direct threat of military force, and our involvements have been remote. We send our boys off to war and welcome them home; we lament and mourn (rightfully so) at the loss of individual soldiers. But climate change carries with it the risk – the near certainty – of regional conflict, as whole countries start to starve, due to desertification and loss of arable land. Australia will have cause to be thankful for its remote location and inaccessibility. Our military is likely to be too concerned with domestic issues of food security to be able to worry too much about billions of starving people in India and China.

These areas of concern fall squarely into the remit of our national government, which has shown an unparalleled recalcitrance to accept the truth of global warming. It is unlikely that government policy under the current government will include much consideration of a world shaped by forces that the Coalition denies actually exist.

The best hope for future climate action, discounting the remote possibility of a spectacular implosion of our new government, is a change in public opinion forcing our governing bodies to reconsider their attitude to climate change science. The Coalition government is unlikely to change its mind without being dragged, kicking and screaming, into an unpalatable recognisation of the truth. There is more potential for change at other levels of government. From city planners to urban land management authorities, from companies divesting from coal and backing out of investments such as the Abbot Point port expansion to the application of new mandatory building codes, we need regulations and laws, based on empirical understandings of the future, which will impact on the everyday lives of Australians and people around the world.

If these bodies and organisations allow their agenda to be dictated to them by those with investments in the status quo, then not only will the investments made now be seen as foolhardy at best and downright negligent at worst, but the trajectory for the future will continue to deteriorate.

We can’t afford that. The push for climate action must come from the individual upwards, because it’s clearly not going to be led by the government on high. So, on an individual level, when we look to investments in property, when we consider our shareholdings and our superannuation, there are questions to ask. Have those who seek to sell you a future considered what climate change will mean for the investment they are proposing?

Tony Abbott’s “mandate” about removing the carbon price is not as strong as he wishes it to appear. There is already a large and growing force in the community that is concerned about climate change and willing to agitate for action. We can hope that it will not take a revolution in public attitude to tip the balance. Every individual who is confronted with the reality of climate change and the impact it will have on their own life – and the lives of their loved ones – is an important step closer to the critical mass needed to get Australia on the path of the righteous. So if your job involves you in any form of future planning, or if you are undertaking any investments of your own, make certain that climate change is an important part of your consideration. The outcomes of your planning depend on it. And the future of your planet depends on it.

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One thought on “A proxy for the future

  1. I agree with you in that a change in public opinion is going to be very important for mobilising action on climate change. This is particularly the case for Australia where you’ve got a Prime Minister who thinks global warming is crap. I just hope it happens sooner rather than later since we’ve got to race against the clock.

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