The world is getting warmer and wetter, almost undoubtedly due to the fact that we are burning up fossil fuels at an incredible rate.
While this change in our climate will lead to some positive opportunities, such as better weather in Tasmania for growing grapes, a loss of biodiversity and human infrastructure is highly likely if we cannot halt climate change.
There are two issues. The first is whether we can stop climate change. The second is how to adapt.
Two views on stopping climate change
There are those who believe we can avert climate change by repenting of our sinful energy-guzzling ways. They advocate increasing the cost of activities that lead to carbon emissions.
They expect this will eventually lead us to new technologies that will make humans more carbon neutral. They think the carbon price will bring long-term changes in our use of energy.
Then there are those like me, who see no hope whatsoever in reducing emissions. I simply can’t see the rest of the world, who have more to worry about than climate change, moving towards energy prudence.
I think we will go through the cheapest means of energy first, only using the cleaner energy as those run out.
We all hope for technological breakthroughs, but there’s been no significant new technology in the last 50 years that comes close to out-competing coal and oil.
I am not holding my breath that the magic technological fix is around the corner.
In the most optimistic scenario, we’ll keep digging up coal and drilling for the last dregs of oil for a long time to come. The worse scenario is where bio-fuels become the cheaper option, so fuelling our cars goes at the expense of food for poor people.
That is a conversation for another day though.
So do we just sit back and let the chaos happen?
If you fully expect the climate to change and think of policies surrounding carbon emissions as feeble symbolic gestures, does this mean you want to do nothing?
The answer is no.
If there is a problem you can’t fix you learn to live with it and adapt to it, such that you minimise the loss and maximise the gain.
Let us remind ourselves what we are adapting to. As a rule of thumb, in the course of ten years we are talking about a warming of 0.1 degree celsius, an increase in sea levels by five centimetres, and about a 0.5% increase in rainfall per ten years.
Ocean acidification and the melting of the ice caps make up even slower changes in our climate.
These changes are so slow that you would be forgiven for not noticing any in your lifetime. This is precisely why I deem it folly to expect the world to really get anxious about this.
For any investment that is usually written off in a matter of decades, which includes most existing housing and nearly all business investments, the slow change in climate means that taking account of climate change is irrelevant. There will be plenty of time in the future to redirect such investments when the climate is actually noticeably different.
For new housing, it makes sense to enforce building codes that take account of a greater likelihood of floods and storms.
What we should concentrate on
The things to really worry about are public investments with payoffs measured in centuries rather than decades. Governments have a particular role in fishing stocks, biodiversity, nature parks, coastal lands, and other public goods that are given down over generations.
Ocean acidification is a serious problem. If it goes on unchecked, in a century or so time the shells of many marine animals would dissolve. This means the end of them and things that feed on them.
How can governments react to the collapse in the stocks of those fish that would disappear in this case?
One question is whether acidification can be reversed by pumping more alkaline substances into the ocean.
How could we make a difference?
We could try to churn enough calcium in the oceans to prevent further acidification and Australia could lead research and international efforts that way.
If it turns out that acidification is unavoidable, we should think of ways of preserving the biodiversity.
extend the conservation areas in the oceans
set up “artificial reefs” on land that preserve some of the current marine diversity
set up gene banks for the many current marine life species.
The goal would be to preserve as much of the marine life diversity as possible in the cheapest way possible.
Apart from conservation, governments can also be more pro-active. If you take the warming and acidification of the oceans as inevitable, you can turn to the question how to re-stock the ocean with fish and other organisms that do well in warmer and more acid waters.
Nature will find ways but we can help
Nature itself will experiment and adapt, but governments can give nature a helping hand.
We can try to genetically engineer new fish species or mass breed those species which we know are more suited for the new climate.
Such initiatives would of course greatly benefit from having a database of ocean life conserved somewhere. And of course, it will be a case of hit-and-miss as the long history of introducing new species in Australia has shown.
There is a role for government in maintaining biodiversity and nature parks on land as well as water.
Gene banks, artificial species and artificial habitats are all obvious things governments can get involved in.
For instance, the Australian National Botanic Gardens already stores seeds of over 5000 different plants.
The two tasks, habitat conservation and habitat experimentation, are both long-term enterprises where the 10 billion dollars currently spent on symbolic measures would go a long way to helping us prepare for the inevitable problems we face.
Professor Paul Fritjers will be speaking on Monday 5 September at the Australian National University’s Crawford School Dialogue – Australia’s carbon price: good policy or not? in Canberra.