Looking back from 2030: how the climate war was won

We have the technology to decarbonise: now we need the will. Luke Westall

Minimising serious debate about climate change risks and solutions looks likely to be a key feature of the Australian media’s approach to the 2013 election campaign. There are however two powerful reasons why this silence is profoundly disturbing and misguided.

Evidence of the likelihood and risks of global warming beyond 4 degrees continues to grow. As IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde bluntly notes: “unless we take action on climate change future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled”.

And as momentum towards a decarbonised global economy continues to build so to do the economic and social opportunities for Australia of being a first mover in the impending transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The recently launched University of Melbourne research report, Post Carbon Pathways, shows that the key features of the post carbon economy road map are now widely understood. We need rapid replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy; rapid reductions in energy consumption and improvements in energy efficiency; and the drawdown and sequestration of carbon into sustainable carbon sinks.

The biggest roadblocks preventing a rapid transition to a post carbon future are now clearly political rather than technological. This leads to the increasingly crucial and urgent question: how might the transition to a just and resilient post carbon future actually occur at sufficient speed and scale? One way to approach this most difficult puzzle is to conduct the following thought experiment.

“Imagine it is 2030. Imagine we now live in a world in which the transition to a just and resilient post carbon society has occurred so there is now real hope that catastrophic climate change will be avoided. How did this happen?”

Here are some of the ways in which leading international climate and energy researchers interviewed for the Post Carbon Pathways project responded to this challenge.

Jenny Clad, former Executive Officer of Al Gore’s Climate Project tells a story of evidence and education:

Little by little, every year, the evidence, the increased education of the public, of the politicians, the work from businesses. All of this inch-by-inch is going to have the effect of making the deniers and those who profess to do nothing and put more money into drilling oil, digging out coal, more and more marginalised.

Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, focuses on the transformational power of creativity and innovation:

As we look back on this now, one wonders what all the fuss was about. We used to think that catastrophic climate change was a big problem because we supposed that it had to be solved by difficult treaties between national governments. But that assumed - quite wrongly - that the solutions would be costly and painful rather than attractive and profitable, for the simple reason - now so blindingly obvious in hindsight - that it was so much cheaper to save the fuel than to buy it in the first place, let alone burn it. So as the economic logic gradually overcame the dogma that it must not have been cost-effective to save energy or we’d have done it already, we really unleashed the dynamism of individual choice and corporate and social innovation.

The scenario raised by Climate Reality Project Co-ordinator, Kevin Curtis, is all about courageous political leadership:

How we got there is a collection of acts of leadership by leaders who emerged to seize the moment. Who just said “no we cannot let our climate be so fundamentally changed. We can’t afford what that’s going to do.” It’ll be consumers demanding new products, it’ll be companies providing new products, it’ll be the media. It’ll be people from all walks of life demonstrating true leadership, taking on the status quo, taking on a sense of negativism and “it’s too late-ness”. It won’t be coordinated, it won’t be controlled, it will just happen and it will happen if all of us in the next five years get the word out.

For Club of Rome member and Chair of Safe Climate Australia, Ian Dunlop:

The trigger is going to be some sort of natural disaster that wakes people up. Before long the community will wake up to what is occurring and demand action along the lines that … “we have been looking at the problem for 30 years and done virtually nothing. Now we have to really start moving”. The pressure will then come on the business and political worlds for real action. It will require different leadership from anything we’ve seen before as we will have to move to a war-footing.

John Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Adviser to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, draws together all these threads of evidence, innovation and leadership:

One driver is that, very sadly, disasters will happen. Hurricane Katrina changed a lot in America. The second thing is leadership. What Merkel did with the German experiment [driving a rapid shift from nuclear and fossil fuel energy to renewables] is happening because Merkel had the guts to say she was wrong. This type of leadership will be necessary, maybe in China, maybe in the United States, maybe in Australia even. The third thing is social innovation. For example I just went to a region in Germany where people say “We want to have energy supply completely done on a communitarian basis. We the citizens will buy the power plants. We will buy the networks and the grids. We will do it”.

If none of these scenarios sound totally convincing to you – here’s the challenge. Looking back from 2030 what were the actions that led to a real chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change? And what role did you play in this story?