The end is nigh – don’t read all about it

EPA/Christopher Jue

The much anticipated latest summary of peer-reviewed climate science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has finally been delivered. The jury, as they say, is unambiguously in, even if it’s going to take a while to wade through the verdict. I find it hard to believe that the authors of the latest IPCC report have actually read it from cover to cover, let alone the rest of us.

One of the reason why the phrase ‘weighty tome’ is particularly apt in this case is because the entire report is hedged with so many caveats, cautionary disclaimers and references to mountains of evidence. This is hardly surprising given the criticism of the IPCC’s earlier efforts, some of which was undoubtedly merited.

There can’t be too many people who are shocked or surprised about some of the IPCC’s main conclusions, however. The take home message – as ever – is that climate change is real, it’s already happening and it’s being driven by human actions. The consequences are already becoming difficult to manage and they are likely to get an awful lot worse in the future.

So far, so familiar, perhaps. And yet there are two features of the new report’s release that are especially noteworthy. First, the draft version of the unedited report contains a chapter on ‘human security’. Human security is an increasingly influential way of thinking about the nature of security that is noticeably at odds with the traditional focus on ‘guns and bombs’ and as the name suggests, considers what makes individual people actually feel secure.

As a consequence, human security gives more attention to economic development and environmental sustainability than it does to the relative merits various weapons systems, for example. Such an approach seems especially compelling in the context of climate change as we now know it’s happening, it’s going to have direct impacts on people’s well being, and it thus represents a direct and growing threat to their security.

Conventional threats to security, on the other hand, are in decline. Inter-state conflict – of the sort which states spend billions preparing for – is rare. This merits emphasis as Australia is about to embark on a new round of defence purchases that may be immune to the sorts of budget cutbacks that are likely to cause pain elsewhere – not least in managing the environment, to judge by recent government policy.

What is especially striking about the chapter on human security is that, like the rest of the report, the tone is extremely cautious, the claims modest and hedged with caveats, and the conclusions provisional. It is noteworthy that there is no sustained discussion of the possible impact of key issues such as rising sea levels and melting glaciers.

Again, this is no surprise given the reception of the last report, perhaps, but it is clear that these sorts of changes are still going to occur, even if the timing and impact remain uncertain.

The prospect of growing food insecurity and forced migration as a consequence of climate change, especially in some of the world’s poorest and most politically volatile regions, ought to be ringing alarm bells around the world.

Indeed, we might expect that even the IPCC’s muted tone and careful qualifications would make this the story of the moment. After all, we are talking about an unprecedented challenge that is already affecting much of the planet’s population and which is already threatening the lives of millions around the world.

One would not know this from reading yesterday’s Australian, however. Indeed, the second noteworthy feature of the IPCC report’s arrival was the way it was marginalised in one of the nation’s handful of supposedly serious papers.

Even though the IPCC had just provided an overview of our collective best understanding of what is arguably the greatest challenge humanity has ever confronted, The Australian led with a review of an obscure journal article that criticised the Building the Education Revolution scheme.

News about the IPCC report was relegated to page 4, under the misleading headline:

Picture of gloom has silver lining

Robert Manne has detailed the Murdoch empire’s hostility to climate change, but The Australian’s decision to spend yet more energy beating up a long-defeated political opponent, rather than addressing what is – or ought to be – simply the most important story on that or any other day induces incredulity and not a little despair.

Nothing is going to change in this country – or any other, for that mater – while some of the most influential media outlets fail to take seriously issues they find ideologically unpalatable. Is it any surprise that traditional media outlets are dying and The Australian continues to lose money when its coverage of key issues is so predictable, uniform and – yes – biased?

Perhaps some of The Australian’s ageing commentators judge they won’t be around in 20 or 30 years or so when things begin to get really nasty as they almost certainly will – especially when governments are not held to account. Whether their children and grandchildren will be quite so sanguine is doubtful.

It may be time to give up the subscription and the daily ritual of retrieving the paper from the front lawn. Far better to stay in bed with the covers drawn up over my head.