There is a chasm between a world that quickly breaks the link between modern economic growth and carbon emissions, and a world that fails to do so. The side of the chasm that we are now on is a dangerous place. It would be reckless beyond the normal human irrationality for us to stay where we are.
Australian prosperity and security, as well as our natural and human heritage, will be challenged in fundamental and perhaps unanswerable ways if humanity does not succeed in holding temperature increases below 2C and as close as possible to 1.5C. With only half the warming we can expect from 1.5C, we have already had to deal with dreadful impacts of more severe, earlier and more frequent bushfires; reduced flows into the Murray–Darling river system; degradation of the Great Barrier Reef; a shift to desalination to supply water for Perth; reduced moisture in our southern farming soils; and high tides lapping at the steps of the beach huts at Brighton in Victoria.
We need to build the bridge on which Australians can walk over that chasm, from policy incoherence to hope and opportunity. Hope that we might avoid the worst outcomes of climate change. Opportunity for Australia to be the world’s main trading source of metals, other energy-intensive goods and carbon chemical manufactures in tomorrow’s zero-net-emissions world; and a major contributor to the world’s efforts to absorb excessive carbon into land and plants.
We need that bridge. And we need Australians to walk across it.
It has always been true that Australians walking across the bridge alone will not deal with the challenge. A large part of humanity needs to make the shift. But many others are already halfway across their bridges and we remain on the side of troubles, encouraging others to stay with us. We know that we could make the move, fully and decisively, and yet still be destroyed by others remaining on the side of troubles. China, most important of all to this story, was moving across and has stalled while it deals with its trade war across the Pacific. The United States, second-most important in global emissions and still the leader of international political trends, was striding out along the bridge until a new president set out in 2017 to turn his country back. He has not yet succeeded, but may do so if given long enough at the task.
And beyond international politics, the scientific uncertainties are such that we could meet current expectations of what is required to hold temperature increases to 1.5C and still have to deal with immense harmful effects.
Australia has the strongest interest among developed countries in the success of a global effort on climate change. Even if we abstract ourselves from the effects of climate change itself, we have the most to gain economically from being part of a global transition to a zero-emissions economy. But we are stuck on the side of the chasm with the people who are against effective action.
Does it matter that we are on the wrong side of the chasm – a force against, rather than for, effective action? Won’t the important decisions be made in other countries?
It matters morally, for reasons explained by Pope Francis and Professor John Broome. It matters economically: we deny ourselves the vast opportunities for expanding Australian employment and incomes, which are located disproportionately in rural and provincial Australia. These gains would be much larger if we joined the whole world in taking strong action on reducing emissions, but they are substantial even with the world in its current state.
Australian steps also affect the prospect of others building and moving across their own bridges – never as a single determinant of the decisions of another, but as one among many significant influences. Whether Australia actively supports international action on climate change or continues as a drag on the transition will be influential at the margins of decisions in many countries – influential at the margins in ways that sometimes make the difference. It seems crazy now, and will seem crazier to Australians in the future, if we use the influence we have against rather than in favour of the prosperity and security and natural and human heritage of Australians who come after us.
I am often asked if I am optimistic or pessimistic about Australia and the world doing what must be done to avoid great disruption from climate change. People who look on and despair at past and present failures of action ask how I manage to carry on trying to improve the outcomes, or at least the chances of a less damaging outcome.
I reply that there is still a chance of avoiding disastrous outcomes, and the incidental advantages of that outcome for Australians are so large that once my fellow citizens see them as they are, they will want us all to cross the bridge.
Of course, that does not deny the awful reality of where we have gone over the past decade, and where we are today. But Australians with good leadership have made big changes in the past when severe challenges required them.
Neither does it deny the difficulties that we have brought upon ourselves and will leave to future Australians by leaving the start so late and closing off the less tangled paths to the bridge across the chasm. The awful reality is that we may fail to change far and fast enough, and that our grandchildren will inherit a parched and disordered country in which a past time of prosperity, democracy and good order is a myth of origin. Yes, that is a possibility. And yes, sometimes I do think that the time of hope has passed. But there is still a path to a manageable outcome. And I see no good purpose in acceding to despair while the path to a manageable outcome remains open to us.
This is an edited extract from Super-Power, Australia’s low-carbon opportunity, by Ross Garnaut (La Trobe University Press, $29.99)