“We are on our way to a destabilization of the world climate that has advanced much further than most people or their governments realize.” Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Director of Potsdam Institute for Research on Global Warming Effects and advisor to the European Union and the German Chancellor
The establishment of Safe Climate Australia is motivated by the recognition that the planet stands on the edge of a precipice beyond which human actions may no longer be able to control in a meaningful way the trajectory of the climate system, or the fate of human life in a rapidly degrading natural world.
Serious climate change impacts are happening both more rapidly and at lower global temperature increases than projected. If just the present level of greenhouse gases were maintained, the unfolding warming would likely be sufficient to result in, amongst other events, the large-scale loss of Himalayan glaciers and the loss of the Greenland ice-sheet, placing the lives of two billion people in jeopardy and producing a seven-metre sea-level rise over time.
Today at just less than 1 degree of global warming we are witnessing the destruction of the Arctic ecosystem. The complete loss of eight million square kilometres of Arctic sea-ice in the northern summer is considered very likely in the near term, and by mid-century rapid economic and carbon emissions growth could produce Arctic amplification (warming of the polar north more than three times the global average) sufficient to trigger large-scale de-stabilisation of vast quantities of permafrost carbon.
Observed events – from the polar caps to the tropical rainforests, from mountain glaciers to the deep ocean – and the growing impact of carbon cycle feedbacks (in which a small perturbation can cause a large change) suggest we may be well on the way to kicking the climate system into accelerated warming, helping create an aberrant new climate state many degrees hotter.
The restoration of a safe climate requires the reduction of greenhouse gas levels to concentrations within the range that we know will maintain climate stability, probably between 280 and 325 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide, compared to the present level of almost 390 parts per million.
In other words, there is already too much carbon in the atmosphere, and this demands the rapid and near total de-carbonisation of all sectors of the economy, and the sequestration of around 200 billion tonnes of existing atmospheric carbon pollution. This is a challenging task in terms of the necessary scale and rapidity of action, but there is simply no alternative.
We face a sustainability emergency and speed is of the essence. For the high-polluting nations such as Australia, annual emissions cuts in the range of five to ten per cent a year may be necessary, and five per cent or more of world production may be required for a sustained period to build a global renewable energy system and a low-pollution world economy.
Transformative leadership and an imaginative, large-scale emergency transition programme will be necessary. It will be vital to ensure we live better by consuming less as we devote a significant portion of national production to rebuilding a sustainable society. At the same time it will be vital to ensure that this transition is just and minimises impacts on the most disadvantaged members of society.
Yet government agencies and corporate leaders appear overwhelmed by the challenge or are powerless to offer the needed leadership. As a consequence our community is critically underprepared. The full implications of climate change are not being investigated, the requirements for rapidly restoring a safe climate are not being determined, and effective action plans are not being prepared or implemented.