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Australia, deep in climate change's 'disaster alley', shirks its moral responsibility

A government's first responsibility is to safeguard the people and their future well-being. The ability to do this is threatened by human-induced climate change, the accelerating effects of which are driving political instability and conflict globally. Climate change poses an existential risk to humanity that, unless addressed as an emergency, will have catastrophic consequences.

In military terms, Australia and the adjacent Asia-Pacific region is considered to be "disaster alley", where the most extreme effects are being experienced. Australia's leaders either misunderstand or wilfully ignore these risks, which is a profound failure of imagination, far worse than that which triggered the global financial crisis in 2008. Existential risk cannot be managed with conventional, reactive, learn-from-failure techniques. We only play this game once, so we must get it right first time.

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Though Australia's climate policies are woeful, we're still in the Paris Climate Accord, unlike the USA. Artist: Matt Davidson.

This should mean an honest, objective look at the real risks to which we are exposed, guarding especially against more extreme possibilities that would have consequences damaging beyond quantification, and which human civilisation as we know it would be lucky to survive.

Instead, the climate and energy policies that successive Australian governments adopted over the last 20 years, driven largely by ideology and corporate fossil-fuel interests, deliberately refused to acknowledge this existential threat, as the shouting match over the wholly inadequate reforms the Finkel review proposes demonstrates too well. There is overwhelming evidence that we have badly underestimated both the speed and extent of climate change's effects. In such circumstances, to ignore this threat is a fundamental breach of the responsibility that the community entrusts to political, bureaucratic and corporate leaders.

A hotter planet has already taken us perilously close to, and in some cases over, tipping points that will profoundly change major climate systems: at the polar ice caps, in the oceans, and the large permafrost carbon stores. Global warming's physical effects include a hotter and more extreme climate, more frequent and severe droughts, desertification, increasing insecurity of food and water supplies, stronger storms and cyclones, and coastal inundation.

Climate change was a significant factor in triggering the war in Syria, the Mediterranean migrant crisis and the "Arab spring", albeit this aspect is rarely discussed. Our global carbon emission trajectory, if left unchecked, will drive increasingly severe humanitarian crises, forced migrations, political instability and conflicts.

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Australia is not immune. We already have extended heatwaves with temperates above 40 degrees, catastrophic bushfires, and intense storms and floods. The regional effects do not receive much attention but are striking hard at vulnerable communities in Asia and the Pacific, forcing them into a spiral of dislocation and migration. The effects on China and South Asia will have profound consequences for employment and financial stability in Australia.

In the absence of emergency action to reduce Australian and global emissions far faster than currently proposed, the level of disruption and conflict will escalate to the point that outright regional chaos is likely. Militarised solutions will be ineffective. Australia is failing in its duty to its people, and as a world citizen, by playing down these implications and shirking its responsibility to act.

Nonetheless, people understand climate risks, even as their political leaders underplay or ignore them. About 84 per cent of 8000 people in eight countries surveyed recently for the Global Challenges Foundation consider climate change a "global catastrophic risk". The result for Australia was 75 per cent. Many people see climate change as a bigger threat than epidemics, weapons of mass destruction and the rise of artificial intelligence.

What is to be done if our leaders are incapable of rising to the task?

First, establish a high-level climate and conflict taskforce in Australia to urgently assess the existential risks, and develop risk-management techniques and policies appropriate to that challenge.

Second, recognise that climate change is an global emergency that threatens civilisation, and push for a global, coordinated, practical, emergency response.

We only play this game once, so we must get it right first time.

Third, launch an emergency initiative to decarbonise Australia's economy no later than 2030 and build the capacity to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Fourth, help to build more resilient communities domestically and in the most vulnerable nations regionally; build a flexible capacity to support communities in likely hot spots of instability and conflict; and rethink refugee policies accordingly.

Fifth, ensure that Australia's military and government agencies are fully aware of and prepared for this changed environment; and improve their ability to provide aid and disaster relief.

Sixth, establish a national leadership group, outside conventional politics and drawn from across society, to implement the climate emergency program.

A pious hope in today's circumstances? Our leaders clearly do not want the responsibility to secure our future. So "everything becomes possible, particularly when it is unavoidable".

Ian Dunlop was an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chairman of the Australian Coal Association and chief executive of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. This is an extract from his report with David Spratt, Disaster alley: climate change, conflict and risk, released on Thursday.