The Abbott government's chief business adviser Maurice Newman's latest contribution to the national debate urges us to prepare for global cooling. Global warming has supposedly paused for the past 18 years and Newman's preferred scientific advisers believe we are now entering a long-term cooling phase. His argument neatly highlights a fundamental failure in our national governance.
All the evidence indicates that the world is warming far faster than previously expected, the major cause almost certainly being human carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Warming has not paused for the last 18 years. The oceans, where the bulk of the energy entering the Earth's system is stored, have continued warming at an accelerating rate. That is the view of the vast majority of informed climate scientists, virtually all competent scientific institutions such as the British Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences, the Australian Academy of Science and supranational bodies such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, International Energy Agency, as well as the United Nations itself, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has conducted probably the most extensive scientific investigation ever undertaken.
However, the greatest risks of global warming, although mentioned in IPCC reports, are yet to be quantified due to insufficient scientific knowledge. There is evidence that we may have already passed tipping points where the climate jumps from a relatively stable state to a new state far less conducive to human development; to wit, the rapid warming of the Arctic, leading to accelerating sea ice and permafrost melt and large methane and carbon emissions; Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheet disintegration leading to accelerating sea level rise; coral reef destruction; ocean acidification and so forth.
These are high-impact, supposedly low-probability events which our continued reliance on fossil fuels may be locking in irreversibly today. Their probability of occurrence was thought to be low but the evidence suggests this is no longer the case. Uncertainty is no justification for ignoring them; on the contrary, it means we should be taking even greater precautionary measures now. The outcomes, if we continue on our current path, may well be catastrophic, leading to a major reduction in global population and a halt to economic activity as we know it.
Denial within government is absolute. But the Prime Minister's appointment of four well-respected and experienced businessmen to fill highly influential advisory positions, which have a bearing on our response to global warming, is the most dangerous governance failure seen in this country for decades. Newman himself was appointed chairman of the Prime Minister's business advisory committee. Dick Warburton was appointed chairman of the renewable energy target review. David Murray was appointed chairman of the financial services review. Tony Shepherd was appointed chairman of the National Commission for Audit.
All four share some common characteristics. They would all claim, as a result of their business experience, to be experts in risk management from varying perspectives. They are also outright, and very public, deniers that the world faces any risk from human-induced global warming. Global warming is an unprecedented risk management challenge, for the survival of much of humanity is at stake. History demonstrates that science has continually underestimated both the speed and extent of the warming; an underestimation that poses major risks for Australia. A new risk management approach is required that identifies the quantum and the timing of emission reductions needed, far beyond anything being contemplated officially, and then maps out the path to achieve them. Current policies, in comparison, are based on supposedly "politically realistic" solutions, shorthand for doing nothing. But, as Winston Churchill put it: "It is not good enough to do our best, sometimes we have to do what is necessary."
The government has ensured, by its absolute denial and by the appointment of outright deniers to key advisory roles, that the greatest risk facing our nation even in the short term is deliberately ignored in policy formulation.
Warburton advises that "Adaptation to adverse climate change, if and when it does occur, may be the best and only viable strategy" and will no doubt be following this philosophy in his renewable energy target review. But waiting for catastrophe to happen before acting means that it is too late to act. It is precisely this scenario that proper risk management is designed to avoid.
The advisers themselves are entitled to their own opinions but advising on an issue of such importance about which they are in complete denial means that they are totally conflicted in making any objective judgment. In any corporate situation, this would be roundly condemned for contravening long-established governance principles.
The first role of government is to ensure the security of its citizenry, as the Prime Minister continually reminds us. Given the overwhelming weight of informed opinion emphasising the need for urgent action on global warming, denial that it even exists represents a total abrogation of the government's primary fiduciary responsibility – our ultimate governance failure.
Contrary to Newman's view, successful campaigns by the denialist lobby and fossil fuel vested interests have ensured that we are ill-prepared to handle the global warming that is already a major economic burden to Australia. It's time our response was managed by an independent national security body independent of party politics and its acolytes. Global cooling – if only!
Ian Dunlop was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chairman of the Australian Coal Association and chief executive of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is a member of the Club of Rome.