Ian Dunlop | Managing Catastrophic Risk

Australia prides itself, rightly, on its ability to respond to crises.  During the Victorian bushfires, Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi, which were almost certainly intensified by climate change, Australia’s disaster recovery systems acquitted themselves well.  The excellent leadership shown by Premier Anna Bligh and others was widely commended, all of which is highly creditable. But it begs the question: “why are we not expending far more effort on preventative policies to avoid or minimize the impact of natural disasters in the first place?”.

If you accept the latest evidence from the credible climate scientists, we have a far greater and more urgent challenge than is being acknowledged officially.  Certainly there continue to be uncertainties around aspects of the science, not surprising given its complexity, but that uncertainty has less to do with the underlying fundamentals of anthropogenic climate change and far more with the impact it will have; for example, are the changes leading us to a 20C or a 70C temperature increase relative to pre-industrial conditions?.

A rational response to the risks we now run would be structured against the following background:

First, the world is clearly warming. Second, the impact of warming is occurring far faster than the science had anticipated – changes are occurring at the 0.80C we have already experienced that were not expected for decades ahead, largely the result of our emissions over preceding decades. Third, due to the inertia of the climate system, we have probably already locked in a temperature increase of around 2.40C irrespective of any action we may take.  Fourth, current policy proposals, if enacted, would probably lead to a 40C plus temperature increase where much of the world becomes uninhabitable. Fifth, climate change is likely to be non-linear, with abrupt irreversible changes to a new equilibrium state, probably far less conducive to human development, as critical tipping points are triggered.

The official objective is to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting temperature increase to 20C,  roughly a 450ppm CO2e atmospheric carbon concentration, a political target set some years ago for which there is no real scientific justification.  The science today suggests that 20C lies at the boundary between dangerous and extremely dangerous climate change, with a realistic target being below 1.50C, or below 350ppm CO2e.

Major organizations around the world are starting to acknowledge publicly that we do not have the ability to reach even the 20C outcome if we stick to conventional political reform processes. To put it bluntly, we have no means of avoiding global climate catastrophe unless we radically change our approach.

The management of catastrophic risk has to be very different from current process, particularly as irreversible outcomes are likely.  It must centre around contingency planning for high-impact and what were regarded as low-probability events, which unfortunately are now becoming more probable. Major, high-risk industrial operations, such as offshore oil exploration, provide a model, with detailed contingency planning and sequential barriers being put in place to prevent worst-case outcomes and mitigate the impact.

Essential barriers must be a rapid reduction in emissions, equally rapid transition to low-carbon energy sources, reduction in consumption, removal of subsidies which encourage emissions and removal of the glaring contradiction of expanding the coal and gas industries without carbon sequestration.  But we have limited time in which to make this change – emissions have to peak globally within the next five years, ideally before that in Australia.  It is only possible if we adopt an emergency approach, akin to placing the country on a war-footing or to the US Apollo moonshot programme.  With virtually nothing achieved over the last twenty years to mitigate climate change, it is now inevitable this is where we will end up sooner or later, if social cohesion is to be maintained.  The longer it takes, the more costly, economically and socially. The challenge now is to motivate the community to develop leaders who can take emergency action.

The flip side is the great opportunities a low-carbon economy presents.  As Ross Garnaut recently put it:” Australia’s advantages as a low-cost supplier of energy and its raw materials are likely to be even greater after a successful global transformation to a low-carbon economy than they are in a world in which fossil-fuels dominate energy supply.” But only if we act now.


Ian Dunlop was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive.  He chaired the Australian Coal Association in 1987-88, chaired the Australian Greenhouse Office Experts Group on Emissions Trading from 1998-2000 and was CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors from 1997-2001.  He is Chairman of Safe Climate Australia and a Member of the Club of Rome.

First published in Chemistry in Australia <www.raci.org.au/chemaust>