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Climate change is now an emergency

By Anna Lycett, Marketing & Communications Lead at FMA

Weeks before summer, New South Wales and Queensland have already battled catastrophic fires that could go on for months. At the time of writing, six people are dead, 530 homes have been destroyed and 1.6 million hectares of land has been burnt – not to mention the devastating effect on wildlife.

Not only has Australia’s bushfire season started early, but fire chiefs say the length, extent and intensity of the fires is unprecedented. While the major political parties were reluctant to discuss the underlying causes, with some preferring to focus on lack of preparation and back-burns, others spoke out.

‘This week’s catastrophic fires are exactly the type of disaster that emergency leaders and climate scientists have been warning about for decades,’ said former Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Greg Mullins.

He spoke on behalf of 23 fire and emergency leaders from across Australia. Their backgrounds and political views are diverse, but their message is unanimous: climate change is now an emergency.

‘The government must respond to this urgent threat with an urgent response,’ said Mullins.

Climate change is here and now
Climate change used to be something that would happen in the future. Many people shrugged their shoulders because it wouldn’t affect them. It was abstract images of collapsing ice sheets, stranded polar bears and a few more days at the beach. But now, it seems, the future has arrived.

People all over the world are experiencing the effects of climate change and ecological breakdown – from deadly heatwaves and catastrophic storms, to the seemingly benign realisation that there are no insects stuck to the windscreen. One of the great injustices of climate change is that people in poorer countries, who have done the least to cause the damage, are the first and hardest hit. But this will affect everyone.

The 2019 report of The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change states that, ‘The life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by climate change, with populations around the world increasingly facing extremes of weather, food and water insecurity, changing patterns of infectious disease, and a less certain future’.

As NASA scientist Kate Marvel put it, ‘We are inevitably sending our children to live on an unfamiliar planet’.

Impacts on cities, buildings and people
According to the Climate Council, Australia is one of the most vulnerable developed countries in the world to the impacts of climate change. These impacts include:

  • more frequent and severe floods, droughts, heatwaves and bushfires
  • rising sea level
  • impacts on wildlife
  • changes in agriculture
  • more frequent marine heatwaves affecting ecosystems, such as the Great Barrier Reef
  • health impacts due to air pollution, vector-borne diseases and heatwaves
  • increased pressure on emergency services and health systems.

Climate change has disrupted, and will continue to disrupt, businesses. It will also affect large urban settlements and assets, including critical infrastructure related to energy, water, transport and buildings.

The Climate Council predicts that the Australian property market will lose $571 billion in value by 2030, with losses continuing in the coming decades if emissions remain high. Buildings face major risks of damage from the impacts of climate change. Globally, buildings have experienced a big increase in extreme weather damage in recent decades.

On a global scale, climate change is also a threat multiplier for political instability, conflict and mass migration. In Syria, for example, a severe drought drove 1.5 million people from farms to cities, increasing instability before fighting broke out.

Climate science and tipping points
The global average temperature has already risen by 1.1°C since pre-industrial times. This is due to greenhouse gases, which have built up in the atmosphere, trapping more heat close to the Earth’s surface.

While the Earth’s climate has always changed, scientists agree that recent significant changes are due to greenhouse gases emitted from human activities – namely the burning of coal, oil and gas, scaling-up of agriculture and tree-clearing, and increasing waste to landfill.

One of the most alarming aspects of climate change is tipping points – unpredictable and poorly understood thresholds that, if passed, could lead to runaway climate change that’s beyond human control.

In the Arctic, where temperatures are rising twice as fast, the permafrost is already thawing. Huge amounts of methane and carbon dioxide that have been frozen in dirt for millennia are being released into the atmosphere, and the Earth’s ice caps, which play a crucial role in cooling the planet by reflecting some of the sun’s rays, are melting. As the ice melts, it reveals dark water that absorbs more heat and triggers more warming.

These natural feedback loops promise to accelerate warming, even as we scramble to cut emissions.

Limiting global warming to 1.5°C
The Paris Agreement, signed by more than 190 countries but practiced in different ways, commits to limit global warming to well below 2°C and pursues efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of the United Nations, says we must halve our emissions by 2030 for a 50% chance of staying below 1.5°C. Even at this level of warming, times will be tough. But the impacts amplify rapidly between 1.5°C and 2°C.

Failure to limit temperature rise to well below 2°C risks ‘widespread negative and potentially catastrophic economic, social and environmental impacts’, affecting all countries and billions of people.

While the Paris Agreement was a great achievement, the Climate Council confirms that current pledges still put the world on track for at least 3.2°C of warming by 2100 – a scenario described as ‘outright chaos’. UN Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledges that maintaining the status quo on climate policy ‘would not only be immoral, it would be suicidal’.

Scientists agree that we must act now to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. In addition to decarbonising our economy, we also need to draw down carbon. Many solutions exist, such as renewable energy, protecting our forests, planting more trees and restoring coastal habitats.

Ensuring that all policies are consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C will require a shift away from our current system, which is driven by short-term economic gains with little consideration for environmental impacts or health and wellbeing.

Change is coming
In Australia, 81 local government bodies (and counting) have declared a climate emergency, as have South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. These local and state governments are now formulating plans to address the climate crisis.

In the building sector, a group of leading architects and engineers have declared a climate and biodiversity emergency, and committed to support the transition towards a low-carbon future – a move supported by the Australian Institute of Architects.

Buildings in Australia account for more than 50% of electricity use and almost a quarter of carbon emissions. There is great opportunity for facilities managers to help reduce emissions, draw down carbon, and implement adaptation and resilience strategies through measures such as energy efficiency, green infrastructure, and better water and waste management.

Public support for climate action is also building. More than 300,000 Australians attended the Global Climate Strike on 20 September. An online petition calling on the federal government to declare a climate emergency gained record signatures. The motion to declare a climate emergency was defeated in parliament, but supported by Labor and the Greens.

The vast majority of Australians want climate action. While fossil fuels are still a major part of our economy, the move towards clean energy is likely to bring many benefits and new jobs. Countries like Germany have demonstrated that it is possible to transition to a low-carbon future while ensuring the people and communities that are currently reliant on resources such as coal are not left behind.

Doing nothing is not an option
We have known about climate change for decades. Scientists have continually warned the public that ‘the world is sleepwalking to disaster’. While emissions per capita in Australia are falling, our total emissions continue to rise.

Now here we are, at five seconds to midnight, and people are no longer waiting around for governments to act. Change is coming from the ground up. The school strike movement was started by a lone teenager sitting outside the Swedish parliament building – Greta Thunberg has inspired a global movement and shown the power of one person to effect change.

While no-one knows how this will play out, what is certain is that how we respond to climate change today will determine what kind of world our children grow up in.

This article was originally published in Facility Perspectives Vol 13 No 4.