Will Steffen: We are failing our children and grandchildren when it comes to climate change
Climate change expert Professor Will Steffen writes about how climate change will impact on our children and grandchildren, his hopes and fears for the future, and why the time for action is right now.
Everyparent wants what’s best for their children. To make a better life for them, protect them and ensure their welfare in every way possible. I think this is innate in us all – to want to do all that you can to leave the world a better place for them to live in.
But climate change is something that my generation – and I’ll be 72 years old myself next month – is absolutely failing our children and grandchildren in. I’ve got a daughter, and hopefully in the next few years she’ll be thinking about having children, and I want to make sure they have a liveable planet when they get up to be my age.
But I worry. And now more than ever.
As a climate scientist, I’ve dedicated much of my life to studying this issue and the risks are really, really serious. And not only for us humans, but also for a lot of other creatures that we share the Earth with.
The science, in a nutshell, is saying that we may trigger so many reactions within the Earth’s system that it gets out of our control and the generations that immediately follow us will face a very bleak future.
Some climate projections show that if we keep emitting greenhouse gases at the rate we are today, by the middle of this century – which is 2050 and certainly when many of our children will be around – the climate in Australia will be at least two degrees above pre-industrial times.
What does that mean? Extreme heatwaves. Long, record-breaking droughts. Extreme rainfall events. The sea level is rising, so those people who live on the coast are facing increasing risk of coastal inundation. It’s been estimated that by 2030 we could wipe off over half a trillion dollars of coastal property values around Australia.
And that’s just one way we’ll see economic disruption.
We’ll also see a lot of loss of other creatures – decreases in biodiversity, many species extinctions and so on.
What some people fail to realise is that it’s starting to happen now. We can already see it. And a certain part of our future is already locked in – it’ll be much worse for our children over the next couple of decades. Things will get worse regardless until at least 2040 due to the past emissions that we’ve already put into the atmosphere. That we can’t change.
But from there onwards, it’s up to us to alter the course of climate change by what we do right now. How quickly we act, what initiatives we support and how we vote.
This is a collective action problem that needs to be solved at a collective level. In our country, we’ve got a democracy, so that works through our elections and our governmental system. That’s one way that every citizen can affect change.
And if we do live up to the challenge to get emissions down really rapidly over the next few decades, that would allow us to stabilise the climate around the middle of the century.
But if we don’t do that, things will continue to get worse throughout the rest of this century, and in a worst case scenario, large parts of Australia and large parts of the Earth will basically be uninhabitable for humans by 2100. So it is a very bleak outlook.
We often get accused of doom and gloom for such ominous predictions, but we have to be absolutely and brutally honest about what the science is saying. If we don’t get emissions down – fast – we are bequeathing a really, really tough, nasty world to our children and grandchildren. That’s a fact.
If we don’t get emissions down – fast – we are bequeathing a really, really tough, nasty world to our children and grandchildren.
And given that people live into their 80s these days quite commonly, the very people who are being born right now will be around in the year 2100 to experience these very extreme risks.
My fear is that, even within the next couple of decades, if we don’t make the right decisions we could push the Earth over the brink, so to speak – past the threshold, as we say in science. And there’ll be no turning back the clock. We’ll have set the ball in motion towards a world that will be extremely difficult for humans to live in. That’s my biggest fear.
My hope is that the momentum builds and this instigates some real, serious change going forward. People are increasingly becoming aware of climate change, but we need more and more people to want something to be done about it.
Because we’re at a point where every single year matters.
We’re at a point where every single year matters.
Another thing that gives me hope is the younger generation, because they’re getting out on the streets around the world and saying: “We’ve had enough of this. You adults are letting us down.”
Because we are. We have. We are in the process of actually destroying their future. And the election results from this weekend demonstrates just that.
But many young ones are out there speaking loudly and clearly. So I really hope we approach a tipping point in human affairs where people realise that getting climate change under control has to be the number one priority. It has to take precedence over short-term economic growth or whatever else you think is important in life.
My hope is that we reach this societal tipping point within the next few years, and elect and demand of government that they make climate change the number one priority and take all the measures that are required to stabilise the climate.
Let’s hope that that happens, and if it does, then I think we can stabilise the climate and keep it livable for our children and grandchildren.
That’s what we’ve got to hope for. Because time really is running out.