Transcribed by Otter AI
Hello and welcome to The Planetary Podcast. Today we are joined by Dr. John Hewson, former leader of the Liberal Party of Australia, Professor at the Australian National University, and Chair of the Council for the Human Future. Thank you for joining us today!
It’s an absolute pleasure, Kimberly.
Now, the council has identified ten megarisks to civilization. Can you please tell us what these risks are?
Yes, well, we’ve recently established the council, and we declared our mission really is to alert the global society to the significance and urgency of a series of what we’ve identified as catastrophic human-made risks, sort of been a victim of our own success in many ways from about the middle of the last century. And these risks together comprise an existential emergency facing all humanity. So our aim is to promote a coherent strategy that will set human civilization on a path to surviving and thriving these risks.
Now, the council has identified ten “megarisks” to civilization. Can you please tell us what these risks are?
So the ones we’ve focused on are: the decline of key natural resources, the collapse of ecosystems that support life and the mass extinction of species; human population growth and demand beyond the earth’s carrying capacity; global warming, sea-level rise, and change in the climate that’s affecting all human activity; widespread pollution of the earth systems by chemicals; rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality; nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction; pandemics of new and untreatable diseases; the advent of powerful and uncontrolled new technologies; and finally, what we’ve described as really as a universal human failure to understand and act preventively on these risks.
One of my personal frustrations is the way governments, we would say loosely, ignore the science. They ignore warnings, even specific warnings, as we saw in terms of COVID, pushing these issues down the road as if they’re not going to happen. And then, you know, getting caught by surprise or getting caught short. And if you anticipate the risks, and you properly assess the significance of the risks, and you look at the alternative ways in which they can be dealt with effectively, then you can have a very bright future. I mean, most governments got caught short. Their responses have been variable, but within a global collaborative framework that we had to deal with this and as a matter of urgency. And I’ve been impressed about how quickly people in our country, for example, have responded. Changing the way they live, the way they work, the way they travel, what they say, how they spend, accepting completely different roles, expanded roles for government, and so on, which is sort of been to me a bit of a dress rehearsal for what’s possible if we all sign off on the significance of the challenge, and we all pitch in to do our bit at whatever level of society around the globe actually to deal with these serious, very serious risks and threats to our future.
Now, which of these risks do you find the most pressing at this time?
Well, we don’t prioritize. In fact, we argue that it’s important to consider them collectively. You don’t want to pursue one risk to the detriment of others. You might be able to stimulate more economic activity in a recovery phase by doing more with fossil fuels, but you do a lot of additional damage to the objective in relation to climate. So our focus is really not to prioritize, although, the public debate clearly does focus on some more than others. And then, of course, the intensity of concern varies a lot with the way that some of these issues unfold.
Absolutely, and, you know, one of the main criticisms when it comes to sustainable development is that a lot of times when we’re dealing with some of these issues, we work on them in silo, and we come up with these solutions, they might be solutions to the one issue we’re facing, but can exacerbate the others.
That’s right, and we’ve got to be very careful not to do that. And that’s been our principal motivating focus, really, and getting people to understand that and accept that. I mean, I recognize the magnitude of that challenge, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and you’ve got to push hard, and that’s really what we see our role is in this council.
That’s great. And, you know, again, with the governments’ responses and COVID. In recent years, we’ve seen a growing call for governments to step up and take concrete action on the climate emergency. And I think especially so, recently, with the pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in calls for green recovery. However, there have been few countries that have actually raised their level of ambition enough to meet our climate goals, as seen in the recent NDC synthesis report. How can we increase political will to the levels necessary to tackle these existential threats facing our global community?
Well, it is a frustration. You know that there is no question that these threats are real. There’s no question that they are happening now. There’s no question that they’re extremely grave, yet governments don’t seem to want to listen. And I agree with you. I mean, I thought that, you know, everyone’s talking about how we recover from the worst or most disruptive economic and social circumstances since the Great Depression. And you look at the pathways to the transition that you need to make, say to a low carbon world by the middle part of this century. And all of those transition pathways, sector by sector, offer very realistic growth potential in terms of investment, in terms of measured growth, in terms of jobs.
So politically, you would think our governments will embrace it. Yet, as you say, they’ve been very hesitant to actually do that. I think it’s a terrible lost opportunity. One of the problems we have had in Australia is going back over the last couple of decades, we have had a very, sort of surreal political debate. Two major parties scoring points on each other and trying to shift blame rather than solving problems, and they just kick this task down the road. And the difficulty is that it’s all been done in the context of them asserting, then government, for example, asserting that any response to climate, for example, must be not just disruptive, it must be negative in terms of its impact on growth and jobs, which is completely wrong.
You know, an effective response to climate would give you new industries, new businesses, new jobs, new directions, great potential for accelerating momentum, and so on. Yet, the debate has been really distorted by this simplistic notion that we shouldn’t have more disruption, or we should risk losing things in the context of recovering from this pandemic, yet, ironically, it is one of the most effective ways out. And as you say, we haven’t seen too many genuine green deals from one government to the next. And, you know, you are seeing Biden push this now in the United States; it’s going to put a lot of pressure on Australia, where we are a designated laggard in terms of our recognition of the seriousness of the climate challenge and the magnitude of our response. And I do think there’ll be a global competition this year led by people like John Kerry and Biden on the one hand. Johnson wants COP26 to be an outstanding success. The Europeans won’t stand back and let Johnson just do that. And then all the others, you know, the Japanese or South Koreans, and even the Chinese, Canadians will all be under pressure to increase their commitments, but not just targets, they’ve got to actually demonstrate substantive action to move us towards what is in the world’s interests, and it’s imperative, for a low carbon society over the next two, three decades.
Exactly the time for talk has passed, it’s really time to amp up that ambition, as the Secretary-General of the United Nations said, this is the decade of ambition, the decade of action, we have to do this now. We don’t have a choice.
No, that’s right. I mean, you got this sense of urgency with the pandemic when it was quite clear that it was really going to spread very far and fast. And that in early stages, it reached, had a fairly alarming death rate in some countries, and people, you know, although governments were slow to respond, they did, in the end, respond, and they are still responding. And they’ll do more and more. And that’s the sort of momentum you want to see built on these other existential threats. And we just take things for granted.
In Australia, it’s a classic example, the government’s totally focused on short-term politics. You know, winning the next election, keeping government not delivering visionary, sort of policy responses, not solving the big problems- they kick them down the road. And then because ultimately when you have to deal with one of these problems, it’s much greater than you imagined. It’s going to take… it’s more disruptive, it’s going to cost more money, it’s going to take more time. And that short-sighted politics is really the problem.
So, you know, we have pressure in the nuclear debate coming out of Iran or coming out of North Korea, and it’s sort of discounted, you know. India and Pakistan, both got nuclear capability, and they’ve constant border skirmishes, we’re not sure about the Israelis. They’re always there these issues, people just for some reason, discount them. And yet, on any day, it could explode very quickly as a major global threat, a global issue, I should say. It is certainly a global threat.
So this is just a frustration that I have that nobody wants to listen to these warnings. Nobody in government and policymakers, they don’t want to listen to the warnings. They don’t want to pay attention to the science. You know, it’s annoying, isn’t it when they say, “Oh, in response to the pandemic, we have listened to the medical science, we’ve listened to the medical experts.” Although that was pretty rudimentary and not a lot of evidence to go on, you have to go back to the Spanish flu in 1918, to get any sort of basis for that, although you’ve had SARS and Ebola and others in this century. But, you know, they say they listen to that science, that is pretty rudimentary science compared to climate science, which has been overwhelmingly peer-reviewed. And it’s very, very substantive. It emphasizes when such a high percentage of climate scientists and other scientists say that this is a major problem that needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. You know, governments still don’t quite get it, they don’t quite listen.
Now, that really is a problem, and how can we get that message to governments? How can we get them to hear us when we’re talking about this? Because I think with COVID, we did see a little bit more of a uniformed response, where people kind of readily accepted the science, with the exception of a few, that this is an existential risk, this is something we need to address now. Yet, with climate change, we have known for several years now that this is going to be much worse.
You just have to keep arguing the point. I mean, I know how frustrating that can be. Because, as I say, the science of climate has been around much longer term, it’s much more substantive. There’s no vaccine for climate. It’s an issue that is much, much bigger, and potentially more disruptive than the pandemic. So you would think at some point, some government is going to say, “This is a real issue, we’re gonna have to deal with it.”
So what we’re trying to do in a small way from the council is to raise this profile of the issue. I mean, we’ve got a conference coming up which we’re calling Delivering the Human Future, which has got a range of global experts talking about the significance of each of these risks, and documenting the available solutions now. We’re hoping to lead to a letter, I think we’re going to pose it to the governments and the peoples of the earth, getting them to develop a clear plan if you like, a clear pathway for human survival.
Now, going back to Australia, Australia has been on the front lines of the climate crisis. We saw the devastating bushfires and the massive coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef; it made global headlines. So what adverse effects of climate change are you currently seeing in Australia, and what is being done to address it?
I think the key point is that as a result of the intensity, say of the bushfires, and we’ve had, you know, a lot of extreme weather events, not just bushfires, but most recently, that’s been a focus. And then, of course, the impact of the pandemic. People are coming to recognize that these events cost and the cost of inaction is going to swamp really or is swamping the cost of action. People don’t understand why we don’t prepare better for the next bushfire. What have we learned from the last one? What are we carrying forward to the next one? Or in terms of droughts, for example, we have an extremely, very dry continent. We have extreme droughts. What do we learn from one drought to the next? And here some of the solutions to climate come into their own don’t they? I mean, regenerative agriculture, for example, can improve the resilience of the soil, make it much more drought resistant. It’s fairly simple to do changing farming techniques, rotating crops and animals, land clearing, revegetation, basically increasing the carbon content of the soil, not using chemical fertilizers, using organic fertilizers not, you know, shallow tilling or no tilling of the soil.
These events can actually, these policies, changes in farming techniques can actually improve the carbon content of the soil, which gives a carbon credit which the farmer can then sell. So that you know it’s a win-win. It’s reducing emissions. And indeed, there is a lot of evidence now in Australia that agriculture as a sector can be net negative emissions by simply restoring the carbon content of the soil by sequestration. And, you know, you’d say, well, that’s a great opportunity. Now, people are starting to recognize the significance of that. So when the government won’t do it, the National Farmers Federation, New South Wales Farmers Federation, all coming out and committed to net zero emissions by 2050. The Grains Council has been talking about having net negative emissions because they recognize, their argument, as it was put to me, is that for every one tonne of carbon they put out, they can put three back. So you know, net negative emissions are really possible. So the debate is starting to move to recognize the significance and the cost of extreme weather events, for example, and the role of climate, if you want to loosely turn it out and behind why that is happening. You know that was a simple prediction of climate scientists, wasn’t it? We will have more extreme weather events that will occur with greater frequency and intensity. That certainly happened. And people are starting to recognize that, and the government is saying, “Well, we will do something about regenerative agriculture. We will fund it to some extent in the next budget,”. Although, as I say, it doesn’t really need much funding.
The same thinking has started to sink in in relation to the transition to renewable energy. And we haven’t done very much in terms of the electrification of the vehicle fleet yet, but that’s the next one off the ranking. You know, it won’t take that long. I think once those views get momentum, and people recognize the benefits that are far going to outweigh any costs of inaction. Then, of course, I think the debate starts to move.
So it’s been a long grind. I’ve been involved in Australia since the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, trying to win this argument, only to see it frittered away with political infighting and so on over a large part of that time. But the community is demanding action. Households in Australia have the highest penetration of rooftop solar in the world. And people are moving, businesses are moving, civil societies are moving, our bigger institutions, whether it’s our Central Bank, the Reserve Bank, or our corporate regulators, they’re all moving, saying these are significant risks, they’ve got to be addressed. So it is early stages after several decades, but we are seeing early stages of momentum, I think building.
That’s fantastic. And you know, on regenerative agriculture, those are the exact type of solutions that we need. Because globally, industrial agriculture accounts for 80 percent of deforestation and the World Health Organization has named land-change, such as deforestation and land conversion for agriculture, as the leading driver of emerging infectious diseases. So it all goes to show the connectivity of how our actions are not just affecting the health of our planet, but the health of ourselves as well.
That’s right. And you know, when you start to get that sort of debate going internationally, and people recognize the significance of it, it can make a difference. My frustration is Australia, given our very large pastoral lands, grazing lands, agricultural lands, and so on, we could be a world leader in regenerative agriculture. We could set the standard. We’ve got the technologies. In fact, there is a very new technology that is about to be released, measuring the carbon content of the soils for a few dollars, and ultimately a few cents per hectare. So this can be done and it can be done very cheaply. And the potential in terms of benefits either to farmers or the industry or to the country are enormous. So we’re on the cusp, I think, of maybe seeing that happen. And when the global organizations start to point out the potential, I think it’s a no-brainer to me.
Understandably, and I think a lot of times we hear the excuse that it’s too expensive to do these things. But, a recent report by the World Economic Forum found that shifting away from business as usual and adopting nature-positive solutions across multiple sectors would be a $10 trillion opportunity for business, and it could create millions of jobs by 2030.
I think it’s very good that the debate is spreading at all levels of the global community. And those who really feel it in some of the developing countries, they get the extreme impacts of climate, for example. But in Australia, we are one of the most climate-exposed countries in the world, and you think we’d be much further advanced. I am annoyed that we are designated as a laggard when we could be a leader in so many ways. We’ve got some of the best resources of sun and wind, we’ve got huge deposits of graphite and lithium for batteries. There’s no reason why we can’t do it. And we can become a major exporter of energy, or ammonia, or hydrogen, or whatever. So the opportunities are there. We just need a bit of leadership, I think, globally and domestically to make a difference.
Well, I was encouraged to see the cities of Sydney and Adelaide take that next step forward and commit to 100 percent renewable last year.
Yes, in terms of their own activities, that’s a very sensible thing to have done. And in a way, in Australia, the cities, the big cities, and the states have been leading the federal government. And you would have thought that was an embarrassment enough in itself, really. And I’ve seen a similar thing in the US when Trump started to, you know, pull back from Paris, a number of the big cities and a lot of businesses and so on actually said, well, we’re just going to continue. It’s an imperative. It’s not something you should be playing games with politically. It’s not a situation to be gained for perceived political advantage. It is a responsibility of governments not only to the current generation but importantly to future generations who are going to find it extremely difficult to actually handle this.
We just put out a report, we have a climate targets panel, showing that the government is talking about now, the federal government’s talking about having a net-zero emissions target by 2050; they’ll throw that into the Paris mix. But that’s meaningless when their target for 2030 is so small, 26 to 28 percent reduction, in emissions of a 2005 base, it’s less than half what was recommended at the time that target was announced. And if we don’t get something like 60 percent of our emissions reduction by 2030, then in every year after 2030 to 2050, we got to do up to 10 times as much adjusting as we do in this decade.
So this is just, the orders of magnitude are absolutely staggering, and at some point, I think that will come home to whoever is in government. And you are getting very big movements now in two ends of our political spectrum. Young people, of course, are very strongly aware of what’s being done and how the challenge is being pushed down to them. But a lot of older Australians, people who are worried about their kids and their grandkids and the sort of world that they’re leaving to them, are also active. So we’ve got a very strong political motivation now; I think the government actually moves, but you know, having said that, they still continue to play short-term political games.
Yeah, I think we see that a lot all around the globe. And with climate change, we really have to look past that partisan lens that we have because climate change is going to impact everyone everywhere. It does not care what political party you’re a part of.
It doesn’t differentiate by ideology or by age, or by region, really. Some parts are going to do a lot worse than others. And, as you say, the interconnectedness between some of these threats is so serious, and it becomes quite conspicuous when you look at global development strategy. So I think, you know, we are hopeful that modest efforts like our council, along with a whole lot of others, can actually start to change the debate.
Now, you touched on this a couple of minutes ago, but I want to go into it a little bit further, and that is- do we have a moral obligation, an intergenerational responsibility to ensure a stable climate for future generations?
Yes, one of the arguments that you hear in Australia all the time is, “Oh, look, we’re only a small, you know, per capita emitter.” We are the largest per capita emitter in the world, but it’s sort of 1.3, 1.4 percent. That ignores the fact that we’re also one of the world’s largest exporters of fossil fuels- coal, thermal coal, and LNG. And when you allow for the significance of those exports, we rank about the fifth or sixth-largest emitter in the world in absolute terms. So we have a very big responsibility; we have a moral responsibility, which is intergenerational. We have, as a major exporter, a global responsibility way beyond just the per capita level of emissions that we want to identify, and the government hangs its hat on that which is sort of meaningless.
So scope three considerations. Now, some of our big miners, like BHP or worrying about scope three emissions, like who do they sell the coal for? What do they do with it? What standards can you put on that? What requirements can you put on it? This is very important. So, these moral responsibilities are very significant. I think, to me, that climate change is not only a very significant economic, social and political issue, it is a very significant moral issue. And that dimension has been downplayed. And it’s got very significant health consequences and a whole lot of other dimensions, which I think are now starting to be recognized and come to the fore.
I think that is accurate for a lot of countries at this time. I know here in the US, we were lagging behind in climate action for several years there. So I’m hopeful that we really pick up the pace. As we’ve mentioned with John Kerry, I’m hopeful that we’ll start to see some real concrete action come out pretty quickly. Now our last question, as an economist, what are your thoughts on the call for a clean energy transition?
Again, another one of my frustrations given that we have an unusual endowment, natural endowment in Australia, of solar and wind assets, and we have the technologies to actually produce very cheap electricity and to export that electricity or using it to create, you know, green hydrogen and ammonia, and so on, which is happening. A number of business organizations are starting to do this now. But the potential for a country like Australia is enormous, and you can make a very big difference by ensuring that the transition to renewables occurs.
You know, it’s just one of those things which… take it the other way, in Australia, we’ve had a couple of decades of sort of both sides of politics fighting each other and scoring points. The losers have been consumers of power, because we’ve had to pay a much higher price for electricity and gas, for example, than otherwise would have been the case. The implicit carbon price, as an economist would say, is much higher than would otherwise have been if we just put a price on carbon in the beginning and let it drive the process. So I do think that these realities are starting to be recognized and accepted. And obviously, the transition to renewables in the power sector is fundamentally important for a country like Australia, but also, I think, globally.
And then, of course, the other sectors, we’ve talked about regenerative agriculture, the transport sector, the electrification of the vehicle fleet and so on, it is happening. I mean, a lot of the car manufacturers are now setting targets for electric vehicles rather than petrol-driven vehicles. Moving out of them all together over the next decade in a lot of cases. So these changes are taking place. The economics of this is overwhelmingly positive. It’s, not just an economic consideration, but as we’ve said, the social dimensions of these transitions are very good. I mean, you’ve got to manage it, sure. You have to move away from coal-fired power, you’re going to manage the communities that are built around coal mines and coal-fired power stations, and give them a transition in terms of offering up job opportunities, retraining, in some cases retrenchment, relocation of families, and so on. These things can be managed. And you’ve got a decade, let’s say, looking to 2030 to actually make the difference over a ten-year period, you can actually make all those transitions effective and fair. And so it is a just and effective transition that we’re looking for. And I think in terms of renewable energy, clean energy that’s fundamental to the process. And it can make a big difference by just actually embracing that and encouraging the development of it. And solar power now is so much cheaper than coal-fired power, or new coal-fired power. It is so much cheaper than gas-fired power. I mean, the economic argument has been won, the technology risk has been eliminated. There is no reason for not accelerating that.
Absolutely. We touched on it a few minutes ago, but can you tell us a little bit more about the Council’s upcoming conference and how our audience can tune in?
Yes, well, I think we’re going to distribute two contact points for the two-day conference, obviously, with time zone differences. We’ve had to run it over two days. But we’ve got a string of very significant speakers who are going to contribute to this conference.
We’ve got Gerardo Ceballos, who’s going to talk about the “Extinction and the Future of Humanity.” Julian Cribb will talk about “The Age of Renewable Food.” “Avoiding a Ghastly Future” will be Paul Ehrlich. “Pandemics and the Future of Global Health” will be Soumya Swaminathan. “Global Water Security,” Peter Gleick. “Clean up the Planet,” Ravi Naidu. “Hothouse Earth and How to Avoid It,” Will Steffen, one of my colleagues here at ANU. “Taming the Nuclear Menace,” Tilman Ruff. “AI and Other Risky Technologies,” Toby Walsh. “An Economy to Save the Earth,” Laurie Laybourn. And “Facing the Population Overgrowth,” Jane O’Sullivan.
Outstanding world-class speakers, specialists in each of those ten areas of, we call them existential risks. These speeches will be recorded and available online in perpetuity. So we are hoping that it will actually stimulate a global discussion of the significance of these sorts of issues.
All right, well, I am definitely looking forward to that. Thank you so much for joining us, John. It was such a pleasure speaking with you.
The Council for the Human Future is calling on the nations and people of the Earth to band together to overcome the ten great megarisks facing humanity. Join them to learn more about these megarisks and discover the solutions in their series Delivering the Human Future, available online and the links to the conference will be included in this episode’s show notes on The Planetary Press.
Delivering the Human Future
Day 1 Schedule (Saturday March 20th PDT):
Day 1 Livestream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PiHrAqrPQ10
1:05pm- Opening remarks, Professor John Hewson, CHF Chairman
1:20pm- “Avoiding a Ghastly Future”, Emeritus Professor Paul R Ehrlich, Stanford University
1:50pm- “Pandemics and the Future of Global Health”, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Chief Scientist
2:20pm- “Global Water Scarcity”, Dr Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute President-Emeritus
2:50pm- Break (15 minutes)
3:05pm- “Hothouse Earth and what we can do to avoid it”, Emeritus Professor Will Steffen, Australian National University
3:35pm- “Taming the Nuclear Menace”, Professor Tilman Ruff, Co-founder of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)
4:05pm- “Extinction and the Future of Humanity”, Professor Gerardo Ceballos, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
4:35pm- “Risks of Artificial Intelligence”, Professor Toby Walsh, University of New South Wales.
Day 2 Schedule (Sunday March 21st PDT):
Day 2 Livestream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGEjktmUdzM
1:05pm- “Clean Earth: humanity’s next great challenge”, Laureate Professor Ravi Naidu, University of Newcastle
1:35pm- “The Age of Renewable Food”, Julian Cribb, author and science writer
2:05pm- “Facing up to overpopulation”, Dr Jane O’Sullivan, University of Queensland
2:35pm- Break (15 minutes)
2:50pm- “Racing to save ourselves from ourselves”, Leilani Munter, race car driver and eco-activist.
3:20pm- “An Economy to save the Earth”, Dr Laurie Laybourn, UK Institute for Public Policy Research
3:50pm- Plenary Debate and Resolution. Letter to Citizens of Earth.
4:50pm- Closing Comments, Professor John Hewson, CHF Chairman