A future of abundant, affordable, sustainable energy is achievable—if politics doesn’t stand in the way.
Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and star American climatologist Michael E. Mann are united in their conviction that existing technologies are robust enough to create an energy future that avoids the worst consequences of global warming—and in their distaste for Rupert Murdoch and his media empire for promoting climate change denial in both the US and Australia.
Those were among the takeaways at Rising to the Global Climate Challenge: Australia’s Leadership, the keynote session to the 2022 Global Order Colloquium at Perry World House in September. The event doubled as the launch of Penn’s new Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media, headed by Mann, who joined Penn’s faculty this year as the Presidential Distinguished Professor of Earth and Environmental Science, with a secondary appointment at the Annenberg School for Communication, after many years at Penn State University.
In his opening remarks, Turnbull—who had mixed success advancing sustainable energy production and climate policies against stiff partisan opposition as Australia’s 29th prime minster from 2015 to 2018—was emphatic about the need for action now.
“The bad news is, if we don’t cut out burning fossil fuels, we’re going to wreck this planet and make it uninhabitable. The good news is we have the means to do it,” he said. “Technology will improve, efficiencies will improve, but we have the means to have abundant energy at affordable prices delivered in a reliable manner with zero emissions.”
Wind and solar energy are already the cheapest forms of generating electricity “pretty much anywhere in the world,” and storage methods, from batteries to pumped hydro projects, are available. “We have the tools to do the job, but what we need to do is get cracking with it,” Turnbull insisted. “We have been bedeviled by crazy politics and crazy media—none crazier than Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News here in the United States, which regrettably is even more influential in Australia.
“Fundamentally, science denial, climate change denial is the biggest problem that we have—and of course the vested interests, the fossil fuel lobby,” he continued. “So, if we can replace ideology and idiocy with engineering and economics, we can get the job done—and that’s what we should all be seeking to do.”
Mann recalled traveling to Sydney, Australia, while on sabbatical in 2019 to work with scientists at the University of New South Wales only to “come face to face with the impacts of climate change” as the country experienced its “Black Summer,” in which “Australia witnessed unprecedented heat and drought and these bushfires, these wildfires, that literally blanketed the continent,” he said.
This was also when he got to know Turnbull, which he called “one of the more delightful opportunities that came my way,” and the two bonded over their “mutual dislike” of Murdoch “and our willingness to call out bad actors in the media.”
Expressing his pleasure that the first event of his new center would also feature Turnbull, Mann said, “I think we are both here at a very important time in history where we are seeing the devastating consequences of climate change play out in real time. There’s no question about that, but we’ve also seen progress that we didn’t expect to see at this point.”
Australia and the US are back in leadership positions on climate change, he added. “That doesn’t mean we’re doing everything we need to do, but we are getting onto that path now. We can see a path forward to where we keep warming below a truly catastrophic three degrees Fahrenheit—where we do commit to the worst consequences of climate change.”
Reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is essential, but “that’s kicking the can very far down the road,” Mann noted. “Governments love to make commitments to targets in 2050 because they’re not going to be held accountable for whether or not those targets are met. That’s why it’s so important to talk about the near-term target, 2030. We’ve got to bring carbon emissions down by 50 percent by 2030.”
One lesson from Australia, he said, was that despite the dominance of Fox, Australians “have been somewhat resistant and indeed they elected a government that defied Murdoch’s climate denialism and delay.” Currently, according to Turnbull, the country is “installing more renewables—by which I mean solar and solar PV [photovoltaics] and wind—per capita than just about anywhere else in the world.”
In the US, climate provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, passed over the summer, “probably gets us to about 40 percent” reduction in emissions, Mann said. That constitutes important progress, but “it doesn’t go far enough.” Further progress, he added, hinges on a larger US Senate majority that has the will to pursue more aggressive legislation.
A hotter planet is one of greater extremes in weather, as can be seen in Australia, where years of devastating droughts and wildfires are “now being followed by years that have been the wettest on record,” Turnbull noted. “We’re seeing the consequences of global warming in all of their extremes, but so are many other parts of the world. The bottom line is when people say they believe or disbelieve in global warming, it’s about as intelligent as saying you believe or disbelieve in gravity.”
Modeling the future of the climate is dauntingly complicated and involves a type of uncertainty that should motivate us to act fast, Mann said. Contemporary computer models do a good job projecting linear changes—things like how warm or dry it might get under certain scenarios. “What we don’t do so well is thinking about how these different changes may interact with each other in a nonlinear way to produce things that we might not have thought about,” he added. “In some respects these impacts are actually playing out sooner and with greater magnitude than we expected. That’s true with these very persistent extreme weather events, it’s true with the collapse of the ice sheets and their contribution to sea level rise. When somebody tells you that uncertainty is somehow cause for inaction, it’s just the opposite—uncertainty is a reason for even greater action.” —JP
Complete video of the discussion, moderated by Annenberg Public Policy Center Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson, can be found at the Perry World House YouTube channel, along with other sessions from the colloquium.