23 November 2008

Climate policy delusions

Last Tuesday I spoke at a climate forum in the Melbourne suburb of Ringwood, and the topic was Climate and Leadership, which seems the key issue, because we face a chronic failure of political imagination and so also of political leadership. Here's the gist of my comments.

We know the problem, we understand the scientific imperatives that mean we must aim for zero emissions and cooling to return our planet to the safe-climate zone.
We know that we face a sustainability emergency and that speed is of the essence in constructing a post-carbon economy as fast as possible.
We know that an imaginative, large-scale “emergency” programme comparable in scope to the "war economy" is required.
In the second world war the major players spent one-third or more of their economy on the war. Stern says global warming impacts will be worse that he two world wars and the Depression put together, yet today talking about spending just 1, 2 or 3% of our economy on global warming is not even on the public agenda, let alone a third if it should become necessary.
We also know and are using many of the solutions and that commitment to innovation and research can solve many more of the issues.
It seems to me that obstacles to implementing climate solutions are political and social in character, not technological or economic.
The big one is, will it cost too much?
McKinsey&Company’s emissions reduction cost curve for Australia (PDF, see page 14) found that around one quarter of the emissions reduction measures are cost positive – they save money – and in doing so, can pay for another quarter. Yet Ross Garnaut report to the Australian government says we should only act seriously if the rest of the world does – a position of moral failure and seemingly economic stupidity if the McKinsey analysis is right. Why wait when starting to act now will not cost, but save, us money, as McKinseys show?
Garnaut recommendations and the government’s proposed carbon pollution reduction scheme are examples of the delusional public debate in Australia; a delusion being a fixed, false belief resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact.
  • Delusional because policy makers want to appease the coal industry, the biggest polluters. Appeasing your enemy is dumb, because you lose, in this case not a war, but the planet.
  • Delusional because for politicians climate is just another problem, not the GREATEST challenge humans have ever faced.
  • Delusional because most of those in public debate — politicians, business elite, commentators, even some environmental lobbyists — don’t know or understand the scientific imperatives and are profoundly ignorant in the sense that they don’t know that they don’t know.
  • Who has heard had politicians Penny Wong or Kevin Rudd or Malcolm Turnbull or industry lobbyist Heather Ridout or Australian Conservation Foundation boss Don Henry talking about sea-ice loss and its trigger for large sea-level rises and for the permafrost time bomb, why their targets will kill the Great Barrier Reef when they claim they want to save it, or the aerosols dilemma, or why climate sensivity is not 3 degress but probably double that and why that matters because carbon cycle feedbacks are not included in the IPCC emissions reduction targets (such as 25-40% by 2020 reduction for Kyoto Annex 1 countries) which makes those targets wrong, or the Hilamayas and a billion people without spring melt water in the dry season?
Climate policy is characterised by the habituation of low expectations and a culture of failure. We must with all our energy force such people and the power elite to move beyond the politics of failure-inducing compromise because we are now in a race between climate tipping points and political tipping points.
Our political leaders are not taking the actions that the science demands, because the conventional mode of politics is short-term and pragmatic. It's about solving 10% of the problem, or blaming the other side for problems, or putting it off till after the next election, or pretending it doesn’t exist at all. Politics is more and more spin and less and less substance.
Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd and climate minister Penny Wong have adopted a traditional Labor approach to the climate problem: something for the environment lobby and something for business.
But solving the climate crisis cannot be treated like a wage deal. It is not possible to negotiate with the laws of physics and chemistry. The planet cannot be bought off.
There are absolute limits that should not be crossed, and doing something, but not enough, will still lead to disaster. This they simply do not understand at all.
Political pragmatism, window dressing and incremental solutions that will fail take precedence over the scientific imperatives.
The result can only be a suicide note for most people and most species on the planet.
We face a spectacular failure of political imagination. What we lack is political leadership, and so we can only conclude that if our leaders cannot lead, we all must.
In July Al Gore issued his challenge to America:
"Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100% of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years…This goal is achievable, affordable and transformative. To those who argue that we do not yet have the technology … I've seen what they [entrepreneurs who will drive this revolution] are doing and I have no doubt that we can meet this challenge."
This is the challenge we must also make and answer: in our homes, our local communities and at the national and global level. Gore said the challenge of climate is politically transformative.
If politicians cannot lead, then we all must, in building a movement across society that uses the brutal reality of our position to advocate and inspire the nation to take transformative action.
We can only play this game once. If we don't do enough, or at sufficient pace, in building a post-carbon economy, the climate system will get away from our capacity to correct it. Trial and error climate policy is not an option.
We must challenge leaders in our local communities to understand and act on climate knowing how serious the problem is, and if necessary inflict political pain on them and not let go till they say, “Yes, I need to lead, we all need to lead” on climate.
Whether it be local councillors, business or church leaders, local MPs or the prime minister, we must pursue them and debate with them and start a conversation and not stop with them until they say “Yes, we face a climate emergency, this is THE BIG issue” and act accordingly.
Climate is not just another issue, it is THE issue that defines whether we will have a planet fit to live on.
The Australian government has a Future Fund. Why not spend it to make a future safe for people and species in this country? There’s no jobs on a dead planet, and not much place for a future fund buried in a bank fault as the sand of desertification blow over and slowly bury it.
Barak Obama said “Change: yes we can”.
We must all say “Climate change: yes we can”.
A safe climate. Yes we can.
We can all lead, we all must lead. It is our only choice.

31 August 2008

Middle of the road ... towards a cliff

  • First published in Melbourne's The Age, 8 August 2008.
THE economic merit of competing climate policy options will soon find a focus in the final Garnaut review and Treasury modelling on the impacts of global warming on Australia, but there are risks in reading too much into it.

The modelling will be debated, possibly till we feel drowned in a sea of claim and counter-claim, but there may be more heat than light, for three reasons.

First, the big-picture questions are less amenable to political opportunism than quips about petrol prices and China. Will human action lead to the destruction of a big part of the economy's physical basis through multi-metre sea-level rises, for example?

Second, a model is a simplified and limited version of something complex, so it is unwise to take it as representing the whole story. The available models had trouble dealing with some emissions targets. The nature of the modelling process means many issues that should be part of rational decision-making will be excluded, because only market events with strictly quantifiable prices will be included.

Garnaut has recognised the "conventional economic effects that are not currently measurable, the possibility of much larger costs from extreme outcomes, and costs that aren't manifested through markets". For example, Garnaut explicitly says the multibillion-dollar impact on the tourism industry in northern Australia from the loss of most of the Barrier Reef (now inevitable) and of Kakadu (through salination) will not be modelled.

The cost of reducing emissions is largely quantifiable and will likely be fully described, but in tabulating the price we will pay for not acting, many of the adverse effects of global warming will not figure. Thus, the published modelling will be a poor reflection of the total impacts, placing no price on economic loss from ecosystem degradation, or such values as human displacement or the loss of life, biodiversity and environmental amenity. Thus while the report will conclude it is wiser to act, it will underemphasise the economic importance of doing so.

Third, the assumptions underlying the specific modelling may not be valid. Garnaut says the modelling will be based on "middle-of-the-road outcomes on temperatures and decline in rainfall", but these are unlikely to eventuate because climate change is now veering dangerously on the wrong side and headed for a great crash, driven by global carbon emissions rising much faster than in even the most pessimistic scenario considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Many of the impacts, such as the impending loss of an area of summer sea ice in the Arctic the size of Australia, and the destruction of huge ice shelves in both polar regions, are happening much earlier, and at lower temperature increases, than predicted, with global repercussions.

In fact, the worst predictions are coming true. Garnaut has frankly recognised the "bad possibilities" with "immense impacts" and "highly adverse outcomes", but says there is only a "10% chance" of these occurring. Even if it were only 10%, a risk management approach would nevertheless demand we take the "bad possibilities" into account.

Yet in reality they are now overwhelmingly likely to happen unless emergency action is taken to change direction.

A final hurdle concerns targets. Garnaut has already said that the climate science demands emissions reduction rates much faster than the Government seems willing to contemplate.

The Government's climate policy framework is already out of date; its target of 550 parts per million atmospheric carbon dioxide, which Garnaut has been asked to model, is equivalent to a three-degree target, according to Nicholas Stern. Yet a three-degree rise would destroy the Barrier Reef, Kakadu and the tropical rainforests, cause widespread desertification, large-scale species loss and a sea-level rise of tens of metres, if it were reflected in similar policies around the globe.

Yet the Government seems unaware that a three-degree rise would kick the climate into a new state that would not support humans, as planet-changing "tipping points" are crossed, such as devastating loss of carbon from deteriorating rainforests and melting Siberian permafrost. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of people will not survive. In Asia, 1.3 billion people whose homes lie in the basins of the great rivers that flow from the melting ice cap of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan ranges are vulnerable if spring melt-water is lost, yet it is predicted those mountains will be glacier-free by 2040, or earlier.

But such outcomes are not for modelling, lacking the capacity for strict quantification.

05 July 2008

On climate, a trial run is not an option

  • Published in 'Adelaide Advertiser' 3 July 2008 under the title 'Not enough time to turn back the climate clock'
Shocking as it may be, within five years the earth is likely to have only one polar ice cap, rather than two, during the summer. Allowing this condition to persist is not safe, but getting our climate solutions right poses a unique challenge.
We can only play this game once. If we don’t do enough, or at sufficient pace, in building a post-carbon economy, the climate system will get away from our capacity to correct it. Start-stop, trial-and-error climate policy is simply not an option.
Yet in quieter moments many of us acknowledge that in responding to global warming, the world is going backwards and the range of responses mooted are simply too little, too late. Labor’s climate adviser Ross Garnaut recently told a Canberra audience there was "just a chance" that nations would meet the climate policy challenge because "observation of daily debate and media discussion in Australia could lead one to the view that this issue is too hard for rational policy-making in Australia. The issues are too complex, the vested interests surrounding it too numerous and intense, the relevant time-frames too long."
Short-term economic preoccupations so constrain actions considered reasonable that maintaining biodiversity and building a safe-climate future have already been negotiated out of existence. The Rudd government’s current policy target of a 3-degree rise would destroy the Barrier Reef and the tropical rainforests, cause widespread desertification, a mass extinction, and a sea-level rise of perhaps 25 metres, amongst many impacts. The federal opposition has no climate target at all.
Climate policy is characterised by a culture of failure, so there is an urgent need to be brutally honest about where we are and what we need to do.
Of all the talk at a major international gathering of global warming experts last December, one speech did just that. The place was not Bali, but San Francisco, where 15,000 climate scientists gathered for their most important conference of the year, hosted by the American Geophysical Union. Centre stage was James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Science, and the United States’ most eminent climate scientist.
Hansen told his fellow scientists that climate tipping points have already been passed for large ice sheet and species loss, which occurred when we exceeded levels of 300-350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, at least two decades ago (the current level is 387 parts per million). Hansen said there is already enough carbon in the Earth's atmosphere for massive ice sheets such as on Greenland to eventually melt away, and ensure that sea levels will rise metres this century. People must not only cut current carbon emissions but also remove some carbon that has collected in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, in order to cool the planet, he concluded.
And just last month Hansen told the National Press Club in Washington that the climate is nearing dangerous tipping points, with the elements of a “perfect storm”, a global cataclysm, already assembled.
The polar north has until recently been covered by eight million square kilometres of floating sea-ice in summer, an area greater than Australia. Now it is disappearing fast and predicted by Arctic experts to be gone entirely within five years. Their well-founded fear is that rapid heating as a consequence of the sea-ice loss will trigger the unstoppable melting of most or all of the Greenland ice sheet, an event which would raise sea levels by five to seven metres, in as little as a century.
Four broad conclusions can be drawn from these observations.
1. We face dangerous warming impacts now, not just in the future. Serious climate-change impacts are already happening, both more quickly and at lower global temperature rises than projected. Increases of two degrees are effectively already in the system, unless we act dramatically to cut emissions towards zero as quickly as humanly possible. A temperature cap of 2–2.4 degrees, as proposed at Bali and now the subject of international negotiations, would take the planet’s climate beyond the temperature range of the last million years and into extreme danger.
2. Strong action is required now to stop emissions and cool the earth. The tipping points for large ice sheet and species loss were crossed decades ago. It is no longer a case of how much more we can "safely" emit, but whether we can quickly enough stop emissions and produce a cooling before we hit tipping points and amplifying feedbacks — such as large scale loss of greenhouse gases from melting permafrost — that will take the trajectory of the earth’s climate system beyond any hope of human restoration.
3. It is necessary to plan a large-scale transition to a post-carbon economy. Considering the water shortage, the arrival of peak oil, rising population and the impacts of warming — and the reflection of these events in rapidly rising world food prices —we can see a multi-factor sustainability crisis. Speed is of the essence in constructing a post-carbon economy. An imaginative, large-scale programme comparable in scope to the "war economy" is required. The obstacles to implementing such climate solutions are primarily political and social in character, rather than technological or economic.
4. We need to move at a pace far beyond business and politics as usual. These imperatives are incompatible with the realities of politics and business as usual. Our conventional mode of politics is short-term, fearful of deep change and incapable of managing the transition at the necessary speed or depth. The consequence of timidity and constraint in government approaches to the environment is that low expectations are now embedded in policy-making. But the climate crisis will not respond to incremental modification of the business-as-usual model, and there is an urgent need to re-conceive the issue we face as a sustainability emergency, that takes us beyond the politics of failure-inducing compromise.
Lacking the collective will to act in a sustainable manner is no excuse. Acting within the constraints on the planet system is now necessary for long-term survival, because we are now in a race between climate tipping points and political tipping points.
-- David Spratt

09 June 2008

What politicians won’t talk about: the fate of the Arctic

In the dense fog that passes for the national climate policy debate, the major players stumble from one lamp-post to the next, unable to see the bigger picture in the murky light.
Devoid of context, their climate view is so constrained that they fail to identify the core problem: that the world stands on the edge of a precipice beyond which human actions will be no longer able to control in any meaningful way the trajectory of the climate system, or the fate of human life in a rapidly degrading natural world.
There is no clearer example than the fate of the Arctic.
More than 80% of the mass of sea-ice in the Arctic Ocean in summer has already been lost. An area of summer sea-ice once as large as Australia is rapidly disintegrating, with consequences that will reverberate around the globe.
Scientists with expertise on the Arctic environment are predicting that the Arctic Ocean will be ice free in summer between 2010 and 2013, and that once lost, the Arctic summer sea-ice will not return. Here's what they are saying:
  • The frightening models [of Arctic sea-ice loss] we didn't even dare to talk about before are now proving to be true.’ According to these models, there will be no sea ice left in the summer in the Arctic Ocean somewhere between 2010 and 2015. ‘And it's probably going to happen even faster than that.’ — Louis Fortier, scientific director of the Canadian research network ArcticNet .
  • ‘Our projection of 2013 for the removal of ice in summer is not accounting for the last two minima, in 2005 and 2007… So given that fact, you can argue that may be our projection of 2013 is already too conservative’ — Professor Wieslaw Maslowski, Naval Postgraduate School, California
  • ‘The Arctic Ocean could be nearly ice-free at the end of summer by 2012’ — Dr Jay Zwally, glaciologist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
  • ‘I think the tipping point for perennial sea-ice has already passed… It looks like [it] will continue to decline and there’s no hope for it to recover’ in the near period. — Dr Josefino Comiso, senior research scientist, NASA Goddard Space Centre
  • ‘The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming… and now as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died.” — Dr Jay Zwally, glaciologist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
The loss of the Arctic summer sea-ice will cause a large local warming in the Arctic region of around 5ºC and a smaller but very significant global warming of around 0.3ºC .
This further warming of the Arctic will significantly add to the speed of disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet (sea-level rise of 7 metres if fully lost, possibly five metres this century according to NASA climate chief Dr James Hansen) and to the rate of permafrost melting, which will release much more carbon dioxide and methane and further drive up global warming.
I are not aware of any well-informed climate scientist who thinks that it is possible to have a safe climate or avoid dangerous climate change with the permanent loss of the Arctic summer sea-ice. This topic is not being addressed in Australia, though it must frame the whole debate. To not consider the Arctic is to ignore the biggest issue today in global warming.
Because of the dangerous knock-on effects caused by its loss, the Arctic sea ice must be restored to its normal extent as fast as possible.
To get the Arctic sea ice back we need to cool the earth by about 0.3ºC. If we don’t, we cannot avoid very dangerous climate impacts. There is no third way. This is the new very inconvenient truth politicians seek to avoid.
To cool the earth fast enough to get the Arctic sea-ice back quickly, we need to move to zero greenhouse gas emissions as fast as the economy can be restructured, and is environmentally safe to do so, and take about 200 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the air. We also need to find environmentally-safe mechanisms to actively cool the earth while navigating this transition.
Taken together this is a staggering task in terms of the necessary scale and speed of action, but there is simply no alternative if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.
The bottom line is that we cannot leave the Arctic ice-free in summer and avoid climate catastrophe. This is the elephant in the room that politicians strain to avoid. It is not being talked out honestly.
Politicians can ignore or downplay the challenge of the Arctic, only by playing dice with our future and that of future generations.

David Spratt

04 February 2008

Reactions to Climate Code Red

Senator Christine Milne blogs on her reaction to Climate Code Red:
With Climate Code Red, David Spratt and Philip Sutton have provided a valuable and sobering contribution to the policy challenge of climate change at a pivotal moment.
Over recent months it has become ever clearer to many of us working in the field that global warming, accelerating faster than scientists had predicted, is leaving policy so far behind it is outdated as it is released. The current ambitious policies of the Australian Greens, developed on the basis of science 12-18 months ago, are now too conservative. Where, then, does that leave our new Federal Government, elected on a platform of climate action far weaker than the Greens’?
Spratt and Sutton persuasively call on us to put aside politics as usual. My great fear, however, is that none of the people now charged with setting Australia’s emissions targets – Professor Garnaut, Ministers Wong, Swan and Garrett, and Prime Minister Rudd – have grasped that this is a state of emergency and none are ready to set aside politics as usual.
Spratt and Sutton have provided a vital example for Professor Garnaut on the work that is needed to set emissions targets – not by “plucking figures out of the air because they are politically convenient or someone else said they might be OK”, and not by economic analysis of what now seems achievable.
And this from a respondee in Canada:
...your Section 3 is so timely, and sec 3.3 an accurate description of what is going on in the enviro movement fairly generally in Canada...
We have been exposed to (Canadian PR) research that indicates that if you want the public to pressure the government about policy response to climate change, the ENGO's can't be the source of the heavy message, too many people discount it. However they will listen to scientists giving out serious messages. But they don't like scientists talking science - it is too often interpreted as disagreement. However, ENGO's with science based ideas for solutions are heard. There is obviously useful material in these studies but for the moment the [many climate groups] and others are avoiding the hard message.

I am also aware of 'operational psychosis' among several climate scientists, who are in total surrender in their labs and speaking optimistically in public. It remains to be seen how an otherwise forward looking Climate Action Team of 22 'experts' influences the BC Premier's Climate Action Secretariat in the formulation of emission targets for 2012, 2016, 2020 and 2050. We have legislation in BC for a 33% reduction in emissions below 2005 levels (10% below 1990) - but no penalties for failure! Other than the big penalty of course.
Sound familiar?

07 January 2008

Climate code red: now available

Friends of the Earth (Australia) has released "Climate code red: the case for a sustainability emergency". A sumary and full report are available here.
It's about 100 pages and includes responses from a wide range of climate activists and organisations as part of a conversation about how we can campaign for a very fast transition to a post-carbon, climate safe future.
The report includes an updated version of The big melt: lessons from the Arctic summer of 2007 which was first published in October 2007.
"Climate code red" featured as the front-page, lead story Report attacks climate policy in the Canberra Times on 2 February.