19 January 2011

Emergency response needed for more than floods

First published in Crikey on 19 January 2011.

With the military on the job and perhaps the post-1945 Marshall Plan on her mind, Queensland premier Anna Bligh has designated recovery from the floods “a reconstruction task of postwar proportions.”

The words are deliberate: ‘”I want people to understand how big it is, and how long it might take,” because the machinery of government needs to be reshaped. The premier goes on to “hope and pray that mother nature is leaving us alone to get on with the job of cleaning up and recovering from this event”.

Yes, but … we also need to leave Mother Nature alone, and stop loading the atmosphere with carbon emissions, so that more extreme climate events which are part-and-parcel of a warming planet do not tumble down upon us with increasing frequency, as they have around the globe in the last year.

That will require action and a commitment of resources at a scale far beyond the failures that have so far constituted Australia’s climate policy.

On Sunday, The Age editorialised that: “We respond well to an emergency, but global warming is an emergency too.” Is it too dramatic to apply the same language and level of action to climate as to flood recovery, in order to prevent an emergency that will make the recent floods look like an early skirmish in a much large historical event?

Cables released by WikiLeaks in December report a confidential discussion with US embassy officials in Canberra, in which Australia’s Office of National Assessments deputy director Heather Smith warned that decreased water flows from Himalayan glaciers will trigger a ”cascade of economic, social and political consequences” in south-east Asia by 2030.

According to the cables, ONA also “… predicts global temperatures to rise 2 degrees by 2050 and 4 degrees by 2100.” This is not idle speculation. Queensland’s flood planning also uses a factor of 4 degrees by 2100.

Analysis by leading European research institutes show that if even if all of the promises made by all nations so far to reduce their carbon emissions were fully implemented, the world by the end of this century would be 3.5 to 4 degrees warmer. And promises are not outcomes.
So we really are heading towards a world warmer by 4 degrees or more. The last time it was four degrees hotter, there was no ice at either pole and sea levels were 70 metres higher. An average 4 degrees across the world mean temperatures about 6 degrees higher on land not adjacent to the ocean. In Australia, it is hard to imagine that people or agriculture would survive anywhere but close to the eastern and southern coast, and in Tasmania.

In September 2009 a conference at Oxford examined a 4-degree world, and many of the findings have just been published by the Royal Society. Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the UK Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, warns that only about 10% of the planet’s population — about half a billion people — would survive if global temperatures rise by 4 degrees. Others concur. And research suggests that rainforests will disappear, and climate feedbacks in a rapidly warming Arctic region could trigger the release of vast methane deposits in a nightmare scenario.

Ninety per cent of the world’s population unable to survive? This seems unbelievable, a scare campaign, not possible. If only. As threats increase, so too can denial because the necessary response is a game-changer that unsettles comfortable habits and intellectual predispositions. A climate emergency can now be seen clearly on the horizon, unless we take emergency action, because even the current level of greenhouse gases is enough far beyond a safe boundary for the planet.

In an emergency, partisan politics and the culture of compromise are cast aside. The threat is our highest priority and we allocate resources sufficient to solve the problem. It requires community mobilisation and a rapid scaling up of capacity. Critical targets are not compromised. This is what Anna Bligh is talking about in Queensland, it is what happened after Cyclone Tracey, and in the many cases where we perceive a future threat and act to prevent or prepare for it, in war and in peace.

Our society not only responds to emergencies, but works hard to prevent them. We have a culture of safety and standards for buildings, machines and infrastructure that encourage safe use to reduce accidents and emergencies. In the home, at work and at school, we learn and reinforce safe practices. Where the threat of fire, flood or cyclone are high, we aim to build to standards that will allow infrastructure and people to survive and be safe till the emergency is over.

Work-safe, child safety, road safety, swimming and pool safety … What is missing is climate safety: acting to build a world in which we and future generations can live safely in a biologically diverse natural world.

Yet climate change is already dangerous, and the hour is late. Restoring a safe climate means the world very quickly building a zero-emissions economy without fossil fuels, and reducing the current level of greenhouse gases. It is a vast undertaking akin to a post-war reconstruction, but we have the technologies and the economic capacity. What we presently lack is an honest conversation about where we are headed, and the political will to build the solutions that are already available to us.

*David Spratt is co-author of the book Climate Code Red.