07 December 2012

Scientists call for war on climate change, but who on earth is listening?

by David Spratt

When it's too late for half measures, the only option is to be really honest.  And that's what a number of brave climate scientists have just done.

Dr Daniel Pauly: time to prepare economy
for a climate change 'war':
It's been a week of startling news that has buried the idea that reasonable action will keep global warming to 2°C, with evidence that the world is now heading towards a 4–6°C warming this century, and as early as 2060. And we know that a safe climate is global warming of under 1°C degree!
    Releasing the Global Carbon Project's latest report on Monday,  executive-director Dr Pep Canadell of CSIRO reported:
Emissions trends over the past ten years are tracking consistently with the most carbon-intensive pathways of the four families of scenarios, leading to 4 to 6°C warming over pre-industrial times by the end of this century...
     It is clear that the type of transformation needed would required the world to wake up tomorrow and embrace a new green industrial revolution whereby new economic development is focused on establishing a large and rapidly growing non-polluting energy sector as the vehicle to meet new energy and jobs demand...In all cases, there is the need for high levels of technological, social, and political innovation, and the increasing likelihood of the need to rely on net negative emissions in future."
This week the NOAA released its annual Arctic Report Card, New Scientist headlined Seven reasons why climate change is ‘even worse than we thought’, and the World Meteorological Organisation's annual survey found that:
The extent of Arctic sea ice reached a new record low. The alarming rate of its melt this year highlighted the far-reaching changes taking place on Earth's oceans and biosphere.
This came just after the World Bank said that 4°Cs of warming will end the world as we know it. Perhaps most significant of all was the United Nations Environment Programme Report on Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost:
Carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane emissions from thawing permafrost could amplify warming due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. This amplification is called the permafrost carbon feedback. Permafrost contains ~1700 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon in the form of frozen organic matter, almost twice as much carbon as currently in the atmosphere. If the permafrost thaws, the organic matter will thaw and decay, potentially releasing large amounts of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. This organic material was buried and frozen thousands of years ago and its release into the atmosphere is irreversible on human time scales. Thawing permafrost could emit 43 to 135 Gt of CO2 equivalent by 2100 and 246 to 415 Gt of CO2 equivalent by 2200. Uncertainties are large, but emissions from thawing permafrost could start within the next few decades and continue for several centuries, influencing both short-term climate (before 2100) and long-term climate (after 2100).
We have previously discussed this issue in Triggering permafrost meltdown is closer than we think. It is just one of the feedbacks being driven by the record Arctic sea ice melt this year. Arctic melting, in a self-perpetuating positive feedback, is also leading to more global warming and a hotter future. Cambridge Professor Wadhams has predicted that Arctic summer sea ice will be “all gone by 2015”. This is an astounding prediction, which is backed by the evidence. As the Arctic system changes, we must adjust our science.

In response to the latest report from the Global Carbon Project which revealed carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels burning and cement production had increased by 3 per cent in 2011 — with a total of 9.5±0.5 billion tonnes of carbon emitted to the atmosphere, the highest in human history and 54% higher than in 1990 — Professor Matthew England of the University of NSW told the ABC's 7.30 Report that we need a global-scale effort  akin to preparing for a war:
Emissions are rising really quickly. One per cent per annum used to be considered high-end and we're now up around 2.5–3 per cent each year. So we're breaking a new world record for human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases every year. We need a (sort of) global-scale effort on this that is akin to preparing for a war, actually. It's akin to that scale of effort where all of the world's economies mobilise towards a problem that is facing the planet and facing the future of the planet.
The next morning on ABC radio's AM programme, Dr Daniel Pauly of the University of British Colombia said it was time to prepare economy for a climate change 'war':
We are not dealing with it (climate change) in terms of the danger that this represents - it's like a war. When there is a war, the industry is put on a war footing, and then within weeks it stops using, producing cars – it was so in the States – and it starts producing aeroplanes. World War II is a good example. Really the question of cost doesn't come up. You had a bunch of crazies that were threatening all of Western civilisation. Actually, I think that global warming does threaten all of Western civilisation and but we are dealing with pennies, we are dealing with pennies.
This is similar to the propositions Philip Sutton and I put in Climate Code Red five years ago, and Jorgen Randers and Paul Gilding more recently described in The One-Degree War.
    "We need a radical plan", said Prof. Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Britain and professor at the University of East Anglia. And Professor Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria, Canada, observed that: “We are losing control of our ability to get a handle on the global warming problem."
   Five years ago, on 12 November 2007, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on an Antarctic visit declared: "This is an emergency and for emergency situations we need emergency action." Earlier that same year, on 21 March 2007, Al Gore in testimony to the US Congress warned that "…our world faces a true planetary emergency."
     In 2009, Professor Kevin Anderson, then research director at the UK Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, told The Guardian:
The scientists have lost patience with our carefully constructed messages being lost in the political noise. And we are now prepared to stand up and say enough is enough.
More recently, in a courageous article with Alice Bows in Nature Climate Change, Anderson went further:
We urgently need to acknowledge that the development needs of many countries leave the rich western nations with little choice but to immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions. But academics may again have contributed to a misguided belief that commitments to avoid warming of 2°C can still be realized with incremental adjustments to economic incentives. A carbon tax here, a little emissions trading there and the odd voluntary agreement thrown in for good measure will not be sufficient...
     Acknowledging the immediacy and rate of emission reductions necessary to meet international commitments on 2°C illustrates the scale of the discontinuity between the science (physical and social) underpinning climate change and the economic hegemony. Put bluntly, climate change commitments are incompatible with short- to medium-term economic growth (in other words, for 10 to 20 years).
     Moreover, work on adapting to climate change suggests that economic growth cannot be reconciled with the breadth and rate of impacts as the temperature rises towards 4°C and beyond — a serious possibility if global apathy over stringent mitigation persists. Away from the microphone and despite claims of 'green growth', few if any scientists working on climate change would disagree with the broad thrust of this candid conclusion. The elephant in the room sits undisturbed while collective acquiescence and cognitive dissonance trample all who dare to ask difficult questions...
     At the same time as climate change analyses are being subverted to reconcile them with the orthodoxy of economic growth, neoclassical economics has evidently failed to keep even its own house in order. This failure is not peripheral. It is prolonged, deep-rooted and disregards national boundaries, raising profound issues about the structures, values and framing of contemporary society.
     This catastrophic and ongoing failure of market economics and the laissez-faire rhetoric accompanying it (unfettered choice, deregulation and so on) could provide an opportunity to think differently about climate change...     Reinforcing the view that we may be on the cusp of a paradigm shift are the fundamental disagreements between orthodox economists as to how to respond to the crisis...
    It is in this rapidly evolving context that the science underpinning climate change is being conducted and its findings communicated. This is an opportunity that should and must be grasped. Liberate the science from the economics, finance and astrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable. But this is still not enough. In an increasingly interconnected world where the whole — the system — is often far removed from the sum of its parts, we need to be less afraid of making academic judgements. Not unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice, but applying a mix of academic rigour, courage and humility to bring new and interdisciplinary insights into the emerging era. Leave the market economists to fight among themselves over the right price of carbon — let them relive their groundhog day if they wish. The world is moving on and we need to have the audacity to think differently and conceive of alternative futures.
    Civil society needs scientists to do science free of the constraints of failed economics....
If that has whetted your appetite, there are two must-watch short videos of recent Kevin Anderson public presentations here and here. Honest, brave, fearless: these are not to be missed.
     It is now obvious to Blind Freedy that our society's structures are incapable of facing and resolving the climate threat. The problem is now so big, and the scale and urgency of the solutions required so great, that it is impossible to talk about them within the current public policy frame. The business and political spheres have horizons too narrow and too limited in time to be able to deal with the challenges and complexities of global warming.
     We have achieved a collective cognitive dissonance where the real challenge we face is excluded from discourse. There is no solution within the politics-as-usual frame; and there is no developed frame outside of it. Earlier this year I described the choice:
  • What needs to be done cannot be achieved in today’s neo-conservative capitalist economy, because a rapid transition will required a great deal of planning, coordination and allocation of labour and skills, investment, and materials and resources, that can’t just be left to markets and pricing;
  • There is a choice between two dystopias: some very significant social and economic disruptions now while we make the transition quickly, or a state of permanent and escalating disruption as the planet’s climate heads into territory where most people and most species will not survive: our task now is to chart the “least-worst” outcome;
  • So this will not be painless, and the mass of the population will need to actively understand and participate in  some personally-disruptive measures, but they will do so because they have learned that the transition plans are both fair and necessary, and the other choice is unspeakable.
A few days George Monbiot described the challenge :
Humankind’s greatest crisis coincides with the rise of an ideology that makes it impossible to address. By the late 1980s, when it became clear that manmade climate change endangered the living planet and its people, the world was in the grip of an extreme political doctrine, whose tenets forbid the kind of intervention required to arrest it.
     Neoliberalism, also known as market fundamentalism or laissez-faire economics, purports to liberate the market from political interference. The state, it asserts, should do little but defend the realm, protect private property and remove barriers to business. In practice it looks nothing like this. What neoliberal theorists call shrinking the state looks more like shrinking democracy: reducing the means by which citizens can restrain the power of the elite. What they call “the market” looks more like the interests of corporations and the ultra-rich. Neoliberalism appears to be little more than a justification for plutocracy.
      Preventing climate breakdown – the four, five or six degrees of warming now predicted for this century by green extremists like, er, the World Bank, the International Energy Agency and PriceWaterhouseCoopers – means confronting the oil, gas and coal industry. It means forcing that industry to abandon the four-fifths or more of fossil fuel reserves that we cannot afford to burn. It means cancelling the prospecting and development of new reserves – what’s the point if we can’t use current stocks? – and reversing the expansion of any infrastructure (such as airports) that cannot be run without them.
     But the self-hating state cannot act. Captured by interests that democracy is supposed to restrain, it can only sit on the road, ears pricked and whiskers twitching, as the truck thunders towards it. Confrontation is forbidden, action is a mortal sin. You may, perhaps, disperse some money for new energy; you may not legislate against the old. 
So as prominent climate scientists this week called for a war, a war economy, a radical plan and a new green industrial revolution, what was the response from those in the climate advocacy movement?  After all, the movement and parties like the Greens have often said that they can't go further in their advocacy because they are already on the edge of the public discourse boundary (I disagree, as I argue here) , and others need to open up more space for them.  Which is exactly what the science community has done.
     So what did we hear from the leading public climate advocates this week?
Good on you Matthew, Daniel, Corrine and Kevin and all those scientists who have drawn our attention to the need to confront climate change head on, right now, to recognise that actions so far proposed can only result in failure, so we must now plan and make war on climate change — whatever it takes — because the hour is late and this is our last and only chance to have a world where children and grandchildren can live safe and healthy lives, where our water and food supplies are secure, and our planet's vital natural systems can flourish.
No? All I heard was silence.