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