26 April 2010

A climate of can-do

by David Spratt

[First published in Earth Song Journal (Perspectives in Ecology, Spirituality and Education), Autumn 2010]

In an Australia Day speech this year, prime minister Rudd evoked the "two great spirits, that of the can-do, that of the fair go, (which) essentially hold together the narrative of our nation" and "this great... ennobling attitude of Australians where we have the sense and the spirit of the fair go etched deeply into the Australian soul".

But are those attitudes simply to be lauded in others when the nationalist "spirit" peaks on ceremonial occasions, or they should they inform our national leadership in facing global warming, the great challenge of our time?

The question is urgent, given the terrible failure of the climate summit in Copenhagen in December to commit to decisive action. The meeting finished in disarray without agreement to extend the Kyoto protocol or any process to set the world on a safe-climate path. Instead it noted a short, hurriedly-drafted statement lacking legally-binding commitments. This was the great spirit of cannot-do in action.

Climate politics has become a game of chicken, a planet-crippling procrastination driven by short-term concerns and a striving for partisan advantage. Last year, Ross Garnaut wondered if ''this issue is too hard for rational policy making … the issues are too complex, the vested interests surrounding it too numerous and intense, the relevant time-frames too long''. Copenhagen confirmed this dark assessment.

The consequence is that an aggregation of the "best" emissions reduction promises put on the table at Copenhagen would likely result in global warming of 3.5–3.9 degrees Celsius (above the pre-industrial temperature) by 2100. The British MET office says if we keep on the present carbon-pollution path, a 4-degree rise could happen early in the second half of this century.

So what would a 4-degree world look like? Much of the tropical and sub-tropical land area would be desertified. In Europe, new deserts will be spreading in Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey: the Sahara will have effectively leapt the Straits of Gibraltar. Sea levels will eventually rise by 70 metres, initiating a global flight from coastal zones. Ocean acidification and a surface warm layer will initiate the destruction of the base of the ocean’s food chain. Extinction rates are estimated at 10 per cent for each one-degree rise.

Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in the UK, says: "If you have got a population of nine billion by 2050 and you hit 4, 5 or 6 degrees, you might have half a billion people surviving."

Well before 4 degrees, hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon locked up in Arctic permafrost – particularly in Siberia – will be releasing methane and carbon dioxide in immense quantities, a positive feedback loop whereby global warming initiates processes that magnify or accelerate the warning. In a recent report for the Australian Government, Professor Will Steffen of the ANU warned that:
Long‑term feedbacks in the climate system may be starting to develop now; the most important of these include dynamical processes in the large polar ice sheets, and the behaviour of natural carbon sinks and potential new natural sources of carbon, such as the carbon stored in the permafrost of the northern high latitudes. Once thresholds in ice sheet and carbon cycle dynamics are crossed, such processes cannot be stopped or reversed by human intervention, and will lead to more severe and ultimately irreversible climate change from the perspective of human timeframes.
These feedbacks will push a 4-degree rise to perhaps 5.5 degrees. Five degrees of warming occurred during the Eocene, 55 million years ago: breadfruit trees grew on the coast of Greenland; there was no ice at either pole; and forests were probably growing in central Antarctica. The Eocene greenhouse event was likely caused by methane hydrates (an ice-like combination of methane and water) bursting into the atmosphere from the seabed, sparking a temperature spike. Today vast amounts of methane hydrates sit on subsea continental shelves. The early Eocene greenhouse took at least 10,000 years to come about. Today we could accomplish the same feat in less than a century.

So a 4-degree rise doesn’t look too flash. How about limiting global warming to 2 degrees? Today's levels of greenhouse gases are enough, in the long-run, to produce a 2-degree warming, and even this will take the Earth past significant tipping points. Professor Eelco Rohling, University of Southampton recently noted that: "Even if we would curb all carbon dioxide emissions today, and stabilise at the modern level (of greenhouse gases), then our natural relationship suggests that sea level would continue to rise to about 25 metres above the present.”

So in the spirit of the fair-go-can-do, what do we really need to do to turn round global warming and return to a safe-climate, which essentially means aiming to return to near-pre-industrial levels of greenhouse gases? What would a fair-go deal amongst nations mean? Nations such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam have per capita emissions of greenhouse gases of less than two tonnes a year. China is around five tonnes, and the European Union and Japanese rate is about ten tonnes. But for Australia and the United States, the pollution is more than 20 tonnes per person per year.

A "fair go" principle may be that we, in Australia, as an advanced capitalist nation with a modern economy built on a historic legacy of carbon emissions, could not in conscience claim a greater right to continue polluting the atmosphere than those developing nations who wish to industrialise and lift their people out of poverty. The historic carbon debt we owe the developing world suggests that they have a right to higher per capita emissions that we do.

But let us assume that one basis for an international agreement would be equal per capita emission rights, plus the large-scale transfer of resources and clean-energy techological know-how from the developed to the developing world as a practical recognition of the historic carbon debt owed.

From there, the maths is simple. For a two-in-three chance of keeping temperature increases below 2 degrees (and that is not a happy target!), we can altogether only emit about 750 billion tonnes (the “carbon budget”) of carbon dioxide between now and 2050, and after that time emissions will have to quickly fall towards zero, if they have not already done so. 750 billion tonnes distributed amongst the current world population of 6.7 billion means about 110 tonnes per person between now and mid-century. If likely population increases are factored in, the figure falls to around 85 tonnes.

For Australia, with our profligate 20 plus tonnes a year per person, our carbon budget to 2050 runs out in four or five years! Put another way, we would need to get to zero emissions in a decade. Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute in Germany and the author of this analysis, says high-polluting nations such as Australia are "carbon insolvent".

Our prime minister's concern for a fair go would surely suggest that until we reduce our emissions from twenty tonnes a head each year to below two tonnes a head, then there is no moral obligation on India, Indonesia, Vietnam and the like to do anything. Why should they act if we are so addicted to our gross, high-carbon consumption binge that we claim a national incapacity to reduce emissions in accord with the trajectories the science and equity principles demands?

Yet that is precisely the response from our government, which now belligerently proclaims that Australia will do "no more and no less" than other nations to fight climate change. This is dark politics, a climate colonialism, which denies our responsibilities as a nation with the largest per capita emissions in the world. Of course we must "do more" than most other nations; we could hardly "do less". To aspire to do "no more and no less" than others is a race to the bottom, the attitude that killed Copenhagen, and a principle which if adopted by the global community will produce a suicide note for the planet, not a safe climate.

We have the technological know-how and we have the economic capacity to engage in the transformative action necessary to build a post-carbon, sustainable economy at the great speed that is now necessary. What we lack is leadership and political courage, for the major parties overflow with Chamberlains, and not a Churchill in sight. A moral stance starts with the recognition that climate is not just another issue, in reality it is the only issue because, if we fail, there will be few of us left to contemplate right action.

We need to live better by consuming less as we rebuild a sustainable society. We can't drill and burn our way out of the current crisis. But, working together, we can invest and invent our way out if we make a commitment to a global "fair go" and start here and now, in Australia.