23 April 2012

Bright-siding: The consequences of failure

by David Spratt / Part 4 of a 5-part series
"Political reality must be grounded in physical reality or it's completely useless."
Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute

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“Always look on the bright side of life”: Bright-siding climate advocacy and its consequences

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: What bright-siding climate advocacy looks like
Part 3: Is all “good news” and no “bad news” a good strategy?
Part 4: The consequences of failure
Part 5: Rethinking climate communication and engagement
If you avoid including an honest assessment of climate science and impacts in your narrative, its pretty difficult to give people a grasp about where the climate system is heading and what needs to be done to create the conditions for living in climate safety, rather than increasing and eventually catastrophic harm. But that’s how the big climate advocacy organisations have generally chosen to operate, and it represents a strategic failure to communicate.
     Climate policy in Australia is trapped in a culture of failure and low expectation. The reason given for advocating solutions that would still result in dangerous climate change is that what really needs to be done is "too big” to message effectively.The Australian Conservation Foundation, for example, adopted a 350 policy several years ago, but never made in part of their advocacy because (unofficially) “the comms people couldn’t find a way to message it”.
     Ken Ward, a former deputy-director of Greenpeace (USA), identifies "a consensual public policy hallucination that abrupt climate change can be addressed without great conflict". Everybody from the UN Secretary-General to business commentator Alan Kohler now calls climate an emergency, but it is still a non-no for most climate campaigning organisations.

     I would hazard at a guess that most eNGOs and professional advocacy groups, with notable exceptions including Beyond Zero Emissions and a few others, don’t as organisations have a clear front-of-the-mind grasp of our current predicament, or the rate of emissions reduction required. My guess is that most would not be able to articulate the fact that the last time carbon dioxide levels were apparently as high as they are today — and were sustained at those levels — global temperatures were 3 to 6 degrees Celsius (C) higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 25 to 40 metres higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland. Or that oceans are now more acidic than they have been for at least 20 million years, and they are acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago, when a mass extinction of marine species occurred. It is predicted 10 per cent of the Arctic Ocean will be corrosively acidic by 2018, and 50 per cent by 2050.
     Even taking into account the emissions reduction target in the Australian federal carbon package and other nations’ commitments, the world is on track for 4 degrees or more of warming this century. At 4 degrees, the world would be warmer than during any part of the period in which modern humans evolved, and the rate of climate change would be faster than any previously experienced by humans. The world's sixth mass extinction would be in full swing. In the oceans, acidification would have rendered many calcium-shelled organisms such as coral, and many at the base of the ocean food chain, artefacts of history. Ocean ecosystems and food chains would collapse. Half of the world would be uninhabitable. Likely population capacity: under one billion people. Whilst the loss will be exponential and bunch towards the end of the century, on average that is a million human global-warming deaths every week, every year, for the next 90 years.
In a 3.5C warmer world, most of Australia could expect extreme temperatures (100-in-a-hundred-year events) of more than 48C. In this map from  “When can we expect extremely high surface temperatures?”, the deep red colouring most of Australia is the range between 48 and 52 degrees Celsius. The remainder in deep orange is 44-48C. By way of comparison, Australia highest recorded temperature was 50.7C (123.3F) on 2 January 1960 at Oodnadatta, South Australia. Extreme heatwaves across southern Australia during late January/early February 2009 set a new Melbourne maximum temperature record of 46.4C, and a new State maximum temperature records for Victoria of 48.8C at Hopetoun.

Is this communicated inside the Canberra beltway, or is it just for academic conferences? Is it important that people should know this? Is it important in setting goals?  And what is the action required to keep our climate in the safe zone?
     As a reference point, let’s use the most recent assessment of these challenges, Scientific case for avoiding dangerous climate change to protect young people and nature, currently in publication with 17 authors who are leaders in their fields, including James Hansen, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Stefan Rahmstorf, Johan Rockstrom,  Eelco  Rohling, Jeffrey Sachs, and Konrad Steffen. They find that:
  •  when slow feedbacks – important because of their impact on threshold or "tipping point" events  – are taken into account,  the “scenarios that reach 2C or even 1.5C global warming via only fast feedbacks appear to be exceedingly dangerous (my emphasis). These scenarios run a high risk of the slow feedbacks coming into play in major ways.” Hansen has explained why, at current temperatures, there is no "cushion" left to avoid dangerous climate change and “… even small global warming above the level of the Holocene begins to generate a disproportionate warming on the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets."
  • to avoid 1.5C global warming, a reduction in atmosphere carbon dioxide to less than 350ppm must be achieved before the end of this century, which would require a 6 percent per year decrease of fossil fuel emissions beginning in 2013, plus 100 GtC reforestation (carbon drawdown). By way of comparison, Australia’s emissions under the 2011 carbon legislation will be higher in 2020 than they are today.
[The paper also notes that “delaying fossil fuel emission cuts until 2020… causes CO2 to remain in the dangerous zone (above 350 ppm) until 2300. If reductions are delayed until 2030, CO2 remains above 400 ppm until almost 2500. These results emphasize the urgency of initiating emissions reduction. If emissions reduction had begun in 2005, reduction at 3.5 percent per year would have achieved 350 ppm at 2100. Now the requirement is at least 6 percent per year. If we assume only 50 GtC reforestation, the requirement becomes at least 9 percent per year. Further delay of emissions reductions until 2020 requires a reduction rate of 15 percent per year (emphasis added) to achieve 350 ppm in 2100”.]
     None of the big eNGOs want to say in public that global emissions need to drop six per cent annually to restrict warming to less than 1.5C, nor that achieving this will require fossil fuel infrastructure to be abandoned and drastic changes in the ways we use energy, live and work. It’s not exactly out of the bright-siding handbook. It may well be beyond the scope of what is politically acceptable, but it is the new inconvenient truth. The failure to acknowledge, let alone construct, a strategy to achieve a six per cent annual reduction, makes that task impossible, so that in another eight years, six percent a year will have become 15 percent a year. Which is even more “impossible”.
Scientific case for avoiding dangerous climate change to protect young people and nature shows that temperatures today are only 1C cooler than during the Pliocene 3–5 million years ago, a period during which sea level reached heights as much as 15-25 meters greater than today.

     “We’ve reached a point where we have a crisis, an emergency, but people don’t know that”, Hansen said in November 2008. “There’s a big gap between what’s understood about global warming by the scientific community and what is known by the public and policymakers.” When climate action advocates refuse to articulate or campaign on what the scientific community is telling us, the gap can only get larger.
     The problem is now so big and action required is so far outside business- and politics-as-usual that, by-and-large, the only way to be “relevant” is to not describe the problem as it is, not describe the scale and urgency of the solutions, and fail to engage communities around these non-negotiable realities.
     We have achieved a collective cognitive dissonance where the real challenge our society faces is excluded from discourse.
     Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci’s diagnosis of Depression-era Europe applies to the space we now inhabit: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born…”
     There is no solution within the politics-as-usual frame; and there is no developed frame outside of it.
      Many would say there is logic to the “two-step strategy”: to first get the policy wheels going in Canberra and engage people around trivial outcomes (when compared to the scale of the problem), and ramp up the outcomes later. The problem, as Hansen et al have illustrated with clarity, is that time has run out for such an approach. It’s got to be the brutal truth now, or never, and a method of connecting that reality to solutions, with an efficacious path that will build  a community-wide mobilisation for action that can actually solve the problem.     Last year Roy Neel, a Vanderbilt University political scientist and formerly chief-of-staff to Al Gore, was a visiting fellow at the University of Melbourne. At public lectures, in the print media and at university seminars, Neel gave a consistent critique of climate campaigning in the USA, and the role of the leading NGOs. He said climate politics had been reduced to the “doable”, producing only “nominal victories”. In contrast, he said, what was required was “courageous leadership”, being steadfast in a plan with the publicly-stated objective of solving the crisis. The only goal is reducing greenhouse emissions and levels in the atmosphere, he said, without getting too bogged down in the bits and the detail.
     And here’s Al Gore’s take:
The scale and magnitude of the changes that are necessary to solve the climate crisis mean that all of the collateral reasons for taking these steps will not get us to where we need to go without a clear understanding of what we’re facing if we don’t act ... it’s a mistake to move that to the periphery of the conversation as so many have done ... it has to be the heart of the conversation.
  • Part 5 will discuss “Rethinking climate communication and engagement”