12 February 2018

Do we have the capability to reverse global warming within a meaningful timeframe?

"Do we have the capability to reverse global warming within a meaningful timeframe?" was the topic for discussion at the Sustainable Living Festival's Great Debate on 9 February 2018. The contributions to the discussion by David Spratt and Ian Dunlop are reproduced here. Ian and David are also the authors of the recent reports What Lies Beneath: the scientific understatement of climate risks and Disaster Alley: Climate change, conflict and risk.


The present 1°C of climate warming is already dangerous because critical tippings points have already been crossed. In 2014 glaciologist Eric Rignot said ice retreat in parts of West Antarctica was already “unstoppable”, with the “likely collapse of the rest of the ice sheet, and a 3-5 metre sea level rise”. That is, unstoppable unless temperatures decline below 1°C to the 1970s level.
In Paris in 2015, the rhetoric was of 1.5°C and 2°C, even as the voluntary, unenforceable agreements put warming on a path to 3°C, and perhaps 4°C.

But 1.5°C is far from safe. A safe climate would be well less than the current warming, unless you think it is OK to destroy the Arctic ecosystem, tip West West Antarctic glaciers into a self-accelerating melt, and lose the world’s coral reefs, just for starters.

Our dilemma is that burning fossil fuels also release a lot of nitrate and sulphate aerosols —  the starters for acid rain — which have a very short-term cooling effect, keeping the planet two-thirds of  a degree cooler than it would otherwise be.

This is our deal with the devil, our “Faustian bargain”: the absolutely essential moves to eliminate fossil fuel emissions fast will also cut the cooling aerosol impact, and the resultant extra warming will push the planet up to very dangerous conditions, though not as hot as if we keep on a high-emissions path.

Even going to zero emissions fast still means we fly past 1.5°C of warming, and get close to 2°C. Prof. Michael Mann explains: “We’ve already expended the vast majority of the budget for remaining under 2°C. And what about 1.5°C stabilization? We’re already overdrawn.”

Carbon drawdown as large as feasible is absolutely necessary, but until you hit zero emissions, it acts to slow the rate of future warming, not to cool the planet.  Carbon drawdown cannot be completed fast enough to prevent or reverse the significant tipping points currently crossed and others that are close at hand.

Carbon drawdown of around 200 billion tonnes of atmospheric carbon dioxide would reduce warming by ~0.1°C. At present estimated costs, that’s $10-15 trillion per tenth of a degree of cooling. The most cost-effective large scale drawdown action is the restoration of carbon-dense and biologically rich natural forests.

We can reduce the warming impacts of the short-lived gases impacts, of which methane is the largest component. Half the methane emissions are from human actions:  fossil fuels, livestock, and landfills/waste.  But it is expected non-anthropogenic methane emissions from wetlands and the Arctic will increase, and there is evidence that tropical forest carbon stores and now turning into carbon sources.

Thus, without solar radiation management — replacing anthropogenic aerosols from fossil fuel use with anthropogenic aerosols distributed by planes — it will be difficult to avoid hitting 2°C no matter what emissions path we take, and impossible not to overshoot 1.5°C significantly.

We are now in the land of least worse choices.

Some will say solar radiation management or geoengineering cannot be used. Some will throw up their hands and say that that human species deserves to lay down in the bed it has made for itself: in other words, if we get wiped out, we deserved it. The problem is that those who made the bed are largely not those who will wipe out first.

Given the carbon dioxide in the air now and the heat in the oceans, it is not scientifically possible to to “save the reef”, if the possibility of using solar radiation management is excluded.

Solar radiation management only makes sense with very rapid actions towards zero emissions plus drawdown; and there is a demonstrable, clear, net environmental benefit from it.  Much work is needed to see if that is the case, and it should only used if that is so. But we need to be honest about what will be lost and what tipping points will be crossed if it is not considered.

We know human society is capable of amazing acts, whether it is building the pyramids, wiping out diseases, or facing down big natural emergencies.

We can win on climate if we can transcend the international policy-making paradigm, that nothing should be done to disrupt neo-liberalism. But large scale disruption is now inevitable, one way or the other.

We need an ethos of common purpose, of fair sharing of the burden, and shared sacrifice.

This is an emergency, whole-of-society, response.

In Ireland, a Climate Emergency Measures Bill, which has already passed the first stage reading will be debated this month seeks, to ban any new explorations for oil, coal, and gas on Irish territory. It’s something that we need here, too, just for starters.

People are ready for this. Recent polling shows that
  • 75% of Australians consider climate change a “global catastrophic risk”.
  • And 81% supported strong action even if it requires making considerable changes that impact on our current living standards. 
  • Another survey in the US, UK, Canada and Australia found that 54% rated the risk of our way of life ending within the next 100 years at 50% or greater, and a quarter rated the risk of humans being wiped out at 50/50 or greater.
So it’s not that people don’t get it, emotionally and existentially. They do.

What is missing is brave leadership which is prepared to say that winning slowly is now the same as losing.


In my view, the short answer to the question is no, unless we find the means to fundamentally reframe our approach to addressing global warming – and rapidly.

David Spratt has set out some of the latest science and the realities we now face.  I would like to comment briefly on the risk implications of that science, an aspect rarely discussed in Australia, or globally for that matter, and certainly not discussed honestly.  

Given our refusal to seriously address the challenge to date, global warming is now about the management of  existential risk, a risk which is beyond the experience of communities, governments, corporations, investors, financial markets and regulators.  It is an unprecedented danger to the survival of humanity, barely mentioned, let alone accepted in our national discourse. It is a risk posing permanent large negative consequences to humanity which can never be undone; one where an adverse outcome would either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential. 

Overwhelming expert opinion considers that the world is now exposed to this risk unless global carbon emissions are reduced far more rapidly than is contemplated under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the objective of which is to hold global average temperature to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C”.  Our current global emission trajectory would lead to a temperature increase in the 4-5°C range, a world which would be “incompatible with an organised global community”, with global population dropping from seven billion to below one billion as the impact of climate extremes takes effect.

Even the 3°C outcome which would eventuate if current voluntary Paris commitments were implemented, would result in outright social chaos in many parts of the world. And yet our political, bureaucratic and corporate leaders, by and large, continue to deny even the existence of a climate change problem. 

To have any realistic chance of staying below the upper Paris objective of 2°C – which itself now represents extremely dangerous warming – we have no global carbon budget left today. That means we should shut down all fossil fuel operations tomorrow. Of course that will not happen, but it only underlines the risks we run by continuing to push carbon emissions into the atmosphere. 

Ostensibly, Australia is committed to the Paris Agreement.  Reality is different. We have the Deputy Prime Minister only this week urging the opening up not just of the Adani mega-coal mine, but of a whole new coal province in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.  Then there is the current inquiry in the Northern Territory which sees only “a medium (climate) risk of low consequence” in establishing a massive new shale gas fracking industry.  In addition, major coal and coal seam gas expansion is proposed in NSW. All are in total contradiction of the Paris Agreement.   

This is extremely irresponsible given that our region is where the most severe impacts of climate change are already being felt. Northern Australia is particularly vulnerable to these risks, but leaders seem impervious to the danger posed to community well-being, provided they can notch up a few more jobs to shore up their short-term re-election prospects.

By committing to these developments, we would be locking-in potentially catastrophic, irreversible, outcomes. In effect Australia has one foot lightly on the global warming brake whilst the other foot is hard on the accelerator.

All to often we are told that Australia is such a small part of the global emission picture (domestic emissions about 1.3%), that anything we do is meaningless in attempting to solve the global challenge.  Thus we can continue to expand our high-carbon economy with impunity.  Such arguments completely ignore the massive carbon emissions we export with our fossil fuels sold overseas which, under UNFCCC formulae, are accounted for in the consuming country.  If they are included, as they should be given the critical stage climate change has now reached, Australia is in the top half dozen carbon emitters world wide (around 5%). Our denialist policies act as a major accelerant of climate impact worldwide, in turn shooting ourselves in the foot with increased damage to the Australian economy and society.       

So what has to change? To avoid this catastrophic future, man-made greenhouse gas emissions have to be reduced, and the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere drawn down on an emergency basis – far faster than currently contemplated.  Emissions must be cut faster than the current market economic system can achieve under its short-term profitability imperative. 

Likewise, the official UNFCCC process will not achieve reductions in time to avoid serious, potentially irreversible, damage.  While the UN approach should not be abandoned, given that a global forum for discussion is essential and few others are available, it must be supplemented by other mechanisms.

There is no silver bullet solution, but much silver buckshot, as Paul Hawken is demonstrating with his excellent Drawdown project.  We must make a rapid transition from a fossil fuel dependent economy to a low-carbon electrified economy based on solar, wind, hydro and biomass, with a strong focus on using less – that is, greater energy efficiency and conservation.  No further fossil fuel development and no subsidies!  This transition at a global level would eliminate two-thirds of currently projected human greenhouse gas emissions.  If accompanied by changes in agricultural practices, land management and clearing – saving water and fertilizer and increasing soil carbon sequestration – the increase in the average global temperature could be brought back to below 1.5°C by the end of the century (excluding any unexpected impact of tipping points). 

So how do we achieve it? In Australia, the starting point must be an honest discussion with the Australian community on the real challenge we face.  I know this is not a popular view.  Supposedly little can be achieved using what some would term “scare tactics” – I prefer to call it “speaking the truth”. We have never had that conversation here, preferring instead to focus on inadequate “brightsiding” solutions. 

Unless the real challenge is understood, the solutions will never be implemented in the time required. Unfortunately our reluctance to do this has allowed the Establishment over the last two decades to erect multiple barriers to progress, amply demonstrated in the appalling Review of Climate Change Policy last December, along with the mirage of the National Energy Guarantee.

With few exceptions, the level of understanding on the real implications of the climate science and risk among top level politicians, whether left or right, government decision-makers, bureaucrats, corporate and finance leaders is abysmal. Regulators on the other hand are becoming increasingly concerned about climate risks, albeit their initiatives still tend to focus on reactive and incremental change. NGOs, with a few exceptions, have preferred  to avoid serious discussion on the climate reality and the need for an emergency response. Similarly, many scientists have been reluctant to speak openly due to political constraints, although that is now changing as the risks escalate.

The net result is that the seriousness of the climate challenge is rarely discussed honestly and the public is largely ignorant of the escalating risks. But unless we have that conversation, constructively, community support for the massive changes, and opportunities, that lie ahead will continue to elude us, and the barriers to change will only get larger, given the Establishment’s dominant denialist mindset.

Effective climate emergency action requires the cooperation of many organizations and millions of people across Australia. The solutions are available, as I have said.  However to implement them at the speed and to the extent we need requires a critical mass of our community to convince, or force, the Establishment to abandon its rabid defence of the status quo, crossing the threshold to wholeheartedly take up the opportunities the transition to the low-carbon world presents.  That is already happening to some extent as competitive alternatives to fossil fuels penetrate the Australian market, but it has to be greatly accelerated.

But it is not just a question of technology.  Global warming is highlighting the fact that the world is now hitting the real resource limits of the Earth System which have long been anticipated. Accordingly we have to rethink the entire social and economic systems under which we live. In the immortal words of Kenneth Boulding:
“Anyone who considers economic growth can continue indefinitely in a finite system is either a madman or an economist”
But that is a longer story.