We can't afford to wait for the politicians
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By David Spratt
October 10, 2008 -- A year ago I was researching what was intended to be a short submission to the Garnaut review [commissioned to advise the Australian federal government of Labor Party Prime Minister Kevin Rudd], when events in the polar north turned the world of climate policy upside down. It was found that eight million square kilometres of sea-ice — an area the size of Australia — was melting, in the immortal words of one glaciologist, "a hundred years ahead of schedule".
Yet the international policy debate carried on as if this had not happened. Out-of-date scenarios, research and observations were being used to propose emission reduction targets that would still lead to catastrophe even if fully implemented.
And so a short submission became a long detour into how the climate debate is being constructed, and the result, with Philip Sutton, was a book we did not intend to write, Climate Code Red.
We came to the conclusion that most of the public policy debate on climate is delusional, that is, a fixed, false belief resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact. In the new Quarterly Essay, Tim Flannery says “There is no real debate about how serious our predicament is”, nor has there been the “understanding of just how profoundly we are influencing the very Earth processes that gives us life”.
Neither of the major political parties [in Australia] at the national level have bothered to tell the electorate what they consider to be dangerous climate change. Neither party in government has ever said how hot would be too hot — one degree, or two, three, four or five? — and then committed themselves to actions consistent with that target. And both seem to have difficulty in saying unambiguously that the loss of the Great Barrier Reef (now inevitable) or the salination of Kakadu (predicted to occur with a half-metre sea-level rise this century) mean that global warming is already dangerous.
The Australian federal government’s climate vision does not extend beyond the terrain described by the reports of the IPCC, which Flannery notes are “painfully conservative” because the IPPC “works by consensus and includes government representatives from the United States, China and Saudi Arabia, all of whom must assent to every word of every finding”. Thus the IPCC’s most recent report has already been found badly wanting on such issues as the Arctic sea-ice, ice sheet loss and sea-level rises, nor did it not seriously concern itself with the possibilities of non-linear climate change and the long-term effects of carbon-cycle feedbacks (carbon emission-induced warming causing the release of more carbon into the air, for example by the melting of permafrost).
Put simply, the debate in Australia is not evidence based. Political pragmatism, window dressing and incremental solutions that will fail take precedence over the scientific imperatives. The result can only be a suicide note for most people and most species on the planet.
The conclusion we came to was that unless we adopt the strongest measures — emergency action — it will be too late. It is no longer a matter of how much more we can heat the planet, but how quickly can we cool it.
Serious impacts already underway
Serious climate-change impacts are already happening, both more rapidly and at lower global temperature increases than projected. In 2005 the eminent climate scientist Dr James Hansen warned that: “We are on the precipice of climate system tipping points beyond which there is no redemption.” Three years later, we now know that we have already crossed some of those tipping points: for ice-sheet disintegration, significant sea-level rises and species loss. Hansen says that the “Elements of a `perfect storm', a global cataclysm, are assembled”.
The complete loss of the Arctic sea-ice in summer is now inevitable. "The Arctic Ocean could be nearly ice-free at the end of summer by 2012", says Dr Jay Zwally, a glaciologist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. He concludes that: "The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming … and now as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died.”
The Arctic is key to the world’s climate, and Arctic changes have the potential to seriously destabilise the global climate system. Dr Neil Hamilton, Director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Arctic programme, says that Arctic climate models are breaking down and no longer work because "we are moving to a new Arctic climate system". He says the WWF is no longer trying to protect the Arctic ecosystem because it is no longer possible to do so, and that carbon sinks in the Arctic are changing very, very quickly and it is not clear what any Arctic ecosystem will look like in 50 years.
The danger is that an ice-free state in the Arctic summer will kick the climate system into run-on warming and create an aberrant new climate state many, many degrees hotter. The Arctic sea-ice is the first domino and it is falling fast. Other dominos will inevitably fall unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases and cool the planet to get the Arctic sea-ice back.
Those dominoes include the Greenland ice sheet. The loss of the Arctic summer sea-ice will cause a large local warming in the Arctic region of around 5ºC and a smaller but very significant global warming of around 0.3ºC. This further warming of the Arctic will add to the speed of disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet. “We are close to being committed to a collapse of the Greenland ice sheet”, says Tim Lenton of the University of East Anglia. If Greenland totally melts, global sea levels will rise by 7 metres. The question, given the present trajectory of the climate system is not if, but how fast? The general view is 1–2 metres this century, but Will Steffen of the ANU says 4 metres cannot be ruled out; in past climate history 14,000 years ago, sea levels rose as fast as 5 metres per century.
I are not aware of any well-informed climate scientist who thinks that it is possible to have a safe climate or avoid dangerous sea-level rises with the permanent loss of the Arctic summer sea-ice. This topic is not being addressed in Australia, though it must frame the whole debate. To not forcefully consider the Arctic is to ignore the biggest issue today in global warming.
The rapid regional warming consequent to the sea-ice loss also has grave repercussions for the permafrost. The National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Boulder predicts that half of the permafrost in the Arctic north will thaw to a depth of 3 metres by 2050. Glaciologist Ted Scambos says, “That’s a serious runaway … a catastrophe lies buried under the permafrost.” Permafrost specialist Sergei Zimov says: “Permafrost areas hold 500 billion tonnes of carbon, which can fast turn into greenhouse gases … If you don’t stop emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere … the Kyoto Protocol will seem like childish prattle.” The western Siberian peat bog is amongst the fastest-warming places on the planet, and Sergei Kirpotin of Tomsk State University calls the melting of frozen bogs an “ecological landslide that is probably irreversible”. In August 2008, Örjan Gustafsson, the Swedish leader of the International Siberian Shelf Study confirmed that methane was now also bubbling through seawater from permafrost on the seabed.
So the question is no longer whether the permafrost will start to melt, but if and when the time-bomb will go off. When it does, it will sweep the climate system away from our capacity to stop further dramatic "tipping points" being passed. All the carbon in the permafrost is equivalent to twice the total amount of all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so losing even a significant portion of it will create a very different planet from the one we know. Scientists are warning that the temperature at which it will be triggered is closer that we think. Research published in mid-2008 by Dmitry Khvorostyanov shows the trigger is warming in the Arctic of around 9ºC, and that once initiated it will maintain itself, leading to three-quarters of the carbon being released within a century. It could happen as early as mid-century.
Act now to avoid catastrophe
For these and many other reasons, I can only conclude that a temperature cap of 2–2.4°C, as proposed within the United Nations framework, would take the planet’s climate beyond the temperature range of the last million years and into catastrophe. "Two degrees has the potential to lead to three or four degrees because of carbon-cycle feedbacks", says the University of Adelaide's Barry Brook.
And so the conclusions we reached in November 2007 were:
• Because of the dangerous knock-on effects caused by its loss, the Arctic sea ice must be restored to its normal extent as fast as possible.
• To get the Arctic sea ice back we need to cool the earth by about 0.3ºC. If we don’t, we cannot avoid very dangerous climate impacts. There is no third way. This is the new very inconvenient truth politicians seek to avoid.
• To cool the earth fast enough to get the Arctic sea-ice back quickly, we need to move to zero greenhouse gas emissions as fast as the economy can be restructured, and is environmentally safe to do so, and take about 200 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the air. We also need to find environmentally-safe mechanisms to actively cool the earth while navigating this transition.
• Taken together this is a staggering task in terms of the necessary scale and speed of action, but there is simply no alternative if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.
We were not alone.
In December 2007, James Hansen spoke of his very similar conclusions. He says, "Recent greenhouse gas emissions place the Earth perilously close to dramatic climate change that could run out of our control, with great dangers for humans and other creatures. There is already enough carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere for massive ice sheets such as West Antarctica to eventually melt away, and ensure that sea levels will rise metres in coming decades. Climate zones such as the tropics and temperate regions will continue to shift, and the oceans will become more acidic, endangering much marine life. We must begin to move rapidly to the post-fossil fuel clean energy system. Moreover, we must remove some carbon that has collected in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution."
In September 2008, John Schellnhuber, director of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and advisor to the German government and the European Union, told David Adam of the British Guardian that only a return to pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide would be enough to guarantee a safe future for the planet. He said that current political targets to slow the growth in emissions and stabilise carbon levels were insufficient, and that ways may have to be found to actively remove carbon dioxide from the air. Adam reported: “[Schellnhuber] said even a small increase in temperature could trigger one of several climatic tipping points, such as methane released from melting permafrost, and bring much more severe global warming. `It is a very sweeping argument, but nobody can say for sure that 330 ppm [parts per million carbon dioxide] is safe,’ he said. [The present level is much higher at 387 ppm.] ‘Perhaps it will not matter whether we have 270 ppm or 320 ppm, but operating well outside the [historic] realm of carbon dioxide concentrations is risky as long as we have not fully understood the relevant feedback mechanisms’.”
Talk to most climate scientists, and they will privately agree. Many are already concerned that it may be too late (partially because of their very jaundiced view of the political elite up close), and they know that the politically accepted targets cannot be scientifically justified as likely to save the planet from disaster.
Recently, 49 Australian grassroots climate action and environment advocacy groups told Ross Garnaut in an open letter that “the tipping points for large ice sheet and species loss have already been crossed, as we are witnessing in the Arctic. It is no longer a case of how much more we can safely emit, but whether we can quickly stop emissions and produce a cooling before we hit tipping points and amplifying feedbacks — such as large-scale release of greenhouse gases from melting permafrost — that will take the trajectory of the earth’s climate system beyond any hope of human restoration.”
This statement was endorsed by five [Australian] state-based conservation councils, and Greenpeace is also moving to this “new realist” position. And of all the large environment-oriented organisations, it was the Australian Greens’ Christine Milne who took the lead in recognising that “that the expectation of failure has become the norm in climate policy” and engaged with the zero emissions goal.
So we can see a sweeping change in the public perspective of scientists and most environmentalists, whom opinion polls show are the two most credible voices in the climate conversation. Unfortunately, some of the more corporate-cuddle climate groups, trapped in a conservative mode of operation, are caught a long way behind the contemporary debate and the new, evidence-based understanding of the urgent need for zero emissions and the cooling of the planet back to a safe zone.
Obstacles are political
Stop all greenhouse gas emissions and cool the planet: it sounds impossible, but it is not. I am convinced that the obstacles to such a path are not principally technological or economic, but political and social. [Other speakers at this forum will be talking in detail about what those solutions can be.] Renewable energy is not rocket science, nor is electrifying our national train network, improving energy efficiency or planning to live sustainably. A McKinsey&Company report finds that many of the emission reduction opportunities are actually cost-positive (they cost less than they save in energy costs). And rebuilding a post-fossil-fuel economy will be job rich.
In July, Al Gore issued his challenge to the United States: "Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100% of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years …This goal is achievable, affordable and transformative. To those who argue that we do not yet have the technology … I've seen what they [entrepreneurs who will drive this revolution] are doing and I have no doubt that we can meet this challenge."
Here is the key: the challenge of climate is politically transformative.
In the dense fog that passes for the national climate policy debate, the major players stumble from one lamp post to the next, unable to see the bigger picture in the murky light. Devoid of context, their climate view is so constrained that they fail to identify the core problem: that the world stands on the edge of a precipice beyond which human actions will be no longer able to control in any meaningful way the trajectory of the climate system, or the fate of human life in a rapidly degrading natural world.
Climate policy is characterised by the habituation of low expectations and a culture of failure. There is an urgent need to understand global warming and the tipping points for dangerous impacts that we have already crossed as a sustainability emergency, that takes us beyond the politics of failure-inducing compromise because we are now in a race between climate tipping points and political tipping points.
Our political leaders are not taking the actions that the science demands, because the conventional mode of politics is short term and pragmatic. It seems to be about solving 10% of the problem, or blaming the other side for problems, or putting it off until after the next election, or pretending it doesn’t exist at all. Politics is more and more spin and less and less substance.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and [climate change minister] Penny Wong have adopted a traditional Labor Party approach to the climate problem: something for the environment lobby and something for business. But the problem is that solving the climate crisis cannot be treated like a wage deal, with the demands of each side balanced somewhere in the middle. It is not possible to negotiate with the laws of physics and chemistry. The planet cannot be bought off. There are absolute limits that should not be crossed, and doing something, but not enough, will still lead to disaster.
We can't wait for the market
They seem wedded to market-based solutions rather than having the imaginative capacity to construct a future nation in which we will actually be able to survive. We face systemic breakdown. Speed is of the essence in making the transition to a post-carbon economy as quickly as humanly possible. We cannot wait for the market to build a sustainable society. We all have to be part of it. Even the President of France has declared that "laissez-faire is over"; Sarkozy said: "the idea that the market is always right is a crazy idea." Britain's Nicholas Stern says global warming is the greatest market failure of all time, so in climate policy what do the major parties turn to: a carbon market!
The climate crisis will not respond to incremental modification of the business-as-usual model.
Fortunately we have another model we can turn to when we really want to fully solve a problem: emergency mode, whether it be flood or fire or tsunami or earthquake. In these circumstances we don't wait for market mechanism or price signals or policies that will be implemented in 2 or 3 years time to solve it. No, government authorities go and directly apply the people and resources to fully solve he problem. The same is true in war time, where the government controls the economy to produce what is needed quickly and efficiently in order to solve the problem. In war if you only half solve the problem, you lose. The same is true of the fight against global warming.
Climate Code Red
What we need to do is recognise, as people such as the UN Secretary General, the head of the UNFCCC, the Victorian state governor in launching Climate Code Red, and many others have said, that we face an emergency that requires emergency action.
The climate emergency requires leadership and courage, and an imaginative capacity almost completely lacking in Australian politics today. We need to inspire people with the idea of transformative action, the willingness to promote a new vision of the future and make it the number one goal of our society and economy. It requires governments to put much of the enormous wealth generated by our economy into the solving the climate crisis.
So how much economic capacity should be devoted to making the necessary rapid transition to a post-carbon society? The only realistic answer is that we must devote as many resources as are necessary, and as quickly as possible, to the climate emergency. During the last global mobilisation, World War II, more than 30 per cent, and in some cases more than half, of the economy was devoted to military expenditure. Yet today we have a delusionary public discussion about how spending 0.5 or 1 per cent on the problem is too much!
We need to be prepared to make that level of commitment again if it is necessary to save most humans and species from a global warming apocalypse. Shifting to a war-type economy will require us 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 politicians cannot lead, then we all must, in building a movement across society that uses the brutal reality of our position to advocate and inspire the nation to take transformative action. 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. Trial and error climate policy is not an option. Waiting for the market is not an option. The Arctic is our Pearl Harbor.
And the impacts will be global and overwhelming. For example, the scientifically conservative 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report said that the Himalayan glaciers might be gone by mid-century. One-sixth of the Earth’s population relies on the melting of glaciers and seasonal snow packs for water, yet the federal Labor government’s unofficial target of 3 degrees is consistent with their destruction.
Taken together with those on the neighbouring Tibetan plateau, the Himalayan–Hindu Kush glaciers represent the largest body of ice on the planet outside the polar regions, feeding Asia's great river systems, including the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and Huang He. The basins of these rivers are home to over a billion people from Pakistan to China. The Himalayas supply as much as 70 per cent of the summer flow in the Ganges and 50–60 per cent of the dry-season flow in other major rivers. In China, 23 per cent of the population lives in the western regions, where glacial melt provides the principal dry season water source.
The implications of the loss of the Himalayan ice sheet are global and mind numbing, but such a calamity rarely rates a mention in Australia.
Do our politicians understand how global warming impacts in the Himalayas will unravel the lives of a billion people? In their letter to Garnaut, the grassroots climate groups asked: “What are our values here? Should we ‘wait and see’ if the whole world will act, before we do? Or should we take the only possible moral course and do what we need to do now, without waiting, because if other nations were to act similarly it may be possible to stop those billion people facing a catastrophe beyond words?
“We cannot wait, as one of the world’s highest per capita emitters, we have a greater responsibility to lead, in proportion to our responsibility for the problem … Playing a game of ‘blink’ with the international community when the stakes are the survival of most people and species is clearly indefensible. If all nations know that we all have to take drastic action, then the first and best choice is for all nations is to act unilaterally, because we can and must. We do not have to wait for an international agreement. To decide not to act with urgency now is to choose failure. In so doing, bold leadership would replace the pervasive failure on climate in Australia politics."
Sir Nicholas Stern said that climate impacts were likely to be greater than the two world wars and the Depression put together, and that’s on the light side. When profligacy wrecked the global finance markets in 2008, governments and central banks readily stumped up more than a trillion dollars to “bail out” the economy. But when profligate human carbon emissions threaten the planet, such a rescue plan is not even the subject of serious conversation.
Perhaps we may take solace in the thought that when global capital, at whose behest most governments rule, understand the new climate realism and conclude that they can’t build an economy on a dying planet, then those who have sat on their hands at the global negotiating tables will miraculously find the political will to plan and build a zero-emissions economy at great speed.
Our role is to lead people across this nation to understand that the transformation to a sustainable society, and rebuilding our economy, is now an emergency.
[This presentation was delivered at a public forum on October 10, 2008. It was part of the Environmental Activists' Conference '08: Climate Emergency -- No More Business as Usual, in Adelaide, Australia. David Spratt is co-author of Climate Code Red: the case for emergency action, Scribe 2008; http://www.climatecodered.net.]