The Point of No Return


I am an occasional optimist, but I suspect that’s only because hope is the last thing to die. Our fearless leaders have finished sloshing down their taxpayer-funded gourmet delicacies and fine wine at APEC, so perhaps now they could let us know whether anyone involved in the Very Important Discussions which resulted in a Very Important International ‘Agreement’ was at all concerned about our planet reaching the point of no return.

I suspect not, if you compare the useless nonsensical inaction of the preposterous ‘Sydney Declaration’ with the reality of what is happening.

In his 2006 book, The Revenge of Gaia, Professor James Lovelock wrote:

Deadly it may be, but when we pass the threshold of climate change there may be nothing perceptible to mark this crucial step, nothing to warn that there is no returning. It is somewhat like the descriptions some physicists give of the imagined experience of an astronaut unlucky enough to fall into a massive black hole.

To what extent might feedback loops be our guide? The concept is that climate deviations are amplified rather than suppressed, so that increased heat leads to even greater heat. Lovelock gives some examples of known feedbacks:

As the oceans warm, so the area covered by nutrient-poor water increases, making the ocean less friendly for algae. This reduces the rate of pump down of carbon dioxide and the generation of white reflecting marine status clouds.

This is happening now.

The Boreal forests in Siberia and Canada are dark and heat absorbing. As the world grows warmer they extend their range and so absorb more heat.

This is happening now.

As forest and algal ecosystems die their decomposition releases carbon dioxide and methane into the air. In a warming world this is a positive feedback.

This is happening now.

The ice-albedo feedback.

Is this happening now?

Large deposits of methane are held in ice crystals within molecular-sized voids, called clathrates. These are stable only in the cold or under high pressure. As the earth warms there is an increasing risk of these clathrates melting, with the escape of large volumes of methane. Methane is 24 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.

When will this start?

And just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, we find out that we may have grossly underestimated the speed at which our climate is changing because the real effects are masked by global dimming.

Then there is our sunburnt country, a land of droughts (albeit a bit more severe and prolonged than expected) and flooding plains (and nowadays, of course, tablelands and coasts and cities as well).

So far this year we have seen flooding in New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. But in modern times this description is far from unique to Australia: consider China, the UK, the United States, Vietnam, India, Africa and now Greece.

Frankly, it sounds to me as though we’ve already passed the point of no return.

In fact, there was a credible suggestion (the leaked draft APEC leaders’ declaration) that Howard and Bush used APEC to reduce the heat on them in their upcoming elections and at the same time undermine international action to address climate change while protecting the Australian export coal industry and US fossil fuel interests.

But none of this seems to worry our leaders, who proudly announced their achievement of a non-binding ‘aspirational goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions’.

No targets, no timetables, no promises, nothing definite, just non-binding puffery. Unfortunately, you need go no further than Australia, the US and the Kyoto Protocol to show you can’t trust all people or all countries to do what’s in everyone’s best interests.

To undo the harm we’ve already done requires a program that dwarfs space and military programs in cost and size.

If the window of opportunity for the world to try to stop the juggernaut, let alone turn things around, is ten years, why is the Government shirking the Kyoto Protocol in favour of the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (which doesn’t incorporate binding requirements to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by any fixed amounts, but ‘urges’ signing nations to voluntarily develop ‘clean technologies’) and now the similarly farcical Sydney Declaration?

There is no doubt about what we are facing. If global temperatures increase by more than 2.7 degrees, the Greenland Glacier will no longer be stable and will continue melting until most of it is gone. If they increase by 4 degrees, tropical rain forests will be destabilised and will disappear, replaced by scrub or desert.

A temperature increase of that magnitude seems inevitable. According to an April 2007 UN study, even though we have the know-how to reduce global greenhouse emissions by as much as 26bn tonnes by 2030, doing so will do no more than limit the expected temperature rise across the planet to 2–3 degrees; cheaper solutions, which could bring emissions down to 1990 levels, would see average temperatures rise by as much as 4 degrees this century.

HL Mencken remarked in 1926, ‘It is [a politician’s]business to get and hold his job at all costs. If he can hold it by lying, he will hold it by lying; if lying peters out, he will try to hold it by embracing new truths. His ear is ever close to the ground.’ Sound like anyone we know?

In the lead up to the Federal election, what proposals will be put forward by Howard and Rudd about adaptation to reduce the impact that climate change is set to have on Australia? How are we going to deal with peak oil, national security and climate refugees?

What we want is the truth for once, instead of opportunistic mendacity, the real facts and figures about what is happening, the unsanitised truth about what our elected representatives really think and where our Government’s priorities lie.

And instead of the sewers of ‘spin’ (which inevitably will overflow yet again in the lead up to the Federal election), can someone just tell us the truth about what if anything our Government ever really intends to do?

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