We're Already at Code Red


The Interim Report of Professor Ross Garnaut’s Climate Change Review is better than expected but still fails to comprehend the urgency of the situation. It remains oblivious to the quickest and cheapest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Rudd Government’s tepid reaction is also disturbing.

The Report does acknowledge that the need for action on global warming has become more urgent and that the political response is still quite inadequate. It offers some thoughtful suggestions on how Australia can play an important role internationally, by setting a pace and forming constructive regional groupings with less-developed neighbours.

It discusses in some detail how to make an emissions trading scheme effective and how to mitigate its social effects without neutering it. It discusses strategies that Australia might pursue that would improve the chances of international agreements being reached, and that would also place Australia favourably if such agreements eventuated. The Report acknowledges that an interim goal for 2020 is politically useful – albeit with a lot of economic hemming and hawing.

A welcome finding is that the Australian economy would do relatively well under strong international emissions reduction agreements. This dispatches the Howard-era furphy that the Kyoto agreement and its successors would wreck the Australian economy.

Most of this is good and useful, but it is not the main game. Although the Report acknowledges recent faster rises in emissions, temperature and sea level, it has not kept up with the latest science. Indeed scientists are struggling to keep up with the Earth. The situation is now considerably more dire than the report describes.

The 2007 IPCC reports are obsolete. The most recent science is well summarised in the report Climate Code Red, issued through Friends of the Earth. The loss of ice from West Antarctica and Greenland, and especially last northern summer’s alarming drop in the area of Arctic sea ice, are running ahead of earlier projections. Five metres of sea level rise is possible by the end of the century. A series of other climate dominos could be close to tipping in much quicker succession than previously expected, threatening irreversible, catastrophic warming.

In view of the current scientific understanding, scientists have been revising rapidly downwards the "safe" limits on temperature rise and on atmospheric carbon dioxide content. Whereas political discussions still focus on limiting temperature rises to 2-3 degrees, the new limit is less than 1 degree. We have already warmed 0.8 degrees, and we are locked into 1.4-1.7 degrees from past emissions and the likely loss of Arctic sea ice.

Instead of earlier limits of 450-550 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the new limit is 300-350 ppm. We already have 383 ppm in the atmosphere.

In other words, we are experiencing dangerous climate change right now. The new limits are the best judgement of climate scientists like James Hansen, who has been speaking out on climate change for over two decades, and whose judgements have been broadly vindicated – except over the past couple of years as the Earth has started to run ahead of everyone’s worst expectations.

The situation is much worse than the interim Garnaut Report indicates. We need to totally reassess our situation, and our approach to dealing with it. Politics as usual is not up to the new challenge. The mindset typified by the Report is not capable of dealing with the problem.

The highest priority has to be a dramatic improvement in energy efficiency, which is by far the quickest and cheapest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There are by now many reports showing how to boost our energy efficiency by factors of two, five, ten or more (see: Energy End-Use Efficiency, Climate Code Red, Climate: Making Sense and Making Money, Clean Energy Future, An Australian Cost Curve for Greenhouse Gas Reduction).

Garnaut is still stuck in the mentality that we need big new technologies like carbon capture and storage, but they are so far in the future as to be irrelevant, and they have negative spin-offs. The obstacles to effective action are not technical, nor even economic, they are social and political.

We need to make risk assessment and risk management the overriding consideration. The level of risk to which humanity is now exposed would be totally unacceptable in other contexts, like aeroplane or bridge design. We need scientists directly involved in top-level policy who are capable of assessing and communicating, the latest science. Garnaut is not being well advised. The optimising mindset of economists is useful, but only after the main policy framework has been set by others.

The Rudd Government has shown its colours by backing away even from the Garnaut options. Invoking campaign promises as a justification is just spineless. We need real leadership and we don’t need more hesitation and hand-wringing.

Unfortunately the Rudd Government seems to be just as much in thrall to the backroom whisperings of the big polluting industries as was the Howard Government. For the sake of our children and the world, the well-funded fossil fuel lobbyists need to be escorted from Capital Hill and told to stay away.

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