Climate change and how to avoid a ‘hell of a mess’

January 18, 2018

Extreme weather across the globe should prompt some serious rethinking on policies to mitigate dangerous global warming.

The major parties’ line that they support the Paris Accord is not good enough. The Paris Agreement, although well supported, is voluntary. More importantly, the goal of limiting global warming to between 1.5° and 2°C is still far from safe.

David Spratt, from Climate Code Red, analysed a paper co-authored last July by James Hansen that concludes “the world has overshot the appropriate target for global temperature”.

It argues this is because there are big risks in “pushing the climate system far out of its Holocene range” — the warm period between 9000 and 5000 years before the present.

The researchers say the current 1ºC of warming compared to the 1880–1920 baseline is about half a degree warmer than the Holocene maximum, and about as hot as it got in the Eemian warm period about 115,000 to 130,000 years ago, when the sea level was 6–9 metres higher than today.

Spratt argues that this glimpse into past climates shows that the current level of climate warming with temperatures similar to the Eemian maximum, are dangerous. This is because the long-term feedback loops — in which climate warming triggers the release of stored carbon in polar regions, pushing more carbon into the atmosphere and raising the temperature further — would result in a significant loss of polar ice sheets and raise the sea level by several metres. It may also activate the permafrost layer.

This could produce an escalating cycle of warming that may be beyond human capacity to reign in.

In Young people's burden: requirement of negative CO2 emissions Hansen et al lay out the evidence for the need for drastic, immediate emission reductions and the drawdown of atmospheric carbon to a safe level.

So it is not that Labor’s Mark Butler or the Liberals’ Josh Frydenburg are being deprived of the latest scientific information on climate change. They know what is at stake.

Frydenburg concedes that carbon emissions are continuing to rise but argues that the government’s national energy guarantee (NEG), announced last October, was “the most effective way” to cut emissions.

He concedes the pickup of renewable energies has made them more attractive financially, but argues that the “unreliability” of renewables means that fossil fuels are still requisite.

As Green Left Weekly reported last year, the NEG will require the electricity sector to reduce emissions by 26–28% by 2030. It starts after 2020 and will allow retailers to meet any emissions shortfall by trading with other retailers, or by buying Australian or international carbon credits. New coal and gas projects are still being approved and public subsidies are still helping this dirty energy sector.

Butler has the job of convincing us that Labor’s approach is different. Labor admits that the climate crisis is due to carbon pollution, but its policies are weak and tailored to not upset the fossil fuel giants.

Butler, author of Climate Wars, is scathing of the government’s inaction and its “shockingly low” emission targets.

“Emissions are up in every sector; Malcolm Turnbull is failing our international obligations under the Paris Accord and failing future generations,” he said. “If Malcolm Turnbull is leading the world on climate change, the world is in a hell of a mess.”

However, Labor’s climate action plan only promises to reach 50% renewable energy by 2030 and reach net zero pollution by 2050.

Labor will also put a cap on carbon pollution but, like the Coalition, will allow fossil fuel corporations to trade pollution permits. It states that a key framework principle is “a market-based approach” and makes the argument “accessing approved international offsets helps ensure that Australia can achieve its emissions reductions at least cost to the economy, which is good for jobs and growth”.

International carbon offsets have been a key part of the corporate strategy to avoid real action on climate change. Author and activist Naomi Klein, among others, has done some very detailed work on the inability of “market mechanisms” to tackle the problem.

Carbon trading schemes by their very nature embed the right to pollute. They allow fossil fuel companies to profit from selling permits while avoiding emissions cuts, often by exploiting dodgy carbon offset programs in developing countries.

We are living in a “brave new world” as Fydenberg aptly put it. So we need real action on climate change, and it has to accord with the science that demands a holistic approach.

If, as Fydenberg said, the electricity grid is undergoing a “once-in-a-century transition” let’s make sure it is powered by renewables — which will create jobs and benign energy. Otherwise, the major parties' business-as-usual scenario means that the next generation will most definitely inherit a hell of a mess.

As Hansen et al stated: “Continued high fossil fuel emissions today place a burden on young people to undertake massive technological CO2 extraction if they are to limit climate change and its consequences … Continued high fossil fuel emissions unarguably sentences young people to either a massive, implausible cleanup or growing deleterious climate impacts or both.”

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