Climate change: new science, same old politics

If authoritative, peer-reviewed science suddenly found obesity or smoking to be twice as lethal as earlier believed, would the news be all over the media? Of course it would.

But a doubling of the likely impacts of greenhouse gas emissions? That, it seems, is not important enough for mainstream media outlets to bother reporting in much detail.

Arguably the biggest climate science news of 2008 was the finding, by a group of researchers under renowned US climatologist James Hansen, that the earth's long-term "climate sensitivity" is approximately twice what was previously thought.

Seeking to obtain real-world values for the relation between atmospheric carbon dioxide and icecap formation, Hansen and his collaborators matched up data for global temperatures and carbon dioxide levels as far back as tens of millions of years ago.

One of their findings was that the "tipping point" for the melting of polar icecaps was a level of carbon dioxide only marginally above today's level.

Another was that on a time-scale of centuries, a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million (ppm) was likely to cause an average global temperature rise not of 3 C the previously accepted figure but six.

Sound ominous? Indeed it is. A doubling of carbon dioxide over pre-industrial levels would yield a concentration of 560ppm, compared with today's figure of just under 390ppm.

As noted by Professor Barry Brook, head of the Institute of Climate Change and Sustainability at Adelaide University, "business as usual" emissions promise eventually to take atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to 750-1000 ppm. Factoring in Hansen's conclusions, Brook observes that "10°C warming is not an unrealistic proposition".

True, the full impacts of the processes at work would not be felt for as long as a 1000 years. But certain effects of these "slow feedbacks" are starting to be detected already (rising carbon emissions from soils are one example), and the major, disastrous impacts would likely be concentrated in the first few centuries.

Sustained average global temperatures 10 higher than today's have not been experienced on Earth since dinosaurs roamed more than 65 million years ago.

In terms of the time needed for ecosystems to adapt to changes of this scope, even a thousand years is like the flicker of an eyelid. A rise of considerably less than ten degrees, packed into a few centuries, would wipe the great majority of complex life forms from the face of the planet.

Quite conceivably, human beings would be among the creatures to vanish.

But that's not news, according to Australia's dinosaur media. To find a real discussion of Hansen's bombshell last year, you had to turn to sources like Green Left Weekly.

Hansen's findings on climate sensitivity have come to be widely accepted by scientists as robust. Nevertheless, this crucial new science still goes virtually unacknowledged in mainstream media reporting on climate change.

Politicians are thus free to continue basing their policies on earlier science - science that is now appallingly out of date.

The greenhouse emissions reduction targets mooted at the Poznan conference in December have their roots firmly in the "official" science of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which presented its most recent report in December 2007. So too do the 2008 recommendations to the Australian government by its adviser Professor Ross Garnaut.

The cut-off point for new findings incorporated in the IPCC's 2007 report was back in 2005, long before Hansen and his team rewrote the science on climate sensitivity. It's not without cause that David Spratt, co-author of the book Climate Code Red, describes today's mainstream debates on climate change as "delusional".

Another science sensation of 2008 that has proved too much for the media moguls is a study by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows of Britain's Tyndall Institute for Climate Change Research. Basing their work on global carbon emissions trends since 2000, Anderson and Bows set out to calculate how fast emissions now need to fall if atmospheric greenhouse gases are to be stabilised at approximately today's levels.

Anderson and Bows conclude that emissions by the world's energy and industrial process sectors need to peak as early as 2015, then decline at an annual rate of 6-8%.

Compare this with the Australian government's White Paper, Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme: Australia's Low Pollution Future, released on December 15.

Over the decade between 2010 and 2020, the Rudd government has pledged to cut Australian greenhouse emissions by a total of 5%. If a binding international agreement comes into force, the total cuts for the decade may be increased to 15%. In the first three years of the scheme, the government projects that national emissions will fall at an annual rate of 1%.

Is there some misprint here? No, our government aims to cut emissions by only a small fraction of what the scientists deem indispensable.

True, Australia's population will rise during the next decade, meaning that Rudd's cuts will be greater in per capita terms.
It might also be argued that reducing emissions across their whole range, including agriculture and stock-raising, is a greater challenge than cutting energy and process emissions alone.

On the other hand, the benchmark used by Anderson and Bows (to be precise, 450 ppm of carbon dioxide equivalent) is now broadly recognised as nowhere near low enough to stop global warming. To actually save our descendants from a fiery end, the annual cuts will need to be substantially greater than 6-8%.

So how are we to interpret the response to global warming by Australia's great and powerful?

On the part of Prime Minister Rudd and climate change minister Penny Wong, the strategy seems to be: pick a number, any number (but not so high as to cause the bulk of Australian businesses real grief), and make it your emissions reduction target.

Then have trade-exposed industrialists condemn the proposed cuts as excessive. Wedge the Liberals, pretend to occupy the "sensible middle ground" on climate change, and plan to get Labor re-elected with Green preferences.

The ALP authors of this cynical charade no doubt think they are very "clever" and "wily" politicians. But let them try to explain it all to their grandchildren.