Climate change: Rudd failing to act

Issue 

Australia's new Labor government is in denial on the seriousness of climate change. That much is shown by its inadequate target of reducing the country's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 60% by 2050. But more on that later.

We now know that parts, at least, of the federal bureaucracy are in denial too. This emerges from a working paper by the treasury's Productivity Commission, released to the media on January 24.

The paper was earlier delivered to economist Professor Ross Garnaut, who has been charged by the ALP government with defining interim emissions targets for the next few decades. Garnaut is due to hand over his report in June.

What, you might ask, is the Productivity Commission doing making pronouncements on climate change? Don't they have enough to do suggesting ways to make workers work harder? And why, for that matter, did the ALP appoint an economist to set emissions targets, when the job is clearly one for a team of expert Earth scientists?

Here, too, the answers will be provided a little later on.

The Productivity Commission paper has criticised the British Labour government's October 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change for making, as the Australian put it on January 25, "value-laden assumptions that inflated estimates of the economic costs of warming".

The commission's paper, according to the Australian, criticised the Stern Review for tending to "escalate the present value of future costs". The review's conclusions were said to be "as much an exercise in advocacy" as an economic analysis of climate change. In sum, the Stern Review was biased and used faulty methodology to come up with unduly alarming results.

The Stern Review was prepared by a team under economist Sir Nicholas Stern. Stern estimated that the eventual cost of global warming could amount to between 5% and 20% of global gross domestic product (GDP) per year. By contrast, Stern argued, further global warming could be prevented for an annual cost as small as 1% of global GDP.

When announcing the commissioning of the Garnaut report last year, then opposition leader Kevin Rudd praised the Stern Review for sending "a clear warning that, left unchecked, climate change will have catastrophic economic consequences".

Out of date science

There is just one fly in this nectar. Stern's findings were based on science that even in 2006 was recognised as badly out of date. Among climate scientists and informed commentators, there is near-general agreement now that his conclusions were not inflated or alarmist, but wildly over optimistic.

Stern's arguments centred on a goal of stabilising atmospheric GHGs by 2050 at 500-550 parts per million (ppm) of "carbon dioxide equivalent" (CO2-e). This target also informed the British government's choice of an emissions reduction goal of "60% by 2050" (below 1990 levels), which is shared by the ALP government.

To come up with its emissions policy, the British government drew on the findings of the Third Assessment Report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Presented in 2001, this report was based on climate studies dating mostly from the mid-1990s.

More than a decade later, the studies of climate change are much more sophisticated — and frightening. In the 1990s less was known of a long series of "non-linear" mechanisms — "tipping points" and "positive feedback loops" — that are capable of abruptly turning gradual temperature rises into runaway global warming.

The present consensus is that if the world is to have a 75% chance of keeping temperature rises at less than 2̊C above pre-industrial levels — the point beyond which key tipping points are likely to be exceeded — GHGs in the atmosphere need to be stabilised below 450 ppm of CO2-e. The current figure is nudging 460, which means we are already into the danger zone. Stabilisation at a still-risky level will require a reduction of atmospheric carbon.

Data furnished by the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, issued in December, indicate a "best guess" temperature increase for 550 ppm of 2.9̊C. This would virtually guarantee that global warming escapes human control. Labor's emissions target is dangerously wrong.

It follows that the cost of stabilising global temperatures will be vastly greater than Stern's hopeful 1% of GDP. Throughout the world, fossil fuel-burning power plants will need to be replaced, comprehensively, with zero-emissions installations. Existing vehicle fleets will have to be scrapped and replaced with public transport, backed up by modest numbers of battery-powered cars and trucks. Agricultural practices will have to be transformed, and deforestation massively reversed. And all this must be done in less than a decade.

The only meaningful historical analogy is with the rapid 1940s transformation of the economies of the advanced countries to fight the Second World War. Only this time, no country will be able to afford a "defence" budget.

If this seems impractical, consider the costs of not doing it. Once the Earth is tipped into runaway global warming, no-one can confidently say where the process might stop. Criticising business-as-usual approaches, Stern in his review acknowledges the possibility of temperature rises of 5-6ºC by the end of the century. Add in positive feedbacks and the figure would almost certainly be considerably more.

One of the achievements of scientists in the past few years has been to give us a much more detailed picture of the environmental changes likely to accompany specific degrees of warming. This picture is set out by Mark Lynas in his 2007 book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet.

As Lynas soberly explains, six degrees of warming is now viewed by scientists as the threshold for the elimination of most life on Earth. Trying to assign a price in dollars to this kind of destruction is frivolous.

The Productivity Commission's staffers are highly trained, and as individuals they no doubt pass for decent, conscientious people. But on questions of climate change, they are pig-ignorant.

To have maintained their ignorance over the past few years is no small accomplishment. They will have needed to resist the temptation to Google phrases such as "Siberian bogs methane" or "Amazon carbon climate". In bookshops, they will have had to forego browsing works by writers such as Lynas and George Monbiot. Listening to the radio, they will have had to plug their ears to shut out broadcasts by scientists such as 2007 Australian of the Year Dr Tim Flannery.

The point about denial, though, is that if you're really anxious not to know something, you'll usually stop yourself learning it.

That leaves us with the mystery of why Kevin Rudd appointed an economist, rather than a climate scientist, to report to him on global warming.

Well, if you'd embraced an emissions target likely to give Melbourne the climate of the Pilbara, you wouldn't want experts pointing it out.

And if your take on global warming, as on most questions, was dictated ultimately by the demands of Australian big business to be able to maximise its short-term profits, who better than an academic economist to give you the advice you're after?

[Renfrey Clarke will be presenting a talk at the Climate Change — Social Change conference in Sydney, April 11-13. For more details email .]