Conference warns of dangerous climate shifts

The biggest international scientific conference on climate change since 2007 gave an implicit rebuke to the governments of the biggest polluting nations, including Australia. Its message was that the threat is undeniable and inaction is inexcusable.

The Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions, the conference was held in the Danish capital Copenhagen over March 10-12. It heard 1400 scientific presentations from the world's top climate scientists. A report of the conference findings was released on June 18.

The conference updated the scientific evidence of human-induced climate change. The report noted that, until now, the main scientific input into global climate change negotiations had been the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of 2007.

However the report said: "Since the production of the IPCC report, new knowledge has emerged that furthers understanding of the impacts of human influence on the climate and the response options and approaches that are available to tackle this complex issue."

First, some of the worst-case scenarios for global warming in the IPCC report are already being reached. Without sharp cuts in emissions we face "abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts".

The report said an average temperature rise of 2°C above pre-industrial levels would cause "major societal and environmental disruptions through the rest of the century and beyond". Poor nations, it noted, would be the worst affected.

Today, the world is already approaching 1°C of warming. A further 0.6°C of warming is already locked in the climate system due to existing pollution levels.

The report called for "rapid, sustained, and effective mitigation based on coordinated global and regional action". But it stressed efforts would fail unless "tackling climate change [is] seen as integral to the broader goals of enhancing socioeconomic development and equity throughout the world".

Finally, the report said governments must respond to "the growing public desire for governments to act on climate change" if we are to meet this challenge.

The choice of Copenhagen as the conference venue had an unmistakable political purpose. In December, the city will host the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (also known as the Conference of Parties).

Described by many as a make-or-break event on climate change, the UN conference is meant to decide on global emissions cuts.

At the last such conference, held in December 2008 in the Polish city of Poznan, the Australian government delegation aligned with other big polluting nations such as the US and Canada to help sabotage an international agreement for a minimum 25-40% cut in emissions by 2020.

Unless stronger pressure can be put on the Rudd government from the climate movement here, it is certain Australia will again try to undermine the Copenhagen negotiations in December.