Critical Decade report understates climate threat

May 24, 2011
Professor Will Steffen.

Climate scientist Will Steffen told reporters at the May 23 launch of The Critical Decade — the first report from the federal government-appointed Climate Commission — that “we don’t have the luxury anymore of climate denialism” and “need to get beyond this fruitless, phoney debate in the media”.

And straight away, the Coalition began a fruitless, phoney debate about the report in the media.

Liberal senator Nick Minchin dismissed the report, saying it was meant “to further the cause of global warming alarmism”. He also said “anything Australia does [to cut emissions] will be utterly pointless and have no impact whatsoever on the global climate”.

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The shadow minister for industry and science Sophie Mirabella went further. “This report will shut down Australia as a modern, industrialised economy,” she said, which would make the 70 pages of The Critical Decade quite a bit worse than the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, Coalition leader Tony Abbott said he was “very pleased” with the report because it endorsed his “direct action” plan to offset fossil fuel emissions by storing extra carbon in the soil. But the report said the opposite, warning that “atmospheric carbon cannot be sequestered into land ecosystems indefinitely”.

There is a bias in the report, but it’s not “alarmist” bias as the climate deniers pretend. The first two chapters are packed with robust, tested science. The final chapter, which suggests how Australia should respond, is a political document.

It’s not hard to work out why Coalition MPs were so quick to rubbish a report they hadn’t even read. The Coalition’s response was an example of what The Critical Decade called “attempts to intimidate climate scientists [and add] to the confusion in the public about the veracity of climate science”.

The report, which drew on research by the Australian Academy of Science, the British Royal Society, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other recent studies by the world’s leading climate scientists, left no room for doubt: “Climate change is indeed real, and is occurring at a rapid rate” and “the primary reason for this warming, at least since the middle of the 20th century, is the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere”.

The global surface temperature is rising — at about 0.17°C a decade over the past 30 years. Sea temperatures are also rising fast. The sea is also becoming more acidic as the excess carbon dioxide is dissolved in the world’s oceans.

The Arctic ice cap is in sharp decline. The “large polar ice sheets on Greenland and West Antarctica … are currently losing mass to the ocean through both melting and … by break up and calving blocks of ice.”

Glaciers and mountain ice caps worldwide are in retreat. Climate change will also pose “significant risks of sea-level related impacts in the 21st century”.

The risks of climate change have been known for decades. But the report says carbon pollution has risen sharply in the past decade. In the 1990s, emissions grew at about 1% a year. In the 2000s, they grew at 3% or more a year.

“Given the strong rise in emissions over the past decade, current emissions are about 37% larger than those in 1990,” The Climate Decade said.

The report also discusses the likely impact climate change will have in causing more extreme weather events — bushfires, floods, droughts, cyclones and rainfall.

In regards to rainfall patterns in Australia, the report acknowledged that much remains unclear: “Climate change could, in fact, lead to more extremes in general — both in drought and in rainfall.

“This daunting uncertainty not only challenges attempts at adaptation, but also enhances, not diminishes, the imperative for rapid and vigorous global mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Another section explains one of the most important facts of climate science: that small amounts of warming will cause abrupt and dangerous changes in the climate system.

The report lists some key thresholds, or tipping points, that “can be irreversible in any timeframe relevant to human affairs”.

These include the melting of Arctic ice cap, the loss of the Greenland ice sheet, the drying out of the Amazon rainforest and the thaw of Arctic soils, which would release millions of tonnes of extra greenhouse gases now stored beneath the soil.

It’s the nearness of these tipping points that makes immediate action to cut emissions so necessary, and which condemns all plans to decarbonise slowly, sometime by the middle of the century.

The report concludes “there is no room for any further delay in embarking on the transition to a low- or no-carbon economy”. It says Australia’s emissions must peak by 2020 and fall to zero by 2050 — and this to have a 75% chance of temperatures staying below 2°C above industrial levels.

But it is here that the gulf between the science and the proposed responses begin to appear.

Two degrees of warming is widely held to be a very dangerous target, well beyond the safe zone that might avoid dangerous tipping points.

As the campaign constantly reminds us, we are already well beyond the safe zone. The world’s leading scientists say we must cut the carbon pollution in the atmosphere to well below 350 parts per million, down from 392 ppm today.

NASA climate scientists James Hansen and Makiki Sato said in a January article “that goals of limiting human-made warming to 2°C and CO2 to 450 ppm are prescriptions for disaster”.

The Critical Decade calls for Australia to adopt a carbon “budget approach” to cutting emissions that could replace the normal “targets-and-timetables” approach, such as the Australian government’s pledge for 5% emissions cuts on 1990 levels for 2020.

This new approach could be a good idea. But David Spratt pointed out in a May 23 Crikey article that the report gave the wrong emissions cut figures needed to make it work.

The report said Australia could safely emit 1 trillion tonnes of CO2 from 2000 to 2050, but the real figure is closer to 250 billion tonnes, of which only 190 billion were left to use in 2009.

Spratt asked: “So what does a carbon budget approach mean for Australia? In short, we are in deep carbon deficit heading towards bankruptcy, and at the present rate of emissions, Australia would run out of its carbon budget to 2050 within five years …

“The Climate Commission has bravely put the science of a global carbon budget on the table. It now needs to explain the implications for Australia. It is not a 5% reduction by 2020 as the major parties advocate. It is getting to zero emissions in 10 years. That’s the science.”

Australia’s climate scientists are under huge pressure. The climate denier campaign, backed by Australia’s most powerful businesses, is designed to delay and intimidate.

The climate pretender campaign is also a problem. Best represented by the Labor Party, the climate pretenders accept climate change is real, but insist on slow, small and ineffective changes — business as usual.

This political environment tends to influence how the science of the natural environment is communicated. This is a big reason why the report argues further delay on cutting carbon pollution is impossible, but still says government and industry have decades left to act.

Thus, Climate Commission chief Tim Flannery made a big political concession when he told journalists “we have exactly eight years and seven months to meet [the Australian government’s] target of minus 5% which is a very ambitious target”.

But the government’s plan is not ambitious. The science says it’s suicide.

Far deeper cuts and much more drastic actions are needed — much like the Scottish government’s recent pledge to power the country by 100% renewable energy by 2020.

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