The scientists are horrified. But not being media-savvy publicists, they generally leave their shocking findings in scientific journals. The politicians quote cautious statements issued by scientific committees early in the decade, and worry about scaring off corporate funding. The business executives look for the chance of new profits, and hire public relations experts to advise them on cultivating a green image.
Meanwhile, the public drifts in a fog of apprehension, worried, but hoping that somehow things might still turn out all right. Just once in a while some hard fact pierces the mist.
In September, for example, it was revealed that Arctic sea ice had been melting at a completely unanticipated rate. Then in October, climate author and current Australian of the Year Professor Tim Flannery pointed out that new data showed total greenhouse gases in the atmosphere already at levels that could cause dangerous climate change.
"That's … beyond the worst-case scenario as we thought of it in 2001", Flannery was quoted as saying. "We already stand an unacceptable risk … the need for action is ever more urgent."
One signal after another is pointing to a greenhouse emergency much more dire than is commonly perceived or admitted. A drastic, world-scale re-organising of economic and social structures and priorities is needed, starting immediately. But you'd never guess it from the climate change positions of the Liberal and Labor parties.
After years of denying human responsibility for global warming, the Howard government finally admits that some response is needed — but not so far-reaching as to affect economic growth or profits. The federal Liberals refuse to set any firm target for future Australian greenhouse emissions. Instead, they promise an emissions trading scheme by 2011.
For true believers like PM John Howard and his deputy Peter Costello, the market provides all the answers — and if it doesn't, you've asked the wrong questions.
Kevin Rudd's ALP is only nominally better. Labor too promises a market in greenhouse emissions, to be operating by 2010. In addition, the ALP sets the goal of cutting Australian greenhouse emissions by 60% by 2050. But this target — which is to underpin the price of carbon emissions in Labor's trading scheme — is grossly inadequate.
The truth is that the Liberal and Labor parties, like the top business circles whose priorities shape their thinking, have given up on global warming. They simply aren't prepared to take the steps needed to preserve a planet anything like the one we know at present.
In the business pages of right-wing newspapers, such perspectives are occasionally revealed with startling frankness. "We should abandon our fantasies, acknowledge that carbon emissions will continue to grow, and plan accordingly", an October 18 article in Rupert Murdoch's Australian concluded.
Needless to say, the politicians don't phrase their thoughts as bluntly as this. Their statements are full of soothing platitudes about responsibility to future generations. And to reassure the sceptical-minded, concrete proposals are generally accompanied by claims of scientific backing.
The ALP's key document on greenhouse gas reduction is a media statement entitled "Labor's Greenhouse Reduction Target — 60% by 2050 Backed by the Science". Issued by the party's environment spokesperson Peter Garrett on May 2 this year, the statement has since been painstakingly analysed in a Carbon Equity posting by journalist David Spratt, available at http://www.carbonequity.info/docs/alppolicy.html.
Garrett's statement is a strangely evasive piece of work. It has little to say about the findings of climate scientists, especially in recent times, and fails to establish clearly why the "60 by 2050" target was chosen.
Is this target designed to limit world temperature increases to a particular figure? Is it, perhaps, linked to the increase of 2ºC — relative not to the present, but to pre-industrial temperatures — that scientists consider the maximum allowable if we are to avoid setting off dangerous additional warming mechanisms?
Garrett's statement, however, nowhere mentions the figure of 2ºC.
What is the maximum level of atmospheric greenhouse gases, expressed as parts per million (ppm) by volume of carbon dioxide equivalent, that Labor sees as permissible if further climate change is to be averted? This is not clearly spelled out.
Garrett cites a number of scientific studies as backing his position, but the one that is given prominence is a 2000 report by the British Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.
Climate science has come a long way since 2000. And as Spratt observes, the British Royal Commission report itself relied on data from a United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report from 1995. At that time, the study of climate change was in its relative infancy. Predictions of temperature rises and of their impacts were tentative, and calls to action muted.
While making heavy use of outdated science, the ALP's statement ignores or misrepresents more recent findings. In particular, Spratt establishes, the use that the statement makes of a 2006 CSIRO report on climate change is misleading and deceptive. In citing the report's predictions for temperature rises, Labor ignores the rise of 0.6ºC that occurred during the 20th Century. The difference is fundamental — between a rise that might be bearable, and one that would propel global warming to dangerous heights.
Meanwhile, what would the ALP's "60 by 2050" target be likely to result in, if applied uniformly by the countries that are major greenhouse gas emitters?
When he quotes the 2000 report by the Royal Commission, Garrett in oblique fashion identifies "60 by 2050" with stabilising world atmospheric greenhouse gases at a level of 550ppm. As Spratt relates, the consensus of recent studies is that these gases need to remain at a much lower level if temperature rises are to stay below 2ºC. For example, P. Baer and M. Mastrandrea in a 2006 paper conclude that "450 ppm CO2-equivalent has a 50% chance of staying below 2ºC; 550 ppm CO2-equivalent has a 10-20% chance of staying under 2ºC."
British science writer George Monbiot quotes the British government's Environment Department in 2003 as concluding that "with an atmospheric CO2 stabilisation concentration of 550 ppm, temperatures are expected to rise by between 2ºC and 5ºC."
Labor's greenhouse reduction target, we may conclude, would almost certainly see world average temperatures rise far into the danger zone. Summarising the evidence, Spratt states that "Labor's 60/2050 policy is consistent with a temperature target of three degrees [Celsius]".
What would a world three degrees hotter than at present be like? It would not include the Great Barrier Reef, bleached and dead at temperatures little above those of today. Nor would it have a place for the forests of the Amazon, even now on the brink of being transformed into savannah. Nor, after a hundred years or so, would it include large areas of today's coastal cities, or most of Holland and Bangladesh. The last time global temperatures were three degrees higher than at present was in the Pliocene period some 3 million years ago. At that time, there were no icecaps in the Northern Hemisphere, and sea levels were around 25 metres higher than they are now.
Such a planet would be much less capable than now of sustaining billions of human beings. Most of today's temperate farmlands would be arid, or would have turned into tropical savannah, where agriculture is notoriously difficult. The biosphere, drastically simplified by the extinction of many of today's species, would be radically unstable.
If temperatures were to rise to three degrees above present levels, would they stay there, and not rise further? We can have no guarantees.
One reason why climate scientists are now so definite on the need to limit greenhouse gas concentrations is that today's science has an increasingly sophisticated grasp of "positive feedback mechanisms" and "tipping points". Earlier analyses often treated climate processes as "linear" — that is, as involving steady, relatively gradual change. But in nature, gradual quantitative change often ends in abrupt shifts. As human-produced greenhouse emissions cause the Earth to heat up, the danger is that natural processes will kick in that turn the biosphere itself into a huge additional source of warming.
There are many such potential "tipping points". With only a slight increase on present temperatures, soils that now are carbon sinks will become carbon sources. When Arctic permafrost melts — as is now starting to happen — rotting peat generates the potent greenhouse gas methane. Other factors to be considered range from the burning of drought-ravaged Amazonian forests, to possible releases of vast quantities of methane from cold mud on the Arctic seabed.
Naturally, predictions of how such mechanisms might operate in a very different future can only be approximate. But the possibilities include the ultimate disaster scenario — a rerun of the Permian Extinction of 251 million years ago, when only a small minority of complex life-forms managed to survive.
When we face the potential for such outcomes, there can be no weighing of profits, or even of general economic prosperity, against the measures needed to halt further increases in greenhouse gas levels. As Flannery has indicated, we are already into the danger zone where even with present emissions concentrations one tipping point or another could be passed, and runaway global warming could begin.
What is now required if a more or less recognisable planet is to be saved? In his 2006 book Heat, British writer George Monbiot has performed the vital work of summarising the recent science and calculating the emissions cuts that will be needed.
Citing a study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact in Germany, Monbiot concludes that to have a good chance of holding global temperature rises to less than 2ºC, we need to stabilise greenhouse gas levels below 440ppm of carbon dioxide equivalent. The present level is close to 460ppm.
While still requiring profound changes, the task of cutting greenhouse gas concentrations to a little under present levels might not seem too daunting. Unfortunately, things are not so straightforward.
The trouble is that the biosphere is steadily losing its capacity to soak up carbon. Warmer seas and soils absorb less carbon dioxide, as do water-stressed forests. Instead of the current 4 billion tonnes of carbon locked away each year, the British Meteorological Office predicts the biosphere of 2030 will be able to absorb only 2.7 billion tonnes.
By 2030, the Earth's population is expected to have increased to 8.2 billion. That means that for carbon stabilisation, emissions must be cut to no more than 0.33 tonnes per person per year.
Billions of the world's people are currently responsible for emitting much less than this. If total world emissions of carbon into the atmosphere now stand at more than 7 billion tonnes per year — nearly three times the level needed for eventual stabilisation — that is because the developed countries emit much higher amounts per capita, ranging up to the appalling figure of 5.63 tonnes per person per year in Australia.
It would not be fair to demand that the world's poorest people give up on raising their living standards in order to keep the world's rich driving SUVs. Indeed, any attempt to insist on this would mean that no country cut its emissions, and that the world proceeded directly to climatic Armageddon. Consequently, countries like Australia must cut their emissions drastically by 2030 to meet the stabilisation target of 0.33 tonnes per capita. For Australia, that means a cut of 95%. Our country has to aim at ending almost all its net carbon emissions over the next 22 years.
It cannot be that the ALP's policy researchers are ignorant of the real situation. The "60 by 2050" position has been chosen for political reasons, not scientific ones. Labor leaders have clearly calculated that "60 by 2050" will reassure the public that Labor is responding to the challenges of global warming, while not putting big business offside by suggesting that the ALP's climate change policies will substantially affect profits.
Off the record, Garrett and his front-bench colleagues might argue that the overriding task is to defeat the Howard government, which refuses to name any emissions target. But once in office, are the Labor leaders going to turn around and admit that they lied to voters? And would Labor confront the corporate rich, who subtly but unmistakably let it be known that they will fight any move that cuts significantly into profits? Loyalty to the capitalist class, to its interests and perspectives, is incorporated into the brains of ALP politicians at a molecular level.
Nor have the Greens, who call for reductions of 30% below 1990 levels by 2020 and of 80% by 2050, really confronted the necessities of the age. Of nationally organised Australian political parties, only the Socialist Alliance with its target of 90% reduction by 2030 puts forward a demand anywhere close to what is needed.
It is not by chance that it is only a socialist party, that takes no responsibility for the interests of big capital, that accepts the reality and pledges to act on it.