Stopping climate change: tomorrow is too late!

April 14, 2007

On April 13, ABC Radio reported that the ALP state and territory governments would be lobbying the federal government to agree to a goal of a 60% reduction in Australian greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. They suggested that if the Howard government maintained its opposition, the state and territory governments would attempt to reach these goals without them. While opposed to the premiers' proposal, even PM John Howard has recently acknowledged that there is a threat from climate change caused by human activity, leaving the "greenhouse sceptic" argument to the conservative fringe.

This mainstream acceptance of the reality of global warming, globally promoted by politicians ranging from former US vice-president Al Gore to British PM Tony Blair, has come with the release of a number of government-sanctioned reports on climate change, such as the British government's Stern Review, released in November 2006.

On April 7, the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was released. The IPCC report is prepared by scientists but must be reviewed by politicians, some of whom insisted on assessments of "extremely likely" for particular outcomes being downgraded to "likely".

Both the IPCC report and the Stern Review make a number of significant observations. Firstly, the rise in the global average temperature since the Industrial Revolution is almost certainly the result of human activity. Secondly, some of the previously predicted consequences of global warming are now observable facts. Thirdly, atmospheric greenhouse gas accumulation and climate change are occurring more rapidly than previously predicted. Fourthly, social and industrial changes must occur to avoid significant harm to the environment and human society.

Unfortunately, the goal being proposed by the ALP premiers is woefully inadequate for an Australian contribution to achieving the reductions that the Stern and IPCC reports say are necessary, especially given that Australian per capita greenhouse gas emissions is over four times the global average.

Even more worrying, new data concerning the non-linear relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and global weather systems suggests that even if the global targets of these reports are attained, a danger remains that within 10 years an accelerated increase in average global temperature could be triggered — with ecological and social consequences of apocalyptic dimensions.

The cause of this danger is positive feedback loops whereby damage by global warming to the planet's geosphere and biosphere have effects that further increase the global temperature and atmospheric greenhouse gas level. A January survey of scientific data by the Melbourne-based Carbon Equity Project (CEP) identified some positive feedbacks that are already taking place.

The melting of Arctic sea ice, causing regional temperature increases, is already underway. This is adding to stresses on the Greenland ice sheet, which could trigger a meltdown causing the ice sheet to literally disappear, becoming sea ice then water. Such a meltdown would dramatically increase global warming (and sea levels).

Another feedback loop is caused by the melting of the Siberian permafrost, which is releasing trapped methane — a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. According to the CEP survey, if the permafrost melted and released all the methane, it would be equivalent to twice the world's annual CO2 emissions. Some estimates put the daily increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas caused by the melting of the Siberian permafrost in 2006 as greater than that caused by human activity in the US.

Most alarming is the possibility of an accelerating chain reaction of positive feedbacks. The atmospheric greenhouse gas level has risen from 280 parts per million CO2 equivalent (CO2e) to a level of 430ppm CO2e since the Industrial Revolution. This has been accompanied by rise in global temperature of 0.8ºC. An additional rise of 0.6ºC is already in the pipeline.

The predictions of temperature increases in the Stern and IPCC reports are based on the assumption that the future rate of global warming will increase in a linear relationship to greenhouse gas emissions. At current emission levels the planet will heat up by 0.1ºC every five years. Using these models the Stern Review set a goal of stabilising atmospheric greenhouse gasses at 550ppm CO2e on the basis that this would mean an overall warming of 2-3ºC over pre-industrial levels. The effects on the planet and society are considered "manageable", if far from desirable.

However, by analysing the Stern report's data and factoring in positive feedback loops, the CEP survey shows that a 550ppm greenhouse gas level would have a 24% probability of triggering a chain reaction that causes global warming of up to 8ºC above the pre-industrial average temperature.

The environmental and social damage done by an 8ºC increase can only be speculated on because such an event is totally outside the experience of humanity. What can be predicted is that it would be catastrophic. Much of the planet would become uninhabitable. Billions of people would die.

Very few people would board an airliner if there was a one in four chance of it crashing. A stabilisation of greenhouse gas levels at 550ppm CO2e has a one in four chance of a positive feedback chain reaction that would mean crashing the planet. At today's atmospheric concentration of 430ppm CO2e there is 1-3% chance of runaway global warming. An airliner with a 1% chance of crashing would not be certified as safe to fly. The actual probability of a plane crashing is one in 4 million.

It is clear that action to reduce emissions beyond anything recommended by Stern is needed and that it is needed now. Social energy use needs to be seriously reduced and fossil fuel energy needs to be replaced with environmentally sustainable alternatives such as tidal and wind power.

Astonishingly, the opposite is happening. Most of the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas levels since the Industrial Revolution is from the last few decades' emissions. The laws of capitalist economics make an increase in fossil fuel use "rational". Thus, at the same time as paying lip service to "environmental concerns" has become mandatory for corporations and politicians, short-haul air travel has replaced ground transport as the key way people in Western countries travel.

Solutions proposed by mainstream politicians and experts range from the insane to the inadequate. At the insane end of the spectrum is the promotion of nuclear power, with its risk of radioactive catastrophe, as a "clean energy alternative". The fossil-fuel industry and its political mouthpieces push "clean coal", although there is actually no such thing. Clean-coal technology, like safe nuclear waste disposal, is something that theoretically may exist in the future.

The favoured solutions of the Stern Review, the ALP premiers and mainstream environmentalists are carbon trading and carbon offsets. Carbon rationing, considered a more radical solution, is favoured by some British politicians. All of these are mechanisms whereby the right to pollute becomes a commodity that can be bought and sold.

Whether it is the polluter or the consumer paying, these schemes are based on the notion that greenhouse gas emissions can be negated by creating carbon sinks (such as forests). However, to avert the danger of a global warming catastrophe, there needs to be a simultaneous large-scale reduction of emissions and increase in sinks. Currently carbon sinks are adequate to absorb only half the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, they are being rapidly depleted as a result of human activity (including by global warming).

However, catastrophe can be averted.

There is no technical reason why measures such as the wholesale conversion of fossil fuel power generation to alternative energy, the replacement of private motoring with public transport and short-haul air travel with ground travel are not possible.

A demonstration of how a society can rapidly reduce consumption while maintaining levels of health, education, nutrition and employment was Cuba's adaptation to its "peak oil" crisis in the 1990s. This crisis, brought about by a US-imposed economic blockade and the disappearance of the Soviet Union and Cuba's other key trading partners, resulted in Cuba losing 80% of its imports of energy, food and agricultural inputs. Cuba's response was to convert its industry, energy, transport and, particularly, agriculture to environmentally sustainable methods.

This was possible because Cuba's socialist revolution meant that production is controlled democratically rather than by market forces and the profit motive. While prior to the 1990s Cuba used standard, environmentally destructive methods of production, the achievement of Western indicators in health, education and nutrition despite Third World indicators of national wealth (such as GDP), demonstrated that the unsustainable levels of consumption in the West can be reduced without damaging quality of life.

Cuba's changes have been despite having only the material resources of a poor, Third World nation. The conversion to sustainable production involved significant changes to society, such as a change in the ratio of rural to urban population, but these were achieved without social dislocation because participatory socialist democracy allowed society as a whole to decide how to adapt to the crisis.

The threat of global warming demands changes on a similar scale — globally and immediately. In the face of a looming catastrophe, the need to put people before profit has never been greater.

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