Tackling the sustainability emergency

March 14, 2008

Climate Code Red: the Case for a Sustainability Emergency

By David Spratt (Carbon Equity) & Philip Sutton (Greenleap Strategic Institute)

91 pages.

Published by Friends of the Earth.

$12/$10 or free PDF from http://climatecodered.net.

David Spratt and Philip Sutton's Climate Code Red is an analysis that can be used to inform the policies and strategic approach of activists, NGOs and political parties. The book bases its prescription for action upon the science of stopping runaway climate change rather than what is "politically palatable".

Code Red starts by looking at the arctic melt that occurred during the 2007 northern summer. The massive extent of the melt (up to 80% of the ice sheets' volume compared to 40 years ago) was roughly 100 years ahead of predictions. Some estimates, revised to account for the 2007 melt, predict full melting of the arctic could occur as early 2010. This will cause "albedo flip" as the ice cap, which acts as a massive reflector of heat from the sun, is replaced by ocean, which will absorb heat from the sun, accelerating global warming. Code Red also looks at other climate feedbacks — melting in Greenland and the Antarctic — and the potential for a five metre sea level rise by 2100.

Spratt and Sutton argue — citing an extensive range of climatologists — that the arctic melt proves current levels of warming are already perilously close to triggering irreversible and catastrophic runaway climate change of up to 6°C. They argue that recent proposals to aim for a global temperature stabilisation of 3°C above pre-industrial levels — since this is more politically "realistic" than aiming to keep warming under 2°C — are absurd. Three degree targets (and inadequate emissions reduction targets) miss the point that we cannot "half stop" runaway climate change.

The current degree of warming is already very close to triggering runaway climate change and only a vast emergency emissions reduction program can hope to prevent the impending catastrophe.

The authors use two powerful analogies to describe the crisis and elucidate the scale of response required. They compare it to the Apollo 13 disaster whereby makeshift devices had to be made on the trot to ensure the damaged spacecraft could return to Earth. The other analogy is of the massive production drive undertaken in the US when it became involved in World War II, and the rapid conversion of production into a war economy.

The pace and scale of transformation and the proportion of GDP invested in the war effort are precedents for a "war" on climate change — an emergency conversion of production to refit the planet with low emissions technologies.

Perhaps the main weakness of Code Red is its prescribed political action strategy, which is cloudy and seems to lead back to lobbying of business and governments. The authors seem to be somewhat in denial of the existence of a "greenhouse mafia" that, while probably not consciously seeking to destroy the planet, will nonetheless end up doing so as they continue to only "half accept" the reality of climate change and delay effective action.

Cohering an emergency emissions reduction program is discussed, but the equally essential task of confronting the polluters — and the system that entrenches their power and is geared towards protecting their profits — is not.

A discussion of mass, society-wide movements before and since WWII that have been able to force highly reluctant governments to take action on major social and political issues is unfortunately absent.

Code Red does, however, note the anti-democratic nature of modern capitalism. It also recognises the importance of a planned transition to clean technologies including the planned (not market) application of labour, and highlights the important role of public investment in the transition.

Spratt and Sutton introduce Code Red thus: "the impetus for this report was an intention to provide a brief overview of three areas of climate policy — recent science, appropriate targets, and the case for emergency action — that we wished to bring to the attention of the Garnaut Climate Change Review [commissioned by the ALP]".

Code Red successfully demonstrates that the ALP call in May 2007 for a reduction of emissions of 60% from 2000 levels by 2050 is woefully inadequate, and would have an 80% chance of causing a temperature increase of at least 2.4°C (and up to 3.5°C) by 2100.

The global carbon dioxide stabilisation of 550 parts per million that the 60/2050 target is based upon derives from eight-year-old British policy, which itself was based on even older data. The climate crisis has since been proven much more severe than previously thought, as evidenced by the arctic melt. ALP policy selectively quotes from a 2006 CSIRO report, conveniently omitting a section that states 450ppm, not 550ppm, is a target "more consistent" with avoiding dangerous climate change.

Whatever its inadequacies, Code Red is essential reading for every climate-change activist. Perhaps the most important contribution this book makes to the climate debate is its clear (and potentially unifying) call to all political parties, groups and organisations that claim to be serious about climate change to not compromise targets for the sake "politics", and to campaign for emergency action and for immediate and extremely deep cuts to emissions.

Campaigning for anything short of this represents an unfortunate capitulation to those who may well unleash climate catastrophe due to their arrogant and ignorant dismissal of the science.

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