Climate change: the case for immediate action

August 23, 2008

Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency action

By David Spratt & Philip Sutton

Scribe Publications, 2008

320 pages, $27.95

Climate Code Red began as a set of submissions to the Garnaut Climate Change Review and progressed into a book that is already serving as a manifesto for climate change activists in Australia.

Setting out just what a perilous state the world's climate is in, the book outlines the remedies that are needed and the emergency level of response that is warranted by the circumstances.

While the book was being written, it's most potent illustration was presented to the authors on a platter: in September 2007 the Arctic sea ice reached a record low in surface area, far ahead of the official predictions of bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC had predicted it would take up to a hundred years for the ice to melt totally in summer, but since 2007 scientists have realized that it may come as early as the next five years.

The conclusion the authors draw is that climate change is here now. It is not some future danger that we can put off dealing with. This is reinforced by further problems that are caused by the Arctic melt: the increased temperatures that come with the loss of the ice are bound to cause the Greenland ice sheets to melt, which would cause a 5-7 metre rise in world sea level, perhaps in as little as 100 years.

This is a direct consequence of the Arctic melt: The albedo (reflectivity) of the ice is replaced by dark, heat-absorbing open sea, warming the whole region.

Climate change is "non-linear", abrupt not gradual. The problem is not just that it is going faster than expected, but each symptom has knock-on effects like a row of dominoes. The first domino is the Arctic ice, and we now know that began melting over 20 years ago.

Runaway warming is not just a matter of rising sea levels, bad as they are. As the book lists, the ramifications will destroy whole societies and kill hundreds of millions. Over a billion people around the Himalayas depend on melt water in rivers for their agriculture.

Australia is facing bad drought, but if the Himalayan ice sheet disappears (which could take as little as 50 years) whole countries will face unprecedented loss of life. "Most species, most ecosystems" are at threat; "most people" can be assumed to be included.

Climate Code Red argues for not only a complete end to carbon emissions in as short a time as possible, but an active "cooling" of the Earth. This can be achieved by "sequestering" atmospheric carbon, for example by re-forestation and by agrichar (turning crop waste into charcoal and burying it in the soil, where it remains stable for a long time).

This is vital: current atmospheric CO2 is at about 387 parts per million (ppm). It is calculated that the Arctic ice began melting at somewhere around 300-325 ppm, so to avoid the "domino effect" that this triggers, we need to reduce atmospheric CO2 to about 300 ppm.

More drastic artificial methods may also be necessary. For example, if fossil fuel burning ceases, the aerosol particles that it puts into the atmosphere will rapidly disappear. Aerosols such as sulphates cause "global dimming", reflecting some of the light that would otherwise enter the atmosphere and warm the earth.

They wash out of the atmosphere in about ten days, so if we stop producing them global dimming will cease and the temperature will experience a sudden push upward (which could be catastrophic in the current circumstances).

Seeding the stratosphere with aerosols artificially could help to cool the earth, and may be necessary to buy time while sequestration is used to reduce atmospheric carbon.

As carefully documented and described in many publications already, the technology to replace fossil fuels and use energy more efficiently is already in existence. Some activities like air travel are harder to find sustainable substitutes for, but in principle it is possible for the world to make the transition in a very short time.

The obstacles are not technical, but political.

Official political channels have barely registered these threats, and the authors rightly ridicule them. The IPCC's projections are based on "outdated and incomplete data sets".

Despite the frightening range of symptoms of global warming we already see with less than 1°C of warming, many political leaders who are quite aware of these problems have opted to set a target of restraining global warming to 2°C or even 3°C.

This is based on the assumption that doubling pre-industrial greenhouse gas concentrations will lead to only a 2-3°C warming, an assumption that seems increasingly unrealistic as positive feedbacks are better understood — 6°C is more likely.

Spratt and Sutton condemn the "incremental" business-as-usual (BAU) approach. "There's a new colour in fashion: warm-climate green. Pastel in tone and hard to miss, you'll find it in newspapers, on television ... From corporate responsibility to bottled water, climate friendly images and products reassure us that it is okay to consume as never before."

Measures like "clean coal", which are little more than greenwashing; biofuels (which exacerbate food-and-deforestation crises); and carbon offsets all come in for criticism as distractions motivated by the hope that BAU can solve climate change without any uncomfortable choices.

Carbon trading and the Kyoto Clean Development Mechanism are riddled with so many loopholes, rorts and structural flaws that the only way they could play any positive role in the view of the authors is as a distant second to "strong regulation and intervention into the market, which cannot respond by itself at the depth and speed required".

The only mechanism by which the world can address the crisis is a "state of emergency" akin to mobilisation for an all-out war. "Business as usual" economics and politics are unable to address the problem. "In the developed world, 'politics as usual' places the free-market economy at the heart of its project, and governments, as a matter of political faith, are loath to intervene decisively," the authors say.

At the centre of the emergency approach advocated by Climate Code Red is government-driven public works projects. The main comparison historically is with the US economy in World War II. "After Pearl Harbor, the USA's military imperatives demanded a rapid conversion of great swathes of economic capacity from civil to military purposes. Within months, car production lines became tank lines ... price controls were introduced, and rationing of key goods was mandated as necessary."

These kinds of measures are what radical climate campaigners are calling for. It may have been useful to mention the experience of Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when it had to adjust to a radical drop in the supply of fossil fuels and other imported, energy-intensive products.

On the other hand, the authors have steered clear of any such controversial topics, which may not do justice to the historical record, but will probably win their book a wider readership in the English-speaking world.

In their conclusions, Spratt and Sutton avoid a number of questions which are important to the left. Can the planet be saved without first abolishing capitalism? Is a "state of emergency" compatible with democracy?

The clear strengths of the book are that it pulls no punches in describing the problem. The main kinds of response are canvassed and critiqued, and the authors' recommendations are explained. They don't cover every question or angle, and while they clearly incorporate social justice into their model, they do not take sides in the class struggle.

Climate Code Red is a manifesto for a broad movement. Indeed the newly formed Climate Emergency Network in Melbourne uses the book as such. It is inclusive of all readers, without requiring them to adopt a more radical, green-left agenda.

Climate Code Red is essential reading for all, a book that will by turns terrify and encourage the new reader to become active in this struggle, and which will re-shape the priorities of experienced activists.

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