[Published on ABC's The Drum Opinion 13 Dec]
Climate negotiators in Durban have agreed to a “roadmap” that would leave the world at high risk of severe or catastrophic global warming. They have belatedly agreed to discuss adopting outdated targets that would not come into force until 2020, far too late by current climate criteria.
Recent studies require greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced much faster than previously proposed, to give us even a moderate chance of keeping warming below two degrees Celsius (2°C). Meanwhile the climate science now says the threshold of “dangerous” warming is only 1°C.
The world has warmed about 0.6°C since the 1970s. If currently advised reductions of greenhouse gas emissions were realised there would still, by recent calculations, be a 90% chance global warming will exceed 2°C. This used to be regarded as the threshold of “dangerous” climate change, but is now regarded as the threshold of “extremely dangerous” climate change. At that level, global warming effects would be widespread and severe.
However, somewhere between about 2°C and 4°C lurks a tipping point, beyond which global warming will run beyond human control, driven by natural feedback mechanisms that drive temperatures higher, perhaps to 6°C or 8°C, no-one knows. 4°C would already imply severe effects, plausibly “incompatible with an organised global community”. Higher temperatures could result in the extinction half or more of the world’s species and the deaths of much of the human population from starvation, disease and war.
To have even a moderate chance (one in two or one in three) of staying below 2°C, the rich countries need to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediately, and emissions by developing countries must peak no later than 2020. In both cases subsequent reductions of emissions must be by as much as 6% per year, which is much faster than anything contemplated at present.
These conclusions are from a paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows and published by Britain’s Royal Society. A good summary, with additional graphics, is given by David Roberts at Grist. Professor Anderson is a leading climate researcher at a leading institution, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research. The paper synthesises a large amount of work on current climate science and on the effect of projected emissions. This means it is not just the opinion of a couple of excitable scientists. The authors are in a position to reflect the current state of the science.
Two things have changed over the past few years. Climate science has shown that the planet is more sensitive to greenhouse gases than previously thought. At the same time scientists have realised that the key constraint on emissions is the cumulative total amount of carbon dioxide that has been emitted, because the carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a century or more. Aiming for reductions by 2050 is not enough, especially if emissions rise in the meantime. There is only so much more carbon dioxide we can emit, and most projected reduction paths have considerably exceeded that budget.
Many previous strategies tried to soften the policy requirements on other ways as well. For example, they assumed steep reductions in emissions could be postponed until new technologies were developed, like carbon capture and storage (CCS). But CCS has so far been only a pipe dream and a distraction. Meanwhile political procrastination has wasted more precious time.
The reductions that policy makers have been arguing about, but not yet implementing, were supposed to meet the 2°C target with some reasonable assurance – say a better than two in three chance. Instead the chance is down to 10% or less. There is a 50% chance currently proposed policies would result in 3°C warming. For all we know, that could give us a 50% chance of runaway warming and the ultimate global catastrophe.
If airline staff told you your plane had a 1% chance of crashing, would you board it? Well, we have been planning a flight that would supposedly give us a 33% chance of very severe weather and perhaps a ten percent chance of crashing. Do you still trust the planners? Now it turns out the chance of very severe weather is actually 90% and the chance of crashing is 50%.
We should also bear in mind that uncertainty cuts both ways. So far the scientific assessments of the danger have proven to be underestimates. Although the projections from two or three decades ago are proving broadly correct, the Earth is actually responding faster than anticipated. So even this assessment could prove to be too optimistic. The most critical uncertainty is that it is very hard to determine where tipping points might be. For all we know, the climate might already be tipping.
Professor Anderson concludes that “… the prospects for avoiding dangerous climate change, if they exist at all, are increasingly slim.”
Actually the technical means to reduce the danger are available. The obstacles are mainly psychological and political. It has been known for some time that the quickest and most cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to dramatically increase the efficiency with which we use energy. For example our buildings can be built to use only 10-20% of the energy they presently use. Cars could still be twice as efficient. Many factories can reduce their energy needs by 50-80%. If clear incentives, information and assistance were deployed, we would soon discover many more ways to save energy.
We are so wasteful, compared with current best designs, that we are wasting money as well as energy. The cost of big gains in efficiency will therefore not be large. The costs will certainly not wreck the economy, that is disinformation put about by the fossil fuel industry.
As our need for energy declines, renewable energy sources become more sufficient and more cost-effective, so there is a double bonus. Even better, the same approach to increasing energy efficiency can also increase the efficiency with which we use other resources, so our heavy footprint on the Earth can be lightened. We can stop polluting and degrading water, soil, forests, habitats. This approach yields a triple bonus.
Other claimed solutions, such as CCS or nuclear power, bring spinoff problems rather than spinoff benefits, and don’t even address the broader environmental problems. Besides, CCS is still mostly fantasy and nuclear power takes so long to develop it would be much too late. Replacing coal with natural gas, which generates less carbon dioxide, is also quite insufficient.
You don’t hear about the clean, efficient approach because it would reduce the profits of the fossil fuel and other industries that profit from our wastefulness. Politicians will only find the will to challenge them when enough of us challenge our politicians.
You also don’t hear about this approach because mainstream economists are wedded to perpetual growth. These are the people who brought us the Global Financial Crisis. Increasing numbers of non-mainstream economists are now saying the mainstream is deluded and practising pseudo-science. They don’t even include money and debt in their fancy computer models of the economy. Hard to believe.
The other reason we don’t hear about the clean, efficient approach is because it is hard to hear bad news and be told we have to change our ways. Yes, it is challenging. No, the messenger is not an alarmist, it is the news that is alarming. No, the remedy need not bring great hardship, and in many ways our quality of life would improve as we move off the materialist treadmill.
Some people claim there is no global warming. The current state of the evidence makes such people flat-earthers. Many others deny we are the cause. The most prominent of these deniers are not scientists, they are media people or politicians, so how could they know? They claim they are backed by scientists, but only a tiny fraction of climate scientists dispute the majority message. They claim there is no evidence, but there are many lines of direct evidence.
The deniers claim there is a scientific conspiracy, but that is just rubbish. What about the motives of ExxonMobil, which funds denier web sites to create confusion? They claim the “climategate” emails proved the conspiracy, but that is one of the biggest beat-ups ever. The scientists involved were discussing some peripheral data, not the overall state of the planet. They used some intemperate language among themselves. Newsweek called the controversy a “highly orchestrated, manufactured scandal”.
Some of the more thoughtful sceptics discuss the scientific uncertainty, but conflate this with the policy question. Of course there is uncertainty in the science. The policy question is what to do about the risk that the science is right. We have known all along that decisions would have to be made before the picture was clear, because the warming effects of greenhouse gas emissions are delayed. We will not feel the full effects of the gases already emitted for another decade or two. The policy question is whether preventative action is good insurance, especially as the premium is not so expensive.
In this situation we can only try to make the best assessment. The people who can best assess the climate are those who have been studying it all their lives. The role of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change has been to distill the collective judgement of climate scientists. The message has been clear and getting clearer for two or three decades. We seem to be in great danger.
It is time to stop indulging the deniers. Science is about figuring out how the world works. Climate scientists have been telling us increasingly clearly that we have a problem.
We need to listen, and we need to act, and very soon.