[This was sent to the Canberra Times Tuesday. I’ve been busy with my day job for a while, but expect I’ll get more posts up here from now on.]
The Government fails completely to grasp the urgency of the global warming situation. This is obvious every time it speaks about climate. Its views on the economic effect of emission reductions are dominated by those of the polluter industries, and fail completely to take account of the new industries that could and should be developing to replace them. These failures are fundamental failures of leadership, and the failures are critical, because they threaten Austalia’s future, and the future of industrial civilisation.
Recently Greg Combet, Parliamentary Secretary for climate, scolded The Greens for being “unrealistic” about global warming. Well no, the Earth determines reality, and our puny human concerns count for nothing. If political “reality” won’t let the Government do what is necessary, then politics-as-usual must be transcended. If it were a war, the Parliament would understand this.
A little while ago the Climate Minister, Senator Penny Wong, said of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon”. No Minister, the truth is exactly the reverse. Clearly the Government is not getting, or not hearing, competent and up-to-date scientific advice.
The reason many climate scientists now see the situation as critical has to do with dominos and tipping points. A series of climate dominos is poised. The first big one seems to be tipping. If it goes, it pushes on the next, and so on. The climate system may, right now, be close to unstoppable and irreversible runaway. The result could be six degrees or more of warming, with drastic changes in climate and major threats to human food production. The survival of our fragile global industrial system would be unlikely.
In recent years the amount of sea ice lasting through the Arctic summer has shrunk dramatically, well ahead of previous climate projections. As reflecting ice is replaced by absorbing water, more of the sun’s heat is retained, and warming is accelerated. The Arctic climate has already warmed many degrees, with dramatic effects on land and sea life. That is domino number one.
Domino number two is large amounts of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane) that are trapped in frozen tundra soils. The Arctic warming is melting the permafrost and starting to release those gases. There are several times more greenhouse gases stored in the Arctic soils than the total released by humans since the industrial revolution. If the trapped gases start to emerge in large quantities, then global warming might continue even if we reduced our emissions to zero.
One of Australia’s foremost climate scientists, Dr. Barrie Pittock, has listed eight other dominos. They include the reduction of the capacity the ocean and of soils everywhere to absorb and retain carbon as temperature increases, and the possibility, based on recent behaviour, that ice sheets on land could disintegrate and raise sea level much more rapidly than previously anticipated.
Of course there is a noisy chorus of denialists claiming that all this science is wrong, so who is a government to believe? First, the number of actual scientists among the denialists is still a small minority. More importantly, we have known all along that we could not wait until the science is “settled”. This is because the full effect of our emissions is delayed by several decades. If our actions are to be any use at all, we must act before the full effects are evident.
This means we must rely on judgements of when to act and how much to reduce our emissions. Whose judgements? That would be the people who are most familiar with the climate – the climate scientists. Do we know what is the considered, collective, professional judgement of the climate science community? Yes, that is very clear: we are causing global warming and it is a very serious threat.
To the extent the denialists succeed in distracting us with debate about details of climate science, so we don’t hear the clear judgement of the great majority of climate scientists, they succeed in furthering the goal of the polluters, which is to create doubt so as to delay action for as long as possible.
The other big argument we hear is about the effect of emission reductions on the economy. The big polluters argue loudly that effective action will be bad for exports and jobs. The more accurate statement is that it will be bad for their exports and jobs. But those industries have a limited future anyway, and we shouldn’t tie ourselves to dinosaurs.
There is a multi-billion dollar photovoltaic industry in China created by a Chinese-Australian using Australian technology. That industry could and should have been creating jobs and exports for Australia. Now California is enthusiastically developing Australian solar thermal technology. There is a long list of technologies lost to Australia because short-sighted Australian governments and entrepreneurs have refused to develop them. Those were our future jobs and exports.
There is heavy irony in the argument that we must support our big polluters, given that governments on both sides have not hesitated to terminate major Australian industries over the past three decades with the claim, mostly ideologically-based, that new, more efficient industries would rise to take their place.
The Government is failing its responsibility to govern for all Australians, and for future generations, by not actively seeking out current scientific views, and by not actively seeking a balanced assessment of the economic effect of emission reductions.