Climate Urgency and Opportunity

[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 Austalias 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 wont 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 Its not a sprint, its 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 suns 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 Australias 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 dont 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 shouldnt 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.

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6 thoughts on “Climate Urgency and Opportunity

  1. Kevin Cox

    The economic crisis gives the world a great opportunity to do something about green house gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

    Governments everywhere are trying to stimulate their economies and get people back to work. What better way than to put people to work reducing ghg concentrations – and it is so easy to do.

    Have a look at some ideas at http://stableproductivemoney.wordpress.com/ on ways to stimulate economies, not put nations into debt and increase the real wealth of population.

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  2. Moss Cass

    I agree we have a problem. Why is it that every government (not just in Australia) is failing to recognise the urgency of the environmental challenges humans (and thus other life forms on the planet) are facing?

    It seems to me to be a problem of how government gets advice. That comes down to how Government Ministers get advice. How does the Department advising the Minister determine the content of its advice?

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  3. Geoff Davies Post author

    Moss, I think the problem is departmental advisers are being bypassed. These days it’s all done through Ministerial staff (watch The Hollowmen), and it originates with the polluting industries, which have a stranglehold on our parliament (Greens being the only obvious exception). It’s systemic corruption.

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  4. stablemoney

    I would not call it corruption so much as a failure of the system to cope with the multitude of inputs. We are asking too much of governments and we need to put in place systems so that we can all participate in the process. Three year elections is not good enough. We need to be able to “have our say” through our day to day transactions.

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  5. Moss Cass

    Geoff
    I wish you were right, but I fear Departments do give the wrong advice at times. I can recall one time when the departmental advice I received was inappropriate. Fortunately I woke up to it in time to stop what would have been a very unwise decision by the cabinet in 1974 or 1975. I have to admit it probably helped us lose the 1975 election as our decision annoyed Rupert Murdoch because we declined to approve something he wanted. On the question of the clean-up of radio-active waste at Woomera, I was advised by the Department that all was well. Years later, the enquiry chaired by Jim McClelland discovered that was not the case. I am aware of instances where incorrect advice was given to the Victorian Minister for the Environment in the 1980’s, and many years later this was confirmed when the subsequent Labor Gov dramatically modified the forest harvesting quotas. I am not sure that the problem has been completely resolved even now, if the report in the Age today (25 May) that declared forests turn out to be paddocks, proves to be true. I also have to agree that it is also Ministerial advisers who are giving inappropriate advice at times for the very reasons you suggest – they are too easily persuaded by industry lobby groups. I agree with stablemoney that it is really a failure of the system to cope, and that the answer will have to be a system which allows more community participation. The trouble with that system, Democracy, is that we are all afraid of it so we don’t try it. Reminds me of a comment by Paul Hawken at a discussion at a meeting of The Natural Step environment organisation in 1998 or 9, “I am a Capitalist. There is nothing wrong with Capitalism. It is like Christianity. No one has ever tried it!” To that I would suggest we could add Democracy.

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  6. Kevin Cox

    Moss Cass,

    The problem of “democracy” is that as a species we are limited by our biology to a few personal interactions with which we can cope. It is not physically possible for our politicians to communicate with all their electorate and so they need filters through which to receive information. This means we have many lobby groups trying to get the ear of the “filters”. This form of hierarchical organisation of transmission of information is no longer the only way we have of coping with our biology to build effective social structures.

    The electronic and communications revolution now means you and I can communicate directly – and that changes everything. The so called six degrees of network connection is real and observable. You are probably two or three from Rudd and so I am now through you and Geoff four or five and this is only one of many routes for a message to get through.

    I have been promoting some easy to implement changes to the way we organise our economic systems to permit more economic cooperation at the individual level. It also turns out that it can solve the ghg issue and the financial crisis without the nation going into debt.

    This is such an outlandish notion that most – quite understandably – ignore it as too good to be true. However, a few will not, and they will pass on the word if they are convinced it will work. Have a look at http://stableproductivemoney.wordpress.com/2009/05/18/amasset-an-economic-tool-for-managing-economies/ and if you think the idea is worth passing on then do it.

    Good ideas will get through the network and they will get through many times. If this is a good idea then it will get through to Rudd and he will pass it on to Obama. I think the idea is a good one and will survive the network filter so I communicate the idea to as many as I can with the knowledge that if it is ‘worthy’ it will get through. I have enough faith in the political system that if an idea is likely to help the survival of a government then it will be adopted. The idea of reducing ghg concentrations while increasing our collective wealth and distributing the wealth widely throughout the community while at the same time benefiting the coal and fossil burning fuel industries should have some appeal to a government wishing to be reelected.

    The ideas in the article are ways we can use the Internet to achieve social purposes through economic means. One variation of the idea is that we Reward people who contribute the least to a problem – such as ghg emissions. However, in return the recipients of the Rewards have to invest the money both to their own advantage (so ensuring efficiency) and to the common community purpose of reducing ghg concentrations. It is “obvious” this will work because it involves self reinforcing feedback loops. Now add in the idea that we can use Rewards to increase the money supply without loans and we have a powerful mechanism for directing resources to a common purpose. Now add in the idea that the fossil burning fuel industry can receive Rewards if they close down plants and the idea becomes compelling.

    Now we use the network to get the message through – don’t you just love these recursive structures:)

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