Tuesday, July 1, 2008

After Garnaut, the big questions will remain unanswered

By David Spratt

ABC News Online, Posted 2 hours 0 minutes ago
Updated 1 hour 33 minutes ago


"The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coalmine for climate warming ... and now as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died." (AFP, file photo: Paul J Richards)

Ross Garnaut, the Rudd government's climate advisor, will this week deliver his interim report on climate emission reduction mechanisms, but the bigger policy questions will remain unanswered.

The report will outline proposals for a carbon emissions trading scheme, perhaps better described as a cap-and-auction scheme, in which the government sets a declining cap on carbon emissions, with permits to pollute allocated by way of auction.

Many of the broad themes have been publicly canvassed by Garnaut. As a free-marketeer, he has insisted that carbon trading be an even playing field, and resisted pressure from the fossil fuel lobby that they, the largest polluters, should be given preferential treatment and free permits. He has also put a strong case for a broad range of emissions, including transport, to be included so that the scheme does not pick winners between the various industry sectors responsible for large-scale carbon pollution.

And in recognising that growing fossil fuel use is not a technological necessity but an economic choice, he has emphasised the need for a carbon price sufficient to effectively drive innovation and technological substitution, producing the economic restructuring necessary a build a low-carbon-pollution future.

The Garnaut Review's deliberations have been frustrated by an incapacity of the government's computer models to even deal with the sort of emission reductions Garnaut thinks are necessary, an indication of the bureaucratic timewarp in which climate policy in Australia is trapped. And constrained by frustratingly narrow terms of reference, the review has been asked to recommend only an appropriate market-based means of reducing emissions, but not on the broader questions of substance.

Garnaut knows that climate science is demanding emissions reduction much faster than the government appears willing to contemplate, noting "the diabolical nature of the policy challenge", and the "widespread view, based on the science, that the risks of 'dangerous' climate change and the risk of abrupt climate change, are already at unacceptably high levels at this point".

In contrast to Garnaut's acute observations that the issue may be "too hard for rational policy-making in Australia" because "the vested interests surrounding it [are] too numerous and intense, the relevant time-frames too long", the government is caught in a policy fog, unable to find its way out of a bureaucratic framework that is now out of date. The Rudd government's current policy target of a 3-degree rise would destroy the Barrier Reef, the tropical rainforests, cause widespread desertification, a mass extinction, and a sea-level rise of perhaps 25 metres, amongst many impacts. Most worrying, the government seems unaware that this would be the consequence of a 3-degree target.

There is little indication that governments understand what is now being said by the world's leading climate researchers: significant climate "tipping points" have already been crossed, and our world is already at the point of failing to cope. Sir John Holmes, the UN relief coordinator, warned that 12 of the 13 major relief operations in 2007 were climate related, and that this amounted to a climate-change "mega disaster".

Take the Arctic, for example. The north pole has until recently been covered by an area of sea-ice in summer as large as Australia. Now it is disappearing fast, likely to be gone entirely within five years. Scientists' well-founded fear is that rapid heating as a consequence of the sea-ice loss will trigger the unstoppable melting of most or all of the Greenland ice sheet, an event which would raise sea levels by five to seven metres, in as little as a century.

When he was a young man, Jay Zwally hauled coal for work. Now a NASA climate scientist, he told a gathering of fellow climate experts at the end of 2007: "The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coalmine for climate warming ... and now as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died. It is time to start getting out of the coal mines."

In essence, the climate problem is worse than even recent predictions, and we have even less time to act. Yet governments are sitting on the sidelines, seemingly in a daze as they grasp onto one solution and then another with insufficient commitment and little strategic understanding.

A 3-degree rise, for example, will kick the climate into a new state and run away from the human capacity to live with it. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of people will not survive. In Asia, 1.3 billion people whose homes lie in the basins of the great rivers that flow from the melting ice cap of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan ranges will be vulnerable because it is predicted those mountains will be glacier-free by 2050, or earlier.

The damage inflicted by global warming will be worse than all the floods, fires, earthquakes and tsunamis we have witnessed in our lifetime, yet we are not taking the emergency action that is necessary.

There is now a need to build political understanding that global warming and the tipping points for dangerous impacts that we have already crossed constitute a sustainability emergency. We must take urgent, large-scale global action that takes us beyond the politics of failure-inducing compromise.

David Spratt is the co-author of Climate Code Red: the case for emergency action, published by Scribe in July.

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