Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sceptics should face the need to manage risk

Catastrophe threatens if we pass the tipping point on global warming.

IT IS not surprising that climate sceptics are out in force. The history of this country is the squeaky wheel gets the oil. When powerful vested interests speak on behalf of coalmining, privatised fossil-fuel electricity generators and motoring bogans, the rest of us are forced to listen and politicians on both sides appear eager to do their bidding.

Somehow, the weight of public opinion has to get behind the weight of scientific opinion on global warming.

We need to be reminded that the 2007 report of the International Panel on Climate Change said: "The understanding of anthropogenic warming and cooling influences on climate change has improved … leading to a very high confidence that global average net effect of human activity since 1750 has been one of warming."

The panel defined "very high confidence" as at least a nine out of 10 chance of being correct. This conclusion represents the view of the overwhelming majority of practising climate scientists and peer-reviewed scientific papers on the subject.

Consciously or not, the sceptics are fulfilling the same role as the tobacco lobby, which managed to delay measures to discourage smoking by exploiting the proposition that the correlation between smoking and various illnesses leading to early death didn't necessarily mean causation. But given the risks, why smoke?

It's similar with global warming — except that the decisions and consequences of smoking are individual issues, whereas the likely consequences of global warming are global. If the climate panel is right and if the present levels of carbon dioxide emissions are maintained, global temperatures are likely to rise by between 2 and 6 degrees by 2100, with a 50% chance of reaching 4 degrees.

The tipping point at which catastrophic climate change becomes irreversible is predicted to commence as soon as global temperatures increase by 2 to 3 degrees. Given the rate at which carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are being produced, we are likely to reach the tipping point sooner rather than later. In the Arctic, significant tipping points have already been crossed.

By delaying implementation of a range of measures to reduce greenhouse gases now, we are betting against the future of civilisation as we know it and probably against the future of most species, including the majority of the human race.

Ignoring the risk is irrational, especially when it is set against the risks we are prepared to take in other aspects of our lives. Major engineering projects involve risks to workers on site. The possibility of deaths is measured to establish the insurance premiums for a project. If the premiums make the project uneconomic, developers have the choice of improving safety and convincing the insurer that the death rate probability has been reduced.

Civilised societies reinforce safety by applying regulations that are constantly upgraded in the light of experience.

Most advanced countries spend at least 2% of GDP on standing armies, navies and air forces even though the chance of having to repel an invasion is extremely remote. Destroyers, submarines, fighter aircraft, bombers, tanks and artillery are useless against terrorism and low-level threats and as aids to peacekeeping missions.

In Australia's case, the chances of needing a sophisticated standing defence force to repel an invasion over the next 50 years would be no greater than one in 100.

The consequences of defeat in total war may be slavery, which is still preferable to the annihilation of civilisation and most of the species on the planet — the possible consequence of going beyond the climate change tipping point.

Students of history could argue that there is not much difference between the action of Western leaders in the '30s who ignored the build-up of fascist forces in Germany and Japan and the behaviour of governments today, whose approaches range from environmental symbolists who appease the big polluters (such as the Rudd Government) to the overt deniers (typified by the Bush Administration).

But there is one important difference between the two crises. The crisis associated with fascism and the Great Depression, which was the tipping point, was retrievable.

At the height of World War II, the industrial democracies spent between 30% and 60% of their GDP to win a total war. They had the luxury of learning from their mistakes.

Total war against global warming has to be declared before the tipping point. The good news is that the cost would probably be less than 1% of GDP and arguably the infrastructure needed to avoid climate disaster — renewable energy, public transport, information rather than energy-intensive industries, less pollution and slower and more healthy lifestyles involving walking and cycling — would make cities more civilised even if global warming as predicted turned out to be incorrect.

The bad news is that if procrastination in the face of global warming actually leads to the tipping point and environmental catastrophe as predicted by leading scientists, it will be too late to declare total war on climate change even assuming we can find our modern day Churchill or Roosevelt and governments in the leading democracies are prepared to support a war cabinet charged with spending up to 60% of GDP to save the planet.

Kenneth Davidson is a senior columnist:

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