Sunday, March 8, 2009

Climate's 11th hour

Tomorrow, as the Rudd Government releases its draft legislationon emissions trading, 2000 scientists will begin arriving in Copenhagen to share dire news on climate change. Adam Morton and Tom Arup report.

ANY number of people offer views on the politics of climate change. Few cut to the heart of the issue like Harvard don Daniel Gilbert. "Scientists lament the fact that global warming is happening so fast. The fact is, it's not happening fast enough," he said in a speech last year. Gilbert does not believe climate change is slow, nor does he want to see the world slide quickly into environmental catastrophe. But he has some understanding of why people with the capacity to act, including leaders in Canberra and elsewhere, appear hamstrung when faced with the enormity of the threat of climatic disaster.

A respected psychologist, he says part of the reason most people fail to get worked up about climate change is our sensitivity to change; if something moves dramatically overnight we are alert and possibly alarmed, but if it is a gradual shift averaged across the globe over decades, it is much harder to get angry.

The financial meltdown is a clear and present danger demanding immediate response. Climate change may be clear and present to an overwhelming majority of climate scientists and interested lay people, but it won't immediately put thousands of workers on the breadline.

Climate experts are increasingly worried, though. More than 2000 will meet in Copenhagen this week for an emergency summit to emphasise that the shift is happening much faster than expected. Hosted by the University of Copenhagen, the climate congress has two main goals — to update the science since the 2007 report by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and to develop and promote policy solutions. The key findings will be transformed into a new and improved report to lobby leaders in the run-up to a crucial UN conference in December, when a new Kyoto-style agreement is due to be signed.

UNSW Climate Change Research Centre co-director Matthew England, one of the summit's key backers, says it is likely to find that the raw measures of climate change — global average air temperature, global sea-level rise and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations — are all happening at or above the worst-case IPCC scenario.

A glance through the world's major scientific journals gives an idea of what else might be included. The melting of major glaciers, including the enormous Greenland ice sheet, is now seen by many as irreversible, likely to lead to a sea-level rise of at least seven metres over the next two or three centuries. Already scientists are predicting a minimum sea-level rise of 88 centimetres this century — nearly 30 centimetres higher than the top-end projection in the last IPCC report.

Ocean acidification is happening faster than predicted, spelling disaster for coral reefs and resulting in the ocean diminishing as a carbon sink — it will absorb less carbon dioxide, leaving more in the atmosphere to trap heat.

Arctic sea ice is disappearing. Some scientists now predict an ice-free northern summer by 2013. Melbourne University climatologist David Karoly says this may be an exaggeration, but that recent findings have shown the sea-ice retreat is statistically linked to greenhouse emissions.

"It is certainly likely that some time between the 2020s and the 2050s or 2060s there will be a September with no Arctic sea ice," he says.

Every year when ice coverage is well below average it comes back thinner than before. Less ice means less heat is reflected and more is absorbed in the water, which warms more quickly.

Four papers warrant specific mention. The first, in Nature last May, found an overwhelming majority of behaviour changes in northern hemisphere flora and fauna — insects moving to cooler climates, birds shifting their seasonal breeding patterns — were unlikely to be caused by anything except climate change due to a rise in greenhouse gas. The study was not a snapshot — it examined about 29,000 long-term data sets.

A second Nature study published in January found for the first time that most of the Antarctic continent — long the black hole in climate change research — was warming, up half a degree over the past half-century. Previously there had only been evidence the Antarctic peninsula was heating up. A recent report to mark the International Polar Year concluded that ice shelves that hold huge Antarctic glaciers from the sea are weakening.

Perhaps even more stark was a study in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Science of the United States of America last month. It found that temperature rises due to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations would be largely irreversible for 1000 years, even if the world gets its act together and ends greenhouse emissions. This has major policy implications; some politicians have accepted the idea of overshoot — that we will miss what is a safe stabilisation point and then cut emissions back, in the process winding back climate change. The study offers evidence that this would do little to hold back the tide.

Tony Press, chief executive of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Co-operative Research Centre in Hobart, says the amount of new climate research in the past three years is huge.

"When we open our eyes after the economic crisis and look around us, we will find our predictions of climate change have come forward 10, 25 and 50 years from last time," Press says.

Matthew England says Greenland is a major concern. Land ice is slowly sliding into the ocean. Once it recedes below the snowline it will never be recovered. The predicted impact — a seven-metre rise in sea level — would take centuries, but would be no less dramatic because of it.

"What would we think of the leaders of the 17th or 18th century if they ignored the best science of the day to proceed with policies that meant today we had to relocate all the cities that were around 200 or 300 year ago?" he asks.

The inevitable demise of the Greenland ice sheet is not universally accepted. A news summary in Nature recently quoted glaciologists who believe that melting in south-east Greenland has stopped. Swansea University's Tavi Murray says there seems to have been a "synchronous switch-off" of the speed-up in melting.

Leading Australian researchers, such as England and Karoly, challenge this. They say that, like much of the evidence cited to say climate change is not happening, it suggests an assessment too localised in time and space. "You certainly can go to a temperature trend in one area and see some variation, but in globally average air temperature or looking at the whole of the sea ice over the Arctic circle all those metrics show changes larger than we expected," England says.

As the Copenhagen congress suggests, some climate scientists believe climate change has become a public relations battle — yes, the science is worsening, but the task is to get the message across. It is not always easy when arguments become nuanced.

Take the Victorian bushfires or hurricane Katrina; neither was caused by climate change, but scientists say both were much more likely to happen because of human-induced changes in the climate system.

It is this need for a clearer public relations campaign that will lead some scientists in Copenhagen this week to argue for a shift away from the official UN definition of "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system" of a two-degree temperature rise to something that sounds less like a Gold Coast holiday. Ann Henderson-Sellers, a former director of the UN's World Climate Research Program, now at Macquarie University, says a new definition could better spell out what we face — a cascading failure of the climate system in which melting ice sheets, ocean acidification and loss of rainforest are linked, each triggering further disaster.

She says the current definition "doesn't necessarily convey the sense of crisis — you get all these people saying I wouldn't mind if it was two degrees warmer".

"These people", of course, include politicians. England says there are a number of policy makers who do not understand the scale of the climate science. At times, this is reflected in the public debate. "Generally, and especially I would say in the Opposition, there are folks who just don't understand the climate science and are still being sceptical about what is out there," he says.

That debate will return to the forefront tomorrow when the draft legislation for Australia's chosen method to limit global warming, an emissions trading scheme, is released. The joke around Canberra is that the legislation will be the size of a telephone book and just as interesting. Nobody is expecting any changes from what has already been announced, including a mid-2010 starting date and the equivalent of $9 billion in compensation for industry in the first three years.

THE big question is: does the legislation have any chance of being passed? Initial lukewarm support among lobby groups has melted away in the past couple of months, largely due to the global financial crisis and the emerging science. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd maintains that his approach is a "sensible middle path" between those who argue it has gone too far and those who say it is not doing enough, but the Government has been surprised by the level of hostility.

Three major business groups — Australian Industry Group, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Business Council of Australia — all now support more compensation and a delay, citing the effects of the collapsing economy and the threat of further job cuts.

The suit-wearing end of the environmental movement has also moved. The Australian Conservation Foundation opposes the policy outright, while the Climate Institute argues the scheme can be amended to lift the maximum greenhouse cut by 2020 above 15 per cent, but is concerned there will be no change.

Inside Parliament, it increasingly seems the only way through the Senate may be by making wholesale changes, perhaps by embracing the two-year delay proposed by Australian Industry Group chief Heather Ridout.

The Opposition is bracing itself for the possibility of internal war. The Nationals are opposed to the Government's scheme. Its leader in the Senate, Barnaby Joyce, will rally his troops to cross the floor if the Liberals decide to support it with amendments. Joyce told The Age: "There aren't enough amendments in the world to fix this scheme."

Some Liberals are no more in favour, even if Labor does offer to delay. They openly dismiss that human activity causes global warming. Others agree with the industry position — too costly, too soon.

Malcolm Turnbull, a strong supporter of emissions trading when environment minister, faces the political nightmare of trying to find a unified position.

On the cross benches, Independent Nick Xenophon has ruled out voting for the Government's proposal — even if there is money for the Murray-Darling system in it. Family First's Steve Fielding has said many times that he believes climate change is a major threat to humanity, but has fears about job losses.

And the Greens threaten to vote down the package if it is not radically reformed. Deputy leader Christine Milne says the Greens will not vote for a scheme with a 2020 reduction target lower than a 40 per cent cut and a winding back of industry compensation.

With so much opposition on the horizon, it is perhaps not surprising there is little talk from the Government about the pace of scientific change. The key question in Canberra now, as usual, is more immediate: if the scheme gets knocked back, will the Government have the appetite to go through it all again — no matter how quickly the climate science is moving?

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