Monday, April 13, 2009

Fiddling at the edges as climate goes into tailspin

Stephen Healy 
Sydney Morning Herald, April 14, 2009


A new futuristic eco-flick, The Age Of Stupid, opens with the devastation of 2055. Pete Postlethwaite plays a lone man wading through video footage from 2007-08 and asking why we didn't stop climate change when we still had the chance.

The film had its premiere to great fanfare in London last month and opens here in July. It was reviewed by The Times as "the most imaginative and dramatic assault on the institutional complacency shrouding the issue".

There was a green carpet opening in a solar-powered tent, with A-list celebrities and a live cross to the Maldives, vulnerable to climate change. But it risks trading on the complacency it sets out to pierce, even as it makes waves that more eminent analyses do not.

Notable among these are the concerns of scientists that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report - the leading scientific review released in 2007 - understated the climate change challenge. The report significantly underestimated the growth in emissions from India and China and the rates at which polar ice is melting, signalled in recent days by the break-up of Antarctica's Wilkins Ice Shelf.

In 2007 and 2008, sea ice in the Arctic shrank to the lowest levels since satellite monitoring began in 1979, opening both the Northwest Passage, near the Canadian Arctic, and the Northern Sea Route, along the Siberian coast, for the first time in 100,000 years.

Many climate scientists are now saying the political target of a minimum atmospheric CO2 concentration of 450 parts-per-million (ppm) is too high. Instead, they say ecological integrity demands a target of 300-350 ppm.

In the real world, the ppm talk translates - or doesn't - into policy, economics and technology, with carbon trading the current policy mechanism of choice. This is because economists, such as Nicholas Stern and Ross Garnaut, have convinced governments that carbon markets can solve climate change cheaply, at about 1 per cent of gross domestic product.

Vested interests complain this is far too high a price, but informed opinion begs to differ. Professor Dieter Helm, an Oxford University economist, says carbon trading is only cheap because it treats the environment as substitutable - similar to how economics treats labour and capital. That is, we can go on substituting parking lots for mountains, parrots and clean air as long as the price is right. Joni Mitchell's warning - not to pave paradise to put up a parking lot - seems to have fallen largely on deaf ears. In a speech in February, Helm concluded levels of consumption are far too high, that a significant transfer of resources from the developed to the developing world is required and "it is time to tell voters some unpleasant facts".

The history of these "unpleasant facts" was illuminated by a CSIRO working paper published last year by researcher Graham Turner. It compared historical data recorded between 1970 and 2000 with scenarios in Limits To Growth, the report that predicted environmental collapse midway through this century. These predictions were criticised at the time for not paying adequate attention to technological advances and increasing efficiencies in consumption of energy and resources.

In the 1980s, sustainable development internalised these criticisms by placing continued economic growth at the top of its agenda. However, Turner found that the historical data reflected the Limits To Growth scenario of collapse this century, and concluded "the global system is on an unsustainable trajectory unless there is a substantial and rapid reduction in consumptive behaviour".

Yet the major government response to the global financial crisis is to reignite high levels of consumption.

Cutting consumption requires reform that must embrace how our economies and financial and trading systems are conceived, designed and operated. They are all on the global financial crisis reform agenda.

As Clive Hamilton said about Earth Hour, symbolic initiatives are like "the band playing on as the Titanic sinks".

Initiatives such as The Age Of Stupid are caught in a bind. Raising awareness by trading on our propensity for consumption reinforces the complacency already reflected by the promise of the carbon market to create change cheaply.

The Times got it wrong. Complacency lives on. Individuals have many options to cut consumption, from riding a bike to recycling and installing solar panels. But unless these herald more fundamental and systemic change, history will find us to have been stupid.

The judgment depends on whether we take the opportunity the financial crisis provides us, or remain complacent. Individual change has to pressure more fundamental political change. Whether leaders have what it takes to demonstrate the requisite leadership remains to be seen.

Stephen Healy is a senior lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science program at the University of NSW.

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