A Pollies Brief

Climate Change – A Politicians Brief (written for the Australian Election, 2010)

It is clear that our climate is changing. 150 years ago CO2 was identified as a green house gas and its implications for our atmosphere considered (http://www.aip.org/history/climate/summary.htm). In 1988, Dr George Woodwell of the Woods Hole Research Centre testified to the US Senate:

The fact is that we, humans, have changed the composition of the atmosphere with respect to heat-trapping gases enough to start the progression of global climate, not into a new steady state, but into an open-ended warming that is pulling the environment out from under this civilization.” [US Senate testimony by Dr George Woodwell, 1988]

His testimony goes on to detail the changes to be expected. All his projections have indeed been fulfilled over the last 2 decades and continue to be supported by all the recognized scientific papers published to date within the climate science community and across many related scientific disciplines. In fact the outlook is worse with every passing year.

It is now 2010 and we have still not yet responded to this crisis. Scientists have produced prodigious volumes setting out the evidence for change and describing the potential impacts and what has to be done (e.g. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: IPCC 2007 (or AR4) Report: http://www.ipcc.ch/). A recent update to the science was published just before the Copenhagen Conference—The Copenhagen Diagnosis which sets out the dangers very well (http://www.copenhagendiagnosis.org/).

The latest publication of significance is the NOAA report updated to 2009 data and released in late July (http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/bams-state-of-the-climate/2009.php). It indicated that ten independently studied and reported measurements of our planet’s systems all consistently show the climate is warming and it is driven by green house gases (particularly CO2). Seven indicators are rising: air temperature over land, sea-surface temperature, air temperature over oceans, sea level, ocean heat, humidity and tropospheric temperature in the “active-weather” layer of the atmosphere closest to the Earth’s surface. Three indicators are declining: Arctic sea ice, glaciers and spring snow cover in the Northern hemisphere (Greenland and western Antarctica have also been shown to be declining).

Short Science primer—green house gases trap extra heat in the lower portions of the atmosphere. Without GHGs the Earth would be around -15C (thus frozen). Just sticking to CO2: it stays in the atmosphere for decades and continues to trap heat. Current warming action is described as “forcing” and is measured in watts per square meter of planet surface (see IPCC). CO2 is absorbed by water (i.e. the ocean) and by plants. Sources include power stations (stationary energy), cars, decay of plant matter, and industrial processes like steel smelting and cement production. CO2 emissions go up every year due to economic development and so does the atmospheric concentration.

The atmospheric concentration of CO2 has risen from within the range 180 to 280 ppm (parts per million) to 392 ppm since 1750 (industrial revolution). It had been steady before that for at least 1 million years. It has risen very quickly in the last 40 years and is accelerating especially with the expansion of China (India will also join the fray in coming decades). China is constructing the equivalent to Aust entire coal fired power station system every 3 months.

Climate trends can only be measured over long periods (defined as 30 years minimum). Short term trends over a 10 yr time scale can vary greatly masking the real underlying trend in the climate (i.e. the weather has a large degree of short term variability while the climate drifts slowly and inexorably upwards).

As our planet warms there are more positive feedbacks being initiated: loss of polar ice increases the oceans ability to absorb heat from the sun; changes in the pattern of deserts/rainforests in the tropics (changes the reflectivity of the earth or albedo); changes in the way our oceans transport heat (thermohaline circulation that drives the gulf stream for example); melting tundra releasing methane; shallow ocean sea beds releasing frozen methane etc. It is feared these feedback systems will drive us into climate changes we cannot predict or control with a climate spiraling from one state into another in a continuous trend that could result in several degrees of warming.

Impacts—these include:

a)    rise in sea level (from ocean warming and expanding; from melting of land ice);

b)    rise in temperature and movement of climate zones towards the poles;

c)    changes in rainfall patterns (well watered land becomes desert);

d)    increasing acidity of the oceans (due to CO2 being dissolved; this has nothing to do with the climate but is a parallel effect of CO2 emissions);

e)    increase in bushfire events;

f)     increase in extreme weather (due to additional heat in ocean surface and more circulation of moisture vapor);

g)    loss of ice (1 billion people in Asia depend on annual snow/glacier melt from the Himalayas);

h)    loss of large portions of arable land (because millions of people grow crops in low-lying delta regions—Bangladesh, Nile delta, eastern China, Vietnam, and lots more);

i)      loss of biodiversity (30% by 2050, 60% by 2100, ocean life will be threatened by acidity with loss of the entire worlds coral reefs within this or next century, loss of all shell forming species, loss of 60% to 80% of tropical rainforest, etc);

j)      increase in diseases and weed/insect problems (massive extinctions may cause run-away insect populations or bourgeoning weed growth).

There will be impacts we cannot yet conceive if the climate runs out of control.


So what should we do?    –  “avoid the unadaptable and adapt to the unavoidable”

Mitigate—that means reduce emissions of all green house gases (avoid what we cannot tolerate). Some like SF6 have very much stronger affect as green house gases than CO2, but these are in much smaller amounts. The main ones are CO2 and methane. CO2 because we emit huge amounts (more than 8500 million tonnes Carbon/yr) and methane because it can come from natural sources such as melting tundra, which is melting because of the warming we have already begun. The latter is what is known as a positive feedback, more warming means more melting tundra which means more releases of green house gas leading to more warming, etc.

CO2 is also produced by clearing vegetation and many governments have focused on reducing forest clearing in the tropics. This is at best a stop gap measure as the same governments have continued to build coal power stations (which commits them to continuing emissions for decades).

The IPCC 2007 report indicated that to remain below the dangerous 2 degree C limit we would have to reach a maximum yearly emission by around 2015 and then reduce quickly to around 85% reduction by 2050 (and we now know the situation is worse than IPCC 2007 states). As you can imagine this is a big task which requires us to build no more fossil fuel systems from now on and to start replacing them with renewable energy (i.e. actually shutting down coal fired power stations starting with the worst CO2 emitters such as Loy Yang which uses brown coal).

The current promises from Copenhagen (submitted by all countries of the world) would result in a rise of around 3.9C, still way beyond the limit suggested in the IPCC 2007 Report.

With the developed world wanting to live like we do, we need the West to take more reductions in order to balance the East during its development phase. Europe has been working on this for some years with major reductions being achieved. This achievement is what we should all be doing. Germany for example now leads the world in solar panel technology.

Adapt—which means prepare ourselves/cities/cultures for the impacts that result from the warming. The green house gases already emitted have caused sufficient changes (and we will continue to emit—remember CO2 lasts around 100 years in the atmosphere) to keep the world warming for centuries. Thus we can expect lots more rise in sea level following 2100 even if we effectively reduce emissions right now. This is because we have ignored the warnings of scientists for more than 20 years now and continued with “business as usual”. Therefore, adaptation is critical to on-going cultural stability.

One example of adaptation is finding a way to deal with the 700,000 Aust properties that will be lost with 1m of sea level rise. The majority of these are water front houses that represent the most valuable property of our cities. This represents a very large loss of the economic capital of Aust. Other properties under threat include airports, ports, bridges, roads, storm water drains, sewage pumping installations, flood levees, etc. The impact on tourism is significant with potential loss of beaches as people will build walls to keep out the ocean.

The other major impact on Aust will be the threat to our food supply. Apart from the radical changes to our rainfall patterns (50% less rain in the Murray/southern NSW/Vic region) the massive loss of biodiversity projected (40% or more by 2100) will spawn difficulties with insect pests and weeds. Plants not currently known to be a problem may become weeds through the collapse of biological systems which normally control them.

Reduction of Emissions—economists such as Stern, Garnaut and many others support the economic method of cap and trade. The cap is placed to limit the amount of emissions in a year and tradable permits for that amount are issued by auction. This places a market driven price on emissions. The idea is that all green house gases are covered (with factors to make them equivalent to CO2). Thus the market finds where the most economic reductions in climate forcing emissions are to be found. In reality the costs will flow through to the consumer. Any activity that increases emissions will become more expensive so that alternatives such as renewable energy become more competitive. In the process, energy will inevitably become more expensive, but the market based method gives the most economic solution.

An alternative suggested by some is the tax and dividend system where a tax is placed on emissions (at the point of emission) and the money collected is entirely returned to the whole population as a dividend. This then automatically compensates the lowest income sector for the additional costs of energy.

The ETS negotiated by the Rudd Govt. included huge compensation to polluting parts of the economy in order to gain their political support. Many environmentalists were against this under the opinion that it would lock Aust into many years of high emissions and seriously undermine the effort to mitigate (Garnaut is also of this opinion). However, the pragmatist might say that once the system is in place it will instigate changes to emissions and also the target can be strengthened to a higher value (25% or more). The latest calls based on achieving the 2C upper limit requires us to achieve 25% to 40% reductions by 2020.

Action by our leaders—the World’s leaders, including politicians have to make themselves experts in this subject so that they can take the required strong action well before the impacts hit. The scientific world has been struggling to make itself heard. Large amounts of money has been thrown into lobbying governments and funding so-called “experts” employed simply to muddy the waters and raise doubts in the minds of the public as to the scientific basis of human caused warming (anthropogenic climate change). This has seriously delayed strong action.

There is also a psychological aspect. Humans have always responded to disasters after the event. We are now required to respond before the event, using our intellect to see the future. For many people, the projections are so horrendous that they just turn off. Politicians struggle to attend to the short-term needs of people. With their terms of office limited to only 3-4 years, it is difficult to take decisions that will impact now for some future gain that is decades away.

This struggle is one that will continue for generations as the impacts will continue for generations (at least 1000 years for the climate to stabilise again). This is an ethical problem – We are living at the expense of the generations beyond our grandchildren! 

We call on all politicians to take the hard decisions to achieve mitigation and adaptation.

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