By Bruce Barbour
Update - July 2020 / December 2020 / April
|Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Concentrations -
Ocean Temperature Index - For Same Period
Data Source: NASAís Goddard Institute for Space Studies
graphs above are contained in the .
Document attached (MS Word).
We now have the situation that at the time when green house gas
emissions should be plummeting toward zero they
continue to go upwards. The graphs on the left are the
scariest in climate change. The first graph shows the steady
increase in carbon dioxide over time and the second shows the
increase in global temperatures over time - from 1960 to 2020. Is
this just coincidence - carbon dioxide going up and world
temperatures going up at the same time? The majority of the
climate science community think not.
The graphs are an indictment of current policy settings and
actions taken - in Australia and the rest of the world. All the
solar, wind and hydro that has been installed, and energy
efficiency measures implemented has had minimal impact on the rate
of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. The rate of increase in
carbon dioxide seems to be the same or greater than when Al Gore
brought the first graph to the attention of the whole world with
the release of his film "An
Inconvenient Truth" in 2006.
Until the top graph starts to flatten we will know that all the
words coming from politicians' mouths are meaningless, covering up
either their incompetence or their unwillingness to actually do
anything meaningful to address climate change.
The world has already experienced one degree of warming. As I sit
here in Melbourne Australia in December 2019 there are
unprecedented fires raging in the majority of states across
Australia. I shudder when I imagine what conditions are going to
be like with an additional degree, to two degrees - double what
the warming has been so far! Are the fires going to be twice as
bad at two degrees as they are at one? Perhaps there won't be
enough forest left to burn by that stage. It is hard to imagine.
And some predictions indicate that under the current strategy, it
will not just be 2 degrees of warming that the planet is heading
for but 3 degrees - and possibly a lot more. The possible
consequences are very concerning.
What follows is my speculation on the possible scenarios that
could play out into the future. While I have read some of the
science I am not a scientist. But the impacts of climate change
are becoming so readily apparent you don't need to be a scientist
to be extremely concerned - by both the future impacts of climate
change and the lack of substantive action to address the issue.
Personally I think the worst scenarios can be averted. However I
hasten to add that this is a very different question to - will
they be averted? I will address that question later.
The world is already experiencing the early impacts of the
climate change. However if the world prepared to devote
significant and sufficient resources to climate change mitigation,
commencing now, the impacts, while likely to be still significant,
may be manageable.
What time is available to bring about change is the great unknown. If the climate (using the indicator of temperature) kept changing in a linear fashion as well as carbon dioxide concentrations, extrapolating the temperature graph (from above) might indicate that in the recent past we added 0.5 of a degree every 20 years. However the climate is immensely complicated. This is why climate scientists construct extremely complicated and large climate models. They take account of many many more factors and will do a better job at prediction than simple linear extrapolation. However one thing that that that the models don't include is the effect of all of the possible tipping points. These are difficult to predict and difficult to model and if one or more is passed in the next twenty years it could dump large quantities of carbon dioxide or methane into the atmosphere and accelerate the warming to a rate and to a level that can't be predicted. An IPCC report from 2018 - "Special Report - Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees" says that there is greater risk of tipping points being passed after global warming of 1.5 degrees. Simple extrapolation of the above linked temperature graph says that that level of warming will be passed in under twenty years but maybe sooner. It is impossible to stop all carbon dioxide emissions tomorrow so there is already at least 0.2 to 0.3 degrees increase locked in. Any delay in dropping carbon dioxide levels increases the risks and is a gamble. A gamble with very high stakes. And the only way to increase the odds in our favour is for decarbonation of the economy to proceed as fast as possible. Any delay increases the risk.
Decarbonation needs direct action and regulation by governments
on a grand scale and direct action by companies, groups and
individuals on a smaller scale. Direct government action would
mean building of renewable power stations and schemes like Snowy
Hydro 2 (though recent reports suggest that the cost of this is
much higher than anticipated and it may be better to spend the
money on a whole series of distributed pumped hydro projects) and
other "big batteries", installing basic infrastructure to support
the change over to electric cars and the strengthening
(duplicating) of intrastate and interstate power connectors.
Regulating industry would mean regulating to close coal powered
station in a timely manner, regulating the levels of greenhouse
gases produced per gigawatt hour of electricity produced, the
level of which would decrease over time by regulation and
similarly regulating green house gases produced by any new cars
sold to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles and public
The so called market based mechanisms like carbon taxes or small scale subsidies are too slow to work on their own - though they will have to play a part, especially carbon taxes as one means of at least partially funding the required work. The world should be placed onto a wartime like footing with the enemy climate change and green house gases - and those that release them.
I read or see television programs about many good ideas from our
scientists and inventors on innovative way to remove carbon
dioxide from the atmosphere in large volumes. These ideas need to
be supported and developed. Sure some will not bear fruit, that is
why you undertake the research, but some will. The ones that are
shown to have the most potential for removing large amounts of
carbon dioxide for the least cost should then be funded and
supported for large scale implementation.
Green house gas production from the static energy production
(primarily electricity production) would have to be brought to
zero within, say, 10 years. The rest of the sectors producing
green house gases (agriculture, transport etc.) would have to go
to near zero or be fully offset in the following, say, 10 years
(both processes would need to commence simultaneously). But even
if this ambitious goal is achieved it is quite likely that
sufficient CO2 will have been released that temperature gains
above 1.5 degree will be exceeded. After net zero emissions is
achieved, green house gas production would have to go below zero -
that is we have to be removing greenhouse gases from the
atmosphere, taking atmospheric carbon dioxide levels back closer
to pre-industrial levels.
Ideally the current economic basis of our society in the West -
continual economic growth based on year by year increases in
material consumption will have to change.
will need to change - especially in the West. Sustainable
population levels need to be discussed and agreed on and steps
taken to commence implementation of this long term goal.
Across national boundary help would have to be given (yes given not sold or lent) to less developed countries. The developed countries should think of this as partial compensation to the less developed countries for the West's imposition of climate change onto them. Less developed countries are not responsible for the creation of climate change, the West did that. Developed countries that did not cooperate by making appropriate changes would be pariah states and isolated from world trade and commerce and membership of international bodies until they amended their ways.
If tipping points are crossed we may have to implement beneficial geo-engineering, even with all of its associated risks - after all what are our current greenhouse gas emissions if not unintentional geo-engineering.
Is this change likely to happen? There are a couple of factors
that make the required changes problematic. Firstly some
politicians around the world are completely and hopelessly
compromised by their financial dependence on their backers who
have vested interests in maintaining the use of fossil fuels. The
actions of most of the backers can only be described as immoral*.
If Labor takes office at the next election this would be a great
improvement, however they too may compromise on the extent of
action taken due to union push back against the changes as they
may inflict hardship on their membership and supporter base. It is
encouraging that they seem to be about to commit to net zero
carbon emissions by 2050. While it could and perhaps should be
quicker it is vastly better than the Coalition. Even if the
Coalition was to announce a similar target - they might see this
as politically necessary as greater numbers in the general
community demand action on climate change - I wouldn't trust them
to actually do anything to try to achieve it. It would be an empty
promise. Some politicians in their ranks would prefer to destroy
their own government than to actually proactively cut emissions!
Without a detailed plan and action in accordance with the plan, a
long term target is meaningless. None of the politicians will
still be in parliament by 2050, most will in aged care or dead,
and will not be able to be held accountable.
The second issue is that tackling this problem requires
coordinated action from the majority (90%+) of the countries of
the planet and 100% of the big emitters. However there are
financial incentives to do as little as possible using the
argument that a country's own emissions are only a small
percentage of the total therefore it does not matter if they do
little. Australia's - Scott Morrison's Liberal Coalition's -
stance is a prime example of this. United States has just booted
out Trump and elected Biden. The statements and promises from Joe
Biden during the election and his initial actions are some cause
for hope but he needs to fully deliver what he promised - and
more. And if Trump was re-elected in 2024 - a horrifying thought
but a possibility - he would probably undo everything that has
been and will be done. (The world would have to financially
sanction the hell out of the USA - refuse to trade with them - if
that happened.) China has stated a goal of zero emissions by 2060
but is planning to build dozens of new coal stations which will
result in increased carbon dioxide production from the country in
the short to medium term. India also has further coal generators
planned for the next two decades. Japan is aiming to build new
coal plants. Why are they planning this when it has been shown
that the cheapest form of new electricity is from renewables and
energy storage? Building new coal power plants has to stop -
everywhere in the world.
The recent (December 2020) UK talks on climate change has seen
more ambitious emissions reduction pledges from a number of
countries - notably not Australia. But even Australia and the
Liberals are showing signs that they might be forced (albeit
kicking and screaming) to actually promise more action - though
implementation is less certain with them - due to Biden's election
and the possibility of financial sanctions. But until the cuts are
actually delivered they are just more words from politicians.
While I am not a scientist I rely on what the scientists of the IPCC say and they say that it is possible to avert the worst aspects of climate change if significant action is taken early enough. The issue is whether they will be averted and as stated that is more problematic due to politics and the forces of denial and inactivism. Politics is a human process and humans can change and hopefully will change as the evidence of the need for change become more apparent (how much more evidence do they need?!). Politicians, if sufficiently motivated - the threat of loosing their seat in parliament or their party's position as the Government is their main source of motivation - can choose to ignore the forces of denial and inactivism, and act.
We know that there are actions available that can mitigate climate change, as per the earlier paragraphs, and even if all of them don't get fully implemented or implemented on the time scale that we think is desirable, any action that is implemented might act to an extent towards mitigation of the impacts of climate change. We should therefore fight for what changes we can get in the hope that mitigation will be the result and if enough changes are implemented they might mitigate the worst levels of the climate change impacts. I would also argue that we should keep trying because to not try to implement changes guarantees that no change will occur and guarantees that the worst levels of the climate change impacts will occur. Ultimately 'doomism", if accepted, is a self fulfilling prophecy. Its impact is the same as that of denialism. Doomism serves no good purpose and needs to be avoided.
Updated March 2021
*Many backers of climate denial politicians are immoral because I am reasonably sure that most of them are not dumb (even though their actions are dumb when seen in the wider context) and many would know that climate change is real and is caused by fossil fuel burning. If they, and anyone else, have this understanding but keep promoting and doing the burning of fossil fuels or promoting a denialist argument, this is immoral.
* * * * *
Climate Change 2020 - Why we are facing an emergency
A presentation from Professor Will Steffen, a climate change expert and researcher at the Australian National University, Canberra. April 2020.
Scientists' Warning to Humanity & Business as Un-usual
- Politicians can't say they haven't been warned and warned on
multiple occasions. This is serious people. Vote out any
politician that does not speak and, more importantly, act in ways
that reflect the gravity of the situation.
Why itís time to think about human extinction | Dr David Suzuki - What a communicator. What a mind.
Climate Change, COVID-19 and Trump | Noam Chomsky - Watch this and weep.
Hot Mess - An ABC podcast series on climate change and
Australia's response to the threat, or lack of response. It is a
pity this podcast was not made into a television program.
Bruce Barbour - 1998.
There is general agreement within the scientific community that global warming is occurring and its cause is due in large part to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels. Even most politicians concede that it is occurring. With this general consensus you would think that putting policy and practices into place to address the issue would be uncontroversial. However this is not the case. There are a number of reasons for this:
powerful vested interests in maintaining the status quo for as long as possible;
the effects of climate change cannot readily be seen in your day to day life. You can't readily feel a 0.8 degree global warming in your day to day life, nor see the relatively small changes in sea level already occurred. I went for a bush walk the other day - beautiful blue sky, birds chirping etc. The environment does not appear on the surface to be in a state of disastrous decline. There are news stories of drought and increased storm frequency and intensity and of unseasonal melting of glaciers and ice sheets but if they are not happening to you and you can't see them directly it can seem a bit unreal. Yet the vast majority of the scientific community is saying that if allowed to go on disastrous decline is what we will get - we need to take their warnings seriously and act now. By the time the disaster is readily apparent it will be too late. There are a number of issues - there is a lag between the carbon pollution and the environmental effect - the Earth is a massive system and it takes years for changes to occur so while there is a 0.8 degree world wide temperature increase at present. even if we stopped all pollution now further warming would occur. The other problem is that the climate change may well be non linear - there may be "tipping points" beyond which larger scale change could occur which would increase warming significantly from what we have at present. If these tipping points are exceeded then run away climate change effects could be anticipated and short term recovery probably impossible. The other issue is that some of the claims of sea level change seem hard to believe. For example a seven meter sea rise if the Greenland ice sheet melts seem incredible - the world's oceans seems so large and while Greenland is large it is nowhere near the size of the oceans. And if the Antarctic ice shelf melt we will be looking at a 25m sea level rise or more. It all seems unbelievable until you realise that the ocean has been this high and higher in the past - if it has happened before (for different, non anthroprogenic, reasons) it can happen again;
in additional to this even though some might acknowledge that warming is occurring there may be a lack of concern about the severity of the consequences of global warming: Some may think "just a few degrees hotter, more storms, some islands flooded and refugees are a small price to pay for our way of life". This is a dreadful, even unethical, attitude - even a few degrees may have dire consequences. It could be a lot worse than "just a few degrees". Low lying areas of densely populated countries could flood, ecosystems disrupted leading to mass extinctions, and water availability and food production threatened. War is possible - people and governments are not going to starve in silence. To proceed along the route leading to global warming is playing dice with our life support system, the earth's environment, only worse. If we stuff it up we could be at a stage where we couldn't go back. In the life and death issues of our environment it is much better to adopt the precautionary principle;
the Australian and other democratic political process does not encourage the adoption of a long term view. Some required reform will hit the hip pocket or require lifestyle changes. The benefits may not be able to be seen for decades, if they can be seen at all. When a politician can only see to the next election, a few years away, there is not much incentive to implement what may in the short term be unpopular policies whose effects are decades away.
A lot of changes can and should be done in response to this crisis. It is a matter of priorities. When a politician says some environmental policy initiative is too expensive what they are really saying is that in their opinion there is some other action which they believe has higher priority and therefore deserves the funding more than the environmental initiative. If Australia decided that global warming was one of the highest, if not the highest priority, funding would be found. It is a matter of getting that decision made - the priority increased. It would not break Australia's economy - nowhere near - and even if it did it is a price we would have to bear.
The community needs understanding of the significance of the problems, from which will come the will to tackle this most significant issue of our time, global warming. If there is the will the resources necessary to carry out the required works and to make the necessary lifestyle changes will be made available. The cost may be significant but, I suggest, significantly less than the cost of doing nothing and accepting the consequences of global warming.
I hope you will enjoy reading the contents of this site where I
make further commentary and suggest some partial solutions. Please
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