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By Bruce Barbour

Update -  July 2020 / December 2020 / April 2021 / August 2021

The impacts of climate change is now fully visible to anyone who cares to look with an open mind. Some action is occurring now but it is still too slow and insufficient. In reality major action should have started 30 or more years ago when the likely impacts of climate change were known. The first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was published in 1990. If action had started then it would have been very doable to stop climate change. However substantive action was not taken.

Carbon Dioxide Atmospheric Concentrations -
Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Concentrations - Hawaii

Global Temperature Anomaly
Global Land Ocean Temperature Index - For Same Period
Data Source: NASAís Goddard Institute for Space Studies
The two 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.

Can Significant Impacts due to Climate Change be averted?

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 transport solutions.

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.

Lifestyles 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.

Will Significant Impacts due to Climate Change be averted?

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.

How to proceed

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.

Bruce Barbour
Updated March 2021

August 2021 Update: The first part of the 6th IPCC climate assessment report - summary of main points here - has been released in August 2021. Even the conservative IPCC is using terminology like:

"It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.

No more of the terminology of "high likelihood" or "high confidence". They are now saying it is "unequivocal". How can our political leaders ignore this warning? The neolithes in all political parties need to be told to shut up and get out of the way so that the politicians of good will (there are a few) can act in the best interests of all of us. No more of this "It will cost us too much. Where is the money coming from?" Did they say that during the second world war? The money will be found - it is secondary. Just do whatever it takes, whatever it costs - NOW.

The other parts of the report will be released in 2022.

*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, poses significant dangers to humanity 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 on a large scale or promoting a denialist argument, this is immoral.

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Youtube clips relating to climate change

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.

Other - Podcast

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.

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