Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Plea from the edge of the abyss. Why we need the Climate Change Authority

If we were sleepwalking towards catastrophe would we know?

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is about to release frightening projections for the impacts of the climate change that is already unstoppable. Among the projections for the next five years is the displacement of hundreds of millions of people, a slide in crop yields and increased deaths from heatwaves.

Few dispute that it is happening. Australia’s environment department has a whole division dealing with adaption - how to cope with what we can’t stop.

Bernie Fraser heads the Climate Change Authority. The man who ruthlessly bore down on inflation just as Australia was recovering from the early 1990s recession, he knows everything about acting in the country’s long-term interests.

But few others seem to.

“I am not out to scare the pants off anybody here and I don't want to insult your intelligence with suggestions that climate change is a load of crap,” he told the National Press Club this month.

“But if policymakers accept the science and its implications, you would expect them to follow through.”

The science says any increase in global average temperatures of more than two degrees compared with pre-industrial levels is “getting into the dangerous category”. We are already halfway there, and there’s only a limited amount of carbon and equivalent gasses we can release before we get there, our so-called our “carbon budget”.

We are using it up at too fast a rate to hold the increase to two degrees. All isn’t lost, if we can pull back. The sooner we pull back gently, the less sharply we will have to pull back later.

That was the message in the Climate Change Authority’s report on targets released on March 5. Its finding was that Australia should lift its target for cutting emissions from 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020 to 19 per cent. Making that steeper cut now will avoid a much steeper cut later.

Much of what it suggests is easy. Adopting tougher motor vehicle emissions standards of the kind already in place elsewhere would cut running costs as well as emissions. And there will soon no longer be a local vehicle building industry to object.

Another is to simply buy extra emissions reductions from other countries. They are going cheaply at the moment, and 2020 is looming too soon to bring about all of the cuts on the Australian continent. The globe doesn’t mind where they take place. So far the Coalition has been unaccountably hostile to the idea, presenting buying cuts from overseas as a sort of moral failing. But we trade with other nations all the time and for the moment it’s the only way to do what’s needed.

It’s the reactions to the suggestions in his report that shocked Fraser.   ...

He is not surprised by the reactions of business, except by their scale and brazenness. But he is surprised by those of the government. “It is the Government's job to protect community interests,” he says. “Every politician pledges to do just that in the lead-up to every election campaign that I have heard.”

The government plans to abolish the Climate Change Authority. While not disputing the science, it shows no interest in lifting Australia's emissions reduction target. It wants to remove the carbon tax and is prepared to underfund the Emissions Reduction Fund that will replace it. It wants to axe the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and to wind back the renewable energy target.

If it believes the science - and it says it does - its thinking is unaccountably short-term, unless you consider the three-yearly electoral cycle.  If an entire nation was sleepwalking towards catastrophe it’d be politically risky to wake it up.

Could an entire nation, perhaps the entire globe, sleepwalk towards catastrophe?

Al Bartlett thought so. He was Professor Emeritus in Nuclear Physics at University of Colorado at Boulder. Before he died last year he spoke to the BBC’s More or Less radio program. <i>More or Less</i> deals with statistics, as did the interview.

Bartlett was an expert on what happens when constant growth comes up against a hard limit. A YouTube video of one of his lectures is entitled: The Most Important Video You'll Ever See.

“Steady growth means doubling over a certain period of time,” he explained to More or Less.

“Suppose you have bacteria that doubles in number every minute. Now suppose you put one of these bacterium in an empty bottle at 11.00 am and then observed that the bottle was full at midday.”

“At what time was the bottle half full?”

The surprising answer is 11.59 am - just one minute before midday, because the bacteria are doubling every minute.

“Now if you were an average bacterium in the at bottle, at what time would you first realise that you were running out of space?” he asked.

The answer mightn’t even be one minute before it was too late.

“After all, at one minute before twelve the bottle was half full, at two minutes before twelve it was only a quarter full and at five minutes before it was only 3 per cent full with 97 per cent of open space just yearning for development.

“At five minutes before twelve how many of you would realise that there was a problem?”

How many of us would realise we were sleepwalking towards catastrophe?

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

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