01.03.2007

Lets get real

We've had an environmental health scare of major proportions - but now, at least, we can be real, says Adrian Glamorgan

We've had an environmental health scare of majorproportions - but now, at least, we can be real, saysAdrian Glamorgan

Theworld got a health scare last month. Two thousand climatescientists, supported by officials from governmentsthe world over, confirmed the world is getting hotter- and hotter. The Intergovernmental Panel on ClimateChange (IPCC) announced that it was 90-99 per cent likelythat the unprecedented melting of the Greenland permanentice cap, the trend to more intense cyclones since 1970,the extending of drought in many countries, the changein rainfall in the tropics, the incidence of rain comingless often but harder when it does, heat waves and extremehigh tides, are all symptoms of global warming, humancaused.

Two hundred mega-gigatons of carbon have glutted intothe atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, trappingin heat from the sun like glass in a greenhouse. Elevenout of the warmest 12 years on record occurred in thelast 12 years.

Global concentrations of CO2, methane and nitrous oxidenow far exceed pre-industrial levels over the last 650,000years. The price for our mere 200 year old travel andconsumption spree could be the loss of half of all specieson earth, all the coral reefs, 100 million people withouthomes or country, desertified farms and rainforeststurned barren. Some, like NASA scientist Dr James Hansen,are suggesting that if we reach a tipping point forclimate runaway, humans could quickly find themselvesliving on effectively a different planet. Hansen isalso deeply concerned that the White House has beenediting US federal press releases to make climate changeseem less threatening.

That's what makes this United Nations report so important.It's objective, peer-reviewed (several times over),and timely. The IPCC warns us to expect hotter temperaturesand rises in sea level to continue for centuries. Fromnow to 2100, we can expect a rise in world temperaturein the range of 1.1 and 6.4 degrees Celsius. Sea levelswill probably rise by 18 to 59cm, a real threat to somecoastlines with surges and king tides. (A leaked CSIROreport last month notes that Tasmania and Victoria'seast coast will face the equivalent of "100 year"storms.)

This is just the first instalment: the Working Group1 IPCC simply establishing the scientific basis. Nextmonth, look out for a second report, which will examinethe impacts, adaptation and vulnerabilities of climatechange and then, in early May, Working Group III willoutline how the world can mitigate - but not yet eliminate- the problem. By the end of the year, the world willbe given a synthesised assessment. Climate change willstay in the news for some time yet.

The world has responded quickly to the global warning.There was near universal acceptance of the reality ofclimate change and recognition of the need for action.Within a week, for example, the European Union announcedit would mandate car manufacturers to cut their emissionsby 20 per cent. Then the Earth Challenge was announcedby former US Vice President Al Gore and billionaireentrepreneur Richard Branson: find a way to remove abillion tons of carbon a year from the atmosphere, and$32 million is yours. (Australian of the Year climatescientist Tim Flannery will be a judge on the panel.)

Australians have suddenly become quite concerned aboutglobal warming. After all, we have the highest emissionsper capita of any country in the developed world, sixtimes higher than Chinese per capita emissions. As anation we emit more greenhouse gases than Indonesia,which has 200 million people. We want to see action,yet Australia's greenhouse gas emissions from electricityhave gone up 40 per cent since 1990. No one thinks thatclimate change will be easy. But something, many things,need to be done.

So let's imagine: One dream is that our governmentsand we as a community will start taking the whole issueseriously. We'll shift to renewables, and preventativework like better building codes and better emissionstandards. We'll encourage carbon trading, with a capto make the trading real. Our economy will make thechange. Some point along, our hearts will grasp howmuch is enough, and ask no more.

The second option is that the community will be coaxedout of concern by politicians and mining companies.In America, there was a suggestion that a huge solarsail might be floated up into space to keep the sunoff us. Bizarre. In Australia, we had the study thattold us that nuclear power is the painless greenhouseanswer - despite it taking 18 years of coal burningto refine the uranium, and no accounting for the handingover of tens of thousands of years of nuclear waste-keepingto later generations, Renewables weren't even investigated.Our planet deserves better.

In 1991, I worked for a key environmental organisationthat lobbied the then Hawke government about climatechange. We reasoned then that if Australia switchedto clean technologies and changed building and wastemanagement codes we could save ourselves from dirtycoal power stations and establish renewable energy asa major exporter. At the time, the mainstream presswas more interested in what Phillip Toyne thought ofRos Kelly, the environment minister. The country missedthe opportunity, in part because what such media newsoften marks not what is important, but what titillates.Environmentalists have been now outlining the trendfor almost two decades.

I suggested the IPCC Report was the equivalent of ahealth scare. No one likes bad news, but if it comesat least you know where you stand, you can be real,and it's an excellent focuser of one's energies. TheIPCC Report is plain, simple, direct, compelling. Weare in trouble. We need to do something, many things.Starting now. It gives us a jolt, but let's not botherabout denial, anger or bargaining. Acceptance bringsbetter gifts. It allows us to get on with the new lifeof our changing world, where there is so much to bedone.

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