Over 200 years ago human beings began burning large quantities of the coal, oil and natural gas that had been buried under the Earth’s surface for hundreds of millions of years. This may eventually come to be seen as the most fatal misstep in the history of humankind. When the industrial revolution began there were 280 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Mainly because of fossil fuel burning, there are presently almost 390 ppm. Since the mid-nineteenth century scientists had theorised that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases increased the temperature of the Earth. Eventually the theory became consensual science. By 2005 every major scientific academy in the world acknowledged a causal link between increase in the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) and dangerous global warming. Yet despite this understanding, 90 million tonnes of carbon dioxide are currently injected into the atmosphere every day.
By the 1980s, the peril facing the Earth as a result of the burning of fossil fuels was almost universally acknowledged. At Kyoto in 1997 an international plan for greenhouse gas emissions reduction was finally agreed upon. One of the problems of this agreement was that it asked for sacrifices only from the countries of the developed world. In part this was because they were overwhelmingly responsible for cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, in part because the standard of living there was incomparably higher than in the developing world. Another problem of Kyoto was its modesty. Everyone acknowledged that it represented no more than a first step. Even worse, the United States and, until 2007, Australia – the two highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases in the developed world – both refused to ratify the Protocol. Following Kyoto, greenhouse gas emissions actually increased greatly in significant parts of both the developed and developing worlds: in the United States, Canada and Australia; in China, India, South Africa and Brazil. Despite the scientific consensus concerning the catastrophic problem that now loomed, despite the international agreement that had been struck at Kyoto, in the years before the Global Financial Crisis of late 2008 the global emissions of carbon dioxide were increasing at about 3% per annum, higher than at any time in the history of humankind.
James Hansen of NASA is widely regarded as the most eminent contemporary climate scientist. His just-published Storms of my Grandchildren (Bloomsbury, 320pp; $35.00) represents his warning to the world. Hansen is desperate that non-scientists understand that the Earth, even in its relatively recent history, is far less stable and far more sensitive to moderate temperature change than most of us imagine. Twenty thousand years ago the Earth was 5°C colder and the sea level 110 metres lower than today. As temperatures began to elevate 14,000 years ago, sea levels rose at a very rapid rate, about 1 metre every 20 to 25 years. Seven thousand years ago global temperature and sea levels stabilised. This is the period when what we sometimes speak of as human civilisation developed. According to Hansen, this stability is now clearly under threat. He argues it is certain that unless dramatic action is now taken – essentially the end of all coal-burning – various “tipping points” will soon be passed that will eventually make inevitable the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets and the carbon-intensive Siberian and Arctic permafrost, and the radical extension of what the relevant scientists are already calling the sixth mass extinction of species in the history of the Earth. Hansen argues that on a business-as-usual basis global temperature will be considerably higher than it has been for a million years. His conclusion is stark. “If humanity burns most of the fossil fuels, doubling or tripling the pre-industrial carbon dioxide level, Earth will surely head toward the ice-free condition, with sea-level 75 meters higher than today. It is difficult to say how long it will take for the melting to be complete, but once ice sheet disintegration gets well under way, it will be impossible to stop.” Given what is at stake – the future of the Earth – for non-scientists to dismiss Hansen’s warning seems folly or arrogance of an astonishing kind.
How realistic, then, is the prospect of humans changing their ways and ceasing to pump vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere? In his Requiem for a Species (Allen & Unwin, 240pp; $24.99) published this month, Clive Hamilton provides a summary of the calculations of two climate scientists, Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, working at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University. Anderson and Bows decided to make a series of heroic assumptions about the way the international community might tackle the threat of impending climate catastrophe. These assumptions led them to a scenario in which global greenhouse gas emissions peak in 2020 and then begin to decline by an historically unprecedented 6–7% per annum in the developed world and by 3% per annum across the board. Under this impossibly optimistic scenario what then will be the outcome? “If that is the path taken by the world,” Hamilton writes in his summary of the Anderson–Bows calculation, “over the century we will pump out an extra 3000 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases which would not see the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases stabilize at the ‘safe’ level of 450 ppm. Nor would they stabilize at the very dangerous levels of 550 ppm. They would in fact rise to 650 ppm!” Climate scientists believe a greenhouse gas concentration of 650 ppm will mean a post-industrial revolution temperature rise of 4°C, well beyond the tipping points for the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets or the Siberian and Arctic permafrost. Yet, according to the Anderson–Bows calculation, even a level as “low” as 650 ppm is now almost certain not to be achieved. What all this means seems quite clear. If Anderson and Bows are right, human beings are lurching towards inevitable disaster.
For the past few years people have hoped that some kind of miracle would emerge from the international Climate Change Conference at Copenhagen, once destined to find a treaty to replace Kyoto. Unsurprisingly, as it turned out, it did not. The Copenhagen Accord – the last-minute deal stitched up between Barack Obama and the alliance of the leading developing nations: China, India, Brazil and South Africa – speaks of bold action on the question of deforestation, a climate-change fund from the developed to the developing nations rising to $100 billion by 2020, and an aspiration to hold post-industrial temperature increase to 2°C. Unhappily, there are no concrete plans and, indeed, no rational grounds for hope that most of this can be achieved. There are no details about how the anti-deforestation ambitions will be implemented. There is no realistic prospect that the parliaments of the developed world, and in particular the US Congress, will in the near future commit many tens of billions of dollars of climate-change assistance to the developing world. There is no plausible timetable for the negotiation of a new international treaty. There are no mid- or long-term targets for emission reductions for either the developed or the developing worlds. Worst of all, according to Ecofys’ analysis of the current emission-reduction pledges of the major nations, the world is heading for a global temperature increase not of 2°C but 3.5°C.
While it has become fashionable to blame China for the conference’s collapse, this is a vast oversimplification. The Chinese unwillingness to commit to mandatory emissions reductions (and preparedness merely to lower its carbon intensity) or to a regime of international verification is indeed a fundamental stumbling block, but hardly more important than the self-evident incapacity of President Obama to provide any firm future commitments on behalf of the United States to which Congress will be bound. Even more significantly, the ‘success’ of Kyoto was only possible because nothing was demanded of the developing world. If Copenhagen proved anything it was that the gulf between the developed and developing worlds is at present far too wide to be breached. In their argument, there is reason on both sides. It is true that the developed world is overwhelmingly responsible for cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. It is also true that without developing world emission-reduction commitments no plan to avert disaster can possibly be found. Action to solve the looming climate-change catastrophe relies on humankind discovering, and being able to act upon, something unprecedented in its history, something that Al Gore in his fine recent book Our Choice (Bloomsbury, 326pp; $35.00) calls a “collective will”. The capacity for the expression of a collective will is, unhappily, precisely what at present – as in the past – humankind entirely lacks. In matters as diabolically difficult as concerted and rational international action on climate change, necessity may not, after all, be the mother of invention.
One explanation for the present paralysis is the increasingly weird nature of climate-change politics, especially in the Anglo democracies. In the struggle to move away from the fossil fuel economy, the profitability of energy corporations was at risk. These corporations responded to the threat not only by massive lobbying – in the US it has been estimated by the Center for Public Integrity that there are five energy corporation lobbyists for every member of Congress – but also by funding a disinformation campaign whose purpose was to sow doubt about the solidity of climate science in the mind of the citizenry. The campaign was supported by the neo-conservative think-tanks and their media outlets, which now extended to climate scientists the kind of attack they had been mounting against intellectuals in the humanities and social sciences since the 1970s; climate scientists became the “new class” of politically correct anti-Western, anti-capitalists. The attack on one branch of science mounted by the ideological Right was remarkably successful. In the United States, by 2008, among the college-educated, three-quarters of Democrats thought that human activities were responsible for global warming; fewer than one-fifth of Republicans agreed. Yet there was more to the campaign’s growing success than ideological polarisation. It garnered support among an older generation of non-climate scientists and engineers whose world view – man’s mastery over nature – was resistant to the kind of modesty regarding interference with the natural order implicit in all forms of environmental philosophy. Even more deeply, as Clive Hamilton argues in Requiem, because the personality structure of the Western citizen had been shaped by the expectation of ever-increasing levels of consumption, radical lifestyle changes implicit in the renunciation of the fossil fuel economy were experienced by many people both as a threat to “identity” and as “a sort of death”.
Around the time of Copenhagen the anti-climate science disinformation campaign achieved a kind of qualitative breakthrough. The deniers who benefited from this growing mood now called themselves, and were called by others, sceptics. In the cultural struggle over climate change this was a significant linguistic move, founded upon a frightful but surprisingly common confusion. For someone working at the cutting edge of a tough discipline like climate science, scepticism, open-mindedness, is vital. For someone ignorant of that discipline, scepticism amounts to little more than folly and hubris. But this now appeared of little moment. The more it became clear that nations did not possess the will to break the fossil fuel habit despite the increasingly alarming findings of the climate scientists, the more attractive did the anti-climate science message of the climate-change deniers become. By the time the Copenhagen conference was convened, very many people seemed positively eager to believe that the privately expressed frustrations of the climate scientists struggling against the disinformation campaign (which was revealed in the emails stolen from the University of East Anglia) or a couple of bad errors that were discovered in the nearly 3000 page report of the IPCC proved beyond doubt that the entire research output of a generation or more of climate scientists amounted, in the immortal words of Tony Abbott, to “absolute crap”. For 250 years Western societies had, in general, deferred to the authority of science. Now, perhaps for the first time since the controversy over Darwin, that authority was seriously challenged. With Darwin, the challenge was mounted by the Church. With climate science, it was mounted by an assortment of charlatans, ideologues and contrarians on behalf of the fossil fuel-based corporation.
When Kevin Rudd was elected prime minister of Australia he expressed the view that climate change was the greatest moral challenge humankind now faced. I have no reason to believe he was insincere. Yet despite this apparent conviction, as an instinctively and perhaps overly cautious politician, Rudd was always also acutely aware that radical action by his government on the question of climate change was perhaps the only issue that might imperil his chance of re-election.
In order to forestall this possibility, Rudd delayed the proposed date for the implementation of the promised emissions trading scheme he had inherited from the Howard government for as long as was politically decent. During this period, in addition, he decided to characterise those to his Left on the issue, most notably the Greens, as zealots, and those to his Right, the organised denialist campaigners inside and outside the Coalition, as troglodytes, and to steer a supposedly rational and balanced “middle course” founded upon initially negligible emissions-reduction targets and major monetary compensations to energy corporations and emissions-intensive export industries. Rudd’s strategy was based on two hopes. The first was that he could win the support of the Coalition for his minimalist emissions trading scheme legislation and ultra-modest initial reduction target. Under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull this hope was almost realised. The second was that the Copenhagen conference could produce a successful outcome, after which, in concert with a Coalition Opposition now bound to bipartisan climate-change co-operation, his government would be able to raise Australia’s emissions-reduction target from its initial and risible 5% to something approaching the developed world’s generally accepted minimum aspiration of a 25% emissions reduction from 1990 levels by 2020.
In the last two months of 2009 the Rudd strategy on climate change spectacularly imploded. The energy-based corporations and the climate-change deniers in Australia had their most important victory with the election of Tony Abbott to the Liberal Party leadership. The emergence of Abbott was almost as discomfiting for Kevin Rudd as it was for Malcolm Turnbull. For, with the leadership changeover, all possibility of climate-change bipartisanship suddenly collapsed. Rudd now went to Copenhagen promising not that Australia would take a lead in helping to solve the greatest moral challenge humanity faced but rather that it would do neither more nor less than the post-Copenhagen norm. As it turned out, this rather dismal pledge was not difficult to fulfill. At Copenhagen, concerning emission-reduction targets, virtually nothing was achieved. The countries of the world were merely asked to provide the United Nations with their 2020 targets by 31 January 2010. When this time arrived, it turned out that no major developed country had added anything to its pre-Copenhagen reduction target. Canada actually committed itself to what amounted to a 3% emissions increase. For its part, Australia stuck to its emissions-reduction target of 5%. Only if the United States and the leading developing countries made firm emissions-reduction commitments and if a reliable international monitoring system was put in place would this target be increased.
From the political point of view, the Rudd government’s announcement made perfect sense. Tony Abbott is the true legitimate heir of John Howard inside the Liberal Party. Following the breakdown of climate-change bipartisanship, in the face of a newly revived populist conservatism and a ludicrous Coalition scheme to reduce emissions without a ceiling or a carbon price, even a strategy of going to a double dissolution election on the issue of an emissions trading scheme with a 5% reduction target is not without risk. From the point of view of the future of the Earth, however, Rudd’s emissions-reduction plan was a cause for wonder and for shame. Our only consolation is that there are few nations whose response to the looming catastrophe of climate change is not. Shortly after Copenhagen, a deal to sell 600 million tonnes of Queensland coal to China was struck. Almost no one blinked.
The optimist, Al Gore, concludes Our Choice with a stirring passage expressing the rather fragile hope that humankind has reached a political tipping point and is about to begin to tackle the challenge of catastrophic climate change in earnest. The pessimist, Clive Hamilton, begins his courageous Requiem with an admission of his despairing recognition that this simply will not, indeed cannot, now occur. The future will be determined by which of them is right.
Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.
Over 200 years ago human beings began burning large quantities of the coal, oil and natural gas that had been buried under the Earth’s surface for hundreds of millions of years. This may eventually come to be seen as the most fatal misstep in the history of humankind. When the industrial revolution began there were 280 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Mainly because of fossil fuel burning, there are presently almost 390 ppm. Since the mid-nineteenth century scientists had theorised that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases increased the temperature of the Earth. Eventually the theory became consensual science. By 2005 every major scientific academy in the world acknowledged a causal link between increase in the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) and dangerous global warming. Yet despite this understanding, 90 million...