February 2006


Global warming

By Robert Manne
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

2005 was the warmest year in the history of Australia and the second warmest in the history of the Earth since records have been kept. Ten of the Earth’s 11 warmest years have occurred since 1990. The European summer of 2003 was so hot that, according to the statisticians, it was a one in 44,000 chance. Since the mid-1990s ferocious hurricanes, whose intensity is directly linked with the temperature of the sea, have occurred with an unaccustomed regularity in the Gulf of Mexico. Mitch in 1998 killed ten thousand people. Katrina in 2005 took out New Orleans. During the 1990s in the South Pacific there were five consecutive El Niños, an unprecedented event. In the summer of 2002 the Arctic and Greenland ice sheets shrank by one million square kilometres. In February of the same year, at the other end of the world, the Larsen ice sheet broke up in a matter of weeks. You may regard all this as coincidence. Despite my naturally sceptical temperament, I do not.

During the 1980s the world received its first great post-industrial environmental shock. By the use of chlorofluorocarbons as a manufacturing convenience in refrigerators and spray-cans a hole began to appear in the ozone layer protecting human beings and the Earth from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. If instead of chlorine, bromine had been chosen, with a capacity to destroy ozone thirty times as great, by the time the link had been discovered the ozone layer most likely would have been entirely destroyed.

After solid scientific understanding of the threat of CFCs had been reached, 20 countries of the developed world in 1987 signed the so-called Montreal Protocol. It proved a triumph of effective global action and of reason. CFCs were soon more or less entirely removed from industrial production. The ozone layer began to repair itself.

It was at this time and in this context that the infinitely greater problem of global warming came generally to be recognised. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, major international conferences were held in Villach, Toronto and Rio. In 1988, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – comprising 2500 of the world’s leading climate scientists from one hundred countries – was formed. This was a crucial achievement. Through their ultra-cautious, meticulously peer-reviewed research, the climate scientists of the IPCC, in association with the world’s leading climate science institutes, managed to convince the world that the cause of global warming was the release into the atmosphere of vast amounts of the six or so greenhouse gases, most importantly carbon dioxide, by the ever-accelerating burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas.

For several thousand years the Earth’s average temperature had remained steady at around 14ºC. During the course of the twentieth century it rose by 0.6ºC. In its 2001 report, the IPCC warned that if the world were to continue with a business-as-usual approach to the burning of fossil fuels, in the course of the twenty-first century the average temperature of the Earth would rise by a further 2ºC to 6ºC.

If this happens, at the very least, never-before-experienced levels of droughts, hurricanes, bushfires, searing heatwaves, bleaching of coral reefs, plagues of malarial or dengue-fever bearing insects, and meltings of ice are certain to occur. Yet things could be even worse. As Tim Flannery has warned us recently in his brilliant book The Weather Makers, which is based on a comprehensive reading and a lucid summarising of the relevant scientific literature, it is not impossible that if the Earth’s temperature does not reach an equilibrium large parts of the Amazonian Forest might turn to savannah plain; that oceans might rise several metres as a consequence of the rapid melting of the Greenland and Arctic ice sheets; that the flow of the Gulf Stream might falter; that very large numbers of species might become extinct; and that human beings might find the Earth an increasingly alien and unfriendly place.

To prevent the predictable and possible disasters, the climate scientists at the IPCC propose a straightforward but not simple cure. If the temperature of the Earth is to be stabilised at 15ºC or 16ºC, that is to say if the Earth is to remain humanly habitable in the long-term, there is no alternative, they argue, but to reduce by the year 2050 the tonnage of the emissions of the fossil fuels we now burn by something like 60%. If we fail to do this, we will, as it were, be cooked.

We rely as never before on experts to solve many of the self-created crises of our technological civilisation. Yet to judge the soundness of their reasoning and the merit of the solutions they offer requires a depth of scientific understanding available only to a tiny group. If this is one of the most fundamental paradoxes of contemporary politics, on no question is this paradox more obvious than over the problem of global warming. No one who is not a climate scientist can independently judge the quality of the research summarised by the IPCC or the conclusions they have reached. The real choice before politicians and citizens is, then, as Clive Hamilton once remarked, not what to believe but who.

Even if scientists were equally divided between global-warming believers and sceptics, given what we stand to lose if we are wrong, on customary precautionary grounds there would be very good reason to place our trust in the believers. The very future of the Earth is, after all, at stake. In reality, scientific opinion on climate change is divided between the views of the 2500 world experts, represented by the IPCC, and a dozen or so sceptics. As Ross Gelbspan has demonstrated in his book The Heat Is On, the sceptics have been granted an altogether undeserved importance by the encouragement and the sponsorship they have received from some of the world’s largest coal, oil, aluminium, electricity and automobile corporations.

The choice as to whom we ought to trust is, then, obvious in the extreme. With the initial ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 by more than one hundred and fifty nations, on the basis of the warnings of the climate scientists, the international community made the rational choice.

Kyoto was founded on four fundamental principles. Because of the problem of global inequality and poverty, it was agreed that the first step in the campaign to wean ourselves from dependence on fossil fuels would be made only by the developed economies. Because breaking the habit of fossil fuel dependence was so daunting a task, it was agreed that, in taking this first step, the developed economies would be asked to reduce their fossil fuel emissions by 2010 only by a modest amount. Because of the commonsensical recognition that for a problem as large as this no voluntary system could possibly work, it was agreed that binding emissions targets would need to be set. And because of the success of the emissions trading system that had been pioneered successfully in the US to curb the problem of acid rain, it was soon agreed that a parallel system of trading in greenhouse gas emissions would be established, as a market incentive for the countries and the corporations involved.

Even before 1997, it was obvious that the greatest dangers to the Kyoto process were situated in the US. Corporate America had formed a very powerful lobby in favour of the freedom to emit, the Global Climate Coalition. On the eve of the Kyoto discussions, the US Senate passed a resolution, 95 to zero, which opposed American involvement in any emission reduction treaty that discriminated against the economies of the developed world. It is probably true that without Bill Clinton, American involvement in the Kyoto process, alongside the Europeans and the Japanese, would not have occurred.

At Kyoto, it was Australia and not America that played a spoiling role. Because of our near-total dependence on coal for electricity, Australia produced the largest per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the world. None the less we championed the dangerous principle of differentiated treatment of developed economies regarding emission reduction targets, and, in addition, demanded for ourselves especial leniency. While the US, the EU and Japan accepted greenhouse gas reduction targets of between 6% and 8%, Australia would only sign if it were permitted an 8% emissions increase and a further 20% or so in consideration of the forests that by 2010 we would no longer be chopping down. Wearily, at the thirteenth hour, the Kyoto delegates agreed. When the Environment Minister, Senator Robert Hill, returned to Canberra with what was in effect a promise of a 30% increase in permissible carbon dioxide emissions, as Australia’s contribution to the problem of global warming, his cabinet colleagues cheered.

Following the initial signature of the Kyoto Protocol, but well before the necessary ratifications were achieved, between the US and Australia an anti-Kyoto understanding quietly formed. In 1998, the Howard government secretly agreed that if the US Congress did not agree to Kyoto, nor would we. In March 2001, as Republican insider Clyde Prestowitz explains, in part because he had been convinced by the greenhouse sceptics, in part because he regarded Kyoto as a European anti-capitalist conspiracy, and in part because he owed fuel and energy corporations serious political debts, President George W. Bush made clear that under his presidency the US would not be associated with the Kyoto Protocol. The Australian government was only too willing to follow the American lead. Like Bush, Howard had convinced himself that on the question of global warming “the jury was still out”. Like Bush, he was unhappy with Kyoto’s bias against the developed world. Like Bush, he intended to protect domestic growth and jobs. One of the most dismaying political puzzles of contemporary times is how two of the three leaders who supported the invasion of Iraq, on the basis of exaggerated or falsified intelligence reports about the danger to the world supposedly offered by Saddam Hussein, managed to convince themselves that, despite the near-universal consensus of the relevant scientists, the threat of global warming was not real.

As an alternative to Kyoto, the US and Australia proposed to form the so-called Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. It held its inaugural meeting in Sydney last month. For reasons that are not altogether clear, the Partnership is content with six members: the US, Japan, China, India, South Korea and Australia. A request by the EU merely for observer status was apparently refused. The Partnership pretends that the problem of global warming can be solved by goodwill – in his opening address the US Energy Secretary reminded the audience that big business leaders had children and grandchildren, too – and by encouraging corporations to take up clean technology voluntarily, without either the stick of binding national emission targets, to which US and Australian governments are opposed, or even the carrot of an emissions trading system, which their corporations do not want.

As it happened, it was the report of the Australian government’s house-trained environmental modelling agency, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, that inadvertently let the cat out of the bag. According to ABARE if everything of which the Partnership dreamt went perfectly to plan, greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 would be 23% less than they might otherwise be but 100% higher than they presently are. While the IPCC thinks that by 2050 a 60% decrease in emissions is vital if the Earth is to be saved, the total fulfilment of the Asian Partnership’s plans will give us a 100% increase instead.

The local politics surrounding last month’s conference captures, in microcosm, the dismal situation Australian politics has now reached. Even though the Asia-Pacific Partnership is unofficially a US-sponsored attempt to wound Kyoto, with regard to global warming our only hope, the Australian public was given no opportunity to grasp the seriousness of what was at stake. The Murdoch press enthusiastically backed the conference. Its masthead, the Australian, published two astonishingly sloppy editorials, whose bottom line was the suggestion that claims about global warming were little more than the propaganda of the anti-capitalist extreme greens. One piece by Clive Hamilton provided ‘balance’. No fewer than five articles or opinion pieces supported the Australian’s party line.

As might have been anticipated, the Labor Party failed to rise to the occasion. Kim Beazley remained on holiday. His deputy, Jenny Macklin, spoke, but without effect. By using the Partnership conference to point to the need for Labor to support big business and to break with the ‘political correctness’ of the Greens, its Resources and Energy spokesman, Martin Ferguson, merely created the occasion for another Murdoch-manufactured ‘crisis’ of the Labor Left.

Unlike Beazley, the Prime Minister broke his summer holiday to attend. In his low-key speech, John Howard, with stunning hypocrisy, criticised Kyoto supporters for their indifference to the problem of global poverty. He conveniently forgot that it is the European supporters of Kyoto who are the most generous foreign aid donors in the world, and its American and Australian opponents who are members of the group of developed countries who give the least. He also forgot that one of the grounds for the refusal of the United States and Australia to sign on to Kyoto was its supposed discrimination in favour of the non-developed world. Howard praised the Conference with his favourite word: ‘practical’. In the mouth of the Prime Minister ‘practical’ is a highly loaded term, the opposite of ‘utopian’ or ‘ideological’, qualities of mind that, in the perpetual culture war he is fighting, he routinely locates among his enemies on the Left.

In reality, the repudiation of Kyoto by Bush and Howard is the opposite of practical. It is true that Kyoto might fail. To achieve a major long-term reduction in the burning of fossil fuels, against the natural egoism of the nation-state, is one of the most difficult challenges humankind has faced. But it is also true that with regard to that ambition, as a means for the coordination of international action in the defence of a fully habitable Earth, Kyoto is the only game in town.

Both Bush and Howard believe they are conservatives. Their behaviour over global warming belies the claim. At the heart of any decent conservatism is the understanding that the most important responsibility of each new generation is to act as the trustee of the spiritual and material world it has inherited, and to ensure that this world is passed on in good order to the next. Blinded by their faith in markets, economic growth and individual freedom; hubristic in their instincts about the superiority of the English-speaking nations; disdainful of Europe and the UN; highly selective in their attitude to the role of science in our civilisation – the neo-liberals, Bush and Howard, have now formed an anti-Kyoto Axis, a kind of Coalition of the Unwilling, which is placing the very future of the Earth at risk.

Robert Manne

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.

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