August 2008


Hotting up

By Robert Manne

During the past several weeks I have been reading, with a racing pulse, some recent literature on global warming while watching, with a sinking heart, the political skirmishes connected to the introduction of the Rudd government's emissions-trading scheme. The experience of moving between these parallel universes has been genuinely disconcerting.

Perhaps the two most outstanding books on global warming to have been published lately are The Hot Topic, written by Gabrielle Walker and Sir David King, until late 2007 the chief scientific adviser to the British government, and David Spratt and Philip Sutton's Climate Code Red. Were I a philanthropist, I would purchase several hundred copies of both and send them to our politicians and policymakers. As I am not, the best public service I can offer is a brief summary of their central arguments.

According to both books, there are many differences of opinion among scientists on many aspects of global warming. However, on one fundamental point there is now near unanimity: the massive release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution, through the burning of fossil fuels that have been buried under the Earth's surface for hundreds of millions of years, is the main cause of a rise in the global temperature of 0.75° Celsius in recent decades. In the pithy words of Walker and King, "if anybody tells you differently they either have a vested interest in ignoring the scientific arguments or they are fools."

Both books make clear that, in very recent times, even since the publication of the conservative 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, alarm has grown about the pace at which global warming is transforming the natural environment. A few years ago, scientists believed it would take until the end of the century for the oceanic Arctic ice sheet to melt entirely during the summer. That now seems likely to occur at some time in the next few years. Although this will have a feedback effect on global warming - the Arctic ice is a great reflector of the sun's rays - far more ominous is what might happen to sea levels when East Antarctica, West Antarctica and Greenland, the three great continental ice sheets, begin to melt. Walker and King think East Antarctica is stable. They also believe West Antarctica's ice sheet probably is, but know that no one can be certain. Spratt and Sutton, somewhat differently, quote one of the world's most eminent climate scientists, James Hansen, the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, on this point. He believes that the West Antarctic ice sheet - "attacked from below by warming ocean water, as well as from above by a warming atmosphere" - is extremely vulnerable to major melting. In the southern hemisphere, the present concerns of scientists centre on the West Antarctic Peninsula - the site of the collapsed Wilkins Ice Shelf - where in recent years the temperature has risen very rapidly. If in the coming decades it melted entirely, sea levels would rise by approximately a metre and a half. In the northern hemisphere, scientific attention focuses on the vast Greenland ice shelf. Melting is increasing rapidly. Surface water is careering down crevasses, rendering the ice shelf highly unstable. In the view of Walker and King, a 3°C increase in the global temperature (something that is in their view far from impossible) would push Greenland "over the edge". This is a terrifying prospect.

What then is likely to happen to sea levels in the coming decades? "If all possible ice mechanisms add together to conspire against us," Walker and King argue, "there is a serious chance that by the end of the century the sea will have risen by a matter not of centimetres but of metres." Quoted in Spratt and Sutton, James Hansen reaches a similar conclusion by a different route. If there is a one-centimetre sea rise through ice-sheet melting in the decade 2005 to 2015, and if that rate doubles in every subsequent decade, by 2095 the sea level will have risen by more than five metres.

Hardly less alarming than ice-shelf melt, as both books make clear, are the signs of melting of the vast northern permafrost and the Himalayan glacier. According to Walker and King, the Arctic permafrost, from Canada to Siberia, contains 900 gigatonnes of carbon in the soil capable of being released into the atmosphere: the equivalent of the entire carbon load already there. If even a small part was released, the impact would be catastrophic. The Himalayan glacier is the source of the seven major rivers of Asia. If it melted, according to Spratt and Sutton, 2 billion human beings would lose their main source of water.

What is the burning of fossil fuels doing to the Earth's temperature? Here the analysis of Walker and King is particularly compelling. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the temperature of the Earth has increased by 0.75°C. Because of the time delay, even if no more greenhouse gases were emitted, it is certain that in the next 30 years the temperature will increase by 0.6°C. No matter what we now do, in other words, an increase of about 1.4°C is certain. Recently, the governments of the European Union expressed the hope of limiting the temperature increase to 2°C - though even that is regarded by some eminent climate scientists as far too high because, as Hansen puts it, "there is strong evidence that the Earth is within 1°C of its highest temperature in the past million years."

In fact, as Walker and King show, even the 2°C hope cannot possibly now be realised. The level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, known as CO2eq, is presently 430 parts per million, higher than for the past 650,000 years. Even if radical cuts in emissions were introduced throughout the developed and developing worlds immediately, the best possible outcome would be a level of 450ppm. Because the modelling of the relationship between temperature and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has in recent times become more precise, it is known as a near certainty that this would not keep the temperature increase down to 2°C. With 450ppm of greenhouse gases, the most likely increase in temperature is 2.5°C, although a 3.5°C increase is possible. It is highly unlikely, anyhow, that 450ppm can now be achieved. For this reason, in his groundbreaking report of late 2006 Sir Nicholas Stern advocated a more "realistic" ambition of 550ppm. According to the best current modelling, Stern's hope would lead to a likely increase in temperature of 3.5°C (the Greenland "tipping point") and a possible increase of 5°C. Such rises are universally regarded by climate scientists as catastrophic.

Yet the story does not end there. If dramatic action is not now taken, and there is little present prospect that it will be, even Stern's target will not be met. What then? If greenhouse gases were allowed to rise to 650ppm, according to Walker and King, the likely temperature increase would be 4°C, while an utterly calamitous 6°C increase would be possible, a nightmare situation analysed in Mark Lynas's Six Degrees, published last year. If emissions of carbon were allowed to continue unabated, by the end of this century an unthinkable level of 1000ppm of greenhouse gases could be reached. By this time, sea levels would most likely have risen by many metres; huge numbers of species would be extinct; vast parts of the Earth would be devastated by fires, hurricanes, heat waves, permanent droughts, acid oceans and acid rains. The human story would effectively be over.

Some climate scientists began issuing warnings about global warming several decades ago. To put it mildly, the warnings were not heeded. In the last 30 years of the twentieth century, greenhouse gas emissions increased by 70%. In the first five years of the twenty-first century, emissions grew at twice the rate of the 1990s. Since 1990, China has increased its emissions by 73%; India by 58%; Brazil by 41%; South Africa by 30%; Canada by 27%; the United States by 16%; and Japan by 8%. The only serious emission reductions have taken place in parts of Europe. Walker and King argue that if concerted international action, involving both developed and developing countries, is not taken in the next ten to 15 years to radically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, it will already be too late. Spratt and Sutton follow James Hansen in arguing that we do not even have that long. We have already reached the greatest crisis in the history of humanity. We must put together an emergency international plan of action.

Let us enter now the parallel universe of Australian domestic politics. On 4 July, the outstanding Garnaut report was released. Although its main purpose was to suggest the outline of an Australian emissions-trading scheme, what it also revealed was Professor Ross Garnaut's remarkable grasp of the current scientific literature on climate change and the dangers that climate change poses to the future of the Earth and to its most vulnerable continent, Australia. Garnaut recognised that it poses a political challenge of "diabolical" difficulty for the countries of the world. As an economist, he chose to illustrate this difficulty through the classic problem of the "prisoner's dilemma" - an explanation of why selfishness is likely even when co-operation is more rational. It probably could have been illustrated even more powerfully by an argument at the centre of environmental thought, Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons: the idea that while each individual herdsman gains by grazing an extra cow, if all herdsmen behave in this way the loss to them is total, the destruction of the commons. In the long term, all nations will benefit from moving quickly and decisively to end their carbon emissions. In the short term, each will benefit from free-riding while others tackling climate change pay the cost. Garnaut rejects this second option. For the sake of the future generations; for the sake of the continent in our custodianship; for the sake of humanity - the Garnaut report pleads soberly for full Australian engagement in the international struggle to combat climate change. I would go further. The human future now rests on nation-state behaviour, in Australia and elsewhere, that transcends the traditional concept of national interest. It rests on a hope that nations will follow good example, in a benign domino effect.

What, then, was the response to Garnaut? The most senior religious leader in the history of Australia, Cardinal George Pell, described himself as "a little bit" of a global-warming "sceptic". He was uncertain whether we were moving to an "ice age" or a time of "significant warming", although he was certain that "if you look at the figures the temperatures have dropped worldwide in the past 12 months." Cardinal Pell was guided in all this not by the view of science but by the wisdom of Francis of Assisi: "We admire God's handiwork in nature, and through the miracles of modern technology we make it better." The foreign editor of the Australian, Greg Sheridan, agreed with the cardinal. On climate change there wasn't "much evidence around". As he was not "a world-renowned scientist", he thought the best way he could judge the matter was apparently not by reading books by scientists explaining to the general public what was known but by the observable pattern of how humans behaved. Prices of low-lying coastal properties "from Vaucluse to Sorrento" were not falling. Ergo, climate change was, most likely, a myth. Even though the ignorance of the New South Wales Labor treasurer, Michael Costa, who had power stations to sell, was no less profound than that of Pell and Sheridan, at least he made his case with more wit. Costa warned Garnaut not to frighten us with Chicken Little tales about the sky falling in (a perversely prescient children's story if ever there was one). When invited by Garnaut to debate the science before a public audience, Costa wisely declined. In Sydney, the Hayekian Centre for Independent Studies used the occasion of the publication of the Garnaut report to announce a conference on the values of the Enlightenment. One of the keynote speakers was the former head of the British Revolutionary Communist Party, Frank Furedi, a leading climate-change denier. The organisers of the conference wondered why we all had become so pessimistic and apocalyptic about things like global warming. It somehow had escaped their notice that Science was at the very heart of the Enlightenment.

And so it predictably went on. In Melbourne, the Herald Sun sage, Andrew Bolt, played his usual role as the conduit for global-warming denialist websites to the public. In Sydney, his Daily Telegraph counterpart, Piers Akerman, helpfully christened the idea of an emissions-trading system CRAP. And the Australian, as usual, offered to the deniers and to the enemies of Garnaut generous opinion space. The most cynical contribution came from Henry Ergas, of Concept Economics, whose argument suggested the virtues of Australia free-riding on climate change while other nations paid the price. The most foolish came from David Evans - a self-described "rocket scientist" but in fact a little-published electrical engineer who had once worked in the Australian Greenhouse Office and is now associated with the denialist Lavoisier Group - who dismissed the work of thousands of climate scientists as tripe. In all this, my favourite moment came on Lateline on 18 July, when Tony Abbott, a man who recently admitted to a Sydney audience that he had never heard of the idea of peak oil, informed hundreds of thousands of people, solely on the basis of the Evans article, that "the science" of global warming "is evolving". Is there any country in the developed world where deniers are as thick on the ground and as respectable as here?

On 11 July, Brendan Nelson outlined in the Australian the Opposition's response to the Garnaut report. While it was responsible to reduce "our carbon footprint", it was irresponsible to do so at economic cost, for no net environmental benefit, or in advance of other nations. Nelson called for more time before the emissions-trading scheme was introduced. He called for a "low[er] carbon price" at first than Garnaut seemed to assume. He feared that Kevin Rudd was about to institute "a giant revenue grab and centralist redistribution". Against the recommendations of Garnaut, Nelson reiterated his call for petrol-tax relief for motorists, for payments to "trade-exposed emissions-intensive industries" and the greatest carbon polluters of all, the coal-fired power stations. Because Nelson hinted in his article that the Opposition might consider some alternative to an emissions-trading scheme ("there are multiple models out there") and even oppose any emissions-trading scheme in the absence of an international agreement ("we cannot solve global climate change alone"), two of his more rational, marginally less populist shadow-cabinet colleagues, Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Hunt, instantly forced him to return to the Coalition climate-change policy outlined by the Howard government in preparation for the 2007 election.

The most important response to the Garnaut report came from the Rudd government. As it turned out, Nelson's fears were groundless. As more or less everyone immediately acknowledged, the Rudd Green Paper, apart from its earlier starting date, was far closer in spirit to the advice that Peter Shergold had provided the Howard government than to that given by Ross Garnaut. Motorists were to be cushioned by equivalent petrol-excise cuts for the first three years of the scheme. Companies with high levels of carbon pollution involved in international trade were to be issued with free emissions permits. Electricity companies burning coal were to be given one-off cash payments, with the worst brown-coal polluters receiving the most. Of course there are arguments for all these compensations. Of course all this was driven by party-political considerations too obvious to be worth pointing out. But is it not somewhat dismaying that Australia's first important response to the climate-change crisis, supposed to be designed to alter our behaviour, will begin with generous compensation payments to some of the most significant carbon polluters in the land?

What was lacking from the global-warming domestic politics of July was any sense of the depth and the urgency of the crisis we now face.

At the moment Australia was fretting about the smallest economic consequence of curbing our carbon addiction, in a major and inspiring speech Al Gore, the Winston Churchill of our age, issued a call for his country to move from a fossil-fuel to a renewable-energy economy within a decade. From an Australian perspective, what was most remarkable was the fact that he received in-principle support from both Barack Obama and John McCain. It is not difficult to imagine what Kevin Rudd or Brendan Nelson would say to an equivalent summons to wind back the coal industry in the next ten years. In Australia, climate science and domestic politics still exist in parallel universes. Very belatedly, in Europe and even in the United States, the gap is closing fast. 

24 July

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.

Cover: August 2008

August 2008

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