Paying the climate change piper

Guest Post by Tony Kevin.

Tony Kevin served as an Australian diplomat in Moscow (1969–71), UN New York (1973-76), and as Australian Ambassador in Poland (1991–1994). This opinion piece was originally published in Eureka Street.

Ross Garnaut’s important public statement was largely overwhelmed by the welter of federal and state political news. It was a world away from his impassioned, ethically challenging, first public report on 4 July.

Quietly, government has narrowed the goalposts back to a safe world of can-do politics, of short-term realism at the expense of long-term responsibility. Unnerved by the hostile reaction of powerful stakeholders to the July report, it now seeks a conventional balance between the demands of a worried population, and a decision-making elite uniting corporate and trade unions in high-emitting industries and sympathisers in parliament.

Garnaut’s sombre, low-key second report recommends a narrow range of possibilities for greenhouse gas emissions limitations by Australia to 2020, likely to have minimal impacts on the Australian economy. It won cautious decision-makers’ approval. It is politically achievable, despite disappointed green lobbies.

Unlike epic debates over industry protectionism in the 1970s–1980s, we do not have a visionary Keating and Button driving necessary change. I see no comparable passion in Rudd or Wong.

Now, Australia’s decision-making elite believe deep down — if indeed they think it through, and I suspect many are instinctive climate change denialists at bottom — that Australia is rich enough to insulate itself against climate change.

They live on higher ground in the green coastal zone. Food and utility costs are a small part of their budgets. If it gets too hot, they will turn up the air conditioning.

For these status-quo people, the issues that matter are macroeconomic — dividends, high salaries, superanuation earnings. They want to keep the economy we have now. The desertification of the Murray-Darling and the dying of the Barrier Reef do not affect them directly, and they lack imagination to conceive of polar icemelt sufficient in their lifetimes to inundate fertile populated coastal areas of Australia. Apres nous, le deluge.

Garnaut says Australia should establish its emissions reduction framework within an agreed global target to stabilise atmospheric carbon at between 450 and 550 parts per million (ppm): the present level is 387 ppm.

Australia should advocate international agreement to stabilise atmospheric carbon at 450ppm, but one set at 550 ppm is more likely initially. A world of 550 ppm atmospheric carbon is, according to informed scientific consensus, a horror scenario in which global warming already underway would cause irreversible polar icemelt and major inundations of global human settlements.

Garnaut defends his lowered expectations. There is no point in Australia doing more now if the world does not follow. A country of high immigration, Australia needs special latitude. I doubt this argument will win us credit at the next global climate meeting in Copenhagen.

Lost is Garnaut’s firm July advocacy that developed countries must set the example even if major developing countries China and India do not immediately follow. We are back in the realist world where nobody moves much unless everybody moves.

Garnaut defends his proposed ‘first stage’ aim of stabilising atmospheric carbon at 550 ppm: it was his ‘reluctant conclusion that a more ambitious international agreement is not possible at this time … My aim is to nurture the slender chance that humanity can get its act together.’

His sadness bespeaks a man overcome by the selfish myopia of political realism. Scientific truth and a sense of society’s accountability to future generations have been overwhelmed. (For example consider Paul Kelly’s triumphant view on Sunday’s ABC Insiders that the debate in Australia is now over, and that anyone seeking an Australian emissions reduction target higher than 5 pet cent or 10 per cent lives in a fantasy world.)

I believe Garnaut now modestly seeks two things: getting an Australian carbon trading system into operation and accustoming industry to it, while waiting for mounting scientific evidence of destructive climate change to penetrate the resistance of decision-makers. As Gwynne Dyer recently observed, drowning polar bears and disappearing polar icecaps will not suffice:

‘The regrettable reality is there will not be a critical mass of people willing to act decisively on cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the developed countries where most of the cuts must be made until some really big natural disaster kills a lot of people in one of those countries.’

Nor, I might add, will the slow death of the Murray-Darling Basin and the human settlements depending on its water supply. I’ll be criticised for saying this, but we may need such a disaster as a Class 5 tropical cyclone slamming into Brisbane to jolt us into decisive action. Meanwhile, our decision-makers live on in a bland limbo-land of short-term complacency. They do not even react when the chairman of the Coleambally Irrigation Co operative suggests selling off this whole Riverina town and its water rights for $3.5 billion, so the people can decently relocate!

I’m strongly reminded of the cautionary fable of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. A greedy town council, faced with terrible threat, tries to buy a solution on the cheap, refusing to pay a fair price for what needs to be done. It is not until they lose their children that they realise, too late, the cost of their greed and stupidity.

I pray that Garnaut’s second report, by keeping the carbon trading ball in play and keeping Australia however imperfectly in the international debate, will protect the Australian people from the short-sighted ‘realism’ of our decision-making classes.

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16 Comments

  1. I cannot accept Garnault is a driven man to save any generations of Australians or the landscape,I think that idea will eventually be proven only to belong to those class of people who claim some prior right to worthy overview.Certainly growing in numbers and losing a sense of practicality ,everyday,including in their preferred way of arguing.The problem off rising temperatures,if that is what climate change argumentation is really about,simply proceeds anew at every measure where some collapsing could occur.So if there are other perceptions and measures going on in the other direction,are they then unworthy-like increasingly bitter winters,and matters that cannot be said completely to fit models of mathematical formulae and their extrapolations.Recently since I visited one of your commentaries a flood occured in India of some disastrous type.Are you going to say, that simply Australians avoided the knowledge of what that means for the citizens of India,when,after all Australians were very generous towards the Indonesian tsunami victims!?I think you are running a serious set of oversights about your capacities to understand Australians,its like there is no blood in your pulse!The reality of temperature changes in our landscape,perhaps even moving from the land back to say the Barrier Reef also ,must be a functioning part of temperature variables happening at ground level given the landscape as it falls to sea!?There is still ample time,and indeed some evidence ,that if the mean average temperature of the Eastern seaboard was kept below a certain temperature,all year round,then maybe temperatures back to the ocean and Barrier Reef could be cooler,and under less stress as coral.A lot of infrastructure has added to temperature increases along the near coast strip from Victoria to the top of Queensland.This is then an easier target to aim for,whilst trying CO2 abatement,by simply having as much coastal infrastructure watered down as a way of keeping drains free of ocean going pollutants by using sea-water to clean thoroughly back into sea going drains.Major centres have the relatively pollution free technology now available as emergency service pumps.Ensuring the infrastructure isn’t eaten away by salt ,probably only means some extra design work and pumping oxygen into the water flow.The fact,that cannot be denied,but gets lost in the hurdy-gurdy of Climate Change priorities is that major Capital infrastructure does create the heat wave that is then a felt precursor ,and ground based barrier to normalising temperature change after storm hit in high temperature summers.It would simply be a matter of course,to have overhead spray systems from high rise building swirling the temperature downwards, on hotter days for human comfort and ensure all plant life isn’t going to be salt abused.The storm then descends on a cooler ground,and may not be as ferocious.Tell me I am wrong about such outcomes,by citing the exact scientific papers that show,the minimal expenditure in this approach doesn’t work!?Then also find the scientific papers that suggest that ,if the coastal strip was a cooler domain,then this would have no impact up to and beyond the elevations of the mountain ranges towards and past the coastal hinterlands!? I am sick to death of certain generalities about the future popping up over and over again,like it was never so,that washing down your cheap 1950s house to the 1970s by hosing,was a complete waste of water,whereas ,as micro climate it may have slowed down the hazard of increasing Heatsink temperature making life very uncomfortable!? Then while you are seeking out the scientific papers,and what they actually suggest take a good hard look at the Murray Darling.Is it entirely impossible one of the reasons say a vineyard isn’t doing to well today as far as green growth is concerned,isn’t that which was proferred and a misunderstanding on P.M. tonight about a lack of water,but that both the soil is just too hard and strangling the root system uptake of water because of the restriction on the natural tropisms of root plants!?And what is the relationship between water take up in vine roots and the ground temperature and around the roots!?I have suggested ,but apparently there is much ear wax growing in peoples ears ,because it isn’t a military command ,that a corporation called EXair puts out technology that operates on compressed air to degrees below Centigrade.Isn’t it entirely probable that these vines are suffering the accumulated effects of many dry seasons,where the natural seasonal conditions of becoming more friable soils just hasn’t taken place!? Cooling the soil,even below the surface and maybe after night time watering,where both oxygen and and maybe magnetic influences are added to the water,plus selectively cooling particular parts of the vines all season,will make them less temperature effected.I am still not sure if these plants can be stimulated to utilise whatever is the water and quality of water they are using.Much good would probably come to be,if some of the question around horticultural and agricultural plants and animals were given the temperature assessment in terms of water use and environmental temperatures per their physiology.There may also be case of utilising available electricity to loosen up hardened soils.And might I add in passing air borne particles of dirt have also been considered part of the temperature rising matters as a force as well as participant by how light and thus even temperature falls on the particles.There is also a great need to consider reshaping how winds blow,to try to lower their temperatures and the resultant effects.That can be done fairly cheaply,but as yet not considered,even though people will goon about tree growth modify this.We have the industries,including clothing manufacture,where a whole class of people remain underpaid.I was looking up sonic booms or breaking of the sound barrier re YouTube videos with low flying aircraft,and the fact sonic booms eventuate between 1 and 100 hertz,I then looked up any matter related to that Hertzian range.Seeing the actual landscape could change those outcomes also,it seems a overlooked area to modify conditions,even if these Climate Change realities werent so present for some.Although hail m sonic equipment is a bit of a social no no,maybe they can be applied in hot conditions working with sound barrier breaking aircraft,and smaller physics versions of ionising beams,and even large screens to catch condensating vapours!But seeing academia cannot remind themselves,that their expertise is but a function of their understanding,and understanding is not always a resultant reality that doesn’t experiment then I can say with a high degree of probability that the content and message of this post,is bound to be too thin a air for you,Professor Brooks to breathe!?

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  2. I think you have hit the nail right on the head Tony. Accurate
    if depressing. Many in power think they can ride out the worst that
    global warming has to offer. They don’t
    actually believe the science because they have never experienced that
    jaw dropping WOW you get when something predicted by
    an equation actually happens
    despite your deepest intuition that it really couldn’t.

    (#1 Philp) Generous? Australians? I collected for Red Cross Calling
    for many years until I gave it away in total despair. The final
    straw was a house with 2 x 4WD in the driveway, a garden of
    excuisite expense and ugliness and the lady of the house gave
    me 50 cents. Sure, I have touching tales of little old ladies who
    had obviously planned and saved to donate $10, but … like I
    said, I found the greed both unbearable and increasing. Listen
    to Chris Kremmer on greed for a similar take.

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  3. A very sombre and insightful article.

    One factual error is important to correct: Tony states that, “Garnaut says Australia should establish its emissions reduction framework within an agreed global target to stabilise atmospheric carbon at between 450 and 550 parts per million (ppm): the present level is 387 ppm.”

    Garnaut recommended aiming between 450 and 550 ppm carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2-e) and he states in his supplementary draft report (at page 29) “Today, the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases is about 455 CO2-e ppm (2005)”.

    Garnaut is using CO2-e in a particular way. He is not talking about atmospheric carbon dioxide levels but the combined effects of all greenhouse gases and excluding the cooling effects of aerosols and landuse changes.

    Anyone who does not understand the difference between targets based on atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations (which are currently at 387 ppm) and carbon dioxide equivalent concentrations needs to learn about these important terms if they are going to follow the policy debate on emissions reduction and stabilisation targets.

    Carbond dioxide equivalents is a term used in different ways for emissions and atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases. Atmospheric carbon dioxide equivalent levels were around 455 ppm CO2-e in 2005 if you ignore the cooling effects of aerosols but around 375 ppm CO2-e in 2005 if you include the cooling effects of aerosols and landuse changes: see the IPCC (2007) Working Group III report at page 102, available at http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg3/ar4-wg3-chapter1.pdf.

    There was some discussion of the term CO2-e in a previous thread: https://bravenewclimate.com/2008/09/16/target-atmospheric-co2-levels-not-vague-emissions-reductions/ and RealClimate has a discussion at http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/10/co2-equivalents/.

    Barry, your offer in the previous thread to do a post on CO2-e would be very useful to correct the confusion about the term.

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  4. Tony Kevin certainly presents a sombre view which aligns with my own sense of pessimism. But a couple of quibbles. He speaks of Australia’s ‘decision making elites’ hunkered down on the eastern seabord oblivious to AGW in their denialism. Sure the denialists are powerful and influential but my bet is that there are plenty of their opposite in those elites annd they/we are just itching for a bit of leadership, beginning in Canberra. Insidious incremental sea level rise might wet the ankles of the rest.
    Also I think the post is a bit tough on the good burghers of Coleambally. Calling them greedy for proposing the town be bought holus-bolus for $3.5 billion might be an opening gambit in what could turn out to be MDB poker, but it is just an opening gambit and you are getting one of the three irrigation districts on the whole Murrumbidgee. On that basis $10 billion the lot could be a good deal. Anyone who has been to ‘Colly’ would appreciate the modern housing and scale of the farming infrastructure as indicative of the optimism and hard work that deserves a just settlement should it come to pass.
    PS. Would I be in order in thinking Mr Kevin’s laudable efforts in trying to bring to account those responsible for the SIEV X tragedy might have influenced his views on corrupting elites?

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  5. Um – can any one tell me what Phil Travers @1 is actually talking about;-)
    Unfortunately, studying English language and comprehension at tertiary level has still left me totally unable to translate Phil’s diatribe.

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  6. Perps – you just prompted me to actually read it (well I managed 60% ish)… I think the message is that discouraging people to hose down their driveways has caused cities to warm up more, increasing temperature of surrrounding water bodies and in turn killing reefs. So our skyscrapers should have sprinklers on top..

    But if Geoff @2 thinks #1 hit the nail on the head… then I hope he’s not a carpenter… either htat or he has a funny shaped hammer:)

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  7. Matt B @ 10

    Thanks for the translation – why couldn’t Phil have phrased it as succinctly ;-)
    BTW I think Geoff@ 2 thinks the author of the article i.e. Tony Kevin has “hit the nail on the head” not poor old Phil Travers. Geoff’s remark following on from Phil’s post certainly made it seem ambiguous:-)

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  8. Luke, you know the science on this already. The GBR is relatively healthy at the moment but the mass coral bleaching events globally in 1998 and 2002, including to the GBR, indicate that coral reefs are amongst the most vulnerable ecosystems. Given the expected rise in sea surface temperatures and increasing ocean acidity, severe impacts are expected to coral reefs in coming decades. There is a lot of information available at Ove Hoegh-Guldberg’s blog ClimateShifts, including a guest contribution by Charlie Veron, “Has the Great Barrier Reef got a future?”: http://www.climateshifts.org/?p=151

    Ocean acidity is a particularly vexing problem for the whole marine foodweb as Hoegh-Guldberg and his colleagues stated last year in Science: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/318/5857/1737.

    Jeremy Jackson gave a recent a seminar on the state of the world’s marine ecosystems and a podcast and slides are available at
    http://progressive.atl.playstream.com/nakfi/progressive/Sackler/sackler_12_07_07/jeremy_jackson/jeremy_jackson.html. His summary in the final 6 slides is particularly chilling.

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  9. Thanks for these generally helpful comments. Although now so late this is unlikely to be read by many, I’ll make this response for the record:

    On CO2 and CO2-e, I sort of knew this but – like many in the media – expressed it sloppily as CO2. I stand corrected, thanks Chris McGrath.

    On Coleambilly and Hamelin – I am very sorry if my piece was interpreted by Pablo to suggest I was criticising the good folk of Coleambilly. Absolutely not. I fully support their irrigation council’s effort to dramatise what Murray-Darling desertification is really about. My Pied Piper metaphor was aimed at our national decision-making elites, those with so strong a preference for the comfortable status quo they administer and enjoy that they are unwilling to make and pay for the necessary changes to it. As the Mayor of Hamelin was unwilling to pay a fair price for getting rid of the rats plague. It was only an unfortunate juxtaposition of paragraphs under the constraints of an 800 word limit that gave rise to the other possible interpretation.

    On Pablo’s other interesting point about there being plenty of people in the elites who want real action agsainst global warming, it depends on how one defines elites. If by elites Pablo means generally well educated more affluent people, I agree with him – many of them/us are deeply concerned about global warming, and their numbers are increasing.

    But I was using the term more narrowly as decisionmakers and those who influence and are influenced by them – the loop of heavy industry and utilities leaders, related trade union leaders, senior journalists, politicians. These are the very people most resistant to real policy change because it upsets their professional assumptions and their comfortable status quo way of life. Paul Kelly exemplifies the mindset, but there are many in this class who think like him. They have s different time horizon than scientists and more empathetic, thoughtful ‘ordinary people’. Perhaps because decision-making elites are so caught up in short-term day-to-day decisionmaking, they seem less able to imagine the future than less busy, more ordinary people, who have more time to think.

    It is also interesting – and sad – that Garnaut – who started off as one of these in-the-loop people, which was why Rudd chose him – in the course of his work on his report made the transition from one camp to the other. Which is why Rudd and Wong then distanced themselves from his report.

    I went on a similar intellectual and moral journey and yes, it was over SIEV X. I learned then how profoundly wrong decision-making elites (which I once used to think I was part of) can be on the big issues.

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  10. Pingback: How much warming in the pipeline? Part 1 – CO2-e « BraveNewClimate.com

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