In a week where the Poznan climate conference barely registers in the international media, two new reports on the climate crisis have been released in the UK. George Monbiot reviews them both, here and here for the Guardian. Talk about chalk and cheese.
One of the reports, developed by the Public Interest Research Centre, evaluates recent trends in human industrial activity and the response of the Earth system, and concludes that we’re near or beyond the climatic breaking point already. Nothing short of transformational change, at all levels of society, will be sufficient to avoid a calamitous outcome. World War II++ scale action where all resources necessary to fix the problem are devoted to it. The analysis and recommendations in this report draws inspiration from the Climate Code Red scenario developed by Melbourne-based businessmen David Spratt and Philip Sutton. Presented in an interesting, persuasive and very readable 50 pages, it’s worth getting hold of. You can download the Climate Safety report here. Get it. Read it. Spread it around. This stuff must be widely understood.
The other report is an official paper produced by the Committee on Climate Change called Building a Low Carbon Economy: the UK’s contribution to tackling climate change. You can get it here. As Monbiot points out, it’s a decent acknowledgment of the seriousness of climate change, and the authors argue strongly that the UK must make deep cuts in its greenhouse gas emissions: 80% reduction by 2050 (the current Australian target – a nation with a per capita emissions rate almost twice that of the UK – is a laughably inadequate 60%). You see, as is explained the Climate Safety report and elsewhere, even 80% cuts for a developed nation like the UK throws caution very much to the ever warming wind. This is because we are already over the ‘safe’ level of CO2, and with each incremental addition to the atmospheric pool of greenhouse gases, we edge closer (or perhaps well beyond) the point at which we set in train Earth system feedbacks that rapidly take the problem out of our collective hands.
The problem is somewhat analogous to this. Imagine you are riding a bicycle along a flat stretch of road. If you keep pedalling (emitting CO2 to the atmosphere), you maintain your forward momentum (continue accumulating excess CO2 in the atmosphere). If you take your foot off the pedals, your bicycle starts to slow due to wind resistance and friction with the road surface (natural carbon sinks), and eventually you stop (get back to a ‘safe’ level of CO2 that maintains a Holocene climate). Ideally, you’d also apply pressure to the brakes to make you stop faster (produce large volumes of biochar or enhanced weathering to geoengineer a rapid CO2 drawdown).
But what if you go over the crest of a steep hill? At that point, the force of gravity (biotic and oceanic release of CO2 and methane due to carbon cycle feedbacks) overwhelms the slowing effect of resistance and friction, and indeed even if you take your foot off the pedals at that point (halt anthropogenic emissions) you don’t slow down, because the slope of the hill is now doing the ‘work’ for you. Your only chance to avoid a painful injury is to squeeze those brakes hard (geoengineering to cool the planet), but of course this runs the risk of locking the wheels and flipping yourself head-over-heels (I don’t think I need explain what this translates to in the real-world). Suffice to say, we don’t want to get to that steep hill.
Okay, the analogy, as always, is imperfect, but you get the general point. Any official report that weds itself to emissons reductions targets that are years old and fail to give due recognition to observed trends or the risks posed by Earth system tipping points, will lead to grossly inadequate public policy. Welcome to Poznan. Can we really expect the dialogue at Copenhagen 2009 to have faced reality? I have my doubts.