This week I watched a short video clip of climatologist James Hansen inviting people to join an act of civil disobedience on March 2 at the Capitol Power Plant in Washington DC which powers Congress with coal-based energy. In his laid-back but serious way he remarks it is hard to realise that climate change is an emergency. This is the realisation that Melbourne-based authors David Spratt and Philip Sutton invite in their book Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action. The book was launched in July 2008 by the Governor of Victoria, Professor David de Kretser and has been commended by Hansen himself and many others. It was also the basis of a 52-page advocacy report Climate Safety (pdf) issued by the Public Interest Research Centre in the UK in November and commented on warmly by George Monbiot, Mark Lynas, Fred Pearce and many others.
The authors paint a sombre picture. They point out that the predictions of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change in its report last year are already being shown as too conservative. The loss of Arctic sea ice, thought likely to take a century, appears to be happening in a much shorter space of time. Rapid sea ice disintegration will mean less reflectivity, greater regional warming, and permafrost melt with release of uncertain levels of carbon dioxide and methane.
The way in which the pace of climate change can quicken as its early effects trigger amplifying consequences is carefully explained for the general reader. Thus we face the possibility of faster disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet than has before been thought likely, vulnerability in the West Antarctic ice sheet, and the likelihood of much higher sea rises than anticipated, as well as widespread species and eco-system destruction.
The authors lament the limitations of the IPCC system, ascribing them partly to pressure from vested interests harboured by some countries, partly to the long process of gathering the information from published material and the early cut-off date for reports, and partly to scientists being uncomfortable with estimates based on known but presently unquantified mechanisms. It adds up to a process so deficient as to be an unreliable and even misleading basis for policy-making.
The book looks at what the atmospheric targets for a safe climate need to be. Where we are now, if methane and nitrous oxide are included, is equivalent to 455 parts per million of CO2. They estimate this indicates a global temperature rise of 2.1 degrees centigrade, at present delayed by the heat being used to warm the oceans (minus 0.6 degrees) and the short-term net cooling effect of aerosols (minus 0.7 degrees) to give today’s warming of 0.8 degrees.
They discuss the target of two degrees of global warming regarded by some as tolerable. To stop at two degrees probably means a CO2 equivalent level of 400 ppm. We have already exceeded that level, but the climate system’s inertia would enable us to not exceed two degrees if we returned to 400 ppm after an overshoot.
But in their view two degrees is too dangerous, and the three degrees cap effectively being advocated by Australia’s government and others is a recipe for devastation. The book looks at what a safe climate means and what action is required to achieve it. A safe climate includes such features as: retaining the full summer Arctic sea-ice cover, the full extent of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and the full extent of the mountain glacier systems, including the Himalayas and the Andes; maintaining the ecological health and resilience of the tropical rainforests and coral reefs, with no loss of area or species; maintaining the health and effectiveness of the natural carbon sinks; capping ocean acidity. To do this we need to cool the globe we have heated.
At this point they introduce the 2008 paper (pdf) by Hansen and others which considers a CO2 level of 300-325 ppm may be needed to restore Arctic sea ice to its area of 25 years ago. They note that this would also be a reasonable boundary for achieving the other features of a safe climate.
Since the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is already too high we must not only stop its emission but also draw carbon out of the atmosphere. Some geo-engineering with aerosols may be temporarily required, but only as a complement to ceasing emissions.
So far as the science is concerned we have an emergency. At this point the authors turn from the science to the political action required. Political pragmatism collides with scientific necessity. Current political targets are reckless. The book explores and rejects all the reasons given for inadequate responses ranging from hopelessness through claimed uncertainty to the impossibility of a full solution. Compromise will not do. There is no lack of technical or economic capacity to cut greenhouse gas emissions to close to zero, only of political and social will. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere can be reduced by greatly enhancing natural sinks such as tree and other biomass planting on a large scale and by agricultural charcoal stored in soils. But such measures are unlikely under politics as usual. The authors counsel moving into emergency mode to produce the economic restructuring needed, using the example of wartime US when the economy was rapidly turned to service the war effort. Against those who protest that action on climate change will cause economic harm they note that in wartime US unemployment fell, wages grew faster than inflation and company profits boomed.
The book pulls no punches, and that is probably its chief value. It assembles the latest science and shows how we are preparing a possibly cataclysmic future if we carry on as usual. It makes it clear that the threat can’t be countered by partial measures, as many politicians still seem to think. To those who declare it impossible that the political world will ever gather enough resolution for the steps required it replies that politicians will find resolution enough if they recognise we face an emergency. In other words, the economics and politics must be guided by the science, which is stark and inescapable.
A slightly off-topic postscript: The Heartland Institute also saw the Hansen videoclip mentioned at the beginning of this review. Here’s their excited response:
“Demands for the firing of NASA astronomer and global-warming fear-monger James Hansen are spreading rapidly through the World Wide Web.
“Hansen’s latest escapade – a YouTube video in which the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Sciences invites the public to “please join us” in forcibly occupying a D.C.-based coal-burning power plant – resulted in The Heartland Institute Monday calling attention to the growing chorus of voices urging President Barack Obama to fire Hansen. The astronomer has a tawdry record of doctoring climate data to fit his theory that the Earth is in a global-warming crisis, and he has demanded that scientists who disagree with him face a Nuremberg-style trial.”
Mark Bowen’s Censoring Science, recently reviewed on Hot Topic is obviously still relevant.