Review by Terry Leahy 2008
“Climate Code Red” has been put out by Friends of the Earth and is written by David Spratt and Philip Sutton. It is a timely work, which should be essential reading. They argue we need a much more drastic response to climate change than the mainstream parties advocate.
A key argument is that even a 0.5-degree increase was enough to start the melting of the polar ice, the disintegration of the Greenland ice cap and the melting of much Antarctic ice. Likely consequences of the current melting are a disastrous rise in sea levels. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone from 280 parts per million in pre-industrial times to 380 parts per million now, gradually pushing the climate up. Paleo-climate data from 130,000 years ago shows that when concentrations of CO2 were the same as today, seas were 5 metres higher. Three million years ago when carbon dioxide was at 350 – 450 ppm, seas were 25 metres higher. This is just the first problem. Also likely is a feedback loop. Dark oceans and bare black soils do not reflect sunlight in the way that white ice does. Up goes the temperature again. The tundra thaws, releasing the carbon now locked into frozen soils – an amount that dwarfs global oil reserves. This is a scenario in which temperatures would rise by up to six degrees – wiping 90% of species off the earth, as happened 55 million years ago.
So a prudent policy would be to restore the ice caps by going back to less than a 0.5 degree rise. Such a temperature would be possible if carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was at 320 parts per million; a point passed some decades ago.
Instead, politically courageous policies such as those advocated by the IPCC, Stern, Garnaut and Penny Wong are much less severe – a cap of 550 parts per million; with an admitted 50:50 chance of going above 3 degrees, and a necessity to reduce fossil fuel use globally by 60% by 2050. Slow feedback loops would in fact lead to a six-degree rise in this scenario. That’s the one in which everyone has to move south of Melbourne or north of London to survive.
To attempt to go back to a 0.5-degree rise we would need policies to replace all fossil fuel energy as quickly as possible, reducing CO2 to a level more likely to be safe (320 parts per million). Preferably before some of the more nasty consequences have kicked in.
The second part of Climate Code Red explains how we could implement such policies. We need a “state of emergency”. To treat this crisis as something similar to a world war. In the Second World War, countries like the UK and USA converted a large part of their industries to producing war materials – between 40 and 50 per cent of national income. In a state of emergency governments and the people accept that the emergency has priority and that it will be expensive. Governments are mandated to intervene and reshape the economy without hesitation. There is bipartisan support for this.
For this emergency we need to replace all fossil fuel use. To do that governments have to reshape the energy sector, closing down fossil fuel industries and funding alternatives. They have to totally re-shape transport to run on alternative energy – electricity from renewable sources or bio-fuels. It makes no sense to put in policies designed to “reduce” carbon emissions when we need to eliminate them. We do not need gas-fired power stations or low petrol consumption cars – expensive halfway measures that we have to abandon later.
Accordingly, the ALP’s carbon trading has two problems. One is that targets are woefully inadequate to get us out of trouble. The other is that the trading is aimed at “reducing” carbon intensity rather than replacing carbon based technologies. This situation cannot be fixed up by “better consumer choices”, by industry or the public. It requires extreme government intervention.
“Climate Code Red” is a very convincing document. Yet how far are their recommendations from what is politically possible? If they are right, we are throwing our whole civilization away, along with the lives of most of our grandchildren.