Garnaut: Politics wins over reality

The Garnaut climate action plan is well-researched and solidly-based, but is far too influenced by “political reality”. Its implications for our future are sobering. [7 October 2008 | Peter Boyer]

The world financial meltdown is a short-term crisis, but a failure to fix our climate problems will haunt humanity until the end of time. This was Ross Garnaut’s stark warning to Australia on the day George Bush’s financial rescue package was voted down by Congress.

He had that right, at least. And he had a lot more right in his undeniably valuable analysis of how we can address the physical and economic impact of climate change. But his final report is also a classic illustration of the way reality can be warped by politics.

Prof Garnaut is acutely aware that the impact of global warming on Australia will be worse than the world average, with hotter, drier conditions making life increasingly hard to sustain – on top of global instability that will make today’s economic melt-down seem trivial.

He is aware that his option of a low 10 per cent target for 2020 emission reduction will for the Rudd government be like a carrot to a hungry donkey, and is also aware that such a target adopted globally would consign the world to truly desperate times (see below: The disastrous implications of Garnaut’s political option).

He says he wants Australia to push internationally for 2020 cuts as high as 25 per cent, but as that’s unlikely to succeed he doesn’t want Australia out on a limb – precisely where Europe has been for the past several years. So is he saying we’re not up to European standards?

Prof Garnaut warned previously of the extreme danger of ignoring scientists’ warnings, but at the final hurdle he decided it’s not feasible to do what’s really necessary. Though it’s not his call, he’s making a politician’s judgement that the world won’t agree to really serious emission cuts – even, it seems, when civilisation’s survival is at stake.

This is not what we need to hear, and emphatically not what our governments need to hear. If politics is the art of the possible, then politicians dealing with climate change must redefine what’s possible so that it encompasses tough action on emissions.

Climate change is threatening to blow our collective house in, but understanding his political employers as he does, Prof Garnaut is offering them the option of a few paltry props – including the chimera of “clean coal” – in the hope that something better will materialise sometime in the future. All the time, our house’s walls are shaking and the roof’s lifting.

Somehow we must help our politicians understand that Prof Garnaut’s tougher 2020 target of 25 per cent is the very least we should aim for, and give them the spine to act, using direct methods as well as, and ahead of, an emissions trading scheme. This is not going to be easy.

There’s an interesting side-issue in the Garnaut report with potentially important ramifications for Tasmania. Noting the inadequacy of Kyoto rules in measuring land use emissions, Prof Garnaut advocates adopting new accounting procedures next year in Copenhagen to more accurately measure emissions from forestry.

In a new section headed “conservation forests”, he refers to the recent ANU assessment of the carbon stock of intact natural forests and notes the high storage value of mature forests in south-eastern Australia, including Tasmania, and their continuing capacity to remove greenhouse gases over the crucial decades to come.

Keeping such forests intact as carbon stores, Garnaut says, could provide “a substantial new source of revenue”. This might just turn out to be a welcome shot in the arm in a general atmosphere of uncertainty for Tasmanian forestry.

The disastrous implications of Garnaut’s political option

Prof Garnaut’s “politically realistic” higher-emission path, involving a global stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations at 550 parts per million and a likely warming of 3C above pre-industrial levels, has some very sobering implications:

•    The Great Barrier Reef will effectively die, losing first its colours and ultimately its structure and biodiversity. Queensland’s coast will become bland and barren.

•    Severe weather events will become much more frequent, with cyclones occurring further from the equator and sometimes rising above today’s top category five level. In Tasmania, wildfire will be a year-round threat.

•    Lower rainfall and higher evaporation will reduce food production, notably in the vast Murray-Darling basin. Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne will be struggling with severely diminished water supplies, and even Sydney and Brisbane may be under water stress.

•    In Tasmania, most populated centres and especially the central North, Midlands and East Coast will be suffering decreased rainfall and diminished agricultural production. Northern, eastern and south-eastern river flows will be reduced. Launceston’s water supply is especially vulnerable.

•    World food production will drop well below today’s critical level as chronic drought hits southern Australia, western China, India and Pakistan, Africa’s southern half, southern Europe, western United States, Central America and regions south of the Amazon basin.

•    Starvation will drive people to desperate measures, with likely conflict on most continents over water and territory. Physical barriers along borders, including armed guards and land mines, are a likely reaction to massive movements of people in search of sustenance.

•    With Arctic sea ice virtually gone, the reduction of Greenland’s land-based ice sheet will become irreversible, resulting eventually in a sea level rise of seven metres. The West Antarctic ice sheet will also be destabilised, adding more metres to sea level rise.

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