What is really needed to address climate change?

Address to the 15th International Environmental Forum, Hobart, 10 and 11 December 2011. Conference theme: Ethical Responses to Climate Change [11 December 2011 | Peter Boyer]

Fig. 1: Temperature record over 65 million years. Note the sharp peak (tagged PETM) around the time when the Paleocene epoch gave way to the Eocene. ARTWORK: Robert A. Rohde <www.globalwarmingart.com>  Fig. 2: Comparison of PETM emissions with those of today. SOURCE: Scientific American, July 2011, p 59. ARTWORK: Jen Christiansen

FIGURE 1: Temperature record over 65 million years. Note the sharp peak (tagged PETM) around the time when the Paleocene epoch gave way to the Eocene. ARTWORK: Robert A. Rohde. FIGURE 2: Comparison of PETM emissions with those of today. SOURCE: Scientific American, July 2011, p 59. ARTWORK: Jen Christiansen

I’ll start at the beginning. Or about 56 million years ago, when the dinosaurs had only recently been extinguished and mammals were in the early stages of their evolution. There were no humans — not even any primates. Temperatures during the Eocene epoch show as a big mound followed by a long, slow decline in the graph at the top left of Figure 1. During the Eocene Optimum, the north and south poles enjoyed tropical conditions.

About 20 years ago, geoscientists studying cores from ocean-floor sediments discovered a big temperature anomaly right at the start of the Eocene. Earth’s crust at the time was going through massive changes. Super-continents were being torn apart by shifting tectonic plates, giving rise to widespread, protracted volcanic eruptions. As the story has unfolded, these seismic events heated sediments containing fossil carbon, releasing carbon dioxide and then methane into the atmosphere. (Does that sound familiar?)

The temperature record, derived from oxygen isotope ratios in the sediments, appears in graphical form as a precipitous peak — a sudden, sharp rise followed by an equally-sharp fall (after which there was another, more gradual rise to the “Eocene Optimum”). The same sediment records showed a closely similar jump in atmospheric carbon concentrations — a much more rapid rise than had previously been found anywhere in Earth’s geological record. The peak has become known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM.

Figure 2, a graph published in Scientific American about six months ago, shows an alternative view of what PETM looked like — that’s the blue line climbing away to the right. The years have been stretched out; they’re in thousands, not millions, so the sharp peak of the multi-million-year scale becomes a gentle climb to the top. Seen like this, it seems almost benign. The fossil record shows there were extinctions, notably in the deep ocean, but most organisms had time to adapt to and survive this “thermal maximum”.

So what are we worried about? If life can survive this giant warming episode with its trillions of tonnes of carbon injected into the atmosphere, why should we be concerned about today’s warming? The question has been put repeatedly by contrarians seeking to persuade us that humans couldn’t possibly influence global climate, or that if they can, it can’t possibly do us any harm.

Well, the red line on the left of the graph is what we’re concerned about. The warming that began early last century and continues apace today is fuelled by a rate of carbon injection that dwarfs the natural processes of the PETM. Right now, we’re releasing carbon into the atmosphere at over five times the rate of natural release during the PETM. The result is that human activity today is heating the planet more than ten times as quickly as nature did during that earlier “thermal maximum”, a warming that will cease only after we have stopped emitting greenhouse gases into the air. To repeat: science has found no other time in 65 million years where Earth’s atmosphere has been subjected to such a massive injection of carbon over so short a period of time as is happening now.

In addressing the question “what needs to be done”, I could start by running off the countless clever strategies and technologies that have been put up as practical solutions to our climate-energy problem. Things like new kinds of energy generation — solar, wind, hydro, tide and wave, geothermal, biomass. I could do a sales pitch for cheap rooftop energy, or talk about new-generation nuclear fission, or cold fusion. I’ve read some pretty persuasive arguments for both. I could talk about new ways to get ourselves about, or to make buildings more energy-efficient, or to localise travel and commerce and reduce consumption, or to change farming and forestry practices to capture and store carbon in plants and soil. I could wax lyrical about the great efforts being made in communities small and large around the planet, including here in Tasmania, to reduce their energy use and their carbon emissions while improving the quality of their lives.

Maybe if I talked about these sorts of things I could help you to leave here with better feelings about our prospects. There’s actually much to be cheerful about in how we’ve responded in recent years to the challenge thrown up by our changing climate and the ways we obtain energy. Humans are astonishingly inventive, both technically and strategically, when they want to be, and we should continue to be optimistic about the potential for our inventiveness, in the face of this great challenge, in order not merely to survive but to maintain and strengthen our civil community, our humanity, here on Earth in the only home we know.

But I’m not going to say any more today about practical action and technology. We know that all these things and more must be part of the package of solutions (with an “s” on the end, notice — there are no single silver bullets), but the practicalities aren’t our main problem. The main problem lies within each of us.

We’re faced with the reality, confirmed by science, that human-induced warming is an unprecedented threat to civil society and life as we know it. Collectively and personally, we’re challenged to change the technologies we use and the ways we behave. If we wish to continue mining, clearing land, making and buying goods, using electrical energy, travelling — any of these things and more — we must work out how to do them without adding carbon to the air. It’s either that, or we have to stop doing them. Or we fry. This is our stark choice. The responsibility for that choice rests with us, as individual members of the global community, as much as it lies with government. That’s confronting.

There’s a more deep-seated problem. Counter to our instinct to respond to immediate, obvious threats, mitigating climate change requires imaginative, rational, and non-intuitive responses. Climate change is so big and abstract, so removed from our the comfortable lives we continue to enjoy, that it defies belief. Paul Ehrlich calls this “evolutionary mismatch”. Our hunter-gatherer brains evolved to deal with visible, imminent threats that we see before us, like a charging lion: not the creeping, invisible threat posed by a slowly cooking planet. Even if we’ve grasped that it’s real, it’s doubly hard to motivate ourselves and others to act. We have to find a way of bringing these apparently abstract threats into our everyday lives, so we see them for what they really are: real and imminent. This is a personal, social and political challenge.

Powerful campaigns against climate action have revealed governments’ vulnerability in addressing climate change. Governments are a product of history and their people, but they are failing in the face of this challenge. This is partly because inefficiency — a necessary part of democracy and good government — is built into the system. But the principal cause of the repeated setbacks is that the evidence for human-induced warming is highly susceptible to misinterpretation, so that people everywhere have been having difficulty working out what’s true and what isn’t.

Ah, those heady days of the 1990s! There was goodwill aplenty in the Rio “Earth Summit” and the Kyoto meeting of 1997 towards  reducing our carbon footprint. All governments, including those of Australia and the United States, signed the Kyoto Protocol, and even when these two governments later decided not to ratify the Protocol, the goodwill endured through the early 2000s. But in those rollicking economic times the goodwill was benign, and ultimately ineffectual. Nobody was being asked to pay a price. Then along came Al Gore.

An Inconvenient Truth was in more ways than one a turning point in the history of climate policy. It popularised the science behind anthropogenic climate change, so that big majorities of people around the world declared themselves in favour of urgent action to reduce emissions. It sharpened the debate, enabling us to see that this demanded more than goodwill; it called for action by peoples and governments everywhere.

It was also a political statement. As we all know, Al Gore was a Democratic Vice-President, up against the Republican George W. Bush at the centre of the most divisive and disputed presidential election in United States history. When he became a movie star in 2006 his opposite number was still in the White House. In the years after the movie’s release, its protagonist became the subject of political dispute, with supporters and detractors lining up as they would for a presidential (or parliamentary) election. It was politics, not science, which drove the “Climategate” email furore. We now know the claims of fraudulent science were baseless, but as they say about throwing mud, some of it sticks.

The big losers out of a politicised climate debate are science and human enlightenment, and our relentlessly-rising emissions. The partisan divide remains, cemented in place by the neo-conservative surge not just in the US but also in Canada, here in Australia, in Europe and elsewhere. The early success of Gore’s campaign brought into sharp relief the real battle-lines of the climate wars, in which vested interests have for decades driven a concerted campaign against scientific inquiry and integrity by deliberately undermining the credibility of scientists and their work. For that awareness alone we owe much to An Inconvenient Truth.

There’s classic partisan politics in this: conservative against liberal, money against the public good, corporate interests against open inquiry, the old order against the young upstarts, dogmatism against scientific inquiry. But as always, it’s more complicated than that. It’s also libertarians and “free spirits” (as in, free to do whatever I damn well like) versus regulators, the good-timers versus the spoilers, ordinary people wanting to go on living their lives versus the intellectual elite throwing up reasons why they shouldn’t.

It’s this latter divide that is now playing so firmly against the cause of climate action. As the debate wears on — and it’s now five and a half years since An Inconvenient Truth hit the cinemas — and as economic fortunes have turned sour, people have tired of the ceaseless rhetoric around the debate. During the Durban meeting the Global Carbon Project released what can only be described as alarming global emissions figures. The response was restrained, muted, as if its message is somehow no longer relevant. Taking another look at the Scientific American graph [Figure 2] can we doubt its great and urgent relevance? But in tough economic times — much tougher in Europe and the US than here, it has to be said — such things pass over the heads of people engaged with their own personal struggles to survive.

The point is, we know what’s wrong. James Hansen, Will Steffen and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have told us. And we know what we have to do. Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Nicholas Stern, Ross Garnaut and countless activists and policy wonks around the world have told us. It couldn’t be clearer. The window of opportunity for having any impact on rising temperatures is vanishing rapidly, and we have to act, all of us, together, with whatever legislative, financial and practical means are at our disposal and with rapid physical effect. Notwithstanding the growing impact, and therefore responsibility, of China, India and Brazil, among other emerging economies, the greatest responsibility remains with the people and governments of developed nations, historically the greatest carbon polluters. People like us.

We know all that, but without paradigm shifts we will continue to deny it.

Faith is an integral part of any resolution. By that I don’t mean faith in the formal sense implied in the title of the “Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change” issued at Durban last week — welcome though that pronouncement was. We need all the help we can get, and Archbishop Tutu and his colleagues have done well to raise the issue of our moral responsibility to Planet Earth. Their commitment is admirable and necessary, but in the absence of a wider political and social engagement they are voices in the wilderness.

Faith is not exclusively a religious matter. I’m interested in a more mundane sort of faith, the kind of faith that we have in engineers to make buildings and freeways that won’t fall down, in pilots to fly us safely to our destination, in physicians to identify and treat our ailments, in governmental, business and legal systems to shield us from unwanted incursions or economic collapse or unjust accusation. Our faith in governments, business people and lawyers, it has to be said, is always compromised by politics or ideology, but fundamentally we accept these institutions because we think there’s a net gain in having them.

Not so long ago a big majority of us felt the same about scientists who investigate climate, and about the politicians and bureaucrats who devise policies to address issues raised by the science. We trusted what they said because we saw no reason not to. It was obvious to everyone that while individual scientists were people with particular biases just like us, and while we may not understand in detail what they were saying, the scientific method was a tried and true means of rising above the personal to a higher plane, out of which came knowledge about the world.

Now, shrill, angry outbursts are proclaiming scientists to be part of some giant global conspiracy to build personal wealth and power at the expense of you and me. Science no longer comes across as impartial, above the fray, but as part of it. Its messages are being tainted with the accusation of political or vested interest. People seem no longer to trust what it has to say. So while the scientific case for human-induced warming has strengthened in recent years, the influence of scientists and their institutions seems to have waned. Do-it-yourself, junk science has moved into some spaces where legitimate science was previously accepted without question — in talkback radio, news media and the blogosphere. Public figures who have made no effort to understand the science are condemning it out of hand, undermining our faith in science. It will not recover without strong bipartisan political support, and that, alas, is yet to materialise.

I’m afraid I can offer no silver bullets, no comforting words, except to say that I’m confident we can achieve remarkable things when the challenge facing us becomes clear to all; when people everywhere see what science has been saying — that today’s greenhouse threat exceeds anything we know from geological time, that our present emissions trajectory amounts to a global emergency that dwarfs our financial difficulties, and that our only recourse is to act as one. I know of no other way for that to happen but to keep the discourse flowing whatever the reaction, to support our time-honoured scientific method and the scientists who exercise it whenever these are questioned, to engage with our governments, our corporations, our communities, people out of our own age bracket (young people if you’re old and old people if you’re young), to enjoin them to come together and act, with real, physical, measurable outcomes… and never to give up.

Democracy is seen as a weakness, but it is also potentially a great strength. If enough voters in enough countries are persuaded that the climate threat is real and urgent, then we have a chance of containing the damage and turning our emissions juggernaut around. An essential part of this effort must be comprehensive educational programs that engage and channel the energy of youth, tomorrow’s citizens, in the processes of putting things to rights. Our Australian Youth Climate Coalition is showing us the potential of that vital energy.

The message that I’d like to see you take away from here is that one person, one community, one nation acting is better than none; that setting an example through determined action, even if it is unilateral, can bring about a paradigm shift by drawing others into the circle. Taking strength from each other and taking advantage of every political, social and economic opportunity that presents itself, we may turn out to have more influence than we think. For this we need both courage and patience. The tipping point that leads to action may not be as far away as it may seem.

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2 Responses to What is really needed to address climate change?

  1. Phil Harrington says:

    Peter – thank you for providing one voice of reason in a world defiled with spin.

    As individuals, communities, governments, we are now in active denial about climate change. We know the truth of the science (unlike governments, the public understood that a decade ago at least). We also know that we are to blame for this mess. Depending upon the individual, this realisation causes great fear, great guilt, great anger – powerful emotions that most of us – myself included – don’t know how to manage. So, with varying degrees of conscious recognition, we fall back on denial. By denying the reality of climate change, and/or denying our responsibility for it, we are desperately hoping to put off the enormous mental effort of changing our world view and our values. Ideas like progress, and human domination of the planet, and faith in technology, and endless growth in well-being – these are powerful drugs.

    But if you are standing on the railway tracks in front of a train, denying that the train will kill you doesn’t actually help. Peter – you talk of faith, correctly, as humans are faith machines regardless of religion. But faith must not prevent us for acting. To avoid the train, you actually have to do something – to act. Faced with the enormity of climate change (and a host of other critical sustainability challenges), many people simply don’t know what to do, or seize on ready but false solutions, or are waiting for someone else to move first, to show them the way. And what’s that process of ‘showing the way’ called? It’s called leadership.

    If anything will save the planet from ecological collapse – and, rationally, statistically, this is now very unlikely – it is leadership. Humans are programmed to follow leaders – people with the strength of character to state what is right and to act upon that belief. Their very conviction is what inspires us. Rhetoric can simulate this (ask Obama) but leadership is defined by action, words. That’s something our local politicians need to reflect on.

    Now in the environment movement, it is common to fall back on homilies like “we’re all leaders, it’s everyone’s responsibility”. However, these truisms act as another and dangerous form of denial. Changing your lightbulbs will save you some money, and may well ease your conscience (provided you don’t think about it too much), but it won’t save the planet. Only collective action on a very large, and ultimately planetary, scale will do that. We like to think that by modelling appropriate behaviours we will inspire others and, eventually, the whole world will be like us. Really? And how long will that take? By how much will the concentration of ghg in the atmosphere have risen in the meantime? Changing systems – transport systems, food production systems, urban systems, energy systems – these are things that can only be achieved by collective action.

    No, the kind of leadership we need now is the Winston Churchill kind. The pugnacious, honest, relentless, focused, not-suffering-fools-gladly type of leadership. The kind that rejects all spin and homilies (“peace in our time…”). The kind that recognises that the fundamental act of leadership is to accept personal accountability for a collective ill, knowing that it is not your personal fault, but neverthess sets out on what may well appear to be a hopeless quest to rectify it. Jesus knew about this kind of leadership. Leadership that is defined by actions and not by words. Our ‘leaders’ tell us one day that climate change is the ‘greatest moral challenge of our times’ and then the next day actively work to undermine global agreements and effective national action, as our ‘leaders’ have just done in Durban and will the chimera of the ‘clean energy package’.

    We know from history that humanity is capable of this king of leadership. We have risen to and overcome existential threats before. But look at the quality of the leaders that our in power today…weak individuals without a ‘spirit level’ or moral compass that guides their actions. People without the courage of their convictions; indeed, without convictions. Decisions made on the basis of the last person that spoke to them, and fear of backlash in the media. People mostly focused on currying favour and being seen in a positive light by their favoured constituents, rather than achieving anything real in the wider community.

    More than anything else, if we are to overcome climate change, we need to work on building effective, creative, relentless, fearless leadership. Is this possible in a modern, capitalist democracy? How would Churchill have faired today, faced with the spin cycle? He may well have failed. So, if someone has a better idea, don’t hold it back. Please.

  2. Peter Boyer says:

    Thanks for your incisive thoughts Phil. You’re absolutely right to focus on leadership. We have to keep encouraging individuals to act, but this is no more likely to work than the Durban deal. As you say, we need a leader to grasp the nettle and just keep bashing away until there’s a breakthrough. Churchill’s a good example, but he got the nod from his peers only at the 11th hour, when France was about to fall to the Nazis. Do we have to wait till things get so desperate?

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