By Bruce Barbour
Update - July 2020
|Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide
Concentrations - Hawaii
Land Ocean Temperature Index - For Same Period
Data Source: NASAís Goddard Institute for Space Studies
two graphs above are contained in the .
Document attached (MS Word).
We now have the situation that at the time when green
house gas emissions should be plummeting toward zero they
continue to go upwards. The graphs on the left are
the scariest in climate change. The first graph shows the
steady increase in carbon dioxide over time and the second
shows the increase in global temperatures over time - from
1960 to 2020. Is this just coincidence - carbon dioxide
going up and world temperatures going up at the same
time? The majority of the climate science community
The graphs are an indictment of current policy settings
and actions taken - in Australia and the rest of the
world. All the solar, wind and hydro that has been
installed, and energy efficiency measures implemented has
had minimal impact on the rate of increase in atmospheric
carbon dioxide. The rate of increase in carbon dioxide
seems to be the same or greater than when Al Gore brought
the first graph to the attention of the whole world with
the release of his film "An
Inconvenient Truth" in 2006.
The world has already experienced one degree of warming.
As I sit here in Melbourne Australia in December 2019
there are unprecedented fires raging in the majority of
states across Australia. I shudder when I imagine what
conditions are going to be like with an additional degree,
to two degrees - double what the warming has been so far!
Are the fires going to be twice as bad at two degrees as
they are at one? Perhaps there won't be enough forest left
to burn by that stage. It is hard to imagine. And some
predictions indicate that under the current strategy, it
will not just be 2 degrees of warming that the planet is
heading for but 3 degrees - and possibly a lot more. The
possible consequences are very concerning.
What follows is my speculation on the possible scenarios
that could play out into the future. While I have read
some of the science I am not a scientist. But the impacts
of climate change are becoming so readily apparent you
don't need to be a scientist to be extremely concerned -
by both the future impacts of climate change and the lack
of substantive action to address the issue.
Personally I think the worst scenarios can be averted.
However I hasten to add that this is a very different
question to - will they be averted? I will address that
The world is already experiencing the early impacts of
the climate change. However if the world prepared to
devote significant and sufficient resources to
climate change mitigation, commencing now, the impacts,
while likely to be still significant, may be manageable.
What time is available to bring about change is the great unknown. If the climate (using the indicator of temperature) kept changing in a linear fashion as well as carbon dioxide concentrations, extrapolating the temperature graph (from above) might indicate that in the recent past we added 0.5 of a degree every 20 years. However the climate is immensely complicated. This is why climate scientists construct extremely complicated and large climate models. They take account of many many more factors and will do a better job at prediction than simple linear extrapolation. However one thing that that that the models don't include is the effect of all of the possible tipping points. These are difficult to predict and difficult to model and if one or more is passed in the next twenty years it could dump large quantities of carbon dioxide or methane into the atmosphere and accelerate the warming to a rate and to a level that can't be predicted. An IPCC report from 2018 - "Special Report - Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees" says that there is greater risk of tipping points being passed after global warming of 1.5 degrees. Simple extrapolation of the above linked temperature graph says that that level of warming will be passed in under twenty years but maybe much sooner. However even if we stopped all carbon dioxide emissions tomorrow there is already at least 0.2 to 0.3 degrees increase locked in. Any delay in dropping carbon dioxide levels increases the risks and is a gamble. A gamble with very high stakes. And the only way to increase the odds in our favour is for decarbonation of the economy to proceed as fast as possible. Any delay increases the risk.
Decarbonation needs direct action and regulation by
governments on a grand scale and direct action by
companies, groups and individuals on a smaller scale.
Direct government action would mean building of renewable
power stations and schemes like Snowy Hydro 2 (though
recent reports suggest that the cost of this is much
higher than anticipated and it may be better to spend the
money on a whole series of distributed pumped hydro
projects) and other "big batteries", installing basic
infrastructure to support the change over to electric cars
and the strengthening (duplicating) of intrastate and
interstate power connectors. Regulating industry would
mean regulating to close coal powered station in a timely
manner, regulating the levels of greenhouse gases produced
per gigawatt hour of electricity produced, the level of
which would decrease over time by regulation and similarly
regulating green house gases produced by any new cars sold
to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles and public
The so called market based mechanisms like carbon taxes or small scale subsidies are too slow to work on their own - though they will have to play a part, especially carbon taxes as one means of at least partially funding the required work. The world should be placed onto a wartime like footing with the enemy climate change and green house gases - and those that release them.
I read or see television programs about many good ideas
from our scientists and inventors on innovative way to
remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in large
volumes. These ideas need to be supported and developed.
Sure some will not bear fruit, that is why you undertake
the research, but some will. The ones that are shown to
have the most potential for removing large amounts of
carbon dioxide for the least cost should then be funded
and supported for large scale implementation.
Green house gas production from the static energy
production (primarily electricity production) would have
to be brought to zero within, say, 10 years. The rest of
the sectors producing green house gases (agriculture,
transport etc.) would have to go to near zero or be
fully offset in the following, say, 10 years (both
processes would need to commence simultaneously). But even
if this ambitious goal is achieved it is quite likely that
sufficient CO2 will have been released that temperature
gains above 1.5 degree will be exceeded. After net zero
emissions is achieved, green house gas production would
have to go below zero - that is we have to be removing
greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, taking atmospheric
carbon dioxide levels back closer to pre-industrial
Ideally the current economic basis of our society in the
West - continual economic growth based on year by year
increases in material consumption - is the cause of much
of the increasing green house gas releases and will have
to change. Capitalism, if it is to be retained, will need
to be re-imagined to align with lower material
consumption, if that is at all possible. It may be but is
may have to be in an environment of heavy regulation to
prevent individual and corporate greed overcoming the
greater good. Lifestyles will need to change - especially
in the West. Sustainable population levels need to be
discussed and agreed on and steps taken to commence
implementation of this long term goal.
Across national boundary help would have to be given (yes given not sold or lent) to less developed countries. The developed countries should think of this as partial compensation to the less developed countries for the West's imposition of climate change onto them. Less developed countries are not responsible for the creation of climate change, the West did that. Developed countries that did not cooperate by making appropriate changes would be pariah states and isolated from world trade and commerce and membership of international bodies until they amended their ways.
If tipping points are crossed we may have to implement beneficial geo-engineering, even with all of its associated risks - after all what is our current green house gas emissions if not unintentional geo-engineering.
Is this change likely to happen? Based on observation and
knowledge of the political system, I fear that the actions
along the lines of the previous paragraphs are unlikely.
There are a couple of factors that make the required
changes problematic. Firstly some politicians around the
world are completely and hopelessly compromised by their
financial dependence on their backers who have vested
interests in maintaining the use of fossil fuels. The
actions of most of the backers can only be described as
immoral*. If Labor takes office at the next election this
would be a great improvement, however they too may
compromise on the extent of action taken due to union push
back against the changes as they may inflict hardship on
their membership and supporter base. It is encouraging
that they seem to be about to commit to net zero carbon
emissions by 2050. While it could and perhaps should be
quicker it is vastly better than the Coalition. Even if
the Coalition was to announce a similar target - they
might see this as politically necessary as greater numbers
in the general community demand action on climate change -
I wouldn't trust them to actually do anything to try to
achieve it. It would be empty words. Some in politicians
in their ranks would prefer to destroy their own
government than to actually proactively cut emissions!
Without a detailed plan and action in accordance with the
plan, a long term target is meaningless. None of the
politicians will still be in parliament by 2050, most will
in aged care or dead, and will not be able to be held
The second issue is that tackling this problem requires
coordinated action from the majority (90%+) of the
countries of the planet and 100% of the big emitters.
However there are financial incentives to do as little as
possible using the argument that a country's own emissions
are only a small percentage of the total therefore it does
not matter if they do little. Australia's - Scott
Morrison's Liberal Coalition's - stance is a prime example
of this. United States has a denialist President and party
in power at present and even if the Democrats get elected
at the next election (which is to be hoped for but is in
no way guaranteed) there is doubt whether their action
would be quick enough to mitigate climate change
significantly - we can hope. Recent statements from Joe
Biden is some cause for hope but he firstly needs to take
office and then get his changes through Congress. China is
still building new coal stations - it has dozens in
planning for the future! India also has further coal
generators planned for the next two decades. Japan is
aiming to build new coal plants. This has to stop. The
United Nations begs countries to increase their ambition
of their carbon emission cuts - to do more than the bare
minimum - and while there are some are on board with more
ambitious carbon emission cuts they are in the minority.
None of this bodes well for the future.
By the time that the seriousness is finally recognised by
the compromised politicians that have the power it may be
too late. November 3rd 2020 is highly important. Let's
hope the American people recognize its importance and vote
accordingly and in great numbers so there is no doubt
about the outcome of the election, and that support of
Congress and Senate can be assured. The USA and the World
could not survive another four years of Trump's not just
inaction on climate change but actual vandalism of climate
programs, let alone his other actions ripping at the
social fabric of America.
Under this scenario the only uncertainty is the size and
timing of the climate catastrophe.
* * * * *
But as I said I am not a scientist and even climate
scientists do not know for certain. There is no way to
predict the future with 100% (or even 90%) certainty. The
natural system and the world's political system is too big
and complex. We can see trends that should be worrying to
all people - but trends can be changed - action can be
taken. I hope my speculation in this section will be
proven to be wrong.
This all begs the question of why we should even try when
it seems it is all stacked against us. My reasons are as
follows. We know that there are actions available that
could mitigate climate change, as per the earlier
paragraphs, and even if all of them don't get fully
implemented or implemented on the time scale that we think
is desirable, any action that is implemented might act to
an extent towards mitigation of the impacts of climate
change. We should therefore fight for what changes we can
get in the hope that mitigation will be the result and if
enough changes are implemented they might mitigate the
worst levels of the climate change impacts. I would also
argue that we should keep trying because to not try to
implement changes guarantees that no change will occur and
guarantees that the worst levels of the climate change
impacts will occur.
The future's not set. There's no fate but what humanity
makes for itself**.
*Many backers of climate denial politicians are immoral because I am reasonably sure that most of them are not dumb (even though their actions are dumb when seen in the wider context) and many would know that climate change is real and is caused by fossil fuel burning. If they, and anyone else, have this understanding but keep promoting and doing the burning of fossil fuels or promoting a denialist argument, this is immoral.
** Yes you are right - it is a corruption of the
quote from Terminator 2. They were talking about AI but
could equally apply to climate change. Though - thinking
about it, it is not actually correct - if an asteroid
hit us tomorrow, that is out of humanity's hands -
barring a Deep Impact type intervention. (Wow - two
dystopian movie references in the one paragraph - that's
a new record for me.) Sometimes you can just be unlucky.
However climate change is not a matter of luck -
humanity did it to itself - so the quote is quite
* * * * *
Climate Change 2020 - Why we are facing an emergency
A presentation from Professor Will Steffen, a climate change expert and researcher at the Australian National University, Canberra. April 2020.
Scientists' Warning to Humanity & Business as
Un-usual - Politicians can't say they haven't
been warned and warned on multiple occasions. This is
serious people. Vote out any politician that does not
speak and, more importantly, act in ways that reflect the
gravity of the situation.
Why itís time to think about human extinction | Dr David Suzuki - What a communicator. What a mind.
Hot Mess - An ABC podcast series on climate
change and Australia's response to the threat, or lack of
response. It is a pity this podcast was not made into a
Bruce Barbour - 1998.
There is general agreement within the scientific community that global warming is occurring and its cause is due in large part to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels. Even most politicians concede that it is occurring. With this general consensus you would think that putting policy and practices into place to address the issue would be uncontroversial. However this is not the case. There are a number of reasons for this:
powerful vested interests in maintaining the status quo for as long as possible;
the effects of climate change cannot readily be seen in your day to day life. You can't readily feel a 0.8 degree global warming in your day to day life, nor see the relatively small changes in sea level already occurred. I went for a bush walk the other day - beautiful blue sky, birds chirping etc. The environment does not appear on the surface to be in a state of disastrous decline. There are news stories of drought and increased storm frequency and intensity and of unseasonal melting of glaciers and ice sheets but if they are not happening to you and you can't see them directly it can seem a bit unreal. Yet the vast majority of the scientific community is saying that if allowed to go on disastrous decline is what we will get - we need to take their warnings seriously and act now. By the time the disaster is readily apparent it will be too late. There are a number of issues - there is a lag between the carbon pollution and the environmental effect - the Earth is a massive system and it takes years for changes to occur so while there is a 0.8 degree world wide temperature increase at present. even if we stopped all pollution now further warming would occur. The other problem is that the climate change may well be non linear - there may be "tipping points" beyond which larger scale change could occur which would increase warming significantly from what we have at present. If these tipping points are exceeded then run away climate change effects could be anticipated and short term recovery probably impossible. The other issue is that some of the claims of sea level change seem hard to believe. For example a seven meter sea rise if the Greenland ice sheet melts seem incredible - the world's oceans seems so large and while Greenland is large it is nowhere near the size of the oceans. And if the Antarctic ice shelf melt we will be looking at a 25m sea level rise or more. It all seems unbelievable until you realise that the ocean has been this high and higher in the past - if it has happened before (for different, non anthroprogenic, reasons) it can happen again;
in additional to this even though some might acknowledge that warming is occurring there may be a lack of concern about the severity of the consequences of global warming: Some may think "just a few degrees hotter, more storms, some islands flooded and refugees are a small price to pay for our way of life". This is a dreadful, even unethical, attitude - even a few degrees may have dire consequences. It could be a lot worse than "just a few degrees". Low lying areas of densely populated countries could flood, ecosystems disrupted leading to mass extinctions, and water availability and food production threatened. War is possible - people and governments are not going to starve in silence. To proceed along the route leading to global warming is playing dice with our life support system, the earth's environment, only worse. If we stuff it up we could be at a stage where we couldn't go back. In the life and death issues of our environment it is much better to adopt the precautionary principle;
the Australian and other democratic political process does not encourage the adoption of a long term view. Some required reform will hit the hip pocket or require lifestyle changes. The benefits may not be able to be seen for decades, if they can be seen at all. When a politician can only see to the next election, a few years away, there is not much incentive to implement what may in the short term be unpopular policies whose effects are decades away.
A lot of changes can and should be done in response to this crisis. It is a matter of priorities. When a politician says some environmental policy initiative is too expensive what they are really saying is that in their opinion there is some other action which they believe has higher priority and therefore deserves the funding more than the environmental initiative. If Australia decided that global warming was one of the highest, if not the highest priority, funding would be found. It is a matter of getting that decision made - the priority increased. It would not break Australia's economy - nowhere near - and even if it did it is a price we would have to bear.
The community needs understanding of the significance of the problems, from which will come the will to tackle this most significant issue of our time, global warming. If there is the will the resources necessary to carry out the required works and to make the necessary lifestyle changes will be made available. The cost may be significant but, I suggest, significantly less than the cost of doing nothing and accepting the consequences of global warming.
I hope you will enjoy reading the contents of this site
where I make further commentary and suggest some partial
solutions. Please access the pages off the side
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