When the Hollywood movie, The Day After Tomorrow appeared – in which global warming
reverses the Gulf Stream in a matter of weeks, plunging the Northern
Hemisphere into a new Ice Age – it was dismissed as implausible Hollywood
catastrophe-schlock. Now, two years later, the film appears merely

Climate change is accelerating in ways that aggregated data do not
display. Independent scientific reports from different parts of our planet
paint a distressing picture. Average temperatures are rising, polar ice
fields are melting and glaciers are retreating at unpredicted and, in terms of
human experience, unprecedented rates. The Gulf Stream is slowing. The
tundra is thawing, releasing methane – a far more dangerous gas than
carbon dioxide in terms of global warming.

Extreme storm events like
Hurricane Katrina are becoming more frequent and more severe. We may
already be facing the “runaway warming scenario,” in which human
intervention of any sort becomes useless. Yet we continue to burn coal and
oil, and to clear the Amazon and other forests, at ever increasing rates.

James Lovelock’s gloomy prognosis is a view increasingly held among
those watching these trends. We now talk about adaptation to “inevitable” climate change. We worry about “dangerous climate
change,” the threshold level of global temperature increase (+2 C) above
which ecosystems, agriculture, cities, societies, fall apart…and which
we are now nearing. In this sense, Durack and Preston’s otherwise fine
response to Lovelock (item 18, yesterday) strangely lacks urgency.

The evidence has been clear for over a decade and strongly underlined by
reputable scientific advice. Only its volume, intensity, clarity and
seriousness have changed, and strengthened. It is not a case of “steady as
she goes.” But getting this message through has been difficult. Climate
sceptics – almost without exception scientifically illiterate and often
with vested interests tying them to fossil fuel users or exporters – have
successfully muddied the waters.

They have been supported by media
irresponsibly ready to generate a good polarised stoush in the interests
of faux “debate.” Public opinion has therefore been cosseted in
confusion, wrapped in a false sense of security borne of messages
suggesting global warming isn’t happening, won’t happen, won’t
happen in our time, won’t be all that bad. Wrong on all counts.

This failure of the media has reinforced the failure of governments to act
in a timely manner. With access to excellent scientific advice, and the
capacity – indeed, the responsibility – for precautionary planning and
risk management, one would have expected sharp action when the issue first
came to international attention in the late 1980s. Yet links between
politicians and coal and oil companies, and a more generalised
institutional interest in promoting the fossil fuel economy, have blocked
meaningful planning and intervention by many governments.

The Howard
Government has wasted a decade in domestic inaction on climate change,
coupled with massive promotion of coal and gas exports and an attempt to
destroy the only international treaty to tackle the climate problem.

A lost decade, and we now have more to do and much less time. The Montreal
Protocol is not an entirely useful example to draw on here. It suggests
that humans, under pressure, are infinitely adaptable and able to shift
course at a moment’s notice. But unlike climate change, ozone depletion
was a relatively simple and confined problem – involving a few chemicals
and a few companies, economically marginal, with clear political advantage
and no downsides to early action. As Durack and Preston suggest, tackling
climate change is altogether more complicated, requiring profound systemic
shifts of much greater consequence.

Just how rapid and extensive social and economic intervention has to be,
to avert climate catastrophe, can be gleaned from recent British estimates
that suggest industrialised nationals need to cut greenhouse emissions by
between 60% to 90% of 1990 levels within only a
few decades.

This transition cannot be achieved by relying solely on
market forces and private goodwill. It requires substantial
state-coordinated planning and state-regulated and state-funded
intervention to shift us out of the carbon economy, major works to
ameliorate the coming impacts of global warming, and infrastructural
assistance to accompany a profound rethinking of how we conduct our daily
lives. This is where the debate must now focus. Unlike in Europe, in
Australia it has barely begun.