It is a good question what Al Gore, the premier virtual guest in Rudd’s climate summit of April-2007, thinks about the Rudd government’s White Paper’s 5/15 percent emission cut by 2020 relative to 2000 levels, a third or less than the EU 25/40 target and likely future US targets.

While not referring directly to Australia, Gore stated at Poznan: “We, the human species, have arrived at a moment of fateful decision. It is unprecedented and in some ways even laughable to imagine that we could actually make a conscious choice as a species. But that is nevertheless the challenge that now faces us because our home, Earth, is in danger.”

Given the above, no excuse can justify jeopardizing any chance for an effective outcome in the Copenhagen 1990 climate summit by a meaningless 5/15 percent target.

Not that 25/40 is any longer consistent with an arrest of the accelerating global climate change. As indicated by John Holdern, Obama’s White House new Director of science and technology, global change is a misnomer: “It implies something gradual, uniform and benign. What we’re experiencing is none of these.”

Consistent with the view of many scientists that the atmosphere is reaching, or soon will pass, a climate tipping point, manifest by rapid disappearance of Arctic Sea ice in a few years, spring ice melt increasing by over 10% per year. Once Greenland remains an isolated island, this can only be followed by accelerated melting of its ice sheet and rapid meters-scale sea level rise.

While precise ice melt lag effects and sea level rise are difficult to estimate, a rise of atmospheric CO2-e to 550 ppmv, higher than the level at which the Greenland and east Antarctica ice sheets formed, renders many metres-scale sea level rise through the 21st century inevitable.

Elevated methane release from Arctic Sea sediments and sub-Arctic permafrost were recently recorded (here and here). With a rise in mean Arctic temperatures as high as 4 degrees Celsius in 2008 relative to 1951-1980, an onset of methane emission has reached a threshold at which this gas, with X21 times the greenhouse effect of CO2, threatens to escape from the permafrost and shallow marine sediments. (Ocean and ocean floor sediments > 16,000 billion tons Carbon; permafrost ~900 billion ton Carbon).

In a new paper titled Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends Anderson and Bowes of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research state, among other:

It is increasingly unlikely that an early and explicit global climate change agreement or collective ad hoc national mitigation policies will deliver the urgent and dramatic reversal in emission trends necessary for stabilisation at 450 ppmv CO2-e. Similarly, the mainstream climate change agenda is far removed from the rates of mitigation necessary to stabilize at 550 ppmv CO2-e.

Given the reluctance, at virtually all levels, to openly engage with the unprecedented scale of both current emissions and their associated growth rates, even an optimistic interpretation of the current framing of climate change implies that stabilisation much below 650 ppmv CO2-e is improbable.

And:

Ultimately, the latest scientific understanding of climate change allied with current emission trends and a commitment to limiting average global temperature increases to below 4 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, demands a radical reframing of both the climate change agenda, and the economic characterization of contemporary society.

As the world’s premier coal exporter, enjoying one of the highest per-capita income, Australia faces what the Garnaut Report described as a “diabolic policy problem”, though the administered remedy, 10 percent emission reduction relative to 2000 by 2020, can be described at best as symbolic.

Carbon sequestration is a costly too-little-too-late method which can only serve as a small part of the effort of arresting the rise of atmospheric CO2 levels, currently by 2.2 ppm per year. (Cost of coal CO2 capture, sequestration and storage — $0.06 — 0.010 per kWh — Table SPM.3; $30-70 per ton CO2 Table SPM.4).

This would be analogous to the fate of the Australian Synroc project for the storage of high-level radioactive waste underground, developed in the 1970s but never applied on a large scale. To date billions of gallons of radwaste continue to leak toxic substance, for example 440 billion gallons disposed into the ground and Columbia River.

In so far as Rudd’s description of climate change as the “greatest moral challenge of our times” has been a key to the ALP’s election, the government is now locked on the horns of a dilemma of its own making.

Doubts have been rising. Climate change “skeptics” within the government may have had a field day when Rudd started referring to climate scientists in terms such as “My experience is not all scientists agree and you can have people who have different views” and “there is always going to be ‘argy bargy’ in the political debate” and references to “extreme green groups” and “Guys in white coats who run around and don’t have a sense of humor.”

Not very funny when juxtaposed with Al Gore’s “Earth, is in danger” statement.

The ALP government has two alternatives: it may honor its central commitment to voters, risking losing the next election to a massive campaign by vested interests and their mouthpieces. (A proviso: Acceleration of climate change and public understanding of its gravity may occur on shorter time scale than the election cycle).

Or the government may continue its retreat from the central platform on which it has been elected, hoping that those who recently showered the White Paper with compliments, for example in The Australian newspaper, may help them get re-elected. Should the Government choose the first alternative, Rudd/Gillard/Wong/Garrett will be hailed as heroes, saviors of the young and of future generations.

This would be consistent with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s moral dictum, expressed among other where he stated: “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

Peter Fray

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