Forget about “climate change” or “global warming”.

According to John Holdren, Obama’s new Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, what the world is facing is a “Global Climatic Disruption“.

Holdren warned he considered “global warming” to be a misnomer: “It implies something gradual, something uniform, something quite possibly benign, and what we’re experiencing is none of those. There is already widespread harm … occurring from climate change. This is not just a problem for our children and our grandchildren.”

The new Secretary of the Department of Energy, the Nobel Prize physicist Steve Chu, is equally concerned, “It became more and more apparent to me that the dangers, the potential risks of climate change were looking like they were more and more likely, and that … as a scientist, a responsible scientist, you really have to think of what you can do to help with this problem.”

Other signs of a new emphasis on science and the environment include the appointment of climatologist Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and of Carol M Browner, the Environment Protection Administrator under Clinton, as advisor on the environment. Hillary Clinton, Obama’s nominee for Secretary of State, said America would lead both at home and abroad on climate issues.

Under Obama, the tables appear to have turned between the US and Australia. Australia, with 0.32% of the world’s population, contributes 1.43% of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. Over the last 25 years, the average growth rate of Australian emissions was approximately twice the growth rate for world as a whole, twice the growth rate for the USA and Japan, and five times the growth rate for Europe.

Australian climate scientists, including pioneers of CSIRO climate change research, dismissed by the Howard government, remain little represented in Rudd’s team. The government has appointed Professor Penny Sackett, an eminent astronomer and former Director of the Mount Stromolo Observatory, as Chief Science Advisor. Given the sobering nature of the “global climate disruption” and “evidence based policies“, perhaps one of Australia’s top climate scientists can be chosen as a second Science Advisor?

Obama’s plan of reducing US emissions by 2020 to 1990 levels would reduce emissions from well over 6 billion tons CO2 (level in 2007) to about 5 billion tons CO2 (level in 1990). Compare with Rudd’s proposed 5/15% cut by 2020 relative to 2000. At a CO2 current growth rate of 2.2 parts per million per year, with atmospheric residence time in the order of hundreds of years, any addition of atmospheric greenhouse gases increases the proximity of dangerous climate tipping points.

Obama’s plan is considered inadequate by Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, who stated on 16 January: “I would tell him (Obama) he has the unique opportunity of saving a large part of the human species and several others…”, and on 19 January: “President-elect Obama’s goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 falls short of the response needed by world leaders to meet the challenge of reducing emissions to levels that will actually spare us the worst effects of climate change”.

Peter Fray

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