On Tuesday 14 April Professor Will Steffen and other Australian National University experts gave an informal public briefing on key messages from the “Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions” Congress held in Copenhagen in March. The Congress was a big event: 2500 climate scientists and social scientists attended from 80 countries, and there were 1600 presentations. It set out to update findings of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 4, in preparation for the intergovernmental UN climate meeting in Copenhagen in December. A 30-page agreed report of Congress findings will be disseminated in June.

Australian scientists played a large role, as the fifth-largest national representation after the US, Germany, Britain and host Denmark. ANU was one of 10 leading world universities co-sponsoring the Congress. Steffen’s team has already reported back to senior Australian Ministers and departmental officials. The news is not good. Worst-case IPCC 4 scenarios are already being exceeded and climate change indicators are accelerating.

The world has moved into uncharted climate territory, in terms of experience of human sustainability. A two degrees centigrade average global temperature rise above the 2000 level is seen to be at the upper limit of safety — this rise will itself cause serious human disruption in poor countries. Weak CO2 emission targets for 2020 increase the risk of irretrievable climate change tipping points being passed before 2020: accelerating polar ice melt and loss of the ocean’s efficiency as a carbon sink are two such threatened tipping points. So urgent action is needed now to decarbonise societies.

The good news: the technology exists now for major job creation in building new sustainable energy grids and restoring and protecting damaged ecosystems. The impediments are inertia in social and economic systems and vested fossil fuel energy interests. But public opinion is already engaged and supports radical socio-economic transformations to protect a human–friendly climate system.

Economist Warwick McKibbin reported many economists’ views at the Congress that the world is now experiencing a “Titanic effect”: cap-and-trade decarbonisation solutions have too much momentum now to change course, though many now believe that a carbon tax or a hybrid tax-and-trade system would be more robust at this time of global economic crisis. Agreement at Copenhagen in December on a global cap-and-trade policy framework is unlikely: the US just won’t yet be ready to commit to deals.

Countries may just have to proceed with their own national decarbonisation targets. “Pricing carbon is a necessary but not sufficient condition for addressing climate change”: e.g., quantitative carbon emissions reduction targets may also be needed. There is a long way to go still.

The Congress had an open mind on potential additional technologies which might help to moderate global warming forcings. Thus, carbon capture and storage, geo-engineering, and nuclear energy were not being ruled out.

Tony Kevin is completing a book on the climate crisis and Keynesian economics, Crunch Time, to be published by Scribe later this year.

Peter Fray

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