Some, mostly those deeply acquainted with the science of climate change, are beginning to appreciate the sheer scale of effort required to avert possible disaster. Australia’s chief scientist Penny Sackett likes to use language that conveys a peculiar kind of calm urgency:

“We can do it if we mobilise ourselves in the way society has mobilised itself in Great Wars. Transformational changes in industry and society and how it interacts.”

Make no mistake, we need to do away with the War on Terror and start a new one: the War on Climate. Unlike the old one, it’s not something we can solve with bombs, guns or water-boarding.

“We need flexibility. We need to be resilient. We need to build infrastructure that’s resilient. We need to have more resilient ways of thinking and in our social structures,” Sackett tells me.

She’s not the first to mention the war though; David Spratt and Philip Sutton in their book Climate Code Red called on Australia’s political parties to unite as they do in wartime so that vital decisions are not blocked.

Many climate scientists are now coming to realise that even the 2° “guardrail” stated in the Copenhagen Accord is not as safe as was thought just a few years ago, and that we are already locked into dangerous climate change due to the huge inertia in the system.

How dangerous? It’s just a question of degree. Literally.

“Even if the best proposals that were put forward at Copenhagen are adopted,” says Sackett, “we may be looking at a global temperature rise of 3.5° by the end of the century.”

This may not sound like much, but would lead to temperatures not experienced before by humans. It also assumes that laggards such as Australia adopt their most ambitious targets, not their least.

Since the last major Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2007, much new research has been published and much of it is bad news. For example, a study last year in the respected journal Nature found that even a 2° rise is likely to eventually lead to a staggering eight-metre increase in sea level.

When it comes to so-called tipping-points much less is known, but the potential impacts are truly frightening. A recent study indicates an atmospheric CO2 concentration of just 400ppm (we’re currently at 392ppm and rising) maybe enough to tip us over the edge into an ice-free Arctic. The science of tipping points and abrupt transitions is still very much in it’s infancy, but it’s worth bearing in mind that once we cross these critical thresholds, there’s no going back.

“We have to say that we actually don’t know how close we are to some of these tipping points,” says Sackett. “People are working very hard on this issue and want to know more, but it’s very hard. I don’t know if you should feel comforted by that.”

Many scientists are worried because even the best models used aren’t yet sophisticated enough to predict with any degree of confidence the range of knock-on effects around major tipping points. It’s commonly understood that losing the polar ice-cap would amplify the existing warming even more due to the lack of reflecting snow cover, possibly leading to a greenhouse gas “burp” from the thawing permafrost in the surrounding tundra — a catastrophic domino effect that could make most of the world uninhabitable.

Most of the scientific uncertainty here, the “unknown knowns” relate to how fast these effects will occur rather than whether or not they will happen. The speed and severity of the Arctic’s ice-loss has taken most observers by surprise, and may well be the first — and most costly — lesson in non-linear dynamics that we’ll ever experience.

In many ways, Australia has many unique advantages when it comes to emission reduction. We’ve got an incredible natural solar resource and the largest per-capita footprint, so even if we reduced our emissions by 50% we’d still emit more CO2 than the average European. In many ways, our economy would be much better placed if we were to adopt strong targets as it would give us an early lead in developing the necessary skills, investing in the right projects and research, and honing the most effective policies.

When asked if she endorses a tough “science-based” 40% target for Australia, Sackett sidesteps the question, possibly because the answer is a political one.

“My interest in not so much in targets but in achieving targets and so that’s why I concentrate more on action. I’m more interested in setting the structures in place that will help us meet targets whatever they might be — and they may change over time.”

That leaves the impression that scientific advice to ministers is mostly lost in translation by the time it gets to making actual policy. Whatever the reason for our lack of leadership, Sackett has faith in people’s ability to organise themselves and effect the kind of changes required from a grassroots level upwards:

“I have a view that the majority of Australians think that climate change is real and they’d like some action taken. I think they would also like to know what it is they can do as individuals or communities or as voters to contribute. It has to be a massive transformational change, and the question is, how will it start?”

CORRECTION: An original version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to Australia’s chief scientist Penny Sackett. The story included the line: “Make no mistake, says Sackett, we need to do away with the war on terror and start a new one: the war on climate change.” Ms Sackett has pointed out she did not say this or say anything which would suggest this. Publishing the remark was a subbing error and we apologise to the author, independent researcher Steve O’Connor, and Ms Sackett.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey