Why We're Screwed

On Tuesday evening I watched a two-part Frontline documentary called HEAT, looking at whether we are capable of dealing with the issue of global warming. As part of the documentary, they showed a clip from a 1958 science show which talked about global warming, and said essentially the same things that we’re hearing about now.

50 YEARS! That’s how long we’ve been talking about this and doing absolutely nothing about it. That’s why I think we’ll never be able to deal with it, and if by some miracle we do address the problem, rather than talking about it, it will only be when the environment is a hell of a lot worse off than it is now.

Climate Change Summary

Following on from yesterday’s post, The Institute of Physics has a paper summarising the results of various CO2 reduction schemes based on running the scenarios through all of the best climate models around. The results are pretty interesting:

Using a scheme to emulate the range of state-of-the-art model results for climate feedback strength, including the modelled range of climate sensitivity and other key uncertainties, we analyse recent global targets. The G8 target of a 50% cut in emissions by 2050 leaves CO2 concentrations rising rapidly, approaching 1000 ppm by 2300. The Stern Review’s proposed 25% cut in emissions by 2050, continuing to an 80% cut, does in fact approach stabilization of CO2 concentration on a policy-relevant (century) timescale, with most models projecting concentrations between 500 and 600 ppm by 2100. However concentrations continue to rise gradually. Long-term stabilization at 550 ppm CO2 requires cuts in emissions of 81 to 90% by 2300, and more beyond as a portion of the CO2 emitted persists for centuries to millennia. Reductions of other greenhouse gases cannot compensate for the long-term effects of emitting CO2.

So if we want to avoid trashing the place, we need to reduce to less than 10% of today’s emissions! That’s more than most people realise. Thankfully we’ve got more than two hundred years to get there, which should be doable.

Climate Change

Yesterday saw a flurry of news regarding climate change, dominated by Treasury’s assessment of the costs of implementing a carbon tax in Australia. Serious news outlets like SBS and the SMH reported the cost to the average household as $1/day, whereas the tabloid news on Ten went for the sensationalist approach with tag lines like “see how the carbon tax could cost you hundreds of dollars!”

The business associations are trying to get the Government to hold off on implementing the carbon tax now that the global economy is in freefall, spreading fear and doubt about loss of jobs, but Treasury’s analysis correctly points out that there’s massive opportunities for job creation in alternative energy fields and other areas which would be projected to grow significantly once polluters have to pay. The delayers also fail to realise that the longer we wait to start, the sharper the emissions drops we’ll have to implement and therefore the greater the impact on the economy as a whole. Long, gradual change is going to do less damage to the economy than a short, sharp shock.

Elsewhere on TV, probably SBS again, I saw a news item about the increase in atmospheric methane levels which has recently been detected. Methane is 20 times more effective as an insulator than CO2, and one of the side effects of a temperature increase is predicted to be that as permafrost melts, massive amounts of methane will be released. The scientists interviewed seemed to think that this year’s increase was due to the record low in the extent of Arctic sea ice last year.

The final item was an interview with a professor who studies the Great Barrier Reef, specifically coral bleaching and its relationship to sea temperature and acidity. He claimed that if we continue at our current pace, the reef will be dead in 30 years. Given that our rate of CO2 pollution is only increasing, that timeframe will probably prove optimistic.

That’s just sad.