Four degrees. It doesn’t sound like a lot. Four degrees is the difference between a spring day and early summer, right? It’s almost nothing.
Wrong. Four degrees, as an earth-surface average, is the difference between a full-on ice age like the one at the end of the Pleistocene and now.
It’s also the difference between now and a future where the northern half of Australia is over 40°C half the year, and 80 per cent of Australia – including Adelaide, Perth and most cropping land across three states – has over 40 days over 40 degrees a year. (In 1990 this was less than 10 per cent).
You know what 40°C feels like. At 40 you start to feel you’re being cooked. Imagine a week of it monthly, from September to March. Imagine what that will mean for food supply. Water. Schools. Disease.
Four degrees is huge. Four degrees is runaway climate change, all the tipping points. It’s business as usual – but not for long.
Because chances are it won’t get to four degrees. As someone noted at the IPCC scientists’ panel organised by 350.org Australia in Sydney last week, it won’t hit four degrees warming because once it hits three, the economic cataclysm will be so intense that productivity will plummet, taking greenhouse gas production with it. (Then again, carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a century, so maybe, maybe not.)
I went to hear the IPCC guys with a certain dread. Part of me wants not to hear. My inner primate wants to hide in a cupboard labelled Normal Life.
Complacency is so tempting. Look around. Everything’s pretty much OK , yeah? It’s spring. We go to school and work and dinner. Change might come but not for us, not now, not here.
We think climate change is mostly about poor people in distant countries. And up to a point that’s true. We cause it, they suffer it.
But make no mistake. We will still suffer. The coastal houses of the rich will be suddenly worthless. There’ll be no more Barrier Reef holidays. By mid-century, current trajectory, the great reefs will be dead grey stumps. No more kilos of prawns for the barbie. As oceans warm and acidify beyond most species’ tolerance, seafood will become an expensive rarity and oysters almost unheard of. In fact, the barbie will become a dangerous pastime, as Sydney mozzies start to carry dengue and Ross River fever, and beetles carrying chagas disease – a terrible unvaccinatable disease dubbed the Aids of the Americas – also start to spread. And that’s before the homeless hordes decide that Australia looks big and empty.
Sea-level rise alone means land loss, salination of soils and potable water (including, in some cases, aquifers) and massively increased flooding. The IPCC’s expected rise of 0.6 – 1.0m by 2100 puts a salt-lake in Marrickville by 2100 and, globally, implies an annual flooding of 200-300 million people from their homes. That’s some tide.
In 35 years, some 1500 of Indonesia’s islands will be under water. By 2100, 42 million Indonesians living within 3km of the sea may be homeless. Jakarta airport will drown. What does it mean for Australia? Suffice it to say, “stop the boats” won’t be an option.
So sure, it’s scary. But you can’t fix it by looking away. Climate change is not like God. You can’t just decide you don’t believe in it and that’s it, sorted.
The evidence is in. We have not just a second and third opinion. We have 2500 scientific opinions, expert across a dozen disciplines, in agreement – not to mention the Smithsonian, every world university, the Pope, the Queen and the Church of England (which in June passed the Lambeth Declaration calling for urgent action on climate change) all in furious agreement.
This is not some bunch of hippies or communist nut jobs. This is an extraordinary colloquy of sober and conservative voices acknowledging that, sadly, climate change is real, anthropogenic and already, in part, irreversible. Yet we can still choose to survive. Or not.
Four degrees is one of three “stabilisation” scenarios in the IPCC’s latest, 1450-page report. Two degrees is the preferred option. It defines as a 66 per cent or higher probability of maintaining the global surface temperature increase to less than 2° C above pre-industrial levels. It’s a lot less than perfect but, given that the carbon to get us there is already 65 per cent emitted, it’s probably the best we can hope for.
So the questions become: what must we do to cap it at two? When? And who gets to emit the remaining 35 per cent of the carbon?
The only fair answer to the last bit is the poor countries, which must drag billions from poverty. This makes our answer to the other two questions, everything and now.
Under 2° means a 70 per cent reduction of 2010 greenhouse levels by 2050 and zero or negative emissions by 2100. Which is why Tony Abbott’s 26-28 per cent by 2030 looks derisory, even compared with the developed nations’ average of 36 per cent.
Simply, we have to become fossil free. No more oil. No more gas. And not just no new coalmines. No coal, period.
This requires an immediate and universal switch to renewables, evs, organic farming, intensive reforestation, efficiencies, walking and cycling. Not just for the believers. For everyone.
Like the French, we should require all new roofs to be planted or solar. Like the Germans, we must pledge 85 per cent reduction on 1990 levels by 2050.
This conjures improbable fantasy of an honest, principled and backboned Australian political leadership. Imagine the panic that would cause among the policy-rorters and trough-guzzlers.
But on the comfort side is Cuba which, in 1990, with Russia’s connivance, became the no-oil test case. Everyone expected disaster but found, when forced to walk, work and cycle more, to mend and invent, to produce bio-fuel and farm organically, they lived healthier, longer lives and formed stronger, more energised communities.
Two degrees or four? It’s our choice but it’ll be more successful and way more fun, if we jump before we’re pushed.
Press link for more: Elizabeth Farrelly | smh.com.au