THE Howard Government seems recently to have accepted that climate change is caused by humans and needs to be dealt with. But has it really accepted this? And will its policies make a difference? The key to answering these questions lies in understanding how urgent the climate threat is.
The main indicator of how long we have to address climate change is the state of the Arctic icecap, which covers Earth’s northern ocean. The entire weather system of the northern hemisphere depends on the temperature gradient between it and the equator, so if the North Pole warms up, the winds, monsoons, rains, temperatures and seasons will shift in dramatic ways. And of course, the southern hemisphere’s weather system will be affected as well.
By the mid-1970s, the Arctic icecap began melting away at the rate of 8 per cent a decade. This rate of melting persisted almost unchanged until 2004, by which time about one-quarter of the icecap had melted, revealing the dark ocean underneath.
During the summer, the sun falls for 24 hours a day on the Arctic icecap, delivering a huge amount of energy. But ice is bright, and before its melting the Arctic icecap reflected 90 per cent of the sun’s energy back into space, keeping the planet cool. But as the ice has melted, more of the sun has fallen on the ocean, and it absorbs 90 per cent of the sun’s energy, turning it into heat.
By last year, so much of the sunlight was being captured by the ocean and turned into heat energy that a dramatic change occurred: the ocean stayed so warm that the winter ice did not form properly, and the following summer about 300,000 square kilometres of ice melted. The same thing happened this year, so now huge areas of ocean are exposed where just a few short years ago there was ice.
Before 2004, the rate of melt was such that scientists believed the icecap would melt entirely by about 2100. At the trajectory set by the new rate of melt, however, there will be no Arctic icecap in the next five to 15 years. And with no ice, the Arctic region will rapidly begin heating, perhaps by as much as 12 degrees.
This change will put further pressure on the Greenland icecap, which is already melting at the stupendous rate of 235 cubic kilometres a year. If it succumbs to the heat, the ocean will rise by six metres, and icecaps in the Antarctic may destabilise.
James Hanson, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute, is arguably the world authority on climate change. He predicts that we have just a decade to avert a 25-metre rise of the sea. Picture an eight-storey building by a beach, then imagine waves lapping its roof. That’s what a 25-metre rise in sea level looks like.
Whatever you think of such predictions, the rate of melt of the Arctic icecap is indisputable and deeply troubling. It should convince everyone that climate change is by far the most urgent threat facing humanity. It also tells us that the long recalcitrance of the Howard Government in respect to climate change has already cost us dearly, and that we must now make great changes in just a few short years. Had we begun a decade earlier, our actions would have been far more effective and less disruptive.
As we judge the Howard Government’s climate change policies, we must keep several things in mind. One is the potentially great cost of not ratifying Kyoto. Phase 2 of the treaty begins in 2012, and already the parties are debating who shall accept what restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions. Both China and India must take on meaningful restrictions if our civilisation is to survive this crisis, but with Australia and the United States outside the treaty, they have the perfect excuse to decline: why should they accept such binding restrictions when the richest nations of Earth refuse to do so?
A second thing to watch is Australia’s total emissions. Before we rejected Kyoto, Australia was given a target that allowed for a substantial increase in emissions. When the Howard Government talks of meeting its Kyoto target, this is what it’s referring to. Sticking with such a lax target is disastrous, and government-funded projects such as the recently announced solar farm and more efficient burning of brown coal cannot achieve a significant reduction in carbon dioxide pollution.
So far the Howard Government’s approach has been to hand out hard-earned taxpayers’ money — some of it to big corporations — and proclaim that it’s doing something. With a world facing as grave a threat as it faced in 1938, John Howard is quickly becoming the Chamberlain of the chequebook, while a climate-change Churchill is nowhere to be seen in Australian politics.
What must the Howard Government do if it is to effectively protect Australians from the looming climate disaster?
First it must inform Australians of the gravity of the situation, then lay out an ambitious plan for emissions reduction that includes public participation. Immediate reductions are required, and these can be had through efficiency gains. In addition, a long-term target of an 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 should be set. If we are to achieve that we must use the power of the market. A carbon tax and carbon trading scheme are absolutely indispensable tools to achieve such targets. And of course we must ratify Kyoto immediately.
My sense of the matter is that none of this will happen.
Instead, the Howard Government will do the bare minimum required to appease public opinion, for it appears to have no one able and willing to absorb the scientific evidence, and to champion a more resolute response through the cabinet.
I sincerely hope I’m wrong, because this Government and the one that follows it may well be the last in Australian history to have the chance to avert a climate disaster.
Tim Flannery is an environmental scientist.