Archive for August, 2010

Easiest Election Ever

Most Australians must be glad the farce is almost over. The federal election is only a few days away.

And the farce has surely led the country to an historical ebb, an international embarrassment for democracy. A debate shifted to make way for a reality TV show; a candidate who “rebrands” herself as her “real” self as a major campaign strategy; another candidate who has been roundly criticised for his extreme and anti-scientific statements; the almost complete absence of “minor” parties from the media; in addition to the usual vacuum of substance in discussions, debates, and the mainstream media.

While an international embarrassment for democracy, these developments do make the election itself easy.

Essentially, there is one question in this election with dwarfs all others. The approach to this question of both major parties is a scientific catastrophe. And the approach of the third party is not — at the very least, its concern for the question is encoded in its DNA.

First, it’s worth making clear that electoral politics is always insufficient. It is never enough to cast one’s vote and then switch off for the next 3 years. One should never put one’s faith in a representative beholden to party discipline, poll marginalism, and the democratic deficit of a faraway capital. But elections do have real effects, and in this election the effects are undoubtedly serious.

There is one question which dwarfs all others, because the future of the planet is in question, depending on actions taken in the term of the next government.

Yesterday, the Australian Academy of Science released a new climate change report. Once again, it reiterated and explained the scientific consensus that the earth is warming and that human greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause. Once again, it reiterated and explained the scientific consensus that if business continues as usual, global temperatures will increase significantly, and that this will have serious effects. And it went into some detail about what those effects might be.

This is not an ordinary peer-reviewed scientific paper. It is not just an opinion backed up by evidence and reviewed by experts. This is a synthesis of hundreds of academic papers. Like the international IPCC, it summarises the consensus of all of them. It is the sense of the entire community of experts. As such, it is inherently conservative. It is a minimal statement of what we are scientifically sure about; and it is extremely careful with questions we are not sure about.

This consensus includes: “business as usual” is expected to lead to lead to a warming of 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, possibly only 3 degrees, but possibly as high as 7 degrees.

This consensus continues: A warming of 4.5 degrees

would mean that the world would be hotter than at any time in the last few million years. Sea level would continue to rise for many centuries. The impacts of such changes are difficult to predict, but are likely to be severe for human populations and for the natural world. The further climate is pushed beyond the envelope of relative stability that has characterised the last several millennia, the greater becomes the risk of passing tipping points that will result in profound changes in climate, vegetation, ocean circulation and ice sheet stability.

In other words, the question is not marginal. That is how you say, in scientific language, that the fate of the planet is at stake.

Even a warming of 2 degrees Celsius

would lead to a significantly different world from the one we now inhabit. Likely consequences would include more heat waves, fewer cold spells, changes to rainfall patterns and a higher global average rainfall, higher plant productivity in some places but decreases in others, disturbances to marine and terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity, disruption to food production in some regions, rising sea levels, and decreases in Arctic ice cover. While aspects of these changes may be beneficial in some regions, the overall impacts are likely to be negative under the present structure of global society.

And, modelling emissions pathways, to have a “better than even” chance of preventing temperature rise of more than 2 degrees, global emissions “need to peak within 10 years and then decline rapidly”.

We are now about to elect a government for 3 of those 10 years.

To summarise: Australian society is about to elect a government for a time in which, in order to have a “better than even” chance of preventing a 2 degree temperature rise — which itself would still lead to a “significantly different” and more difficult world to live in — global emissions “need to peak within 10 years and then decline rapidly”. That requires a major structural shift in the global economy, starting immediately. Of course, that implies an immediate and major structural shift in the Australian economy too.

Three years ago, both Labor and Liberal parties were in favour of capping carbon emissions — that is, setting an upper limit on emissions, by law. A majority of the Australian public has consistently supported serious action on climate change regardless of international developments, despite disillusionment, the failure of the Copenhagen conference, and an upsurge in climate denialism. As the threat of climate change has worsened, and the state of scientific knowledge become even more disturbing, both major parties have responded by abandoning those policies.

The Labor party abandoned its policy of a cap-and-trade scheme after Tony Abbott became leader of the Liberal party. Abbott in 2009 described the scientific argument as “absolute crap”, and to this day disputes the scientific consensus — truly an heroic scientific dissent, since even his party colleagues describe him as “innumerate”.

Julia Gillard, Labor party leader, in her climate policy campaign speech, announced a new initiative: she would convoke a randomly-selected “Citizens’ Assembly” of 150 Australians, to examine the issue over 12 months, and wait for their opinion before taking any action. The policy has “become an ongoing joke in Labor ranks”. Needless to say, if emissions “need to peak within 10 years and then decline rapidly”, such a total abdication of policy is scarcely imaginable. The “policy” does not even appear on Labor’s policy website, such is the level of embarrassment. The independent Climate Institute estimates their policy will lead to no peak, no decline, but a 19% increase in emissions above 1990 levels by 2020.

On the other hand, the climate change policy of the Liberal/National party coalition, under Abbott, who describes the scientific argument as “absolute crap”, includes no limit on carbon emissions, and centres around an “emissions reduction fund”. Under this policy, their document proudly announces, “businesses will not be penalised for continuing to operate at ‘business as usual’ levels” — truly likely to lead to a major structural shift in the economy within a decade. The Climate Institute estimate for their policy is no peak, no decline, but an 8% increase in emissions above 1990 levels by 2020.

As far as I can find at the time of writing, neither major party has made any response to the Academy of Science report.

The Greens do have some commitments on the environment. In particular, their policy recognises “we have only 10-15 years to use our collective human intelligence to address the crisis of climate change and to prevent catstrophe.” They propose a cap on carbon, a 40% reduction on 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and other serious action.

The only electoral outcome which can give a non-catastrophic, science-based Australian climate policy, in the period in which emissions “need to peak within 10 years and then decline rapidly”, is a large swing to the Greens.

In Australia, with mandatory and preferential voting, the electoral system makes this choice easier than elsewhere. In the US and elsewhere, With a first-past-the-post system, a vote for the Greens takes a vote away from other parties. With Australia’s preferential voting system, if the Greens do not get your highest first vote, then your vote switches to the lesser of the other evils, as you decide. You decide where your vote goes and in what order.

The Greens may well obtain the balance of power in the Senate, as well as a lower house seat here in Melbourne. An increased vote may give them real leverage to force climate action upon whatever government takes office.

Of course, a mere vote at this election is not enough. It will take serious, urgent, international and sustained action to make the changes necessary to maintain a liveable planet, as the science demands. This electoral campaign, if nothing else, should be an education to Australians about the bankruptcy of their political system, the oncoming crisis in the climate system, and the need for vast changes in their society.

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Written by dan

August 17th, 2010 at 3:49 am