Silencing the scientists: the rise of right-wing populism

This piece by Clive Hamilton is worth a read. I recently had my own run-in with an individual who tried to get me sacked from the University of Queensland.   My crime?  Saying on ABC Stateline that the IPCC was a highly credible source of information on climate change.  Where do these people come from?

Last month, Americans were shocked at the attempted murder of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six bystanders. The local County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik captured the immediate assessment of many when he linked the attempted murder to the rise of violent anti-government rhetoric and imagery, observing, “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.”

When asked if the Congresswoman had any enemies her father replied: “Yeah. The whole Tea Party”. Many, including Giffords herself, had had a premonition that the inflammatory language of radical right-wing activists would sooner or later find real expression.

The same hate-filled rhetoric that created the circumstances in which Gabrielle Giffords was gunned down also stokes ferocious attacks on climate scientists and environmentalists in the United States. Debunking climate science is official policy at Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News; a leaked memo from management has instructed reporters to always cast doubt on data reporting global temperature increases.

Continue reading

New study finds growth of corals on the Belize Barrier Reef is slowing

A new study just published in PLos One (Castillo et al 2010) indicates massive corals (Siderastrea sideria) on the outer reefs of the Belizean Barrier Reef are growing more slowly than they did during the early and middle 20th century.

Lead author Karl Castillo (a post doc in my lab) is from southern Belize near the reefs where the study was conducted.  He and my UNC colleague Dr. Justin Ries took core samples from 13 massive starlet corals, a species that can grow to sizes of more than 1 meter across. They then measured the thickness of growth bands in the coral samples.


Core sections represent the most recent years of skeletal extension for Siderastrea siderea from the (A) forereef [core FR-12], (B) backreef [core BR-06], and (C) nearshore reef [core NS-14]. Numbers correspond to year of paired high-low density annual growth bands. Asterisks correspond to the annual growth bands formed during the 1998 coral bleaching event.


Natural and anthropogenic stressors are predicted to have increasingly negative impacts on coral reefs. Understanding how these environmental stressors have impacted coral skeletal growth should improve our ability to predict how they may affect coral reefs in the future. We investigated century-scale variations in skeletal extension for the slow-growing massive scleractinian coral Siderastrea siderea inhabiting the forereef, backreef, and nearshore reefs of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (MBRS) in the western Caribbean Sea.

Methodology/Principal Findings

Thirteen S. siderea cores were extracted, slabbed, and X-rayed. Annual skeletal extension was estimated from adjacent low- and high-density growth bands. Since the early 1900s, forereef S. siderea colonies have shifted from exhibiting the fastest to the slowest average annual skeletal extension, while values for backreef and nearshore colonies have remained relatively constant. The rates of change in annual skeletal extension were −0.020±0.005, 0.011±0.006, and −0.008±0.006 mm yr−1 per year [mean±SE] for forereef, backreef, and nearshore colonies respectively. These values for forereef and nearshoreS. siderea were significantly lower by 0.031±0.008 and by 0.019±0.009 mm yr−1 per year, respectively, than for backreef colonies. However, only forereef S. siderea exhibited a statistically significant decline in annual skeletal extension over the last century.


Our results suggest that forereef S. siderea colonies are more susceptible to environmental stress than backreef and nearshore counterparts, which may have historically been exposed to higher natural baseline stressors. Alternatively, sediment plumes, nutrients, and pollution originating from watersheds of Guatemala and Honduras may disproportionately impact the forereef environment of the MBRS. We are presently reconstructing the history of environmental stressors that have impacted the MBRS to constrain the cause(s) of the observed reductions in coral skeletal growth. This should improve our ability to predict and potentially mitigate the effects of future environmental stressors on coral reef ecosystems.

They found that over the last 90 years, growth rates for corals in the forereef zone shifted from being the fastest of the three zones to the slowest, while the skeletal extension rates of corals closer to the coast remained relatively stable.

“Massive starlet corals are like old-growth trees in a forest, and the annual extension bands in these core samples tell a cautionary tale,” said the study’s lead author, Karl Castillo, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research associate in the marine sciences department in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences. “The forereef corals used to have the greatest linear extension, but since early last century their growth has clearly been stunted.”

“This suggests that backreef and nearshore corals may be accustomed to stressful conditions because of their regular exposure to high environmental stress,” he said. “But forereef corals — which have probably been less conditioned by baseline natural stressors — appear to be more susceptible to recent human-made impacts such as ocean warming.”

Listen to an interview with Glen De’ath about similar findings on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef here.

Republicans announce new climate strategy: Abandon Earth

Unfortunately, no, this isn’t a piece from the Onion: GOP members want to scrap NASA’s climate research funding to instead invest in a new mission to outer space. Have they been talking to Stephen Hawking?

Reposted in full from the Wonk Room:

Republicans have a new idea: instead of wasting time protecting this planet, let’s figure out how to escape it.

Over a hundred years ago, scientists started warning that the unconstrained burning of fossil fuels could make planet Earth uninhabitable for human civilization. Since then, we have spewed billions of tons of greenhouse pollution into the atmosphere, acidifying the oceans, devastating ecosystems, and intensifying catastrophic weather. Fortunately, scientists have also found that the strategy of reducing pollution would unleash an economic revolution with clean energy and keep our planet friendly to the human race. Many of these scientists work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA), which has a billion-dollar budget for studying the “natural and man-made changes in our environment” that “affect the habitability of our planet.”

However, Republicans in Congress find the clean energy pathway unreasonable, arguing the costs of reducing our toxic dependence on coal and oil would be too great. Perhaps stung by accusations that they are simply the Party of No, a group of House Republicans have now put forward an alternate strategy to avoiding disastrous global warming: the first step being to scrap NASA’s world-leading climate science research funding, and direct it instead into sending people into unpolluted outer space:

Global warming funding presents an opportunity to reduce spending without unduly impacting NASA’s core human spaceflight mission. With your help, we can reorient NASA’s mission back toward human spaceflight by reducing funding for climate change research and reallocating those funds to NASA’s human spaceflight accounts, all while moving overall discretionary spending toward 2008 levels.

The signatories of this Abandon Earth letter to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) and Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) are Reps. Sandy Adams (R-FL), Rob Bishop (R-UT), Mo Brooks (R-AL), Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Pete Olson (R-TX) and Bill Posey (R-FL), all from districts that play a role in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) manned spaceflight program. As they are currently on planet Earth, they are also all from districts threatened by the effects of global warming.

Although the signatories don’t explicitly state that the goal of shifting funding from climate research into manned spaceflight is to find a new home for the 350 million people of the United States, one can only assume that they support that goal. Signatory Mo Brooks (R-AL), the new subcommittee chair for the House science committee’s panel on basic research and education, told ScienceInsider that “I haven’t seen anything that convinces me” that greenhouse emissions should be reduced, and will hold hearings about cutting as much of the U.S. climate research budget as possible.

As they are responsible politicians who worry about “[f]uture generations of Americans,” they surely don’t intend to stick our children with catastrophic sea level rise, summer-long heat waves of over 100 degrees, superfueled storms and floods, intense droughts, desertification, and mass species extinction without offering them a Planet B:

Space is the ultimate high ground and nations such as China, Russia, and India are anxious to seize the mantle of space supremacy should we decide to cede it. We must not put ourselves in the position of watching Chinese astronauts planting their flag on the moon while we sit earthbound by our own shortsightedness. Future generations of Americans deserve better.

The Planet-B Republicans rightfully recognize that the moon — without an atmosphere or liquid water — would lead to serious resource competition between the 6 billion people now on this planet, perhaps with China the greatest threat to our post-Earth plans. Although China does have a growing space program, its government is primarily investing in the “save this planet first” strategy, spending twice as much as the United States on clean technology, establishing mandatory standards for renewable energy production, mandatory energy efficiency standards, and mandatory fuel economy standards.

Some people might say that ramping up interplanetary travel from the 12 men who walked on the moon to millions or billions of people, while figuring out how to terraform lifeless planets when we’re failing to keep our own climate stable, in a few decades is a higher risk, more costly endeavor than increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy by one or two percentage points a year. Although those people would be technically correct, they would also be failing to appreciate the total awesomeness of the Abandon Earth plan.

Obama and climate change

As I heard from lots of friends Tuesday (I think I’m getting to be known in my community as being slightly obsessed about this topic!), Obama didn’t have much to say about climate change in his State of The Union speech (just like last year).  This is a calculated strategy to avoid the negative political consequences of taking this issue head on.  LAME . Obama needs to be a leader on this front.  Scientist-bloggers like us cannot swing the tide of America’s misperceptions about climate change without the assistance of our nations leaders.

I try not to get overly political in my blogging, but Iv’e gotta say it; on most the political issues I really care about – gay rights, gun control, war, the environment – this administration is totally disappointing.

Joe Romm has been blogging a lot about this and has a great post today with a long piece by Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University on why Obama’s “don’t use that nasty C word” strategy is unlikley to work:

In his State of the Union speech, Obama called for a big boost in low-carbon energy, but didn’t mention carbon, climate or warming, as I noted last night. Other people noticed, too.

Matthew Hope, a researcher in American politics at the University of Bristol, found that Obama has mentioned ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’ or the ‘environment’ fewer times on average than his two predecessors, as an article today by the UK’s Guardian notes. That piece, which quotes my post, also quotes Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, “an expert on environmental communications,” saying Obama’s “approach has several major drawbacks.” I asked Brulle for all of his thoughts on Hope’s key word analysis and Obama’s speech.  Brulle has a lot to say that is worth reading. Here it is:

From a political viewpoint, it is clear that Obama is not talking about climate change. The analysis based on key word counts is interesting, but not definitive. The idea that both Clinton and Bush are more “green” than Obama cannot be maintained from just a key word analysis. With all of the Obama administrations faults, this administration has done more than either Clinton or Bush in actually implementing regulations and standards to encourage actions to reduce GHG emissions.

What I see going on here is that Obama is following the rhetorical advice of David Axelrod and groups like ecoAmerica, who argue that the American public is unwilling to deal with climate change. [See Messaging 101b: EcoAmerica’s phrase ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ isn’t going to replace ‘global warming’ — and that’s a good thing].

So rather than make the case for climate change and the necessity of action, this approach focuses on “clean” energy and research and development as a way to make a transition to a different energy mix. This is considered the popular, no pain, “energy quest” approach that relies on a mystical belief in R&D to address climate change. The Obama administration appears to have bought this approach completely as the politically popular way to address this issue. In my opinion, this approach has several major drawbacks, and effectively locks in massive and potentially catastrophic global climate change.

Read the complete post here on Climate Progress

And tell us what you think!  Are your political leaders ducking this issue?

Who’s to blame for blocking progress on global warming?

Wonder no longer – Rolling Stone has made a list: 12 Politicians and Execs Blocking Progress on Global Warming.

It’s far from exhaustive, but gives a pretty representative sample of the main players in the US, as well as some more familiar faces.

Rupert Murdoch takes the (coveted?) #1 spot, thanks to the continued efforts of The Australian and Fox News to obscure debate and promote doubt in climate science (but it’s always important to consult the experts when reporting on serious matters).

The Koch brothers’ bankrolling of last year’s Proposition 23 (later defeated by a a 23% margin) in California prompted then-Governer Schwarzenegger to aggressively defend the state’s climate legislation, prompting this response to the oil companies’ claims they were trying to protect jobs:

“This is like Eva Braun selling a kosher cookbook. It’s not about jobs at all. It’s about their ability to pollute and protect their profits,” he said.

Bjørn Lomborg now seems to think that climate change is a problem, but just don’t ask how his new film fared.

And then there’s Sarah Palin.

Who would make it onto an Australian-flavoured list? I have a few ideas.

1. Rupert MurdochCEO, News Corporation

2. Charles and David Koch CEO and Executive VP, Koch Industries

3. Sarah PalinRetired half-term governor, Alaska

4. Gregory Boyce – CEO, Peabody Energy

5. Tom Donahue – President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

6. Rex Tillerson – CEO, ExxonMobil

7. Tim Phillips – President, Americans for Prosperity

8. Ken Cuccinelli – Attorney general, Virginia

9.  Sen. Jay Rockefeller – Democrat, West Virginia

10. Rep. Darrell Issa – Republican, California

11. Bjørn Lomborg – Author, “Cool It”

12. Rep. Fred Upton – Republican, Michigan

Why was it so cold in Europe and North America if climate change is meant to be real?

We have seen record cold weather over the past few months in Europe and North America.  I keep getting asked:  why is this so if climate change is meant to be happening?  Our inept denialist ‘friends’ continue to trumpet this as evidence that climate change is not happening.  The experts, however, think very differently.  Here is some of what they say.

The strongly negative NAO is back again this winter. High pressure has replaced low pressure over the North Pole, and according to NOAA, the NAO index during November 2010 was the second lowest since 1950. This strongly negative NAO has continued into December, and we are on course to have a top-five most extreme December NAO. Cold air is once again spilling southwards into the Eastern U.S. And Europe, bringing record cold and fierce snowstorms. At the same time, warm air is flowing into the Arctic to replace the cold air spilling south–

temperatures averaged more than 10°C (18°F) above average over much of Greenland so far this month. The latest 2-week forecast from the GFS model predicts that the Hot Arctic-Cold Continents pattern will continue for the next two weeks. However, the coldest air has sloshed over into Europe and Asia, and North America will see relatively seasonable temperatures the next two weeks.

Severe winters in eastern US and E. Asia are related by teleconnections to changes in atmospheric pressure and winds following loss of Arctic sea ice

Hot Arctic-Cold Continents

Dr. Jim Overland of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, one of the world’s experts on Arctic weather and climate, [has] demonstrated that the Arctic is normally dominated by low pressure in winter, and a “Polar Vortex” of counter-clockwise circulating winds develops surrounding the North Pole. However, during the winter of 2009-2010, high pressure replaced low pressure over the Arctic, and the Polar Vortex weakened and even reversed at times, with a clockwise flow of air replacing the usual counter-clockwise flow of air around the pole. This unusual flow pattern allowed cold air to spill southwards and be replaced by warm air moving poleward. This pattern is kind of like leaving the refrigerator door ajar–the refrigerator warms up, but all of the cold air spills out into the house.

The North Atlantic Oscillation NAO

This is all part of a natural climate pattern known as the North Atlantic Oscillation NAO, which took on its most extreme configuration in 145 years of record keeping during the winter of 2009 – 2010. The NAO is a climate pattern in the North Atlantic Ocean of fluctuations in the difference of sea-level pressure between the Icelandic Low and the Azores High. It is one of oldest known climate oscillations–seafaring Scandinavians described the pattern several centuries ago. Through east-west oscillation motions of the Icelandic Low and the Azores High, the NAO controls the strength and direction of westerly winds and storm tracks across the North Atlantic. A large difference in the pressure between Iceland and the Azores positive NAO leads to increased westerly winds and mild and wet winters in Europe. Positive NAO conditions also cause the Icelandic Low to draw a stronger south-westerly flow of air over eastern North America, preventing Arctic air from plunging southward. In contrast, if the difference in sea-level pressure between Iceland and the Azores is small negative NAO, westerly winds are suppressed, allowing Arctic air to spill southwards into eastern North America more readily. Negative NAO winters tend to bring cold winters to Europe and the U.S. East Coast, but leads to very warm conditions in the Arctic, since all the cold air spilling out of the Arctic gets replaced by warm air flowing poleward.

The winter of 2009 – 2010 had the most extreme negative NAO since record keeping began in 1865. This “Hot Arctic-Cold Continents pattern”, resulting in a reversal of Polar Vortex and high pressure replacing low pressure over the Arctic, had occurred previously in only four winters during the past 160 years—1969, 1963, 1936, and 1881. Dr. Overland called the winter of 2009 – 2010 at least as surprising at the record 2007 loss of Arctic sea ice. He suspected that Arctic sea ice loss was a likely culprit for the event, since Francis et al. (2009) found that during 1979 – 2006, years that had unusually low summertime Arctic sea ice had a 10 – 20% reduction in the temperature difference between the Equator and North Pole. This resulted in a weaker jet stream with slower winds that lasted a full six months, through fall and winter. The weaker jet caused a weaker Aleutian Low and Icelandic Low during the winter, resulting in a more negative North Atlantic Oscillation, allowing cold air to spill out of the Arctic and into Europe and the Eastern U.S. Dr. Overland also stressed that natural chaos in the weather/climate system also played a role, as well as the El Niño/La Niña cycle and natural oscillations in stratospheric winds. Not every year that we see extremely high levels of Arctic sea ice loss will have a strongly negative NAO winter. For example, the record Arctic sea ice loss year of 2007 saw only a modest perturbation to the Arctic Vortex and the NAO during the winter of 2007 – 2008.

For more information

The NOAA web page, Future of Arctic Sea Ice and Global Impacts has a nice summary of the “Hot Arctic-Cold Continents” winter pattern.

NOAA’s Arctic Report Card is also a good source of information.

Francis, J. A., W. Chan, D. J. Leathers, J. R. Miller, and D. E. Veron, 2009: Winter northern hemisphere weather patterns remember summer Arctic sea-ice extent. Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L07503, doi:10.1029/2009GL037274.

From Climatesignals

2010 ties with 1998 and 2005 as the warmest years on record.

Geneva, 20 January 2011 (WMO) – Press release.  The year 2010 ranked as the warmest year on record, together with 2005 and 1998, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Data received by the WMO show no statistically significant difference between global temperatures in 2010, 2005 and 1998.

In 2010, global average temperature was 0.53°C (0.95°F) above the 1961-90 mean. This value is 0.01°C (0.02°F) above the nominal temperature in 2005, and 0.02°C (0.05°F) above 1998. The difference between the three years is less than the margin of uncertainty (± 0.09°C or ± 0.16°F) in comparing the data.

These statistics are based on data sets maintained by the UK Meteorological Office Hadley Centre/Climatic Research Unit (HadCRU), the U.S. National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Arctic sea-ice cover in December 2010 was the lowest on record, with an average monthly extent of 12 million square kilometres, 1.35 million square kilometres below the 1979-2000 average for December. This follows the third-lowest minimum ice extent recorded in September.

“The 2010 data confirm the Earth’s significant long-term warming trend,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “The ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998.”

Over the ten years from 2001 to 2010, global temperatures have averaged 0.46°C (0.83°F)   above the 1961-1990 average, and are the highest ever recorded for a 10-year period since the beginning of instrumental climate records. Recent warming has been especially strong in Africa, parts of Asia, and parts of the Arctic, with many subregions registering temperatures 1.2 to 1.4°C (2.2 to 2.5°F) above the long-term average.

2010 was an exceptionally warm year over much of Africa and southern and western Asia, and in Greenland and Arctic Canada, with many parts of these regions having their hottest years on record.

Over land few parts of the world were significantly cooler than average in 2010, the most notable being parts of northern Europe and central and eastern Australia.

December 2010 was exceptionally warm in eastern Canada and Greenland. It was abnormally cold through large parts of northern and western Europe, with monthly mean temperatures as much as 10°C below normal at some locations in Norway and Sweden. Many places in Scandinavia had their coldest December on record.  December in Central England was the coldest since 1890. Heavy snowfalls severely disrupted transport in many parts of Europe. It was also colder than average in large parts of the Russian Federation and in the eastern United States, where snow also severely disrupted transport.

Recent significant weather and climate events

The year 2010 was characterized by a high number of extreme weather events, including the heatwave in Russia and the devastating monsoonal floods in Pakistan. These were described in WMO’s provisional statement on the status of the global climate issued December 2010 (

There have been many major weather and climate events in late 2010 and early 2011. These include:

  • In early January floods affected more than 800 000 people in Sri Lanka according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The Philippines were also severely affected by floods and mudslides during January.
  • Flash floods in the mountain areas near the city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in the second week of January resulted in more than 700 deaths, many of them in mudslides. This is one of the highest death tolls due to a single natural disaster in Brazilian history.
  • Severe flooding occurred in eastern Australia in December and the first half of January, associated with the continuing strong La Niña event.  The most extensive damage was in the city of Brisbane, which had its second-highest flood of the last 100 years after that of January 1974. In financial terms it is expected to be the most costly natural disaster in Australia’s history. Previous strong La Niña events have also been associated with severe and widespread flooding in eastern Australia, notably in 1974 and 1955.

Ocean SOS

A nice op-ed in yesterdays LA Times by Tony Haymet and Andrew Dickson who are professors at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, in La Jolla:

The oceans’ SOS

The planet’s great communal resource provides protein sources and oxygen and is used for transportation, recreation and inspiration. It’s time to put it at the center of the climate change discussion.

The ocean is our global heat reservoir and one of two major carbon dioxide sinks. If you agree that humans are trapping heat and carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere — and 53 years of rigorous observations at Scripps and other research institutions show that we are — then the ocean must be at the very center of the climate discussion. But it rarely is.

Consider Cancun: The negotiation text presented at the outset of the climate conference contained exactly one passing reference to the oceans, submerged in a Mariana Trench of footnotes.

Our stubborn addiction to burning coal, oil and natural gas is changing not only the composition of the atmosphere but the composition of the ocean as well. The carbon dioxide those fuels pour into the air inexorably dissolves into the oceans, causing a process known as ocean acidification. The oceans have absorbed 30% of the carbon dioxide that humans have ever produced, and they continue to absorb more each year.

This force-feeding has changed ocean chemistry. As carbon dioxide is added to the ocean, it increases the amounts of dissolved hydrogen-carbonate ions and hydrogen ions (and hence acidity) but decreases the amount of carbonate ions. By the end of the century, acidity will probably double from today’s levels, unless we stop pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The increasingly scarce carbonate ions are the very ones marine invertebrates combine with calcium ions to make their shells. Ocean acidification has been likened to an accelerated case of osteoporosis that afflicts creatures such as massive coral reefs and pteropods — tiny snails that are a key food of commercially important fish. There is also evidence that increasing acidity disrupts the juvenile development of a variety of marine organisms, including clownfish and krill. Marine organisms are wonderfully suited to adapt to changes in seawater chemistry, but never before in history have they been asked to do this so quickly.

Marine scientists in various countries, including China, Germany and the United States, are engaged in a variety of national research programs focusing on the important biological impacts of ocean acidification. We need to document which fisheries, coral reefs and marine ecosystems will be affected first, and how long they might take to recover (if at all). That takes time, but don’t be fooled by the pat response: “We need more research first.” We know enough to act now.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a memorandum encouraging coastal states to start developing assessment methods for evaluating marine waters based on ocean acidification. But assessment is not enough.

Nor should we think we can rely on innovation and geo-engineering to stop acidification. Some have suggested sunshades for the Earth, but that will neither repair the oceans’ chemistry nor reverse the changes that have occurred thus far, let alone protect against our continuing release of carbon dioxide. Another suggested antidote — deliberately modifying the oceans’ microbial cycles of carbon and oxygen so as to interrupt acidification and allow us to continue our current fossil fuel addiction — would be an act of hubris and desperation. We have a clear and attainable alternative: making electricity without releasing carbon dioxide.

Our oceans serve as the primary source of protein for a billion people. We use them for transport, recreation, vacation and inspiration. Microbes in the oceans make 50% of the oxygen we breathe, as well as omega-3 fatty acids that make their way into our food and help us stay healthy. Their waves and winds may soon help us create clean energy. And yet we load them full of trash, tolerate catastrophic oil spills and ignore the impact on them of climate change and carbon dioxide waste.

It is time we paid respect to this great communal resource and stopped using it as a dump. It’s time we put oceans front and center in the political climate debate. And it’s past time we stopped pouring carbon dioxide into our air and seas.

The real climate change challenge.

Ian DunlopABC Unleashed, by IAN DUNLOP

Greg Combet’s speech to the ANU Crawford School Forum on November 30, 2010 encapsulates everything that is wrong with climate change policy in Australia.

The rhetoric is all there – acceptance of the science, intergenerational equity, the need for decisive action and an early carbon price and so on.

The problem is the total misalignment between policy and the real implications of the science, as government and opposition, and indeed the global climate cognoscenti now assembled in Cancun, continue to avoid the major issue; which is that the climate challenge is far greater, and the required response far more urgent, than they are prepared to admit.

Despite two decades of negotiation, virtually nothing has been done to address escalating global carbon emissions – Australia’s actual emissions continue to rise rapidly. As a result, our options to take a graduated response to emissions reduction have largely disappeared, which is already costing the Australian community dearly.

The scientific framework on which current global and national policy is based is almost a decade old. In the interim, scientific understanding and the empirical evidence have progressed markedly, to the point where it is clear we have completely underestimated the task ahead. The gulf between science and policy continues to widen; in short, we are trying to solve the wrong problem with the wrong policies, and until this is honestly acknowledged, realistic policy and solutions will not be forthcoming.

On the balance of probabilities, if catastrophic outcomes are to be avoided, the world must reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations back toward pre-industrial levels, requiring emission reductions close to 50 per cent by 2020, almost complete de-carbonisation by 2050, and continuing efforts to draw down legacy carbon from the atmosphere. To have a reasonable chance of remaining below the “official” target of a maximum 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase, the world can only emit carbon for another 20 years at current rates, allowing barely a third of existing fossil-fuel reserves to be consumed. If the temperature target has to be less than 2C, which is now likely, the budget is considerably lower. Australia’s budget, on a fair basis as one of the world’s highest per capita emitters, would be totally used up in around five years.

In this context, current political thinking on an emission reduction of 5 per cent by 2020, possibly 25 per cent if the rest of the world behave themselves, is laughable; it is high time we faced up to reality and stopped playing political games.

Quite apart from the risks to which we are exposed, Australia is rapidly falling behind other countries in the race to develop a low-carbon economy. It is no longer a question of losing competitiveness because we are taking action, but rather because we are not.

Having crossed the threshold of publicly acknowledging that climate change is a serious threat, leaders now have additional fiduciary responsibilities: politically to honestly inform the community of the full extent of the challenge, corporately to fully inform shareholders of the risks, and the opportunities. Absent such honesty, the consultative arrangements put in place by the Gillard Government are futile and “policy certainty” for both business and community will be misleading and extremely dangerous.

The same applies to NGO advocacy groups. In the lead-up to Copenhagen most opted to work “in the government tent”, finessing a minimalist reform agenda, rather than insist on meaningful reform, on the basis that it is better to get something started and then modify it, than nothing at all. Notwithstanding the history of major reform in Australia that, once implemented, it takes at least a decade to make significant change – a decade we no longer have. Despite the abject failure of that strategy, they are doing it again. The recent release of the Southern Cross Climate Coalition’s “Stronger, Fairer, Healthier” paper continues to avoid the real issue, in the process letting the politicians off the hook. If the Climate Institute, ACF, ACOSS and the ACTU genuinely do have their members interests at heart, they should stop trying to anticipate what might be politically possible, set out the real challenge and lobby for realistic solutions. Let others worry about the politics – we can no longer afford “lowest common denominator” attitudes.

Political, community and business leaders, along with key advisers such as Ross Garnaut and the Productivity Commission must now urgently undertake a comprehensive re-calibration of both the climate challenge itself based on the latest science, and of our policy response. It should focus far more on the opportunities of moving, at emergency speed, to a low-carbon economy rather than preoccupation with the problems of moving away from a high-carbon “business-as-usual”. And instead of obsession with a carbon price as a “great big new tax”, recognise that it is, in reality, the removal of a “great big old subsidy”, a subsidy which is rapidly destroying the planet.

The continual emphasis on the economy as the main game, with climate change grudgingly considered as an optional extra, ignores the fact that unless we address climate change fast, the economy will be in tatters err long.

Government ministers should stop bleating about the Greens being the sole reason emissions trading is not already up and running. The CPRS was appalling policy which ignored all sensible advice on policy design and would have imposed an enormous cost on the economy for minimal reduction in emissions. The Greens did us a great favour in killing it. What is now required is a meaningful, increasing, carbon price of at least $35 per ton initially, leading into a clean emissions trading system with no compensation for polluters and the revenue generated being recycled to the community to offset cost increases, and to encourage low-carbon innovation.

Climate change is not just another policy item on the normal agenda, it is a transformative issue which has life-and-death consequences. This is not a time to follow Bismarck’s advice that“politics is the art of the possible”, as Combet suggested. Quite the reverse; we need leaders who can see that what was politically impossible will shortly become politically inevitable.

Ian Dunlop is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Development and a contributing author to their latest book, More Than Luck: Ideas Australia needs now. Ian is Chairman of Safe Climate Australia and chaired the Australian Greenhouse Office Experts Group on Emissions Trading from 1998-2000.

Cancun climate talks reach ‘historic deal’

Protesters make hope sign at CancunBy North America correspondent Lisa Millar, wires

After an all-night session of the UN climate talks in Cancun, countries have reached a deal that commits all major economies to greenhouse gas cuts.

For the first time the pledges by developing and developed nations to cut pollution have been brought under a UN agreement, despite vigorous opposition from Bolivia.

A multi-billion dollar Green Climate Fund was established for poorer countries to deal with climate change and progress was made on deforestation and clean energy technology.

It also reaffirms a goal of raising an annual $100 billion in aid for poor countries by 2020.

Climate Change Minister Greg Combet says it is now up to Australia to introduce a carbon price as soon as possible.

“We have a responsibility internationally. You can’t come to an international forum and participate in important agreements like this, the Cancun agreement, and then not go home and do our best to meet our emission reduction obligations,” he said.

The Australian Conservation Foundation executive director, Don Henry, has described the agreement as a historic step forward.

“We have a significant agreement here in Cancun, it includes over 80 countries taking on board pollution targets, including the US and China, which is good. We are also seeing a major fund to help poorer nations deal with climate change,” he said.

Mexican foreign minister Patricia Espinosa banged down her gavel on the deal despite objections by Bolivia, which said the plan demanded too little of developed nations in cutting greenhouse gases.

Bolivia said approval of the package violated a need for consensus.

“I urge you to reconsider,” Bolivian delegate Pablo Solon told Ms Espinosa.

After repeated anti-capitalist speeches by Mr Solon, Ms Espinosa retorted that Bolivia’s objections would be noted in a final report but could not derail a deal by 190 nations.

The plan was unlocked after delegates simply put off until 2011 a dispute between rich and poor nations over the future of the UN’s Kyoto Protocol.

Kyoto obliges almost 40 developed nations to cut emissions until 2012.

The deal does not include a commitment to extend Kyoto beyond 2012, when its first period expires, but it would prevent a collapse of climate change negotiations and allow for some modest advances on protecting the environment.

– ABC/wires