Recent Developments in Climate Change Science and Politics

An address to a meeting of the Environmental Givers Network
Melbourne, 17 October 2007
Clive Hamilton1

Today, I plan to talk about the state of climate science, the Federal Government’s evolving international position and the emerging security issues associated with climate change.

Political actors typically engage in exaggeration to advance their case. Environmental campaigns are no different. Environmentalists have sometimes over-stated the effects of environmental decline. The risks of nuclear power, though considerable, have been exaggerated. The threats posed by DDT, lead pollution and pesticides, while significant, have at times been presented as much scarier than they actually are.

The purpose of political exaggeration is to stimulate stronger emotional responses, usually fear, and therefore make us more likely to act in the way desired. When your opponents, with the help of professionals, are busily exaggerating the other way the pressure is almost irresistible.

Yet there is one area where the opposite is the case, where the protagonists on one side have for years systematically under-stated the dangers.

Climate scientists and environmentalists have been afraid to talk about the true extent of the dangers of global warming. Those who have looked closely at what the scientists are concluding believe that the truth is so frightening that, if told, it will immobilise people and stop them from acting rather than stimulating them to do more.

There is a cavernous gap between the urgency and the seriousness of the warnings from the science and the political response to it. The concern among the public is way ahead of that of our politicians; but it remains true that the public simply has no grasp of the magnitude of the diaster that looms ahead of us. Nowhere in the world, except perhaps in the United States, is this radical disconnect greater than in Australia. Let me comment first on the science for very few people understand the situation we face.

Scientific reticence

In June this year the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics carried a paper by James Hansen and others clarifying the question of what is dangerous human-induced climate change.2 Hansen is widely recognised as the world’s most eminent climate scientist. The authors concluded that an additional warming of 1ºC above the level in 2000 will have effects that ‘may be highly disruptive’, using expected sea-level rise as the best indicator of danger.

A 1ºC increase above the year 2000 level means an average temperature increase of around 1.7ºC above the pre-industrial average. The analysis suggests that this ‘tipping point’ is almost locked in. They acknowledge that avoiding this danger point is ‘still technically feasible’ but in practice keeping global temperatures from rising by 2ºC is now beyond us.

Even more alarmingly, the following statement is buried in the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC’s Working Group I, published earlier this year.

Stabilisation of atmospheric greenhouse gases below about 400 ppm CO2 equivalent is required to keep the global temperature increase likely less than 2ºC above pre-industrial temperature (Knutti et al., 2005).3

We have effectively passed the point that locks in two degrees of warming, and will without question go well beyond it. Even three degrees is looking hard to avoid.

Very few people, even among environmentalists, have truly faced up to what the science is telling us. This is because the implications of three degrees, let alone four or five, are so horrible that we look to any possible scenario to head it off, including the canvassing of ‘emergency’ responses including the suspension of democratic processes.

I am suggesting that we have to face up to the fact that, due to widespread denial and political inertia, the global temperature will inevitably increase by 2ºC, will likely exceed 3ºC and may blow out to 4ºC over this century. Three or four degrees now seems likely because our political leaders cannot confront the scientific facts, and meet resistance from business and the public to talking about what is needed.

What does this mean for Australia? The prediction of impacts is not a sure science, but here are some of the best estimates from the CSIRO as to what a 3-4 degree global temperature increase would mean for Australia.4

• A doubling of the number of very hot days (over 35ºC) in the Eastern states – in other words long and very hot summers will be much more common.

• A doubling or trebling of deaths among older people due to heat stroke.

• Catastrophic mortality of coral species, including a 95% decrease in the distribution of Great Barrier Reef species.

• Loss of more than half of the core habitat for Eucalyptus species. Imagine our country with more than half of the gum trees gone.

• Possible 50 per cent fall in water flows in the Murray Darling Basin. We are already caught up in intractable fights over the water in the system.

• Substantial increases in extreme weather events, including cyclones, bushfires, and storm tides.

In other words, this country will shift into a different and much less pleasant climate, and it will last for hundreds of years. The Australia we know and love will be history.

The story does not end there because climate scientists are now becoming increasingly worried about the possibility of non-linear events, or climate tipping points. In a recent paper titled ‘Scientific reticence and sea level rise’,5 James Hansen discusses the traditional caution of scientists that has led them to downplay the risks of sea level rise of several metres due to the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet. He argues that scientists are more worried about being accused of ‘crying wolf’ than they are of being accused of ‘fiddling while Rome burns’.

Hansen discusses the pressures on scientists to be conservative, noting that journals are more likely to publish their papers if they are cautious and filled with caveats. He argues that the IPCC consensus process naturally favours caution and understatement of dangers.

There is enough information now, in my opinion, to make it a near certainty that IPCC BAU [business as usual] climate forcing scenarios would lead to a disastrous multi-metre sea level rise on the century time scale.6

When the world’s foremost climate scientist tells us that unless we act soon to sharply cut our emissions then we are near certain to experience sea-level rise of several metres, we should become seriously worried. Yet I see little evidence to sustain a belief that the world is willing to do anything like what is needed.

Aviation denial

I was reminded of this by the reaction to a paper recently released by my Institute on the need to begin tackling greenhouse gas emissions from aviation. The paper assumes that the world will aim to cut emissions by 60 per cent by 2050. This is the ALP target for Australia. The paper shows that if we do nothing about the extraordinary growth of aviation emissions then aeroplanes will account for our entire greenhouse gas emission allowances by 2050.

As there is no feasible technological solution to emissions from aviation – essentially, they have to burn kerosene to stay in the air – we must consider limiting the growth of the industry beginning with a moratorium on airport expansions. This argument is now accepted, in principle at least, in Europe, yet our paper sparked a series of extraordinary attacks on us by the industry, notably Virgin Blue, the Government and the Labor Opposition.

Their world view is so inseparably bound up with continued growth that they are simply immune to the facts; they will not countenance them. They will not even propose an alternative analysis. They just deny that it could be true.

In the climate change debate, while the dangers of global warming have been deliberately understated, those opposed to taking action have engaged in absurd exaggeration of the economic costs of cutting emissions. The Prime Minister, various ministers and the fossil fuel lobby have for years claimed that cutting emissions would be economically ruinous, cause massive job losses and destroy our international competitiveness. None of these claims is backed by credible evidence and can easily be shown to be false.

James Hansen reminds us that taking measures to reduce the risks of these catastrophic events will require us to begin immediately to shift onto a radically different energy and greenhouse gas emissions path. At present such a shift is politically unimaginable; yet if we do not imagine it very soon then generations to come will pay very dearly indeed.

While sceptics and conservative newspapers accuse climate scientists of being alarmist, in fact the opposite is the truth: they are too afraid of being accused of being alarmist to state the dangers as they understand them.

In order to avoid the worst of these forecasts the world will have to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Scientists and environmentalists who point out the true extent of the crisis we face risk being attacked for being alarmist, not least by our Prime Minister and environment minister Malcolm Turnbull. Yet James Hansen is right to believe that the responsibility to the truth, and to future generations, is far greater than any fear of personal vilification.

Building on Kyoto

The global politics of climate change are very fluid at present. The first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol begins on 1st January 2008 and it is now clear who is committed to action under it and what they will be doing.

The most important developments have been the emergence of the European emissions trading system, which has set the benchmark for the rest of the world, and the emergence of the Clean Development Mechanism, which is channelling billions of dollars of investment into developing countries.

Attention is focusing increasingly on what will emerge after the first commitment period ends in 2012. The parameters of what might emerge remain unclear, but pressure is mounting to ensure that the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to be held in Bali in December, defines a pathway to a new agreement.

The declaration of the June G8 meeting in Germany (Heiligendamm) provided a strong indication of where the debate is going. In a crucial move that has been overlooked in Australia, the statement declared that future negations should occur under the auspices of the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Having attacked the UN for years, including its alleged failure to develop a viable response to climate change, President Bush’s endorsement of the G8 statement was a huge concession. In short, Bush blinked.

The 1992 Framework Convention is the mother treaty for the Kyoto Protocol, and the latter was agreed 1997 because it was accepted that the voluntary measures set out on the Convention had failed to have any appreciable effect on the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.

The decision by the United States to negotiate a future treaty under the auspices of the Framework Convention has left the Howard Government stranded. Although Australia ratified the Convention in the early 1990s, the Prime Minister has repeatedly attacked the UN process as flawed and insists that any progress on climate change must occur in other forums, notable AP6 and the APEC meeting. It does not yet seem to have acknowledged the import of the G8 agreement and the dramatic US shift.

APEC and the Sydney Declaration

It had been clear for a year or so that the Howard Government planned for APEC to reach an agreement that would provide the basis for an alternative to Kyoto. It should have been clear from the abject failure of AP6 that this would not fly once the other main players got wind of it. Some weeks before the APEC meeting, Japan made it clear in private that it would agree to nothing that undermined Kyoto.

The Government should also have taken note of the dramatic back-flip by the Bush Administration at the G8 meeting in June, which endorsed the UN process as the only way forward. In the days before APEC and at the event one country after another sent an unambiguous message to Howard that they would not play his anti-Kyoto game.

Malaysia said Australia ‘has no credibility to negotiate anything’ on climate, China reaffirmed that Kyoto must be at the centre of global efforts, and the Philippines tressed the UN was the only game in town. Even the US acknowledged that the real action will be in Bali.

In an amazing display of chutzpah, our foreign minister characterised these comments as an attempt to water down the Sydney Declaration against the desire of Australia for a

‘more ambitious’ statement. At the APEC cocktail parties, the irony of the world’s worst climate laggard claiming that the rest of the world was holding back its ambitious agenda would have drawn wry smiles and the odd guffaw.

The APEC leaders all knew that Australia’s real ambition was to undermine Kyoto, which was not on. Accordingly, the final Sydney Declaration was a strong endorsement of the global process. It reaffirmed the UNFCCC and its objective. Without actually mentioning it, the Declaration endorsed the Kyoto Protocol, calling for a post-2012 agreement that “strengthens, broadens and deepens the current arrangements”. Indeed, it goes much further than Kyoto in calling for an agreed long-term global emissions reductions goal. And the agreed APEC country actions are to be supplementary to Kyoto.

All of this represented a defeat for the Howard Government’s plans. Undeterred, The Australian reached a new level of climate change absurdity by announcing that APEC was “a sweeping victory for John Howard on climate change”. The Australian used to be the most uncritical purveyor of Government spin on climate change; now in invents the spin for the Government.

Back to the future?

The Howard plan for APEC to agree to some sort of ‘pledge and review’ system represents a return to the voluntary approach that the original Framework Convention showed cannot work, suggesting that the Government’s thinking is stuck at around 1995.

With Kyoto effectively bedded down, Europe is now turning its attention to what sort of structure will succeed it. Recognising the fluidity of the situation, including the expected transition to a pro-climate administration in the United States at the end of 2008, the EU understands that now is the time to adopt a flexible stance.

This has important implications for the Howard Government’s decision to introduce an emissions trading system. One of the key criteria identified by the Prime Minister’s Task Group on Emissions Trading was that any domestic system should be able to be integrated into other systems, including Europe’s. Integration has enormous potential advantages for Australian firms with carbon reduction obligations.

Europe has always insisted that no nation would be permitted to take part in its trading system unless it had ratified Kyoto. This was done for pragmatic rather than political reasons, because ratification provides the same set of legal obligations on all Kyoto parties and thereby provides the basis for the harmonisation of trading systems.

It is now reported that Europe will consider allow the linking of trading systems after 2012 for countries that ratify a Kyoto II treaty. If Australia wanted to integrate its trading system with the European one before 2013 then it would be required to ratify the Kyoto Protocol first.

Europe is taking a flexible view of what might lie beyond 2012. This is where Australia hopes it will be able to link its domestic system with others around the world, including the EU. In principle the EU has no objection; indeed, as a means of urging Australia to take a more serious approach to climate change, it encourages this thinking.

However, the Australian Government has not thought through the implications. The report of Mr Howard’s Task Group spends some time discussing the features a domestic system would need to have to be integrated into the EU system, and other systems being developed (notably in the US) that are also expected to be linked with the EU system in due course. The proposed Australian system is designed to make future links possible.

But the Government’s Task Group shied away from the most important consideration of all. What sort of targets will prevail in each country? When we pose this question it is apparent that there is no way any Australian system under the Howard Government could be linked with the EU system, and probably not those emerging in the US. Why is this so?

Earlier this year the Europe Union committed itself to a binding obligation to cut its emissions to 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, with the option of increasing this to 30 per cent if other countries take comparable action.

This target will require far-reaching changes to the energy economy in the EU 27. The Howard Government, blinded by its ideological hostility to Europe, is only now waking up to the fact that Europe takes climate change very seriously indeed.

But any suggestion of an Australian target within coo-ee of the European one is met with howls of outrage from the Government. Words like ‘economic ruin’ are thrown around. The Howard Government’s proposed emissions trading scheme, to begin in 2012, will almost certainly have a very weak target, which will require much less of Australian emitters.

Hard targets in Europe and easy targets in Australia will mean that emission permits will be expensive in Europe and cheap here. Linking of the two systems would see European firms rushing to Australia to buy cheap permits, and the price difference would disappear on the first day of trading.

One consequence would be the erosion of the integrity of the European targets, something the EU would simply not permit. In Australia, polluters who thought they had it fairly easy would find that the price of permits had doubled or trebled overnight.

The only way to avoid this problem, which will apply to all attempts to link trading systems, is to harmonise not just the structures of the systems but the process of setting emission targets too.

Of course, this is precisely what happened at the Kyoto conference in 1997. Thus, implicit in the Prime Minister’s grand plan to develop a system to replace the Kyoto Protocol is a structural imperative to replicate it.

This replication process even extends to the proposed method of integrating developing countries into a global trading scheme. The Prime Minister’s Task Group recommends a process based closely on the Clean Development Mechanism of the Protocol, which allows firms with carbon reduction obligations to generate credits by investing in emission reductions in poor countries.

So all roads lead back to the Kyoto Protocol or a structure very like it. Despite all of the ill-informed attacks on the treaty in this country, the protocol was in truth an extraordinary achievement, the essential elements of which will inevitably be imitated in any subsequent global system.

Security and climate change

Attention is shifting to the security implications of climate change, and interest will gather pace as the impacts of climate change intensify. What are the security implications? In an important report published very recently the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WGBU) identifies three main areas of concern.7 ,

First, climate change could exacerbate existing environmental crises. The constellation of problems associated with water security, drought, and soil degradation could worsen and this may lead to conflicts over land. The conflict in Darfur is perhaps the first war to be attributed in part to the effects of global warming. Environmentally induced migration is expected to follow these conflicts giving rise to humanitarian crises.

CC may also exacerbate poverty and overwhelm local capacity to adapt. These problems will be more acute in weak and failing states. We have seen that even in Australia, a country much better placed than most do deal with environmental crises, the drought has led to considerable social trauma in the bush and has given rise to calls to shift agriculture northwards.

The WGBU also argues that climate change may lead to new conflict constellations. Sea-level rise, storm surges and floods pose threats to cities and industrial regions, especially in China, India and USA. Melting glaciers are expected to jeopardise water supplies. We are already seeing the effects of this in Peru where severe water shortages have followed the melting of Andean glaciers. Similar problems are expected in those countries reliant on Himalayan glaciers for their water supplies. We should bear in mind that 1.1 billion people are already without safe drinking water, and 850 million people are undernourished. Changing weather patterns are expected to lead to declining food security in some regions, even with a 2ºC warming.

Large-scale migrations are also to be expected. In the medium term these are likely to occur mainly within and between developing countries. They may generate conflicts in transit and target regions, such as in South Asia and the Sahel region of Africa. But Europe and North America must also expect substantial increases in migratory pressure.

How are we to respond to these new security threats? Globally we are at a cross-road. Climate change could lead to destabilisation and violence threatening national and international security. Already some parties are thinking of climate change in a military context which tends to generate ‘solutions’ favouring protection of states, guarding one’s resources and seizing control of others and building defensive walls. This is the nightmare scenario painted by a report from the Pentagon in 2004.

There is an alternative approach, one that could unite rather than further divide the international community. Such an approach requires that we first recognise the dimensions of the problem and resolve to act soon. Our focus must be on protecting those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. To do this we must have a globally coordinated effort, including the commitment of rich countries to sharply cut their emissions and help Third World nations cope with the effects of global warming.

This will require not only large resource transfers but also the construction or strengthening of international institutions, particularly UN bodies, including UNFCCC, the UN Environment Programme and various humanitarian bodies.

In other words, this approach requires the world to unite around the idea of climate justice. Climate justice represents the convergence of the social justice and environmental movements. It begins by acknowledging that, although they not responsible for global warming, poor people throughout the world will suffer most from its effects and are least able to protect themselves. They are also more likely to live in countries where governments are less able to protect them and help them adapt.

Thus climate change should be seen as a human rights problem as much as a scientific and economic one. Climate change is transforming the way we think about almost everything. For philanthropists there is no area more deserving of funding.





1 Executive Director, The Australia Institute

2 James Hanson et al., ‘Dangerous human-made interference with climate: a GISS model study’, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 7, 2287-2312, 2007.

3 IPCC, Report of Working Group I of the IPCC, 2007. p. 828

4 B. L. Preston and R. N. Jones, ‘Climate Change Impacts on Australia and the Benefits of Early Action to Reduce Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions’, A consultancy report for the Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change February, 2006

5 James Hansen, ‘Scientific reticence and sea level rise’, Environmental Research Letters, 2(2007)

6 Ibid., p. 5

7 German Advisory Council on Global Change (WGBU), World in Transition: Climate Change as a Security Risk, Berlin, October 2007




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