Thursday, 6 December 2012

No News on Climate Change

Most of you will probably be aware that the United Nations Doha Climate Change Conference is lumbering to a close.  Delegates sit in air-conditioned comfort in a country which is perhaps a small foretaste of our future world and struggle to make decisions that are in some way meaningful.


As a result, we have been getting updates on the latest findings of climate science, and the results are not pretty.  Data on increases in emissions, rises in sea levels and trends in average global temperatures are all worse than expected.  Melting permafrost adds an element to warming that most models didn't include because of previously inconclusive evidence. 

Climate scientists are pessimistic about our ability to acheive the objective of keeping warming to 2 degrees celsius by 2100, and 4 degrees is being discussed.  A recent World Bank report suggests the human consequences of such a rise would be catastrophic.  Here's a bit of what they say.

Even with the current mitigation commitments and pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20 percent likelihood of exceeding 4°C by 2100. If they are not met, a warming of 4°C could occur as early as the 2060s. Such a warming level and associated sea-level rise of 0.5 to 1 meter, or more, by 2100 would not be the end point: a further warming to levels over 6°C, with several meters of sea-level rise, would likely occur over the following centuries...

No nation will be immune to the impacts of climate change.  However, the distribution of impacts is likely to be inherently unequal and tilted against many of the world’s poorest regions, which have the least economic, institutional, scientific, and technical capacity to cope and adapt...

A world in which warming reaches 4°C above preindustrial levels would be one of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems, and associated services. 

Warming of 4°C can still be avoided: numerous studies show that there are technically and economically feasible emissions pathways to hold warming likely below 2°C. Thus the level of impacts that developing countries and the rest of the world experience will be a result of government, private sector, and civil society decisions and choices, including, unfortunately, inaction.

In other words, climate change is a slow moving train wreck, which will make us all poorer and be a genuine disaster for those who are already poor.  We can minimise it if we act, but we definitely need to act soon.

Meanwhile in Canberra our political leaders have been fully focused on sorting out the important question of what Julia Gillard did or didn't know when she acted as legal representative for the AWU 20 years ago.  Not only did our Prime Minister need to stay home from Doha to sort this issue out,  Climate Change Minister Greg Combet needed to stay home to help.  I'm not sure who is representing Australia in Doha.  

Nor am I sure who is representing any other country. The most important question facing global leaders is being left in the hands of officials who do not have the authority to commit their countries to anything they have not already decided to do. Not surprisingly, it looks as though the result will be what diplomats might refer to as "modest progress".

It so happened that the talks coincided with Australia playing South Africa in the third cricket test in Perth, so instead of the ABC news which at least mentions such things I watched Channel 9.  While some of the alarming research reports released to coincide with the conference were reported, complete with dramatic stock footage of things that look like affects of global warming, the conference itself was not even mentioned.  Obviously there was no decent footage from the conference to be had.  So a large part of the Australian public is likely to be unaware the conference is even happening.

I think this story trumps the absurd cruelty of our country's treatment of asylum seekers as the worst news story of the year.  Both stories leave me feeling frustrated, helpless and angry but the crime involved in neglecting climate change is on such a huge scale it would be hard to imagine anything worse. 

So how is it that we are so sanguine about it?  How is that this comes as just one news story among arguments about 20 year old scandals, interest rate cuts, petty crime and cute animals?  The ABC's Jonathan Green has some thoughts on the subject.  Firstly this:

The problem is of course one of both the scale of the threat and its contemporary invisibility. We are talking about a trend, a prospect, a probability. One that is boggling. Barely conceivable. That both admits idiotic and ideologically motivated "doubt" and subtly invalidates the issue in the eyes of a news media that favours the instantaneous, graphic and loud. If the consequences predicted for 2100 were happening now, well ... then we'd have a story.

The second he quotes from Fairfax journalist Chris Feikin.

Consider this: of all the coal, gas and oil fields that the world's corporations and nations have already quantified and have the legal right to exploit, 80 per cent now needs to stay in the ground if temperature rises are to be kept within 2 degrees.

Incredulity, distance in space and time and multinational corporations with vested interest in the status quo make a powerful combination.  Doha will pass, there will be a lull in press on the subject and we will be able to spend the summer sitting in front of our fans watching the cricket.  The global warming train wreck will roll slowly on.  Who will be powerful enough, and long sighted enough, to stop it?

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