Tuesday, 11 November 2008

November 2008 - Big Ask: Big Deal?

Amidst the financial crisis that has enveloped the media, if not yet the average British citizen, Energy & Climate Change Minister Ed Miliband quietly conceded that the target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 would be increased from 60 to 80%. Two weeks later, Barack Obama swept to victory in the US elections running on a campaign promise of reducing American emissions by the same amount. The target of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions has been a central target of the successful and well-publicised Big Ask campaign, led by the environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth.

High profile supporters (including Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke) and a substantial amount of postcard-pressure from the electorate clearly had an impact on Government thinking. So, has the political mainstream finally woken up to the scientific reality of climate change? Well, maybe. But the relative ease with which both British and American politicians were persuaded that 80% reduction targets were necessary raises the possibility that perhaps the Big Ask wasn’t such a Big Deal after all.

While there is much to celebrate about the adoption of a stronger climate law (the Climate Change Bill will now also include shipping and aviation in emissions targets), there are some voices who can’t quite find the enthusiasm to join the party. The Big Question on their minds is whether an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas by 2050 in two of the richest and most industrialised countries is really enough.

Strangely enough, Friends of the Earth Australia provide an answer in a report published earlier this year, ominously entitled Code Red. In the document, climate science since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) report is reviewed, with a particular focus on the work of James Hansen, Chief Climate Scientist at NASA. Hansen made the news earlier in the year for testifying in the case of the ‘Kingsnorth Six’, where a group of Greenpeace protestors used climate change as a defence to beat charges of criminal damage for spraying the word ‘Gordon’ in rather large letters on the side of a certain coal-fired power station’s chimney stack. Hansen has also, however, spent a great many number of years studying the effects of climatic change on Arctic ice, and has repeatedly reported that the melting of the Arctic ice is about 100 years ahead of schedule – that is, about 100 years ahead of the IPCC predictions.

Code Red reviews an enormous amount of post-IPCC peer reviewed climate science, and reaches a staggering conclusion: We do not need to reduce our emissions, we need to stop, then reverse them. If we do not, then avoiding the infamous tipping points and positive feedback mechanisms (typically the central goal of climate change legislation) will simply not be possible. All the horrific consequences of runaway climate change will become distinct possibilities, rather than vague future scenarios. Avoiding the tipping points means developing methods of sequestering carbon that is already in the atmosphere, at the same time as completely overhauling the global energy economy. Now that’s a Big Ask.

Unsurprisingly, analyses like these are nowhere to be seen in the political mainstream. This could be, of course, because Code Red is a puritanical manifesto for destroying civilisation and all the values it holds dear. Or, it could be that the scientific reality of climate change – as distinct from the politically feasible and ‘reasonable’ options that now define the boundaries of acceptable political debate on climate change – are just too much to bear.

What if preventing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in developing countries meant sacrificing our standards of living? Would we do it? What if preserving ecosystems and biodiversity meant giving up fossil fuels altogether? Could we manage? An 80% reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions of two highly developed and polluting countries is genuine progress. But lurking in the background, some even Bigger Questions remain…


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