Human-caused global warming is the greatest threat facing humanity. Just this week I was reading up on the latest science. It makes pretty depressing reading.
Politicians are stuck on outdated advice that major impacts and feedbacks lie beyond two degrees of warming. But the science is telling us we’re already hitting some at just three-quarters of a degree.
Polar ice melt has passed tipping points threatening to set off a chain reaction of metres of sea level rise, carbon emissions from permafrost, and accelerating warming. Already heatwaves, floods, droughts, and fires are intensifying, costing lives and reducing crop yields. I can’t emphasize enough that these things are happening at the current temperature.
There’s much more warming in the pipeline. The last time CO2 was as high as today, global temperature was many degrees warmer, sea level tens of metres higher, and the Arctic warm enough to trigger massive carbon feedbacks.
So, we have already gone too far. The stable Earth that sustained us is gone, and we are entering an unfriendly, unstable climate spiralling out of our control.
Security agencies call climate change a threat multiplier. That means whatever issue you care about – whether it’s feeding your kids, preventing terrorism, or fighting injustice – global warming will make it harder.
As long as we keep emitting, the problem will keep getting worse. Because CO2 is already too high, we should not consider any further amount of carbon to be safely “burnable”. We must leave in the ground as much fossil fuel as possible, and approach zero emissions as soon as possible. That means rich countries need to cut emissions at a rate much faster than politicians are talking about.
What’s lacking is political will. We have most of the technologies required for zero emissions, though some argue the required speed of action may be incompatible with a growing economy. These are the kinds of debates we should be having, about how much we need to change the system, rather than the rubbish our governments are arguing over. But we no longer have a non-radical option: it’s either radical change now, or radical collapse later.
Unfortunately, cutting emissions isn’t enough anymore. It’s difficult to avoid concluding that we humans must now take on the hazardous role of climate engineers, to restore a safe climate by directly cooling the planet. This is a controversial issue, but something I think we need to talk about. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of complex problems with geoengineering, so it’s no get-out-of-jail-free card, merely a Band-Aid to treat the symptoms it is too late to prevent.
Our inescapably urgent task is to stop putting the carbon up there. The decisions made in the next few years will determine the extent of global warming for millennia.
And here we come to the problem with the climate talks. I’m 22 and these talks have dragged on for my entire life. They continually defer action to an ever-receding time in the future. Despite negotiators’ constant claims they are making progress, global fossil fuel emissions have risen 61% since 1990 and show no sign of slowing.
The disconnect between the scientists’ warnings and the politicians’ dawdling has never been more stark. The talks have agreed to delay implementation of any new global agreement until 2020, too late to wait.
Governments’ voluntary pledges from now to 2020 put the Earth on track to four degrees by 2100 – that’s four degrees plus the feedbacks I just talked about. In fact it’s even worse than that, because some countries like Australia are backtracking on their promises.
This is extremely reckless in light of the mounting evidence that less than one degree is dangerous. Four degrees could mean collapse of the food chain, the Amazon rainforest burning up, southern Australia turning to desert – and more! Climate scientist Kevin Anderson says four degrees would be incompatible with human civilization and beyond adaptation.
Last year’s climate talks in Warsaw were a farce – hosted by a denialist government, sponsored by the fossil fuel industry, and obstructed by an Australian delegation who said no to everything, as you can imagine. It’s now more obvious than ever we’re being run by the corporations, for the corporations.
Many are emphasizing that the Australian government is lagging the world and sabotaging action wherever it can. And that’s true, our government is probably the brownest in the rich world. We’re basically being run by the fossil fuel industry, and I don’t need to tell you how appalling Tony Abbott has been for the climate. He has gone out of his way to snub Tuesday’s summit, even though he will be in New York on Wednesday to discuss terrorism.
But Australia’s extremism provides a useful scapegoat for other governments who are also failing to act on the necessary scale. We must stop arguing that Australia should get on the bandwagon: there is no bandwagon to get on. The policies announced recently by the US and EU are aimed at moderate emissions cuts by 2030, with deeper cuts by 2050 if you believe politicians can guarantee anything that far out.
These targets might have been wonderful if they’d been enacted 20 years ago, when we still had time to phase out emissions gradually. But because our leaders have chosen to listen to big business instead of scientists, we no longer have that luxury. If we let these talks drag on until today’s children are my age, it will be far too late.
Furthermore, current policies rely heavily on dubious market mechanisms such as emissions trading which, among many flaws, require investor confidence in order to work – a confidence which is impossible thanks to the political uncertainty created by a relentless fossil fuel lobby fighting for survival. Even if emissions trading does work, it may take decades to make a real difference.
When you look beyond the spin, most countries continue to expand their fossil fuel industries. Australia, Canada, and the US are all ramping up fossil fuel exports, which aren’t counted in their emissions targets.
We are in a climate emergency, which requires an emergency response. We need action now. Not 2050, not 2030, not 2020, now. We simply don’t have time to stuff around.
We don’t have time to stuff around with distant targets.
We don’t have time to stuff around with market mechanisms.
And we in the climate movement don’t have time to stuff around with incremental demands. Sucking up to those in power has been failing for 25 years. We need to tell the truth about what is necessary, because if we don’t, who will?
There are days when I feel the situation is hopeless. But one reason for hope is this global day of protest. Without protests like this one, society will never take anywhere near the scale of action required. We need people power to counter corporate power. So let’s keep doing it. Let’s keep organizing and coming to protests about climate change, and let’s make this movement bigger and bigger until we simply can’t be ignored.
Our future depends on it.