Cheers to the end of days
More to come ... Filipinos cross a river to bury a relative, who died in a flash flood caused by a hurricane. Photo: Bullit Marquez
"There are papers that should come with a warning: 'do not read this if you are depressed' or 'please have a stiff drink handy'.'' So said University of NSW climate scientist Professor Andy Pitman this week about the Global Carbon Project's latest data. Yes, it's that bad. The report says we're on track to create ''an unrecognisable planet'' by the end of this century, 4 to 6 degrees hotter than it was at the time of the industrial revolution. Pitman says ''we cannot be that stupid as a species''. Oh, we can be, all right.
To put the projection into perspective, the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent negotiations were based on avoiding a forecast rise of 2 degrees. Such an increase would lead to more frequent heatwaves and droughts (making agriculture in some areas unviable); storms of increasing severity; and the end of some Pacific island states, whose citizens would need to resettle elsewhere. Yet, while most of us would be a little poorer, we could still manage to adapt to a world that was 2 degrees hotter.
Julia Gillard wants to make power cheaper, when cheap power is what is driving global warming.
However, the global community has taken almost none of the steps needed to limit change even to this merely ''dangerous'' level.
Having a laugh ... Prime Minister Julia Gillard listens to her Climate Change Minister, Greg Combet.
Last month, the World Bank became the first major global institution to admit that 2 degrees was the new target, rather than what we should strive to avoid. Its report, Turn down the heat, said that, without urgent action, the world would warm by 4 degrees. This would trigger ''a cascade of cataclysmic changes'': devastation for low-lying cities across the subcontinent, south-east Asia and Central America; fast-declining global food stocks; hundreds of millions of climate refugees; mass extinctions; and, crucially, the end of some of the world's biggest rainforests, which we need to stave off even worse warming.
And this week's report, which forecasts a rise of up to 6 degrees? No one really knows what that will do to the planet, suffice to say that it puts under question human civilisation, at least as we know it. And the paper didn't even factor in recent findings that the thawing Arctic permafrost is releasing huge amounts of methane: a gas that's far more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
World Bank president Jim Yong Kim says ''we need to assume the moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations''. He also says we can still avoid a 4 degree rise.
Who's he kidding? Kim's right about our moral responsibility, but he's completely wrong about our ability to act. Too many leaders have now held out the promise that it's not too late, but that ''time is very short''. Yet how many deadlines have we passed? How many times must words like ''urgent'' and ''catastrophic'' be thrown around before it's realised that people just don't care? Indeed, the Lowy Institute's regular polling on Australians' attitudes to climate change shows that, the more we accept global warming as a fact, the less willing we are to take meaningful action to slow it. Almost two in three of us oppose the government's price on carbon emissions, even though it's so small I doubt any of us have noticed it. It's certainly too small to affect what we buy, which is meant to be the whole point of it.
If you think my gloominess is a tad overwrought, look to what the Prime Minister said last weekend. After a month of genuinely frightening climate news, Julia Gillard unveiled a plan to reform this country's energy industry, ''to make sure that families pay $250 less per year for electricity''. That's right: she wants to make power cheaper, when cheap power is what is driving global warming. If you needed confirmation that Gillard would never have legislated a carbon tax without being forced to do so by independent and Green MPs, there it is. Labor's commitment to tackle climate change is as hollow as the Coalition's.
You may have seen Gillard this week in a spoof video announcing the end of the world due to ''flesh-eating zombies, demonic hell beasts or from the total triumph of K-pop''. Forgive me for not seeing the humour in this ironic ''joke''. I clearly need a stiff drink.