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20 July 2009

Climate Change: Building a different future

When the topic of climate change comes up in conversations with friends, acquaintances and—more and more frequently—with complete strangers, I sometimes find myself making a comment on East Timor. Perhaps all too casually, I like to suggest that Timorese households living in remote rural communities are likely to deal better with climate change than will my family in urban Melbourne. Timorese communities have generations of experience at coping with adversity in a country where crop failure might mean starvation, where a serious injury can lead to a lifetime of penury and where illness all too often results in death. The resilience and joy found in Timorese communities is remarkable to behold. Clearly, no society would aspire to the hardships found in East Timor simply to foster the resilience that it engenders. Nevertheless, I think it is true that if climate change wreaks havoc on the global economy, the difficult life of a rural household in a remote part of East Timor would go on much as it does now. Not so life in Australia and in other over-developed nations of the world. For once, I think to myself, something is going to affect ‘us’ much worse than it will affect those in the developing parts of the globe.

The likelihood that those in the over-developed world may suffer tends to concentrate our collective attention in a dramatic way. The saturation media coverage of the recent swine flu pandemic illustrates this well. Swine flu has proven deadly and the WHO reports that more than 300 have died as a result of catching the disease since the first death was recorded in May. Millions of poor people die every year from preventable diseases but if rich people start to die too, it’s big news amongst the rich people.

Given that, one might expect some cause for optimism when it comes to global warming. The world’s best scientific and economic advisers have confirmed that climate change will indeed wreak havoc on our over-developed economies. Agencies as diverse as Oxfam and the World Bank agree that disastrous impacts also await those in the developing world. Surely, concern for such an outcome would be sufficient cause for us to take action.

Tragically, I don’t believe that the human species—and more specifically, those of us with the power to do so—will cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid catastrophic climate change. I think our current ecosystems are doomed. I believe that we could avoid catastrophic climate change— that point needs to be made very clearly—it’s just that I don’t think we will. It feels dreadful to put that comment in print. Whilst I have become accustomed to thinking that way putting it in writing makes me feel as if I am complicit in a terrible crime.

There are myriad reasons that lead me to this conclusion. Rather than confront these, however, I regularly delude myself by focusing on the potential for change. In Australia we have a government that was elected on a promise to combat climate change; in the state where I live (Victoria), a member of parliament has resigned his position to head a large-scale program to install electric vehicles in Melbourne; China is installing a new wind turbine every two hours and is fast becoming a leader in renewable energy; Germany has a huge solar PV program with millions of systems installed; under Barak Obama a US President has finally acknowledged the severity of global warming and committed the United States to reducing GHG emissions.

The climate change problem, however, appears much bigger than our timid, lagging responses. Aside from the fact that global emissions have swelled since the Kyoto protocol was signed and that we now face an even tougher path to prevent catastrophic climate change, here are three of the reasons why I’m pessimistic about our chances of dealing with global warming—climate change indicators are worse than expected; high profile sceptics continue to press their case; and people like me continue business-as-usual. Firstly, climate change indicators. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides an estimate of trends in climate change indicators with an upper and lower boundary to indicate the band of uncertainty in future years. As climate change modellers have looked back on recent data and compared it to the predictions reported by the IPCC we might expect to see the results spread throughout the range of uncertainty. Contrary to this, however, a synthesis report by leading climate change scientists at the recent Copenhagen Climate Change conference states:

Recent observations show that greenhouse gas emissions and many aspects of the climate are changing near the upper boundary of the IPCC range of projections. Many key climate indicators are already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which contemporary society and economy have developed and thrived. These indicators include global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, global ocean temperature, Arctic sea ice extent, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events. With unabated emissions, many trends in climate will likely accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts.
In other words, our best scientific modelling has tended to underestimate the rate at which climate change is developing. The situation is deteriorating more quickly than we thought. Tim Flannery reports that James Lovelock, the pre-eminent earth systems scientist, believes that ‘the causes of the climatic shift are now so entrenched that they are in all likelihoods irreversible’. For Lovelock, we have already passed the ‘tipping point’ at which climate change moves beyond our ability to control.

Nevertheless, there remain sufficient high-profile sceptics in our societies to create just enough doubt about the problem to dilute the political will to take serious action. In Australia this mantle of high-profile sceptic has passed from our previous Prime Minister, John Howard, to Senator Steve Fielding (a member in the upper house of our Federal Parliament). Senator Fielding was elected ‘accidentally’ with just 0.08% of votes through a preference deal with the Australian Labor Party. Senator Fielding, who now holds the balance of power in the upper house of the Australian parliament, is a climate change sceptic. In an ironic twist, at the same time Barak Obama was committing the United States to dealing with climate change, Senator Fielding was undertaking a ‘fact finding’ tour of the US asking prominent politicians and scientists whether global warming is real or imagined. In his quest to take a ‘balance view’, Senator Fielding has somehow sided with the fringe of society who think that global warming remains an unproven theory and that taking action to reduce GHG emissions will make us all worse off. As a consequence, this person will now vote against legislation that proposes a modest cut in Australian emissions. If the sea level rose by a metre tomorrow no one would be in a position to deny what had happened. Whilst prominent persons such as Senator Fielding, however, publicly deny the signs of climate change too many others will continue to overlook the fact that sea levels are rising by a few millimetres a year.

Perhaps the most compelling cause for my pessimism, however, is my own behaviour. I accept the IPCC’s advice that the climate system is unequivocally warming and that human activity is very likely the cause. I wholeheartedly support local, national and international action to reduce GHG emissions and combat climate change. I would also be quite happy to pay more than my share of the cost to make that happen. Yet, I live in a society addicted to cheap energy and I remain part of the problem. I know that I will take another international plane flight for work (and even for leisure); I will continue to drive my fossil-fuelled car; I will use more fossil fuel to heat my house; I will buy cheese flown in from France, wine shipped in from New Zealand, and bananas trucked down from Queensland; I will buy cheap manufactured goods imported from China, exporting my GHG emissions to the developing world; I will buy a newspaper and so contribute to the pollution associated with printing, transporting and recycling the newsprint; and in a thousand other ways I will continue to stamp my oversized carbon footprint on the planet’s ecology.

And it won’t just be me that continues to pollute. I’ll keep doing these things because 20 million other Australians will join in with me, as will hundreds of millions of other people from the over-developed world. Between us (and our antecedents), we have been responsible for three quarters of GHG emissions. If we haven’t yet changed our ways, how can we possibly expect those in developing nations to take action? As pointed out in a recent Oxfam briefing paper on climate change, ‘the average Australian emits nearly 5 times as much as an average Chinese, and the average Canadian emits 13 times as much as the average Indian’. Those of us in over-developed countries would have to go ‘backwards’ (as many in our society would see it) quickly and significantly if we are to allow developing nations to improve their living conditions and at the same time reduce GHG emissions globally. It’s very hard to see that happening.

Climate change is often discussed at Architects for Peace meetings and our members are regularly involved in rallies and conferences promoting responses to global warming. I have no doubt that as an organisation we will continue such efforts. I hope that they are successful. I also hope that our response to climate change will recognise the right of developing countries to emit carbon pollution as they continue their development and promote responses that are equitable at a national level. If James Lovelock is right—and it is already too late to avoid catastrophic climate change—then in addition to calling on our communities to fight climate change we also need to be planning and building for a very different future.

Matthew Bond
Architects for Peace, July 2009




3 comments:

Peter said...

Well put Matthew. I think this despondency grips many of us worried about 'climate change' (a euphemism for 'global warming'). The problem with acknowledging we are past the tipping point is that it can make efforts to decrease emissions seem futile to many. If the message changes from "reverse global warming" to "manage global warming" will people (and governments) understand that it is still vital to look for ways to lessen our impact, or will they think that the urgency has gone - the cat is out of the bag.

Beatriz said...

What I don't understand is how we (as a country) have gone from complete denial to complete resignation, without ever taken any action… what’s wrong with us?
On another much lighter note, Peter noted a link to a Facebook page named “Steve Fielding is not real” ( http://tiny.cc/qetJq)--a fitting ridicule for the man. It is unfortunate that we give people like Fielding such power, but we can also take it away.

Ceridwen said...

Thank you for your thought-provoking piece Matthew. It is a depressing situation. I've always considered myself an optimist about the ecological 'crisis', but sometimes I wonder whether it is just blind denial. Certainly I have to hold my hand up for being part of the problem since I far exceed my equitable share of the global carbon footprint. I get even more depressed when I attend conferences on the environment. I wrote about that in a recent afp editorial (or at least I think I did!). At the Sustainable Building conference held in Melbourne last year, the conference opened with the usual blurb from politicians, promoting their various environmental initiatives and patting themselves on the back. They illustrated how much more they were doing now than their predessesors had, and that is true. However, then came the environmentalists saying too little, too late. Things are
much worse than even the worst case models suggested. Bottom line - we are on a sinking ship.
I have mixed feelings about such messages. They leave me feeling so depressed, that sometimes I don't know what to do. But then again, if that is really the state of things, then there is not much point in patting ourselves on the back for changing light globes.
I agree that we are probably looking at a very different future, and maybe that is where we need to focus efforts. I just hope that those efforts can be positive rather than fuelled by a reaction of fear. Thinking back to another conference a few years ago, it was the first time I heard someone say 'we are all stuffed'. This was the context of the presenter's PhD and he was looking at ways in which we should design buildings to address this reality. I was angry at his response which went along the lines of 'the developing world is totally
Stuffed, so we should save ourselves and build autonomous castles'. Surely there has to be another more equitable and humane response.....?

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