2010: It's time for safe solutions to our climate emergency
This paper was written by Walter Jehne in early December 2009
As we approach 2010 and the Copenhagen Climate summit we must face reality - the reality that climate change and global warming is real, serious and happening now.
The science is clear and inescapable. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased abnormally due to human activities. These increases have contributed to the greenhouse effect - warming the planet 1.6 watts/m2.
However science is also clear that the CO2 component of the greenhouse effect contributes less than 5% to the global heat dynamics and balance that governs its warming and climate.
By contrast for the past 4 billion years it is water that has governed over 90% of the global heat dynamics balance and regulated the climate of the ‘blue planet’ via a range of processes.
It follows that changes to these water based processes may be significant in both contributing to climate changes but also provide us with options to safely and naturally regulate its effects.
Although (a) more complicated than the simplistic common assumptions about the relationship between fossil fuel use - CO2 emissions the CO2 greenhouse effect and global warming - and (b) difficult to model quantitatively due to their high variability in time and space, any valid understanding of the causes and solutions to climate change must consider these processes.
These water based processes act mostly independently of any minor CO2 greenhouse effect, and are influenced greatly by biotic and land management factors including changes to:
Cloud levels and their albedo, cooling and rainfall effects.
The transfer of latent heat fluxes from the earth’s surface back out to space.
Surface albedo, insulation and heating properties which governs the re-radiation of heat from the earth which drives the greenhouse effect.
The production of aerosols which governs the retention of water in the atmosphere as humid hazes and water vapour and is by far the dominant greenhouse gas.
The production of precipitation nuclei which govern the persistence of these humid hazes, their warming and aridification effects as well as regional rainfall levels.
The degree to which removal of these hazes ‘opens’ night time radiation windows to enable heat to be radiated to space to cool the planet.
Individually these processes can influence local climates by up to 100 watts/m2, reinforcing the dominance of their combined effects in governing the global heat balance and climate.
Although they have been ignored in our simplistic models of climate change (a) on the assumption that, being so dominant, humans could not possibly have altered them, and (b) because they are temporally dynamic (like daily monsoonal downpours) and vary at the local and regional levels (and thus not amenable to incorporation in existing global computer models), this may be unwise.
For, as we approach 2010 we must face the scientific reality and our responsibility that:
The earth has already warmed some 1.6 watts per square meter over the past century.
A further warming of some 1.4 w/m2 is also locked in due to ocean lag effects.
These warming effects may raise mean global temperatures well over 2°C by as early as 2030.
Should this degree of warming occur, it won't stop there: it will inevitably further accelerate climate feedbacks, resulting in dangerous further warming, aridification, bushfires, sea level rises and water and food crises - risking the collapse of many existing bio-systems and the societies dependent on them.
We also have to face the scientific reality that no level of future CO2 emission reductions, let alone the hopes of 5 % reductions by 2020, can now prevent these dangerous climatic impacts. We have talked while we increased our CO2 emissions for 20 years too long since the Rio Earth Summit for any emissions reduction response to be effective.
However we must avoid this advancing warming, aridification and climate disruption to secure our safe climate. Fortunately avoidance is still possible - not by individuals changing light bulbs or national governments agreeing to marginal CO2 reductions in the future - but by urgent practical local actions to safely:
Cool regions to offset the locked in 3 w/m2 human induced greenhouse warming.
Draw down past and future emission back below 350 ppm and a safe climate.
Transition communities to just, bio-sensitive and sustainable industrial ecologies.
Highly effective, safe, natural, even profitable solutions are available to achieve such:
By restoring each of the above natural hydrological processes and balances that we have impaired through our deforestation of over two thirds of the earth’s primary forests over the past 300 years.
To collectively use their variable but powerful cooling effects to safely offset the 3 w/m2 mean warming resulting from human induced greenhouse warming.
These two measures can prevent the further acceleration of the dangerous positive climate feedbacks that risk climatic, bio-system and social meltdown by 2030 under our governments' "business as usual" paradigm.
The rapid restoration of such cooling and rainfalls should enable us to extensively draw down past CO2 emissions from deforestation and soil degradation (estimated pro rata to exceed 3000 GTC) plus from our use of fossil fuels substantially over the past 60 years( some 320 GTC) as well as from current emissions (9GTC/an).
While this CO2 and its greenhouse contribution (relative to that from humid hazes) is not the primary cause of global warming; it is a symptom of its cause; our destruction of over two thirds of the worlds primary forests and the resultant impairment of the hydrological processes that govern over 90% of the global heat balance and climate.
However only by regenerating the forests and the soil moisture sinks on which their growth depends can we restore these hydrological cooling processes adequately. Thus we need to return the CO2 emitted by their destruction back into the transpiring green biomass and stable soil organic matter sinks from which they came.
Highly effective soil carbon farming options can bio-sequester up to 20 TC/Ha/an as growing biomass and stable soil humates and glomalin sinks. Extended over some 2 billion Ha of the world’s degraded former forested wastelands this could readily, sustainably and profitably bio-sequester up to 40 GTC/an; or some 4 times our carbon emissions to return CO2 to below 350 ppm to help secure our safe climate.
Most importantly such draw down strategies, by restoring the hydrological cooling dynamics as well as restoring the resilience, productivity and health of bio-systems will be critical in sustaining essential water, food supplies and thus viable societies.
While restoring these cooling and carbon draw down processes can help offset the otherwise locked in climate meltdown, for human societies to be sustainable we must also urgently transition our demands and industries to more just, bio-sensitive and cyclic rather than the current linear wasteful ecologies.
While the imperative, skills and technologies for change are available, we need to implement the essential changes widely enough and in time; before our demands, impacts and resource limits from current systems constrain our capacity to change.
Our key challenge may be in catalyzing the essential transition in time. How can local communities take responsibility and become response able and overcome the significant inertia in the status quo as evidenced by the lack of progress to date?
To catalyse the transition may require honesty, in fully identifying and costing the resources used in, and the consequences of, our activities; rather than externalizing them as in our current dominant exploitation of natural capital and the transfer of its consequences to the environment, the community commons or our children’s future.
To provide this essential externality price signal and incentive for change, and as carbon is the key building block for our bio-sphere and most of our energy systems, we need to internalize the costs of such consumption and consequences via a fair carbon externality levy on major producers of emissions to fully reflect such costs.
Rather than Governments fixing carbon reduction targets, a simple escalating carbon externality levy on major carbon emitters and/or products with no exemption should enable industries to self select what investments they make, when, to lower or offset their otherwise ever increasing carbon externality costs in order to sustain or gain competitive advantage. This should provide a positive ongoing driver for rapid industry transitions to low carbon emission operations which should exceed that achievable by fixed targets, regulation or taxes.
Provided Governments re-invested income from such levies in catalyzing transitions to a just, low carbon industrial ecology, it should be possible to effect the essential landscape regeneration and industrial ecology re-designs and changes, in time.
Australia must lead in catalyzing such changes; not because it is affluent, has the highest per capita carbon emissions and a major supplier of carbon fuels but because it is one of the first and most seriously impacted countries by climate change such as via the aridification of southern Australia and the risk to the Barrier Reef and Murray Darling Basin bio-systems.
Furthermore Australia has the skills, technology as well as the unique opportunity and the freedom to effect the essential restoration and transition changes in its own self interest. However we can not waste a further 20 years on more talk, denials, delays or deceptions such as the Carbon Pollution Reinforcement Subsidy. We must act strategically, effectively, now.
2010 will be critical if we are to face the scientific and practical realities before us and implement the policies and incentives, like a carbon externality levy, to effect this transition. Australian industry, be they farmers, the energy or manufacturing sectors as well as most of the community are well aware of the need for this urgent transition to a bio-sensitive future.
However to get there they need a clear, fair carbon price signal and incentive to make the essential investment to secure their competitive advantage, our safe climate and their future.