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The Business of Green

Money matters in the green world, by Leon Gettler.

Climate change inertia

Climate change inertia

Credit: iStockphoto

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The big piece of news for the week was the release of the federal government's climate commission report, The Critical Decade.

The report says global warming could cause the global sea level to rise up to one metre by the end of the century – higher than previously thought. The report says the atmosphere and ocean are warming, ice is being lost from glaciers and ice caps and sea levels are rising. The biological world is changing in response to a warming world. Global surface temperature is rising fast and the last decade was the hottest on record. We are already seeing the social, economic and environmental impacts of a changing climate, and the impact is already being felt in Australia. In the last 50 years the number of record hot days in this country has more than doubled. This has increased the risk of heatwaves and associated deaths, as well as extreme bush fire weather in South-east and South-west Australia. According to the report, sea level has risen by 20 centimetres globally since the late 1800s, impacting many coastal communities. Another 20 centimetre increase by 2050, which is likely at current projections, would more than double the risk of coastal flooding. The Great Barrier Reef has suffered from nine bleaching events in the past 31 years. This iconic natural ecosystem, and the economy that depends upon it, face serious risks from climate change. The commission, established by Labor to help tackle climate change, is also calling for a fresh approach to reducing carbon emissions.

Chief climate change commissioner Tim Flannery has said that 'no one country' can save the Barrier Reef. This is global warming so it means one thing: we need a global agreement from the world’s biggest emitters to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s alarming but not surprising that it’s been bogged down in politics and we are unlikely to see much action. It’s climate change inertia.

The Murdoch press, led by Andrew Bolt, has attacked the report, saying it’s all scare mongering from the left and the media. And, Liberal power broker Nick Minchin has attacked the report as offensive nonsense peddled by alarmists. “The so-called Climate Commission is a Labor government-appointed committee of known climate alarmists, selectively appointed... to further the cause of global warming alarmism,” Minchin said.

But it’s happening.

Mike Sandiford, professor of geology and director of the Melbourne Energy Institute, University of Melbourne says we are having an unprecedented impact on the planet. “The scale of the effect we have on the planet is yet to sink in,’’ he writes. “During the 20th century, it is estimated that a touch under 1000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide was emitted from the burning of fossil fuels and cement production. Now we are adding about 30 billion tonnes a year and the rate of increase in carbon dioxide concentrations is doubling about every 30 years. To generate all that CO2 we annually consume more than 13 billion tonnes of coal, oil and natural gas as part of a global energy system that operates at a rate of some 16,000 billion watts. The human consumption rate is already more than one-third of the earth's natural heat-loss rate. And with our energy use doubling every 34 years, we are on course to surpass the energy released by plate tectonics by about 2060."

"To put those figures in a more sober context, we now consume energy at a rate equivalent to detonating one Hiroshima bomb (60,000 billion joules) about every four seconds and are on a trajectory towards one Hiroshima bomb every second before the end of the century. The ocean has already soaked up so much carbon dioxide that its acidity has increased by 25 per cent since pre-industrial times and, according to recent measurements, is now absorbing heat at a rate of about 300,000 billion watts. When my students measure the temperature in boreholes across Australia, they invariably see that as much heat is now going into the upper 30 to 50 metres of the earth's crust as is trying to get out - a result entirely consistent with the surface temperature rises measured by climate scientists.”

We are caught in climate change inertia. The British government, by way of contrast, is making real progress with plans to establish a green investment bank next year which will channel funds into areas such as offshore wind, waste and non-domestic energy efficiency.

Why can’t we have something like that here? Why the climate change inertia? Columnist Ross Gittins blames it on our politicians, everyone from Rudd to Abbott, and the media seeking to increase circulation or ratings by joining in the fearmongering and denial.

“Australians are proud of their inbuilt bulldust detectors, but on this issue they seemed to have turned them off, happily believing whatever self-serving nonsense politicians, business people and media personalities serve up to them,’’ Gittins writes.

“The one thing humans are meant to care about above all is the survival of their young. Yet people with the highest standard of living in history are whingeing that they couldn't possibly afford to pay a bit more for their electricity.”