News & Media Opinion Pieces An Encouraging Visit to a Federal MP to discuss Australia’s Green House Emissions

An Encouraging Visit to a Federal MP to discuss Australia’s Green House Emissions

An Encouraging Visit to a Federal MP to discuss Australia’s Green House Emissions

So Ross Garnaut thinks humanity will probably lose the fight against climate change. The architect of Australia’s response to climate change says the issue is “too hard” and there is “just a chance” the world will face up to the problem before it’s too late. I think this is the likely conclusion for all who spend time on the scientific literature. I believe that our response to this situation must be to redouble our efforts to urge decision makers to take more action. Martin Williams, a DEA member is doing this and relates his experience below. I suspect that we have at least one DEA member in every constituency in Australia and each member of DEA has access to 12 Senators who represent his/her state. We have an opportunity that no other section of the community has for the reasons detailed by Martin. If you require help from us in formulating your informtion, please contact me. Let us get on with it! — Editor.

An encouraging visit to a Federal MP to discuss Australia’s green house emissions
After years of following the issue of climate change and waiting for real government action, I decided to go and talk to a Federal MP about Australia’s measly 60% emission reduction by 2050 target. I’m very embarrassed that our emissions are world’s worst and I’m very worried that the tipping points are coming and going without a whimper. Time to rattle the cage. You know, ask a few hard questions, see why they seem to care more about coal than climate, that sort of thing.

The member I chose has made some speeches advocating action on climate change. I didn’t know what to expect or whether I’d get a hearing, but I decided to give it a go. My first surprise was how easy it was to make an appointment. A couple of phone calls to his office, then a suggestion to email him directly, and I got a reply the same day, from him, with a suggested time later in the week. I reflected that a drug co. rep would have a harder time seeing me!

But my big surprise was the meeting

First I discussed the 60% target in the context of global negotiations. The target is designed to be part of a world-wide effort to stabilise greenhouse gases at 550ppm by 2050 so that temperature rise is limited (in theory) to around 3 degrees. The developing countries like China and India, who we have to get on side in this regard, want to adopt a policy known as “Contraction and Convergence” (C&C), where each country’s per capita emissions quotas end up equal. They argue (quite reasonably) that we have gotten rich burning fossil fuels and in so doing created the problem, so why should they have to reduce their per capita emissions to less than ours? Not surprisingly, that’s the way things seem to be headed and Garnaut has advocated C&C as well. As an example, China’s per capita emissions today are around 3 (tonnes CO2e/yr) and ours are 27. See the problem with Australia’s 60% target? So I explained that under C&C, Australia’s emissions would have to reduce by 90%,not 60%, for our per capita emissions to be at the required global level for the 550 target, which is 2.9t.(Or at least until you factor in climate-carbon cycle feedbacks – more on this later.)

Next, I showed him a couple of pages from the IPCC’s latest 2007 Synthesis Report (pp44-45:, with graphs that show how the projected emissions are matched to projected atmospheric greenhouse gas stabilisation levels, and how these in turn are used to estimate temperature rises. This was detail he hadn’t seen before, and he seemed genuinely interested and pleased to have it explained. What it showed was that even with success at stabilising the greenhouse gases at 550ppm, Australia’s aim, the chances of holding temperature rises to 3 degrees is only 50%. The 90% confidence interval for the 550 target is 2-4.5 degrees.

 Next, I explained that these projections don’t account for climate-carbon cycle feedbacks, as the fine print admits, so things like loss of albedo from arctic ice, methane from the permafrost and carbon from decomposing soils, as well as reduced carbon sinks like the ocean from surface warming are not accounted for. When you factor these in, the allowable human emissions for a given target like 550 are a lot lower.

After that I took a Risk Management perspective. The three degrees from 550 prediction ignores this cornerstone philosophy of any strategic planning, whether it be in business, government, medicine or whatever. Rather than looking at what we can confidently exclude, by choosing this target we are looking at a mid-range prediction. As stated above, the 90% confidence intervals for temperature rise at 550ppm CO2e is 2-4.5 degrees. So we are 90% confident that temperature rise will be less than 4.5 degrees, not three degrees. For 90% confidence of three degrees, the IPCC charts show we should aim for 430ppm CO2e. And that’s ignoring climate feedbacks! Worse still, we’re already at 461!

Finally, I discussed the Earth’s history from palaeoclimate records to look at what three degrees might really be like. I showed him this paragraph from CarbonEquity’s website and again, it was all news and got his full attention (see

“What is interesting is what Labor doesn’t say about 3-degree impacts. Today at less than one degree, the floating ice at the north pole is disappearing fast, likely to be gone within a few <years>* and we are close to or at the tipping point when the Greenland ice sheet starts the irreversible melting that will lift sea levels by five to seven metres, in as little as a century according to James Hansen (17). At two degrees it will be too late for Greenland, and over a third of species will be committed to extinction”.

“In the Pliocene, three million years ago, when temperatures were 3 degrees higher than our pre-industrial levels, the northern hemisphere was free of glaciers and icesheets, beech trees grew in the Transantarctic mountains, sea levels were 25 metres higher (18). There are also strong indications that during the Pliocene, permanent El Nino conditions prevailed. James Hansen says that rapid warming today is already heating up the western Pacific Ocean, a basis for a coming period of ‘super El Ninos’ (19). Between two and three degrees the Amazon rainforest may turn to savannah, as drought and mega-fires first destroy the rainforest (20). The carbon released by the forests destruction will be joined by still more from the world’s soils, together boosting global temperatures by a further 1.5ºC (21).”

*I have changed predicted arctic ice loss from “decades” to “years”, based on updated projections since the precipitous loss of arctic ice (a record by 23%) in the summer of 2007.

We also discussed “clean” coal, which I tried to explain is dangerous (probably more so than nuclear due to the deadly risk of leaks and massive scale of storage required) and likely to be too expensive and take too long to be useful to us, when wind and solar thermal and energy efficiency are ready to use now.


As I reflected on the meeting afterwards, it struck me that rather than finding a politician too concerned with protecting the coal industry and the next election to get real on carbon emissions, I found a concerned but confused lay person who simply hadn’t grasped the full urgency of the situation. And I had helped address that.

To any DEA member who feels they have even a reasonable rudimentary knowledge of these types of issues, please: go and see your local federal pollie! You will be taken seriously because you’re a doctor, with scientific credibility and no conflict of interest. Feel free to use my approach, or invent your own. I truly believe that we, environmentally literate and concerned doctors, have an enormous amount to contribute in the struggle to make governments wake up and act decisively.

I note that the big “excuse” of politicians at the moment is that they’re waiting to see what Garnaut Review will say (draft due next month). My concern with that however is that none of world economic and climate modelling that Garnaut will be assessing includes an Emergency Response scenario, with seriously massive and urgent government investment in green infrastructure, such that the climate experts are now saying we need. And without someone doing the modelling, it seems governments will not even consider it. Unless we compel it!

Dr Martin Williams, DEA member