News & Media Opinion Pieces Climate Change. Seal the Deal!

Climate Change. Seal the Deal!

Commentary from David Shearman
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has announced that the UN is launching a worldwide climate change campaign under the slogan: “Seal the Deal! Power green growth. Protect the planet”.

The campaign aims to galvanize political will and public support towards signing a new UN agreement on climate change, and urges world leaders to act in the best interest of their peoples and the planet by sealing the climate deal.

Mr Ban urged the EU to continue its leading efforts to push towards the signing of an effective climate change agreement during the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December. He said, “We count on the European Union’s continued and committed support on this matter. Bold, visionary leadership is needed to seal a deal in Copenhagen…it must be ambitious, effective and fair. It must offer rich nations a way to cut emissions.”

Let us examine the vision and leadership in Australia
It has to be said that the performance of the Government is disappointing. The scale of what is proposed is nothing compared to the scale of what is needed. Furthermore the existing proposals are complicated and confusing and may have been rendered ineffective by acceding to the demands of industry. To date there is no evidence that the Government will revise its proposals in the face of reasonable criticisms. The intensity of the attack on the CPRS from industry has surprised even the hardened observer and it has been accompanied by a resurgence of denial of climate change in much of the press, some of it using the book by Ian Plimer to introduce the writings. In Adelaide there have been full page articles in the Advertiser contesting the very basis of climate change.

 In conclusion we have weak proposals from a Government afraid of job losses and an Opposition also promoting fear of job losses and without an integrated climate change policy. The massive loss of industrial jobs has occurred already as a result of uncontrolled market forces, the freedom of which is supported by the captains of industry. There is no evidence that additional jobs will be lost as a result of addressing climate change, the contrary is likely when governments act with vision and move to sustainable systems. The threat of job losses always produces electoral fear in Governments. For governments to succumb to this threat means that they have neglected the planning and incentives for carbon credits, such as those used by Arnold Schwartzenegger. Defying a global trend of weak solar demand, owners of homes and businesses in California installed a record 78 MW of solar panels in the first quarter of 2009, the California Public Utilities Commission has announced.

The recent Senate hearing on climate change policy has been described by Reverend Tim Costello, chief executive of World Vision as a ‘council of despair’. This committee, to which DEA made a submission (number 401) and gave evidence at a hearing, is looking into climate change policy and the Government’s proposed Emissions Trading Scheme, which aims to reduce carbon emissions by between 5 and 15% below 1990 levels. Tim Costello has anguished that climate change was not being tackled in the political arena on a bipartisan basis like Swine flu or other world threats. He pointed out the inconsistency in the Government’s case that it recognised the need to keep atmospheric greenhouse emissions below 450 ppm in order to avoid temperatures rising more than 2 degrees centigrade yet their target of 5 to 15% reduction in emissions was insufficient to do this. The Asian Development Bank and other institutions have warned that rice yields in Asia will fall significantly due to climate change and this will cost many lives in poor countries. The bargaining position of countries such as Australia at the Copenhagen conference in December must recognise that climate change is a humanitarian issue and the rich countries will need to support poor countries in tackling this problem. Listen to the interview with Tim Costello here.

Furthermore, analysis by Oxfam International of the 6,500 climate-related disasters recorded since 1980 show that the number of people affected by extreme weather events, many of which are linked to climate change, has doubled in just 30 years and is expected to increase a further 54% to more than 375 million people a year on average by 2015.

It is our view based in part on personal experience that the Senate Committee was primarily a political contest with the major parties intent on scoring points against each other rather than taking the matter seriously. It is of grave concern to the community that our elected representatives have such disregard for the wellbeing and survival of humanity. Clearly it is this point that has driven Tim Costello to make his comment.

For an excellent review of the issues, including equity that will be important at the Copenhagen negotiations on an agreement post Kyoto go to Robert Engelman, Sealing the Deal to Save the Climate.

The most recent comments criticising the governments targets come from it Chief Scientist. Professor Penny Sackett says the world has six years to reverse the trend of increasing carbon dioxide emissions to avoid damaging climate change. The evidence is clear that the planet is warming due to human activity and she is ‘surprised’ politicians are still discussing the merits of the science. Australia should set the steepest possible target now; a target she has shared in private discussions with the Government but is reluctant to reveal publicly.

How do we get through to the politicians that scientists have calculated that the world has already produced about a third of the total amount of carbon dioxide that could be emitted between 2000 and 2050 and still keep within a 2 degree C rise in global average temperatures? This study in the current issue of Nature concludes that the world must agree on a cut in carbon dioxide emissions of more than 50 per cent by 2050 if the probability of exceeding a 2 degree C rise in average temperatures is to be limited to a risk of 1 in 4.

And the USA?
The President has stated that he wants a policy that he can take to Copenhagen to offer leadership. Much of his recent policy has contained a component of emission reduction, redevelopment of rail transport energy efficiency, renewable energy, legal frameworks to take action and more. Clearly he sees the UN slogan “Power Green Growth” as a way out of the financial crisis. Mrs Clinton has said “The United States is fully engaged and determined to lead and make up for lost time both at home and abroad, we are back in the game.”

As foreshadowed in a previous article on this site, the Clean Air Act has now become law. This accepts that greenhouse gases are responsible for climate change and endanger public health and welfare within the meaning of the Act.

The situation can be summed up in the words of Thomas Friedman in the New York Times
“It is not an exaggeration to say that the team that President Obama appointed to promote his green agenda is nothing short of outstanding — a great combination of scientists and policy makers committed to building an energy economy that is efficient, clean and secure. Now there is only one vacancy left for him to fill. And it’s one that only he can fill: Green President. Is he ready to do that job with the passion and fight that will be required to transform America’s energy future? Hope so. Not sure yet”.

“Have no doubt, the President is off to a terrific start: His stimulus package will provide an incredible boost for all forms of renewable energy. The energy bill being drafted by House Democrats Henry Waxman and Ed Markey contains unprecedented incentives for energy efficiency and clean-tech innovation.”

“But while all of that is hugely important, we must not fool ourselves, as we have done for so many years: Price matters. Without a fixed, long-term, durable price on carbon, none of the Obama clean-tech initiatives will achieve the scale needed to have an impact on climate change or make America the leader it must be in the next great industrial revolution: E.T., or energy technology. At this stage, I’d settle for any carbon price mechanism — cap and trade, fee-bates, carbon tax and/or gasoline tax — as long as it real and provides consumers and investors a long-term incentive to shift to clean cars, appliances and buildings”.

So the situation in the US is better than in Australia in that the door is still open to meaningful reform. In global terms it will be no matter to humanity if we miss the technological revolution and import our renewable energy sources from California where the innovators are massing to deliver their target of 80% reduction in emissions by 2050.

What can we do as doctors?
While personal involvement in reducing one’s own greenhouse emissions is important for it often has a direct health component, we must recognise that the big issues in population health depend on Government action. We must continue to brief our elected representatives on the health aspects of climate change. It is vital that Obama’s leadership is supported in its international role. All of us want to feel we are doing something to help. I suggest you go to the White House and send 100 words saying who you are and wish him success in tackling climate change. These messages are read by his staff and are collated.
David Shearman