A 100-meter-wide, kilometers-long rift in Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf
by James O’Neill*
In November-December 2015 Australia was an attendee at the Paris Climate Conference. Various commitments were entered into, although it took a year for them to be ratified.
According to a press release from the Federal Department of Environment and Energy, Australia committed itself to “strong domestic and international action on climate change.” The commitments entered into in Paris included the following:
- Set mitigation targets from 2020 with five yearly reviews.
- Have robust transparency and accountability to provide confidence in the country’s actions and track progress toward meeting targets
- Promote action to adapt and build resilience to climate impacts.
Australia’s emissions reduction target was for a level 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030. So how are we doing?
According to government data released on 22 December 2016 (one might be suspicious about the timing) Australia’s emissions have actually increased by four billion tonnes in the year to June 2016 and are projected to continue rising until 2030. By the latter date, if current trends continue, the government will miss its target by approximately one billion tonnes.
The levels are still rising because we still do not have any effective policies to reduce them. Virtually the only significant (in budget terms) the government has promoted is the so-called Direct Action scheme. As of the end of 2016, the Emissions Reduction Fund (as it is optimistically named) had spent 80 % of its $2.55 billion budget.
If that fund were to remain the sole means of meeting Australia’s emission reduction target, then a further $12-55 billion will be required, the latter figure based upon the IPCC’s estimate of global carbon prices consistent with the government’s target.
It is not just the usual suspects that are expressing alarm at this inertia and ineptitude. On the 13th of December 2016 a range of bodies as diverse as the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Clean Energy Council, the Business Council of Australia and St Vincent de Paul society among several others said:
“The status quo policy uncertainty, lack of coordination and unreformed markets is increasing costs, undermining investment and worsening reliability risks.”
Instead of clear leadership based on the evaluation of all options leading to the development of sound policies we have the unedifying sight of the Minister responsible, Josh Frydenberg, announcing an agenda for discussion which included an emission intensity scheme, and then two days later denying he had even put that option on the table. It’s a reasonable assumption that in the intervening 48 hours the reactionary rump of his own coalition colleagues had got to him.
There is little hope for a rational outcome of any debate when key options (and the emission intensity scheme was widely supported by various groups) are left off the table because of internal political considerations.
Why does any of this matter? It is incontrovertible that the planet is undergoing significant changes that are generally attributed to the generic term of “climate change”. Some even react negatively to the suggestion that it is incontrovertible that this is occurring, but the scientific record speaks for itself. The climate of planet earth has been changing throughout the 4.5 billion years of the planet’s existence.
For example, to take only one recent illustration, as recently as 12,000 years ago the UK was uninhabited and uninhabitable. The reason was that it was under several metres of ice and snow. So radical change can occur in relatively short (in geological terms) a time frame.
The real arguments have been twofold. First, there is argument about the extent to which human activity is influencing the climate change we are currently experiencing. For the answer to that I am content to rely on the overwhelming consensus of scientists who actually study this issue. They say that human activity, and specifically the emissions we put into our atmosphere, are a statistically significant factor.
It follows as a matter of logic that if we are able to reduce those emissions then we may, and I stress only may, reduce the rate of climate change. There is a school of thought that we are already too far down that particular path to actually have any significant impact at all. That raises separate issues that I will come to.
It is precisely because of this consensus among the world’s climate scientists that conference such as the 2015 Paris conference pledged to adopt policies aimed at reducing the rate of carbon emissions.
The logical consequence of that commitment is the development of policies that effectively address carbon emissions. Which brings me back to the earlier quotes. Australia manifestly does not have effective policies and what policies we do have are having zero net beneficial effect, as well as being expensive and apparently designed to benefit the bottom line of businesses supportive of the current government.
Let us assume next, that human activity is not responsible for the rate of change and therefore anything we do will have no effect. We are still left with the fact that the observable climate change on the planet is going to have major consequences, certainly within the lifetime of our grandchildren.
Bear in mind that I am discussing the overall effect. It is entirely irrelevant that some areas of the world will benefit from warmer average temperatures by being able, for example, to grow more crops.
Long before the planet reaches the designated catastrophe level of an average increase in global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius, we can already see fundamental changes occurring that will impact hundreds of millions of people, including those in Australia.
Three related phenomena stand out. According to the online website Common Dreams (16 January 2017) global sea ice levels are at their lowest in recorded history, and most likely for several thousand years.
This is important because sea ice levels are linked to rising temperatures as the lack of light surface increases the rate of warming because of sunlight absorption rather than reflection.
The second phenomena emerges from a meeting of climate scientists in the UK this week to discuss, inter alia, the cracking of the ice shelf in Antarctica known as Larsen C. The size of the breaking ice shelf is “only” about 6500 square kilometres. The significance of the ice shelf’s disintegration is that it frees up the flow of water from glaciers directly into the ocean.
NASA reported that a much larger ice shelf (Larsen B) that partially collapsed in 2002 is likely to completely disintegrate before 2020. That ice shelf had existed for about 10,000 years and will, within a very short time span, completely disappear.
The third phenomenon was a warning from www.livescience.com (29 November 2016) that the west Antarctic ice sheet could collapse within 100 years. Why does this matter? That event alone will be enough to raise sea levels by nearly 3 metres. This continent we know as Australia will become an archipelago.
In these circumstances for the Australian government to kowtow to its reactionary denialist rump is to put all of our grandchildren and their successors at risk. Whether or not one thinks that humans are responsible for the rate of change is irrelevant. Change is occurring and those changes will impact life on this planet in ways that are simply for the most part unimaginable.
One might think that in these circumstances it would be prudent, at an absolute minimum, to formulate policies that anticipate these changes and are in place to provide the best possible level of protection for our population.
The current lack of rational debate at the political level is a dangerous path that must be changed for the sake of future generations.
*Barrister at Law He may be contacted at email@example.com
Photo credit: John Sonntag, NASA