Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Measuring Our Integrity

Measuring our Integrity

We all need measurements of our Greenhouse gas pollution. The ClimateCam or greenhouse gas speedometer now being championed in Newcastle is one way to understand the relationship between consumption and pollution. However, while school kids might learn that turning off the classroom lights at lunchtime will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this is not a realistic response to the scale of the problem we face. One new coal mine, a new coal fired power station or a single ship leaving the port of Newcastle fully laden with coal will instantly wipe out the value of all of Newcastle’s light bulb changing and energy conservation measures. The real greenhouse gas index (GGI) that we need must measure is the concentration of greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere and we must be able to see that we are actually lowering the emissions at a global level. It is the GGI that will be far more important than the Dow Jones or the All Ordinaries and we will need to watch it come down every year.

There is no doubt that global warming is serious business and changing the climate should not be trivialised with public relations stunts. The Hunter region in particular will be hit hard by increased heat stress and disease in humans and other animals, worse droughts and water shortages, severe storms and flash flooding and sea level rise that will inundate all the land many metres above the current sea level. The expensive water front property, port infrastructure and our beaches will become water world. All these hugely costly changes will occur within the lifetime of the current and next generation of Novocastrians, that is, 50 – 100 years from right now.

The trouble with these problems is that although we can, in theory and with massive investments, adapt to slow change, climate scientists are suggesting that the nature, speed and intensity of the changes might not be predictable. The systems we are dealing with are immensely complex and have tipping points or thresholds that when met, are capable of delivering sudden and disastrous impacts. There may be no opportunity to adapt to enormous changes and even if we try, further unpredictable change might render futile all our efforts to avoid catastrophe. A bi-polar meltdown of ice and a sudden and large rise in sea level will just flow right over the top of any hugely expensive adaptive barrage or levee system we commit to protect our property in the near future. The Hunter is in an extremely vulnerable position with respect to all of the worst possible impacts of climate chaos. Our coastal lifestyle and real estate values, industry, our city and port, Lake Macquarie and agriculture are all at risk. In the face of growing evidence of real world change in response to global warming, it is not scare mongering to argue that the total environment is at foreseeable risk of dangerous change.

The cause of this really bad future scenario is our increasing greenhouse gas problem. For politicians … ‘It’s the climate, stupid’. We must urgently reduce our greenhouse gas emissions until we bring the planet’s climate back into a reasonably predictable pattern. With global greenhouse gas concentrations already close to dangerous levels for further warming and climate chaos we cannot afford any longer to play Russian roulette with the future. The science and the ethics are telling us to change and change right now!

Having delayed reasonable responses to global warming for over a decade it is now necessary that drastic changes take place. The fossil fuels that drive a combustion economy must be urgently phased out. In Australia, we must leave coal in the ground and show that we are prepared to make a sacrifice of cheap but polluting energy for the benefit of all global citizens and all future generations. Ethical leadership on the global warming issue will demonstrate such generosity towards the future.

The GGI as a measure of total concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the only relevant measure of greenhouse gases and the only way to substantially reduce that concentration is to massively reduce our use of fossil fuels. We just have to stop exploding and burning things to run an economy. Climate chaos and an environment in crisis deliver an economic super-depression. It is not a question of balance. A foundation for society based on genuinely clean, safe and renewable energy is vital to our needs in the post combustion economy. These technologies are available right now and for the current generation of political leaders and captains of industry to be investing billions in the filthy lie of ‘clean coal’ and insanely dangerous nuclear energy is ethically bankrupt. Perhaps worse is a possible outcome of a lifestyle related Greenhouse Gas Speedometer that gives children the impression that the world will be saved if only they change their light bulbs. While the GGS in Newcastle might go down, the GGI continues to rise steeply as the Port is expanded to export more coal.

Our children need to know the truth about what is happening to their world and a vital part of that truth is that we all must understand that the coal-based wealth of the Hunter region and the Port of Newcastle is built upon the very cause of climate chaos. Our children deserve much more and much better.

Glenn Albrecht Tuesday 17th April.