Federal Labor in Australia, following Nicholas Stern’s report, has unofficially adopted a 3C target for its climate change policy. We defer understanding the implications of this strategic decision at our peril: 3C cannot be a target, only a sign-post to catastrophe.
The US Government's climate science chief, James Hansen, says that if global warming becomes larger than 1.7C above the pre- industrial level "all bets are off ... We either keep the warming small or it is likely to be quite large". Many times Hansen has warned that 2-3C would produce a planet without Arctic sea ice, a catastrophic sea level rise in the pipeline, and super-drought in the American west, southern Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa. "Such a scenario threatens even greater calamity, because it could unleash positive feedbacks such as melting of frozen methane in the Arctic, as occurred 55 million years ago, when more than 90 per cent of species on Earth went extinct."
Yet policy-makers are fast adopting 3C as the new target, the relative safety of the 2C or less put aside. In his 2006 report, Nicholas Stern declared keeping the rise to 2C as "already nearly out of reach" because it meant emissions "peaking in the next five years or so and dropping fast", which he judged to be neither politically likely nor economically desirable.
Three degrees was a more practical target, and Stern nominated the appropriate emissions reduction plan to be a limit on atmospheric greenhouse gas levels of 550ppm of CO2. Following in his 3C footsteps are Labor leader Kevin Rudd and economist Ross Garnaut, appointed by Rudd to do a similar report for Australia. But Garnaut is saddled with an answer before he has researched the question.
Ex-ABARE chief Dr Brian Fisher, Australia's lead delegate to the May 2007 IPCC meeting, says the 2C target, with emissions peaking by 2015, "is exceedingly unlikely to occur ... global emissions are growing very strongly ... On the current trajectories you would have to say plus 3C is looking more likely". The shift is plain in the most recent IPCC report, where research on mitigation has also largely shifted focus from 2C.
Today, at less than 1C we are close to the tipping point when the Greenland ice sheet will start its irreversible melting that will lift sea levels by five to seven metres, in as little as a century, according to Hansen. At 2C over a third of species will be committed to extinction. The research suggests that in a 3C-world the Amazon rainforest will have gone and the carbon cycle will be thrown into reverse so that vegetation and soils start a net release of carbon dioxide, boosting global warming by another 1.5C. Three degrees becomes 4-5C.
Yet there has been no discussion of Labor's 3C target.
Should it be said, as Hansen does, that 3C means the end of the planet as we know it, the loss of a fair proportion of the human population and most species? The general climate advocacy position of the major green organisations seems to be that Howard must go, Rudd will be significantly better (to date more faith than fact), and nothing should be done to jeopardise getting rid of the coalition, so criticism of Labor policy should be muted.
The Australian Conservation Foundation has decided to weld itself onto Labor, and is whispering quiet on Labor's great climate policy shortcomings. There is a revolving door between the ACF and Labor's front-bench offices, and the ACF conspicuously failed to sign off on the peak-green election manifesto "Turning Down the Heat", or the web- centred The Big Switch campaign.
The ACF's climate stance is soft: it advocates targets lower than the other peak greens and contrary to that which the science demands. The ACF and its website are very low-key on coal, seeming, like their former president Peter Garrett, not to oppose increased coal exports. The ACF's just-launched whoonearthcares.com is celebrity-driven greenwash, lacking any climate change information, science or policy analysis.
ACF is positioning itself to be close to Rudd in power, but is the approach one of hope and trust that Labor will repay their charity by doing "the right thing" (no public evidence so far) or are there substantial, private assurances? Will ACF's soft-pedalling succeed in drawing a reasonable climate change policy out of Labor, or will its tactic simply dovetail with Rudd's small-target strategy, its silence interpreted as consent to a policy of climate catastrophe?
The election focus for most peak green groups is represented by the website, thebigswitch.org.au. The messaging is soft (the banner reads "... make simple lifestyle changes. Urge politicians to lead with vision ... ") but it appears to try to do too many things rather than effectively message one or two key issues.