Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Copenhagen: the price of the atmosphere

By Andrew Glikson - posted Thursday, 31 December 2009

The European Union pledged US$10 billion for fighting global warming, which is 0.5 per cent of global entertainment and media spending, 0.7 per cent of the US military expenditure for 2008 and 1.4 per cent of the US banks' bailout.

To put this in to perspective:


The shift in the state of the atmosphere is tracking into critical levels. An examination of the geological record indicates that, with the exception of major volcanic and asteroid impact events, which triggered mass extinctions of species, never has atmospheric CO2 risen at a rate as fast as at present: 2 parts per million/year, the earlier highest record being about 0.4ppm/year about 55 million years ago (Zachos et al., 2008).

Early humans survived a rise of +3 degrees Celsius about 2.8 million years ago. Homo sapiens survived an abrupt temperature rise of about +5oC during the two last glacial terminations ~130,000 and ~14-11,000 years ago, in part through migration. The species H. sapiens will survive. It is less clear how civilisation, dependent on mountain snow-fed river systems which allow agricultural cultivation of river valleys and delta, also prone to sea level rise, on extensive cultivation of marginal desert regions such as in Australia and Africa, on regular monsoons as in India and east Africa, and on coastal centres and port cities, can survive a global temperature rise of more than 2 degrees C.

The mean global temperature rise of about 1.3 degrees C (0.8C + 0.5C masked by sulphur aerosols) since 1750, an order of magnitude faster than the mean temperature rise of 0.0004-0.00055OC/year during the last glacial termination, is manifested by up to 3 to 4 degrees C rise over parts of the poles, triggering extensive ice melt, polar-ward migration of the climate zones by approximately 400km southward in Australia, and sea level rise rates which rose from less than 1mm/year in the early 20th century to 3.7mm/year at present.

With a looming crisis, the greatest the biosphere has experienced since the ejection of some 2,000 billion tons of carbon as methane gas into atmosphere about 55 million years ago (Zachos et al., 2008), and despite high expectations, none of the non-binding targets discussed in Copenhagen gets even near what is needed if a meaningful attempt is to be made to avert runaway climate change.

With a maximum emission reduction targets of 30 per cent by 2020 relative to 1990 suggested by the European Union, continuing carbon emissions on the scale of 4 or 5 billion tons/year will still raise the cumulative atmospheric CO2 budget by more than 1ppm/year, in addition to CO2 and CH4 release from land clearing and livestock. This is quite apart from carbon cycle feedbacks and ice sheet melt albedo change feedbacks pushing temperatures upward.

According to James Hansen:


Science reveals that climate is close to tipping points. It is a dead certainty that continued high emissions will create a chaotic dynamic situation for young people, with deteriorating climate conditions out of their control. Science also reveals what is needed to stabilize atmospheric composition and climate. Geophysical data on the carbon amounts in oil, gas and coal show that the problem is solvable, if we phase out global coal emissions within 20 years and prohibit emissions from unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands and oil shale.

Such constraints on fossil fuels would cause carbon dioxide emissions to decline 60% by mid-century or even more if policies make it uneconomic to go after every last drop of oil. Improved forestry and agricultural practices could then bring atmospheric carbon dioxide back to 350ppm parts per million or less, as required for a stable climate.

Governments going to Copenhagen claim to have such goals for 2050, which they will achieve with the "cap-and-trade" mechanism. They are lying through their teeth. Unless they order Russia to leave its gas in the ground and Saudi Arabia to leave its oil in the ground which nobody has proposed, they must phase out coal and prohibit unconventional fossil fuels. Instead, the United States signed an agreement with Canada for a pipeline to carry oil squeezed from tar sands. Australia is building port facilities for large increases in coal export. Coal-to-oil factories are being built. Coal-fired power plants are being constructed worldwide.

Governments are stating emission goals that they know are lies - or, if we want to be generous, they do not understand the geophysics and are kidding themselves.

A massive denial campaign waged by a coalition of contrarians supported by fossil fuel interests is holding the world to ransom. These people include ex-lobbyists of tobacco companies - who all of a sudden have become interested in climate science; medieval fundamentalists - who regard climate change in terms of God’s will to purify the Earth; believers in human supremacy over nature; socially backward think tanks; some economists; and a few engineers and ego-driven ex-professionals who appear to confuse the weather with the climate.

Using some emails by scientists who desperately try to alert humanity to the looming climate catastrophe, the denialists tried to sabotage the UN Copenhagen conference. But the real sabotage has been perpetrated by governments which pay lip service to climate mitigation while advancing carbon reduction targets inconsistent with climate science and any meaningful attempts of defending the realm.

To prove his divine power Caligula waged war on Poseidon, God of the Sea, commanding his army to throw spears into the ocean. Lately humans, claiming mastery of nature, pour carbon into the atmosphere and acid into the oceans, changing the climate which had previously allowed them to descend from the trees and provided the conditions which allowed their mammalian ancestors to flourish on the continents.

The atmosphere is not waiting for human decision.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

95 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Dr Andrew Glikson is an Earth and paleoclimate scientist at the Research School of Earth Science, the School of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Planetary Science Institute, Australian National University.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Andrew Glikson

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Andrew Glikson
Article Tools
Comment 95 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy