Climate Change and Policy … It’s Crazy

So I just finished up doing a third year course called Climate Change Science and Policy and I want to reflect a bit on it all, so here goes.

I’ve done a little bit of climate science before, with the same lecturer, but that was more about the hard science; more physical geography in that it was just telling us how our interactions with the climate system are going (tldr: not well). This course, however, was several levels up the evolutionary ladder in that it was more about human geography, telling us about the health impacts of climate change; about how agriculture is having to adapt; about the future of water resources under climate change; and a brilliant guest lecture by someone from the university’s Law school about adaptation.

malaria
I live in the red bit on Australia’s east coast. Can’t say I’m too keen to get malaria.

This lecture was different to others as it presented me with a real challenge to the way I usually think of climate change.

It was all about adaptation and who bears responsibility for it, who pays the cost, who reaps the benefits. In my volunteering life as a climate activist I’m all about mitigation but this course, emphasised very strongly in this lecture, made me realise how important it is to have the tricky conversations about adaptation. In that lecture we spoke specifically about building codes in coastal areas but in the rest of the course we tackled much larger questions in our mock CoP.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have this thing called the Kyoto Protocol and ever year all the Parties to the Protocol go to a Conference; the Conference of the Parties (CoP).  You probably heard about the 2009 one in Copenhagen that was meant to be the silver bullet of climate change but actually went up in flames (as we’re talking climate change this can be taken literally). In it, Tuvalu didn’t sign on because an item they’d had tabled for six moths was ignored. A similar thing had happened two years earlier at the Bali CoP; basically America couldn’t agree on anything at all,  and the Secretariat was bullied by China and left crying. Dang.

obama
This was a year after Obama got the Peace Prize just for *not* being GW Bush. Then at Copenhagen America held the negotiations hostage while they got their Senate sorted out. Not sure how much of that is Obama’s fault but it sure is a chilling image.

CoPs are crazy. Ian Fry, a long time CoP attendee, gave us two lectures on CoPs that can basically be summed up thus: for two weeks everyone only sleeps about three hours a night; everyone is too busy protecting their own interests to think about anyone else; big countries like the US and blocs like the EU often dominate discussions; it doesn’t matter how high your ambition is at a CoP if you can’t pass anything in domestic law.

hoax
Classic.

So we did a mock CoP and this whole process really did my head in. I’ve always been very, The rich countries whose fault it is should take responsibility!, but that’s not fair. It won’t even work;  if only Annex I countries (Australia, England, Germany, the US etc.) mitigated it wouldn’t really get us anywhere as they’ve already done all their hard yards in the serious emitting stage of development.

That’s another thing that struck me. In the mock CoP I was Tuvalu, a tiny Pacific Island nation that has fewer than 12 000 people on 26 square kilometres on six islands.

Tuvalu
Clockwise from left: the country of Tuvalu extends from roughly 5 to 11 degrees South; the capital is on Funafuti, an island no more than 600m wide; the region of the South Pacific with Tuvalu highlighted.

When researching for the CoP I read this article (Connell, 2003) that said the people of Tuvalu are much less interested in climate change than one would assume; they’re far more concerned about developing their small and fragile economy. This is something one can call the climate/development nexus: even though developing countries (especially small island states like Tuvalu) are the most vulnerable they don’t have  the resources to deal with it. So do we get everyone out of poverty first? No, there’s not enough time for that. We just have to balance on that nexus and try to do what’s best. And it’s SO DIFFICULT.

Living in Australia and caring about climate change is really difficult. I did this course because I wanted to learn more about the effects of climate change and the international process but so many people in this country know so little about it, or worse: they think they know about it but are actually on a scale of being confused to being drastically misinformed. I want to be a high school science teacher and this course really highlighted for me how important it is to teach kids these things early and correctly. Then, hopefully, we’ll have a better informed public leading to better informed politicians and better international outcomes.

crazies
A picture from our dear friends at the Heartland Institute. Let’s keep the crazies away from the kids, eh?

And that’s my theory of change.

At the end of the course we had a 40% report. I did the assignment with sincerity and quite a bit of effort but I was one stupid climate change denier or irritating news article or picture of  our (climate change idiot) PM away from just handing this in, centred on a single sheet of paper:

 Absurd arbitrary arithmetic actually affecting all Aves, animals and agriculture. But bulging behemoth businesses bemoaning bumbling bystander bureaucracies: curse callous corporations, craven countries; casual collusion causing climate change! Development’s dogmas determinedly damning delicate  developing democracies – every extra economically enthralling emission eradicating ethical entreaties, eroding entire ecosystems. Fuck fossil fuels.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Connell, J 2003, ‘Losing ground? Tuvalu, the greenhouse effect and the garbage can’, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, vol.44, no.4, pp. 89-107.

2, 565, 2795

If there are three numbers in climate change you should know, they are 2, 565, and 2 795.

Let’s talk about math, baby.

In July 2012 climate stalwart Bill McKibben wrote an extremly popular article in Rolling Stone called ‘Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math’.

Basically, the international community has set a (slightly arbitrary) target of a 2’C rise in temperature by the end of the century. This is the first numer.

2’C was the limit set as it is seen to be the uppermost limit of warming under which most socities can continue to operate as they currently do. Anything above 2’C is seen as ‘catastrophic climate change’ and there is no gaurantee at all that our current society can survive that.

2
2’C has been agreed upon as the ‘safe’ limit for climate change. Current understanding puts us at about 0.8’C.

 

Why do I sound so cynical about the 2’C?

Because it’s too high.

It was chosen because it’s (in theory) a politically fesiable target, not because it actually means anything. At 2’C you can say goodbye to countries like Tuvaulu and Kirabati. At 2’C you can say goodbye to the Great Barrier Reef. At 2’c the Arctic will look less like a wild and beautifully desolate ice desert and more like a bit of coolish water with some ice cubes sadly floating in it.

The next number is 565 gigatonnes. Basically, to stay under that 2’C limit we can’t emit more than another 565 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. That’s fine, right?

We emit nor more than that 565 and then the inertia of the oceans will catch up (basically we’re not feeling the true impacts of cllimate change at the moment as they store heaps of carbon dioxide, but when they reach saturation point all of that will go into the atmosphere) and it will get crazy for a while but we might be okay.

Well, not really because (and this is where the ‘terrifying’ comes in) there is currently 2 795 gigatonnes on the books.

That is roughly five times the amount we have in our carbon budget, but it’s being traded and included in market anaylsis and market forecasts already.

2795
This slide from Bill McKibben’s ‘Do the Math’ tour says it all really.

It’s written into multi billion dollar deals such as the mining of the Galliee Basin in Australia and the extraction of tar sands in the US.

Doesn’t sound great, does it? 

Lukily, there are thousands of dedicated, talented, optimistic and downright brilliant people working on this, notably through the global Fossil Free divestment campaign being run by 350.org. They are truly fantastic people.

Tomorrow, when the IPCC releases their fifth report on climate change we’ll see how it’s all going.

In the meantime, let’s play with the math. We need to diminish that 2 795 to 565 or, frankly, geography won’t be so awesome anymore and that would be terrible.

Morality and the Triage System

This post first appeared on a biodiversity blog that we set up for a course last semester. That blog can be found here: http://biodiversityconservationblog.wordpress.com/. It is really great and you should check it out!

Animals
She’s so cute!!! PHOTO: Atlas of Living Australia.

Look at this photo of a baby koala. Sqqquueee!!! She’s so cute! Look at her fluffy ears and big nose and button eyes!

We know that koalas are on the decline in all States and Territories except Victoria; we all know that these insanely cute marsupials are facing habitat loss and degradation due to agriculture, new roads, expanding urban areas and forestry. We know they took a hard hit when they were hunted for their soft, thick pelts in the early part of last century.

Enter the triage system. ‘Triage’ is a term mostly used in medical circles and it means prioritising patients based on the severity of their injuries.

In conservation it means using a decision support system to decide which species or system to preserve: What are the chances of this species doing well if we support it? How much will it cost? What’s the cultural significance of the species? It is rare or taxonomically distinct (i.e. has few living relatives)?

For something like the koala, it will do pretty well in these questions; it’s a big draw for tourism, it’s important in Australian culture, it’s the last of its family (Phascolarctidae) and it’s cute and fluffy so when policy makers and groups want to protect it people say ‘Ahh, how nice.’

The darker side of the triage system is that not all animals are cute and fluffy, not all of them have a high social standing and so the funding just won’t be allocated to them because they don’t meet the criteria.

Think of the Grassland Earless Dragon. These lizards are tiny, about 1.5cm long and they live in the grasslands of NSW, the ACT and Victoria. The little dragons have been facing habitat degradation from farming (mostly grazing) for decades and are now threatened by the spread of wind farms as well, farms set up along the ridge in the grasslands they call home.

I haven’t heard of earless dragons before, I hear you say, are they cute? Yes, they are, they’re gorgeous!

That shouldn’t matter though, we should protect all species, regardless of their cuteness or social utility. We created the problems they are facing – habitat destruction and fragmentation, pollution, invasive plants and animals, climate change – so we should fix it.

Morally, it’s not okay to push another species (never forget that we are merely clothed apes; Homo sapiens, the cousins of chimps and gorillas) to the point of being endangered then say ‘Oh, but you don’t meet the cut/fluffy/social utility/inexpensive criteria so you’re just going to have to make do.’

Funding is always limited and resources always scare but the bottom line is that humans don’t have the right to decide the fate of other species* because we have decided other things are more worth our money; everything should be protected.

We need to change our values so that the triage system becomes obsolete because there is always enough funding to conserve everything.

Look at this little dragon. Can you look him in the eye and tell him he’s not precious enough to protect?

dragon
This little guy is about 1.5cm long and lives in the Australian grasslands. He’s beautiful! PHOTO: Museum of Victoria.

*The debate around humans messing with evolution through making some species extinct while preserving others comes in here. It’s a really interesting line of thought and I recommend you follow it.

Interested in finding out more?

Earless dragons in Victoria:

http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/103407/Earless_dragon.pdf

Koalas in Queensland:

http://www.ehp.qld.gov.au/wildlife/koalas/legislation/pdf/conservation-plan-06-16.pdf

Koalas in Victoria:

http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/106852/Koala.pdf

Conservation Triage:

http://conservationbytes.com/2009/03/27/classics-ecological-triage/