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Climate Code Red

Climate Code Red: The case for Emergency Action

Reviews and Comments

A 'climate emergency' action book by David Spratt & Philip Sutton

"Having been involved with global warming climate change as a researcher in environmental health for 25 years, I can say that this is without question by far the best book to date on this issue -- the first book to have the integrity to say how the situation really is."

"We must begin to move rapidly to the post-fossil fuel clean energy system. Moreover, we must remove some carbon that has collected in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. This is the story that Climate Code Red tells with conviction."

"Climate Code Red is a superb, visionary blueprint for development in a new century which tackles the tough questions of how humanity can, in practice, rapidly secure a sustainable future. But it is also a work in progress, a draft strategy, which is primed to be shaped and developed by those who step up to meet the challenge we all now face."

Publication details

The book Climate Code Red was first published by the authors as a report for Friends of The Earth in February 2008, before being published (July 2008) as a paperback by Scribe Publications.

Title: Climate Code Red
Subtitle: The case for Emergency Action
Authors: David Spratt, Phillip Sutton
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9781921372209
Publisher: Scribe Publications
Imprint: Scribe Publications
Publication Date: 5 July 2008
Pages: 256
Dimensions: 210mm x 135mm
Price: $27.95

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Climate Code Red5 July 2008: Climate Code Red: The case for Emergency Action - Australian climate scientists David Spratt & Philip Sutton reveal extensive scientific evidence that the global warming crisis is far worse than official reports and national governments have indicated - and that we're almost at the point of no return. According to Green's Christine Milne, they "provide a valuable and sobering contribution to the policy challenge of climate change at a pivotal moment, with their key insight that the expectation of failure has become the norm in climate policy. Climate Code Red is a significant contribution which should be read by anyone seriously contemplating how to set greenhouse emission-reduction targets."

5 July 2008: Will Ross Garnaut's verdict become Kevin's Slow Boat to China? - Professor Ross Garnaut has delivered his long awaited Climate Change Draft Report, and now it's up to the Rudd government to prepare the action and implement the policies. Will Professor Ross Garnaut force Kevin Rudd's climate change leadership, or will it be silently 'averaged out' in Canberra? This page summarizes the early impressions.

21 March 2008: The Garnaut Climate Change Review Interim Report - Hasn't Australia changed radically in just a few months: under the former government Ross Garnaut, who has just released his Interim Climate Change Review Report, would have been stonewalled, ignored, vilified and sidelined, and Canberra would have followed a lead from industry on its opinion about him. Now he receives appause from the environmental lobby while big energy producers cringe...

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The Perils of Playing Nice

In shooting for the political mainstream, the climate movement has shot itself in the foot, argue David Spratt and Philip Sutton

New Matilda
4 Jul 2008
By David Spratt and Philip Sutton

Global warming is an emergency, and "for emergency situations we need emergency action," UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon told the world in November 2007.

Why, then, has climate policy moved in such a painfully slow manner? How can the impasse be resolved between what needs doing quickly, based on the science, and what seems a "reasonable" thing to do in the current political environment?

Having been involved with global warming climate change as a researcher in environmental health for 25 years, I can say that this is without question by far the best book to date on this issue -- the first book to have the integrity to say how the situation really is.
Dr Peter Carter, Canada

It seems as if there are two great tectonic plates - scientific necessity and political pragmatism - that meet very uneasily at a fault line.

For example, in 2007, under Kevin Rudd, the Australian Labor Party's pre-election climate policy statement effectively supported a policy of allowing global warming to run as high as a 3-degree increase on pre-industrial temperatures, despite data quoted in the statement itself that unequivocally demanded a much lower target.

A number of other examples illustrate the tensions and compromises that result from trying to balance the scientific and political factors.

The British Government's Stern Review identified a need, based on its reading of the science, for a 2-degree cap, but then said that this would be too difficult to achieve and advocated a 3-degree cap instead.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has not called for climate modelling for stabilisation of temperatures at less than 2 degrees, despite the evidence that the climate safe zone is much lower. Although the IPCC says its role is to simply represent the science, not to advocate policy, this seems to be a case of the IPCC allowing political norms to limit the scope of the research that it encourages or reports.

Many climate and policy researchers, while privately expressing the view that the 2-degree cap is too high for a safe-climate world, have nevertheless publicly advocated less effective goals, because they perceive those to be more acceptable. Their argument is that they "wouldn't be listened to" if they said what they really thought.

As well, some environment group advocates speak of the need to occupy the "middle ground", or to be at least "heading in the right direction", because "it is always possible to go further later on". This stance turns risk aversion on its head by failing to consider worst possible outcomes. At the same time, it is politically advantageous because it obviates the need to talk about preventative actions that are currently perceived to be "extreme". As a result, advocacy is often for a direction-setting minimum, rather than demanding a clear statement of what is required.

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During 2007 the position of the Australian Conservation Foundation was that emissions should be cut "60 to 90 per cent" by 2050 (a 60 per cent cut would leave emissions in 2050 at four times the level required of a 90 per cent reduction). Yet in his preliminary report economist Ross Garnaut told the Rudd government that a 90 per cent cut may be necessary and 60 per cent was far from enough.

In all these examples, we see reluctance on the part of organisations and people to go beyond the bounds of perceived acceptability. This results in the advocacy of solutions that, even if fully implemented, would not actually solve the problem. There is a sense that many of the climate policy professionals - in government, research, community organisations and advocacy - have established boundaries around their public discourse that are guided by a primary concern for "reasonableness", rather than by a concern for achieving environmental and social sustainability.

Many people whose work centres on climate change have been struggling for so long to gain recognition for the issue - having had to cope with a lack of awareness, conservatism and climate deniers - that they now have deeply ingrained habits of self-censorship. They are concerned to avoid being dismissed and marginalised as "alarmist" and "crazy". Now that the science is showing the situation to be far worse than most scientists expected only a short while ago, this ingrained reticence is adding to the problem.

A pragmatic interdependency links many of these players in a cycle of low expectations and poor outcomes. Here is an outline of the concerns of some of these key players, based on actual conversations and correspondence. The cycle is a merry-go-round, so it matters little where it starts.

Under pressure to stick to the science and avoid opinion, a climate scientist may take the view that society needs to make the judgement about what it determines to be dangerous climate change: "It's not for me, as a scientist, to tell you what's dangerous or what the political target ought to be. I try to inform the debate by explaining what the risks actually are at these various levels, and by offering policy options that society could consider."

Community-based climate action groups, often lacking detailed technical knowledge, will respond by saying that they are not about to doubt the views put forward by the science professionals, which they hear from the media and from the IPCC: "We have to trust in their abilities to lead us. They are the ones who know - we can't say things that they haven't, and we can't speculate on what a few scientists might be saying, if it isn't in the IPCC reports."

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Recent greenhouse gas emissions place the Earth perilously close to dramatic climate change that could run out of our control, with great dangers for humans and other creatures. There is already enough carbon in the Earth's atmosphere for massive ice sheets such as West Antarctica to eventually melt away, and ensure that sea levels will rise metres in coming decades.

Climate zones such as the tropics and temperate regions will continue to shift, and the oceans will become more acidic, endangering much marine life. We must begin to move rapidly to the post-fossil fuel clean energy system. Moreover, we must remove some carbon that has collected in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. This is the story that Climate Code Red tells with conviction.

It is a compelling case for recognising, as the UN secretary-general has said, that we face a climate emergency.

Dr James Hansen, director of the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies

Large climate-group and environment managers often join the conversation, suggesting that they agree with strong goals and urgent action, but that they are worried that if they promote them, their lobbying wouldn't be taken seriously: "It is more important to agree and campaign on targets that are heading in the right direction, than that we have discussions about what the targets should be. It is always possible to go further, or call for more, later on."

The consequence is that even those politicians who are climate friendly feel constrained: "I can't go further than the environment movement. I'd look extreme if I did." And: "I know our party's position will have to be strengthened because the science has changed, but that can't happen until after the next election. Our policy is now set. I wish we could go further, but some people are worried that I will look too extreme in the electorate."

Deep inside public administration, where climate policy is processed, there is an avoidance of the political: "Although our climate-science manager agrees with your targets ... she has to stick to using scientists, not lobbyists, and science, not policy. She needs to be persuaded that setting targets and trajectories is fundamentally a climate-science issue, not a political one. If, on the other hand, we can find a scientist to make the case for real targets that you have made, this would help a lot, but the scientists say that target-setting is political, and outside their terrain."

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Businesses, meanwhile, remain constrained by their commercial interests: "You might well be right that 60 per cent by 2050 is not enough, but the people I talk to wouldn't believe anything tougher. Our business is one of the good ones - we know that this is a big problem, but if we are going to engage the wider business community, we can only go so far."

It seems that everyone is waiting for someone else to break the cycle; but how can this be done? Part of the problem seems to be fear: those who are the first to move to a tougher position are worried about becoming isolated or losing credibility.

Reticence on the part of advocates to push for serious action also stems from the pervasive view in politics that everything is subject to compromise, and that trade-offs are the norm: argue less for what you really want than for what seems "reasonable" in the give-and-take of normal political society. And when some brash advocates do argue for what really needs to be done, it is simply assumed they are making an ambit claim: an initial demand put forward in the expectation that the negotiations will prompt a lesser counter-offer and end in compromise.

While this mindset is widespread, there are domains from which it has been banished. When it comes to public safety, society knows that compromise and negotiable trade-offs cannot apply. Bridges, buildings, planes, large machines and the like must be built to risk-averse, high standards, which are applied rigorously. When standards are not met and structures fail, corporations, governments and regulatory bodies are held to account. We have learned from trial and error that a "no major trade-off" policy in public safety is necessary to avoid the killing and maiming of citizens.

With global warming, however, we do not have the luxury of learning by trial and error. We have left the climate problem unattended for so long that we now have just one chance to get things right by applying a "no major trade-off" approach without a trial run. It will be a particular challenge for decision-makers, who have grown up in a political culture of compromise.

Past government inaction has also habituated an acceptance of lowered expectations, which has continued to hinder serious climate action. A non-government organisation staff member, reflecting on her experiences, said that it has become increasingly clear to her how constrained the environmental organisations are: "It's a legacy of 11 years of [the] Howard [government] - they've all come to expect so little environmental responsibility from government, so they don't ask for much in the hope of a small gain. [It's] a very unfortunate situation."

Generally, timidity, constraint and incrementalism have characterised recent national and state government approaches to environment issues, and the consequence is that low expectations have become embedded in the relationship between lobbyists and government. When opportunity knocks, or changing evidence demands urgent and new responses, imaginative and bold leadership does not always emerge with solutions that fully face up to the challenge. When, in late 2007, evidence emerged of accelerated climate change, it appeared to have little impact on the climate targets advocated by most of the peak green organisations, which said that their position was "locked in" until after the election.

Ken Ward, an environmental and communications strategist and former deputy executive director of Greenpeace in the USA, believes that the people who lead environmental foundations and organisations play a critical part in reconstructing the issue as a climate and sustainability emergency - one that takes us beyond the politics of failure-inducing compromise.

With the rapid loss of the Arctic summer ice cover, Ward says that the opportunity for these leaders to adjust their position is narrow, and this is due, in some part, to the deliberate decision, a decade ago, by environment organisations to downplay climate change risk.

He says: "[They did so] in the interests of presenting a sober, optimistic image to potential donors, maintaining access to decision-makers, and operating within the constraints of private foundations, which has blown back on us. By emphasising specific solutions and avoiding definitions that might appear alarmist, we inadvertently fed a dumbed-down, Readers Digest version of climate change to our staff and environmentalist core. Now, as we scramble to keep up with climate scientists, we discover that we have paid a hefty price."

For those who have, in the past, downplayed the risks, changing position is now a matter of urgency, because what now needs to be done is not incrementally reasonable. The desperate measures required to advance a functional climate-change solution at this late date, says Ward, "can only be conceived and advanced by individuals who accept climate change realities and [who] take the less than 10-year timeframe seriously".

He believes that we will need to actually confront the terror of the situation before we can come to a real solution.

"We are not acting like people and organisations who genuinely believe that the world is at risk. Therefore, we cannot take the measures required, nor can we be effective leaders."

This is an edited extract from Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action, published by Scribe.

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'It is wrong-headed for society to mundanely think about addressing "climate change", because this term, and its sister phrase "global warming", both imply a sedate and gradual transition. Yet recent science, and the history of past climates, tell us that this is an absurdly optimistic expectation. The Earth's climate is a complex and interconnected system, dominated by amplifying feedbacks, thresholds, delays and non-linearities.

We have already witnessed surprises -- the recent dramatic loss of Arctic summer sea ice and the rapid polewards expansion of tropical weather systems causing drying of the mid-latitudes are just two of many examples -- and we should expect more: large and abrupt climatic lurches are likely this century and perhaps within years. That is why Spratt and Sutton speak of the "climate emergency" and argue that there is a supremely urgent need for society to take immediate, transformational action to restore a safe climate. Climate Code Red is a superb, visionary blueprint for development in a new century which tackles the tough questions of how humanity can, in practice, rapidly secure a sustainable future. But it is also a work in progress, a draft strategy, which is primed to be shaped and developed by those who step up to meet the challenge we all now face.'

Prof Barry W. Brook, Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change
Dir, Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability
University of Adelaide

On climate, a trial run is not an option

Climate Code Red Blog
4 July 2008
by David Spratt

This post was previously published in The Adelaide Advertiser of 3 July 2008 under the title 'Not enough time to turn back the climate clock'

Shocking as it may be, within five years the earth is likely to have only one polar ice cap, rather than two, during the summer. Allowing this condition to persist is not safe, but getting our climate solutions right poses a unique challenge.

We can only play this game once. If we don't do enough, or at sufficient pace, in building a post-carbon economy, the climate system will get away from our capacity to correct it. Start-stop, trial-and-error climate policy is simply not an option.

Yet in quieter moments many of us acknowledge that in responding to global warming, the world is going backwards and the range of responses mooted are simply too little, too late. Labor's climate adviser Ross Garnaut recently told a Canberra audience there was "just a chance" that nations would meet the climate policy challenge because "observation of daily debate and media discussion in Australia could lead one to the view that this issue is too hard for rational policy-making in Australia. The issues are too complex, the vested interests surrounding it too numerous and intense, the relevant time-frames too long."

Short-term economic preoccupations so constrain actions considered reasonable that maintaining biodiversity and building a safe-climate future have already been negotiated out of existence. The Rudd government's current policy target of a 3-degree rise would destroy the Barrier Reef and the tropical rainforests, cause widespread desertification, a mass extinction, and a sea-level rise of perhaps 25 metres, amongst many impacts. The federal opposition has no climate target at all.

Climate policy is characterised by a culture of failure, so there is an urgent need to be brutally honest about where we are and what we need to do.

Of all the talk at a major international gathering of global warming experts last December, one speech did just that. The place was not Bali, but San Francisco, where 15,000 climate scientists gathered for their most important conference of the year, hosted by the American Geophysical Union. Centre stage was James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Science, and the United States' most eminent climate scientist.

Hansen told his fellow scientists that climate tipping points have already been passed for large ice sheet and species loss, which occurred when we exceeded levels of 300-350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, at least two decades ago (the current level is 387 parts per million). Hansen said there is already enough carbon in the Earth's atmosphere for massive ice sheets such as on Greenland to eventually melt away, and ensure that sea levels will rise metres this century. People must not only cut current carbon emissions but also remove some carbon that has collected in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, in order to cool the planet, he concluded.

And just last month Hansen told the National Press Club in Washington that the climate is nearing dangerous tipping points, with the elements of a "perfect storm", a global cataclysm, already assembled.

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The polar north has until recently been covered by eight million square kilometres of floating sea-ice in summer, an area greater than Australia. Now it is disappearing fast and predicted by Arctic experts to be gone entirely within five years. Their well-founded fear is that rapid heating as a consequence of the sea-ice loss will trigger the unstoppable melting of most or all of the Greenland ice sheet, an event which would raise sea levels by five to seven metres, in as little as a century.

Four broad conclusions can be drawn from these observations.

  1. We face dangerous warming impacts now, not just in the future. Serious climate-change impacts are already happening, both more quickly and at lower global temperature rises than projected. Increases of two degrees are effectively already in the system, unless we act dramatically to cut emissions towards zero as quickly as humanly possible. A temperature cap of 2-2.4 degrees, as proposed at Bali and now the subject of international negotiations, would take the planet's climate beyond the temperature range of the last million years and into extreme danger.

  2. Strong action is required now to stop emissions and cool the earth. The tipping points for large ice sheet and species loss were crossed decades ago. It is no longer a case of how much more we can "safely" emit, but whether we can quickly enough stop emissions and produce a cooling before we hit tipping points and amplifying feedbacks -- such as large scale loss of greenhouse gases from melting permafrost -- that will take the trajectory of the earth's climate system beyond any hope of human restoration.

  3. It is necessary to plan a large-scale transition to a post-carbon economy. Considering the water shortage, the arrival of peak oil, rising population and the impacts of warming -- and the reflection of these events in rapidly rising world food prices --we can see a multi-factor sustainability crisis. Speed is of the essence in constructing a post-carbon economy. An imaginative, large-scale programme comparable in scope to the "war economy" is required. The obstacles to implementing such climate solutions are primarily political and social in character, rather than technological or economic.

  4. We need to move at a pace far beyond business and politics as usual. These imperatives are incompatible with the realities of politics and business as usual. Our conventional mode of politics is short-term, fearful of deep change and incapable of managing the transition at the necessary speed or depth. The consequence of timidity and constraint in government approaches to the environment is that low expectations are now embedded in policy-making. But the climate crisis will not respond to incremental modification of the business-as-usual model, and there is an urgent need to re-conceive the issue we face as a sustainability emergency, that takes us beyond the politics of failure-inducing compromise.

Lacking the collective will to act in a sustainable manner is no excuse. Acting within the constraints on the planet system is now necessary for long-term survival, because we are now in a race between climate tipping points and political tipping points.

David Spratt

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Code red: Climate skating on thin ice, authors say

The Age
Adam Morton
July 18, 2008

CLIMATE watchers yesterday warned that the Government's carbon pollution reduction plan had so many exemptions it was unlikely to lead to a cut in greenhouse emissions before 2020.

A book launched in Melbourne last night, Climate Code Red, argues that the climate change challenge is far worse than officially acknowledged by the Government or modelling undertaken by Government adviser Professor Ross Garnaut.

By economist David Spratt and Philip Sutton, the book warns that glaciologists are convinced the summer Arctic ice will disappear within five years, returning only as a thin layer during winter. It says the question is not whether this can be stopped, but whether it can be reversed over coming decades to avoid sea level rises much worse than predicted by the comparatively conservative Nobel-Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - probably between two and five metres.

"The problem is not that the sea ice is melting now, though that's bad enough. It's that Greenland will melt over a hundred years or two," Spratt said. "If within 20, or 30, or 40 years, we can start to get the Arctic back a bit, that will actually stop the really catastrophic sea rises that will happen in the second half of the century."

The bottom line, Spratt said, is that the Government's emissions trading green paper does not address the problem.

He said the Government's 60% reduction target for 2050 is purely a political target and has "nothing" to do with scientific recommendations. It concedes atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations will rise to a level - about 550 parts per million of carbon dioxide - that will cause at least a 3-degree rise in global temperatures. A 2-degree rise is predicted to trigger feedback effects leading to much more rapid melting of ice too difficult to model, he said. "What the Government doesn't understand is that when it comes to climate you are not dealing with social or economic policy, but you're actually dealing with the laws of physics and chemistry, and trying to negotiate with the laws of physics is a really dumb idea," Spratt said.

"We have to go to a zero emissions economy as fast as humanly possible or the dominoes are just going to fall."

Spratt and Sutton said the response must be immediate and drastic - a war footing equivalent to sacrifices made during World War II.

Their goal is a reduction to about 325 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent - lower than where it is (460), and what governments and their economic and scientific advisers are considering. Spratt said Australia could reach zero emissions within "a decade or two".

Andrew Macintosh, associate director of Australian National University's centre for climate policy law, yesterday agreed that the Government's blueprint would not keep temperatures rises to less than 2 degrees.

Mr Macintosh said the targets advocated by Spratt and Sutton were "pretty much impossible" unless we had near-zero carbon emissions.

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