Rather than all going around in the same old circles, let’s see how far we can get with mutual agreement.
Can humans affect the environment?
Of course. Our cities, our farms, our mines, our highways — these have all profoundly changed the face of the earth in just a few short centuries. Pristine ecosystems which lived harmoniously for tens of thousands of years have been utterly wiped out all across the world.
Do humans release Greenhouse Gases?
Yes. Mostly by burning carbon-rich fossil fuels for our transport and electricity. Also from the billion-odd cows we breed, and a few other bits and pieces.
Doesn’t the earth produce way more GHGs?
Yes. A whopping 97% of them in fact. But the earth also absorbs about the same amount again. Humans add that extra 3%, but don’t absorb any. So the levels have been slowly but steadily rising since the industrial revolution.
Do GHGs make the planet warmer?
Yes, that’s what they do. Instead of all the heat bouncing back off the earth, Carbon Dioxide (and water vapour, and other carbon compounds like methane) trap some of it in the atmosphere on its way out, which provides us with this perfectly pleasant planet. Carbon itself is an organic molecule which is essential for life. It’s not a ‘pollutant’ any more than your doona is a pollutant. In the right amounts and the right places, we love it. We don’t, however, want six doonas in summer.
Have those extra GHGs made a difference?
If you just look out the window, it can be pretty hard to tell. But yes, we have already noticed an increase in average temperature. Our doona is a little bit thicker, and this lovely little rock we’re on is a little bit warmer. 1.5 degrees is how much the average has gone up by so far. That doesn’t mean that every day is 1.5 degrees hotter than it was 100 years ago. It means if you take the average temperatures across the globe and throughout the year, that number has gone up by about 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial times. On a day to day basis, that is almost impossible to notice, so it is easy to disregard.
Does that matter?
Well, yes. The Climate System is extremely complex. Heat affects ice cover, which affects salinity levels, which affect ocean currents, which determine weather patterns.
Certain species prefer certain climates, and when they go then ecosystems can collapse. Tiny changes can set off chain reactions which lead to cataclysmic shifts.Which brings us to the next question,
Has the climate changed before humans?
Of course. Always has. 4 billion years is a long time and it’s been a hell of a journey. 10,000 years ago, a lot of the earth’s water was frozen and the seas were way lower. That’s how people walked to Tasmania. Sydney Harbour was a river valley. Then the world got warmer and it all flooded. Dramatic, world changing shifts make up the history of the earth.
So how has it happened without humans?
There are all sorts of instigators and amplifiers. Tiny shifts in the Earth’s orbit can tilt the polar regions more towards the sun, which melts the ice, which changes the global patterns. Volcanos, meteorites. The Sun itself puts out different amounts of energy over time with Solar Flares. The weather patterns themselves have cycles that come and go, ocean currents change, all of it. We understand all of them very well, and none of them account for the changes in conditions we are seeing now.
Does this mean that humans can’t also affect it?
No. On the list of “things which have set significant changes to the climate system in motion”, you can add humans to a long line of triggers. Think about drink driving, for example. Car crashes happen while sober, all the time. This doesn’t mean that alcohol can’t also be a factor — even though it is only 0.05% of the overall system.
So human activity can at least in theory have an effect on the climate?
Yes. We are doing the thing which nature did, faster than nature ever did it. We’re ripping up the earth to burn fuels which put these gasses in the atmosphere, and that is exactly the sort of thing which has set off huge changes in the past.
Could policy have a role in limiting this effect?
Sure. It’s what policy is for and it’s happened plenty. Look at lead petrol. Or acid rain. The hole in the Ozone. Cigarettes and cancer. Whale populations. The pattern is clear: Humans mess up the environment somehow, scientists realise it’s bad, governments introduce legislation to regulate it, people complain that the government is overreaching and trampling on businesses call the proponents brainwashed communists, laws pass anyway, life gets better, we all try and move on. The irony is that when the problems like the Ozone hole get fixed, 20 years later people start saying “see, there’s no problem, it was all a hoax!”
What kind of policy do we need?
That is a whole book in itself, but the short answer is: Whatever burns less fossil fuels, really. Get the energy we need for our food, transport and electricity without putting so many GHGs into the atmosphere.
Is that possible?
Sure. We’re a smart species. Resourceful and resilient. We’ve come this far. We have the technology and the knowledge. Most of it is already out there in the world.
Will it collapse the economy?
There is a huge amount of work to be done. A lot of jobs, a lot of investment. So it depends on whether you see that as a good thing or a bad thing I guess. It will cost a lot of money, but that money isn’t being burned, it’s being built into lasting infrastructure for a system which will power us into the future, through the pockets of workers to spend in the economy.
It will also take a lot of resources, some of which are rare and running out. Manufacturing everything will produce even more emissions, by burning fossil fuels to build it all. That much is unavoidable.
No matter how many you think are left, fossil fuels are finite. So surely we need to start now, rather than waiting a few more years to let our grandchildren scrape the barrel of what’s left to build it, after we’ve completely burned through all the fossil fuels, and made our doona even thicker.
Why aren’t we?
Again, this is a whole book in itself, but the short answer is: Profit. Fossil fuel companies recognised that if people used less of their products, they would make less money. So they went about deliberately sowing doubt. They did it in broad daylight.
They funded groups to dispute the scientific consensus, and painted anyone who fought for environmental regulation as socialist. And in a world where consumption of kilojoules is literally a proxy for virility, they attacked anything which used less energy as not being ‘masculine’ enough.
Plus, it’s hard to face psychologically. We don’t want to admit that the world is burning, and we certainly don’t want to admit we’re responsible for it. Our energy abundant lifestyles are quite comfortable thank you very much, and any attempt to limit that is just plain rude.
Then of course there is the argument that other countries produce so much that Australia doesn’t make a difference. Personally, I am proud of Australia and the difference we make on the world stage. We’ve always punched above our weight. Here we have an opportunity to demonstrate global leadership, and position Australian industries at the forefront of the incoming wave of green energy. And as one of the largest per-capita emitters, that is arguably our responsibility.
All that aside, Humans respond best to problems where the cause is visible, the effect is immediate, and the relationship between the two is straightforward. Climate Change is none of those. It’s not visible, it’s not immediate, and it’s bloody complicated. So doubting it is completely understandable. No one is blaming individuals, we’re all on the same team, we’re all in this together, and we need to work on our understanding.
Ultimately, we can agree it’s complicated. Some of the predictions have been wrong, or exaggerated. But the bottom line is simple. We’re putting GHGs in the atmosphere, which make the planet warmer, which affects the weather patterns our ecosystems depend on for survival. It might be OK for our lifetime, but we can’t be sure about our kids’. So let’s give it a crack. Would be pretty rude not to.