01.01.2013 Climate Change

What Planet Are We On?

Are we all living in a bubble of climate change denial? asks Adrian Glamorgan

In November 2012, just before climate change talks in Qatar, the World Bank published a rigorous snapshot of where we're heading, simply entitled: Turn Down the Heat, Why a 4C degree Warmer World Must be Avoided.

Most of us know the rough story of accelerating loss of ice sheets over Greenland, the Arctic and parts of Antarctica. We know oceans have been warming, and sea levels rising. But average temperatures play tricks with the senses. Four degrees might seem tolerable but, in 2010 in Russia, extreme heat caused an estimated death toll of 55,000, the failure of a quarter of the country's crops, a million hectares to be burned out, and economic losses climbing to $15 billion.

On questions of extreme heat, the World Bank notes, "In the absence of climate change, extreme heat waves ... would be expected to occur only once every several hundred years. Observations indicate a tenfold increase in the surface area of the planet experiencing extreme heat since the 1950s."

Climate change doesn't come cheap. Beyond extreme heat waves, the World Bank anticipates declining global food stocks, loss of marine and terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity, and mass dislocations caused by sea level rise. At the heart of the warning from the World Bank is that disaster, disruption, damage and dislocation will be spread unequally.

"It is likely that the poor will suffer most and the global community could become more fractured, and unequal than today." Bringing the World Bank to only one conclusion: "The projected 4C degree warning simply must not be allowed to occur - the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen."

And so to Doha, in Qatar, a city of a million people. Oil and gas gave wealth to this small country, but now the writing is on the wall for Qatar - and the world - to diversify. As if to demonstrate, the extraordinary Qatar National Convention Centre opened in 2011 with the 20th World Petroleum Congress. A year later, the 2012 United Nations Climate Change Conference arrived. The Convention's 10 performance venues, 52 meeting rooms and nine halls gave plenty of room to sort the world's climate out. Plenty of room to talk.

What came out of Doha? Optimists could point to the extension of the Kyoto Protocol, which would otherwise have ended, now continuing until 2020. But the optimists know that Kyoto addresses only 15% of global carbon dioxide polluters. Countries are opting out. Belarus, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Ukraine and the United States won't participate in Kyoto. Countries that have grown phenomenally in the last 20 years - Brazil, China and India - aren't required to reduce carbon pollution under it, because they are still developing countries outside the agreement.

The Alliance of Small Island States knows what's going to happen. The world is locked into at least a few degrees increase in global temperatures. Nauru won't be a place to send Australia's refugees - Nauru inhabitants will be refugees themselves, from rising seas. Developing countries criticised Australia, as our Climate Change Ambassador Justin Lee appeared to avoid a mechanism called Long-Term Cooperative Action which might have regulated polluters.

At least at Doha the principle of "loss and damage" is being developed - the principle that countries suffering from climate change caused by other nations may be financially compensated. (Perhaps Australia will be a part contributor). But this presumes that the wealth of the world won't crumble as land becomes unproductive, water becomes rarer, and civilian populations unruly under the extreme pressures coming from a three to six degree average increase in temperatures.

The day after negotiations ended, Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International confronted the politicians in Doha: "Which planet are you on? Clearly not the planet where people are dying from storms, floods and droughts. Nor the planet where renewable energy is growing rapidly...The talks in Doha were always going to be a modest affair, but they failed to live up to even the historically low expectations. Where is the urgency?....It appears governments are putting national short term interest ahead of long term global survival."

Is it only governments, though? Are they alone in a bubble? Or does our current indifference and incomprehension, not that of our premiers and presidents, give the negotiators their riding instructions?

Good people, smart people, can undermine themselves and each other by stepping into a bubble and thinking it's real. The archetypal groupthink was the "Bay of Pigs" disaster caused by President John Kennedy's team all convincing themselves that wishful thinking was the real deal. Management trainers warn company directors about groupthink. You can have the smartest guys in the room, but they can lead you to Enron or the 2008 Global Financial Collapse. Corporate disasters often come from board rooms with good views over the city, plenty of gourmet food, a willingness to agree with each other and slip into invulnerable thinking.

Yes, it would be a mistake to believe they have decades to get round to a well crafted treaty. But climate change negotiators act within the consciousness we give them. Diplomats trust their, as well as our own, high moral purpose, and then it dissipates as they rationalise their riding instructions by virtue of the way we vote, respond to electricity bills, and love our comfort. Maybe they are being fair messengers. They do our, not their own, deed.

It's also true that they are an elite caught in their own groupthink. To belong on the floor among the great debates of climate change history, one must code that one understands how things work. That usually means self censoring the sense of urgency, to show you are a suit and tie or flash frock like anyone else - otherwise you will be ignored. Good people, wise people, who wryly trivialise the flash mobs in the atriums doing their community theatre, enjoying the momentary respite from a debate about a hanging clause. There is a code of honour. But we must not demonise them for being in this bubble, whether they are the historic or contemporary big polluters. We are in the bigger bubble with them.

Groupthink is about making faulty decisions convincingly. Negotiators ignore the pressing evidence, manage risk badly, don't return to discarded alternatives, avoid experts, take on only evidence that pleases, and fail to have a back-up plan. We are all in that bubble. It wasn't just in Qatar. It is in our national parliament, in our workplaces, and in our homes.

What are we to do?

Hope is essential. But a lot of effort must go with that hope. We must be scientifically literate. That's a necessity as responsible citizens. We must pay attention to the facts, and apply them dispassionately to our lives and workplaces and communities. We must find seek the truth, recognise the urgency ahead, face it courageously, make it meaningful by acting and calling others to join us. All this will take such an effort - to act decisively, intelligently, and with kindness.

And, with all the trouble that might be ahead, we may need to bring the deep compassion and connectivity to the six degrees that separate us, as well as to the six degrees that may devastate us.

Adrian Glamorgan

Adrian Glamorgan is a passionate advocate of social change and environmentalism