‘Climate Code Red’ by Australians David Spratt and Philip Sutton addresses one of the major problems facing global civilization. It is a well researched document that leaves little doubt that climate change is underway. It calls for a state of emergency to tackle this problem. It notes possible technology to ease the situation. It notes the political, economic and timing factors that are inhibiting what can be done. It appears to provide credible views and many reviewers praise it for its contribution to the debate about what should be done.
I do not agree with that view. My reasons follow.
1 It is written in the typical anthropocentric manner that carries the implication that humans can control the operation of the environment. For example, they say on page 112 that if it had been suggested 50 years ago that humans should set out to remove the Arctic ice cap and warm the entire globe by 1-2 degrees, people would have said that this was crazy and physically impossible-that it should not and could not be done. Fifty years on, we are well on the way to ‘succeeding’ in this project.
This gives the impression that humans have actually done this. The reality is that they have devised means of unleashing vast natural forces, primarily by using limited fossil fuels, that have disturbed the natural balance that had evolved over eons. They made many decisions but natural forces have determined what actually happened. Many of these decisions have had unintended consequences. The authors are now advocating measures to produce negative emissions from the energy sector. These measures must again involve natural forces even if humans produce the systems to do it. There is no natural force we can call on to do this. The authors argue that all that is required is the political will to act. They presume the feasible technofix will be conjured up out of thin air. They presume this technofix can harness the vast natural forces required to do the job. They talk of the need for ‘risk mangement’. That implies that we have sufficient understanding to assess the risks entailed in any proposed action.It is useful to consider a simple analogy of this situation. If we have a large rock sitting on top of a hill, it is relatively easy to lever the rock so it will roll down the hill. That is what we have done in releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by using fossil fuels. It is a different matter to get the rock back up the hill. That is what is being called for with negative emissions whilst enunciating puny methods only.
2 They presume that some safe climate can be achieved in due course.They point out that there is great uncertainty about what will happen to the climate in coming decades. There is also appreciable uncertainty about what civilization can and will do to mitigate the release of greenhouse gases in the near future. They call for human action to cool the planet.They note how much carbon dioxide would have to be removed from the atmosphere without suggesting how we can engage the vast amounts of natural forces to do the job.Their presumption is, therefore, not backed by sound argument.
3 They presume ecological sustainability is possible if society takes appropriate action. That would have to include removal of sewerage systems from cities so that we no longer destroy soil fertility by flushing nutrients into the sea. We would have to stop pumping water from most aquifers. The problem with attempting to obtain ecological sustainability entails cutting back on the essential needs of the growing population to achieve only some of the objectives. Too much of the ecosystem has been destroyed already for remedial action by our weak means.
4 They have the common belief that technology can solve our problems. They do not understand that all technology has ever done is enable us to use up natural resources for the temporary systems of civilization. They look at some means, like using ‘renewable’ energy systems, that may possibly be worthwhile but will do little to slow down climate change. They believe ‘recycling’ can make good lack of some irreplaceable natural resources without recognizing that the ecological cost may make it not worthwhile. Natural forces, released by human activities, have initiated an irreversible process. We now have to live with what we have caused to be done without have effective means to remedy the situation.
5 They suggest Australia should adopt emission reduction measures even though that would not have a noticeable impact on global emissions. Australians have been as bad as anyone in misusing natural capital. But the small population has released less than two percent of the emissions. It is, however, a geographically large and very vulnerable country. It needs to be using all its intellectual and natural resources to adapt to climate change and other problems rather than make a vain attempt to mitigate it*. The governments are promoting emissions reduction by a variety of measures and this subject receives a lot of media attention. Perhaps the current fire and flooding disasters will encourage implementing measures that can really improve the operations of society.*
6 They assume society will not fail to rise to the occasion of providing a safe climate and an ecologically sustainable economy for future generations. They convey a sense of optimism to the reader which is completely contrary to the reality of what we have already done unwittingly to our life support system.
The natural question is does this book contribute to the important debate on climate change. The insight it provides into what is happening and the measures being researched on how to mitigate emissions certainly represent a positive contribution. However, it leaves the reader with the fallacious belief that society can prevent the progression of climate change. That is a negative. Climate change is a dire problem. Sound understanding of how it came about and what can really be done in mitigating its impact and adapting to its influence on the environment is a requirement for all politicians, business people and concerned individuals. The most important requirement there is understanding of what human devised systems can actually do now. We have allowed the genie out of the bottle and do not have the means to put it back in. In my opinion, this book does not contribute to understanding of what has really happened and the limitations on our ability to ease the resulting problems.
Note that ‘A safe landing for the climate’ by W.L. Hare. Chapter 2 of State of the World, Into a Warming World. www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/SOW09_chap2.pdf takes a very similar, incredulous position.
A rational approach to this dire problem requires that policy makers be advised as to what is really possible in relation to climate change. We need to adapt to what has happened. And this is not the only problem that needs to be addressed to help civilization cope with the inevitable powering down. There is a sound case for emergency action to handle ecological devastation, over population and economic contraction.
By: Denis Frith