The Inaugural Meeting of the Asia Pacific Partnership for doing almost nothing – the column

The Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate comprises the US, Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea. As they met in Sydney last week, I kept thinking of the planet Venus.

Over 95 per cent of Venus’ atmosphere is carbon-dioxide or CO2. That’s the principle greenhouse gas behind Earth’s climate change.

Venus probably had oceans and rivers like us and possibly life. But today, though its sunlight is a quarter as strong as Mercury’s, Venus is hotter. The mother of all greenhouse effects boiled away its oceans! Venus’ greenhouse effect adds nearly 400 °C to its ambient temperature.

Want to smelt some lead? No problem on Venus rocks glow and lead melts. All because of Venus’ greenhouse effect.

Fortunately, CO2 and the other greenhouse gases are still less than half a percent of our own atmosphere, even though we’ve managed to increase their concentration by a third since the industrial revolution. But my reading is the same as Bill Clinton’s. There’s increasingly little doubt that climate change is “real, accelerating and caused [perhaps amongst other things] by human activities.”

Our climate is full of both destablising, vicious circles or ‘positive feedback’ where warming reinforces itself. Warming melts arctic ice (so Earth reflects less of the sun’s rays) and it releases methane from the thawing arctic tundra. In each case warming begets more warming.

There’s also negative feedback stabilising things like a thermostat more CO2 helps plant growth which absorbs some of the CO2. I doubt we can model all these effects accurately. But the die is cast for the next few decades as it takes that long for our actions to have much effect. Thus as the ice keeps melting, look forward to lots of new data on our experiment!

Meanwhile of the Asia-Pacific Partners only Japan has emissions obligations from Kyoto. The US and Australia are the coalition of the unwilling having negotiated favourable Kyoto commitments and then backed out. China, India and South Korea trenchantly refused commitments all along.

And there they all were in Sydney five naked countries in search of a Moreton Bay fig-leaf.

An Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) report was wheeled out to focus the spin. The media duly reported it as showing the partnership’s potential though its assumptions were completely arbitrary. Thus ABARE’s most optimistic modelling assumed that from a given date new power plants would capture and bury the CO2 they generated. But no credible explanation as to how the partnership would bring this about nor any undertaking to do so.

John Howard said that addressing climate-change at the expense of economic growth was “not only unrealistic but unacceptable.” Sounds commonsensical doesn’t it? Reassuring. But many things that governments spend money on cost economic growth at least in the short-term. Like fighting poverty, crime, terror, pollution, and deterring invasion. Like helping the old and sick, conserving national parks and hosting and winning medals at the Commonwealth Games,.

The pall of officialese rose over the Sydney meeting like Venus’s sulfurous clouds. But firms won’t be given incentives to reduce carbon emissions, we’ll just ask nicely yet again. (Imagine Brisbane with pollution control that was voluntary). How will the partnership’s ‘action plans’ differ from our own long standing “Greenhouse Challenge” program of voluntary action, and the equivalents elsewhere? And what existing obstacles to international co-operation does the partnership overcome? Beats me.

Oh and there’s new money. Our Government has committed $100 million over five years. That’s a small fraction of the cost of symbolic ‘feel-good’ programs like kerbside recycling which have miniscule and sometimes negative environmental impacts. In fact it’s not quite two cents a week each. I guess it’s the thought that counts.

Meanwhile James Hansen, the NASA scientist who first focused the US Congress’s attention on climate change (to the horror of his bosses) recently had this to say.

Ocean levels will increase slowly at first, as [ice] losses at the fringes of Greenland and Antarctica . . . are nearly balanced by increased snowfall and ice sheet thickening . . . . But as Greenland and West Antarctic ice is softened and lubricated by meltwater . . . the balance will tip toward the rapid disintegration of ice sheets. Earth’s history suggests that with warming of two to three degrees, the new sea level will include not only most of the ice from Greenland and West Antarctica, but a portion of East Antarctica, raising the sea level by twenty-five metres, or eighty feet.

I’m in no position to confirm these predictions. But they’re from the heart of the scientific mainstream. And the climate change denialists are moved more by a reflex animus towards environmental alarmism which, however legitimate on other issues, means they’re dwindling to a recalcitrant, crank-riddled rump.

I’d pay more than two cents a week for some insurance against Hansen’s scenario. What about you?

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15 years ago

I’d pay whatever it takes.

But with people like Tim Blair declaring that global warming is a left-wing engineered conspiracy to bring down the government, I’m not sure that anything we are prepared to pay will be enough.

15 years ago

It’s deplorable Nicholas.

Twenty Five meters? That means Crown Casino will be flooded. Surely James Packer should be on our side.

Step 1. Sack Tim Blair.

15 years ago

I live in despair – wondering how I can protect my small grandchild, the myriad animals around me, the plants and trees. If the cataclysmic future predicted really does become a reality, the suffering all life forms will endure is incomprehensible!!! How can our government be so gutless???

15 years ago

The head in the sand, progress at the expense of the environment attititude of John Howard and his ilk, unfortunately, brings to mind the fate of the Easter islanders and Sumarians.