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Dr Gideon Polya
Dr Gideon Polya

Book Review: Climate Code Red - the case for a sustainability emergency

Book Review: Climate Code Red - the case for a sustainability emergencyIn February 2008 Australian Friends of the Earth published a very important book entitled “Book Review: Climate Code Red – the case for a sustainability emergency†by David Spratt (a policy analyst with Carbon Equity) and Philip Sutton (director of the Greenleap Strategic Institute Inc), both authors being located in Melbourne, Australia. This book can be downloaded from the Web. The book was launched at an Australian Climate Change Convergence in Melbourne on February 8 2008 (see GreenBlog).

“Climate Code Red is a very important and timely book. It adduces the latest scientific evidence that we have already passed a key environmental “tipping point†, argues for a national and global Declaration of a Climate State of Emergency and urges rapid implementation of the “negative CO2 emissions policy†advocated by NASA’s Dr James Hansen i.e. rapid replacement of fossil fuel burning with renewables and rapid installation of mechanisms to reduce atmospheric CO2.

“Climate Code Red†argues the case for a Climate Emergency and Sustainability Emergency. In short, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (2007) was out of date when it was published (for a Summary of the Summary of the 2007 IPCC AR4 Synthesis report on GreenBlog see: http://green-blog.org/2007/11/21/summary-of-the-summary-of-the-2007-ipcc-ar4-synthesis-report/). The IPCC had a literature cut-off date of 2005 and since then scientific perception of the state of the world has changed dramatically. In particular it has been found that the rate of melting of Arctic sea ice and of Greenland glaciers is much faster than predicted. The top US climate scientist Dr James Hansen (Goddard Space Research Center, NASA) declares that we have already reached a “tipping point†such that Arctic summer ice may be completely gone in several years i.e. the CURRENT atmospheric CO2 concentration of 385 ppm means catastrophic ecosystem change ALREADY and that accordingly we must have NEGATIVE CO2 emissions to bring it back to a safe and sustainable 300-350 ppm (see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7143567.stm ). That necessary reversal of 2 centuries of profligate CO2 pollution can be achieved by a massive shift to renewable power sources, immediate cessation of fossil fuel burning and measures such as re-afforestation, return of pyrolytically-charred biomass (biochar) to soil and, if need be, generation of global dimming SO2 aerosols (see: http://www.thebulletin.org/columns/james-hansen/20080124.html).

“Climate Code Red†is an acutely timely book that declares that “CO2 emissions targets†and even “zero CO2 emissions†are simply not good enough – that we must follow the advice of Dr James Hansen and his colleagues and urgently REVERSE the current dangerous CO2 pollution of our atmosphere. In social actuality this will involve urgently educating the people, media and politicians to what the science is saying in order to achieve a Declaration of a Climate State of Emergency and urgent actions such as those outlined by NASA’s Dr James Hansen.

Part 1 of the book reviews the latest evidence about climate change. It is illustrated by 2 colour pages of figures that make extremely sobering reading as summarized below.

Figure 1 shows a roughly constant rate of various IPCC PREDICTIONS of a constant rate of loss of Arctic summer sea ice from 2000 (about 90% of the mean 1979-1990 extent) to 2100 (only about 10% left). However what will ALARM you is the ACTUAL, precipitous decline of Arctic summer ice in recent years to about 70% of the 1979-1990 mean, indicating that ALL the Arctic summer ice will be gone in several YEARS rather than in 9 decades. This is a massive ecosystem change that is happening NOW with huge implications for polar warming, Greenland ice sheet melting, tundra thawing and further positive feedbacks to accelerate global warming e.g. the albedo flip (change from light-reflecting white ice to light-absorbing dark sea); lubrication of glacier movement by melt water; and methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) from thawing tundra in North America and Siberia.

Figure 2 plots sea level (in metres) versus global mean temperature (oC). There is a remarkably linear relationship as you go from the last glacial maximum 20,000 years ago (sea level minus 120 metres relative to today’s sea level, global mean temperature 9.5oC), to TODAY (15 oC), to the Pliocene 3 million years ago (sea level plus 20 metres, mean temperature 18oC) and the Eocene 40 million years ago (sea level plus 80 metres, mean temperature 19oC). The IPCC projection for sea level rise is less than 1 metre rise by about 18oC (clearly a big underestimate) and a temperature rise predicted to be 3oC on a “business as usual†scenario means a 20 metre rise in sea level.

“Climate Code Red†quotes the following dire comment by Dr James Hansen: “There is strong evidence that the Earth is within 1oC of its highest temperature in the past million years. Oxygen isotopes in the deep sea foraminifera reveal that the earth was last 2oC to 3oC warmer [relative to 2000] around 3 million years ago, with carbon dioxide levels of perhaps 350 to 450 parts per million. It was a dramatically different planet then, with no Arctic sea ice in the warm seasons and sea levels about 25 metres higher, give or take 10 metres.â€

The atmosphere is ALREADY at 385 ppm CO2 and CO2 is increasing at about 2.5 ppm per year; global average temperature is about 1oC above the pre-industrial and increasing at about 0.25 oC per decade.

Figure 3 plots “warming per decade in oC†versus time for various scenarios of fossil fuel use identified by past IPCC reports. Thus the worst scenario involving intensive fossil fuel use shows “warming per decade†peaking at a catastrophic 0.65 oC per decade in about 2060. However the ACTUAL data indicate that the world greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution is already well above the worst scenario.

Superimposed on Figure 3 are graphical indications how all ecosystems and also forests in particular cope with various rates of climate change. Thus in the PRESENT circumstances of about 0.25 oC warming per decade, the poleward isotherm shift is about 75 kilometers per decade and only about 40% of all ecosystems and only about 20% of forests adapt to the rate of temperature change – an extremely serious situation ALREADY. However we are evidently on track to achieve a 0.4 oC increase per decade within 2 decades, at which point very few ecosystems or forests are able to adapt – a catastrophic situation for a world already suffering serious resource depletion.

Figure 4 plots the “West Equatorial Pacific sea temperature†over the last 1.35 million years. The temperature fluctuates between a minimum of about 25 oC and a maximum of 30 oC, this reflecting successive ice ages and periods of warming and with most of the data lying between 26 oC and 29 oC. From a pre-industrial temperature of about 28.7 oC (about 3 oC warmer than in the prior ice age situation of about 15,000 years ago) the temperature has steadily climbed in a mere 2 centuries to a current 29.7 oC, the hottest it has been for about 0.1 million years. The earth is on track to exceed in a mere several decades the highest temperatures for millions of years.

Figure 5 plots “global carbon emissions in gigatonnes/year†(billions of tonnes/year) from 1950 value of 2 to the present 9.5 gigatonnes carbon /year and thence projections for (a) “business as usual†(rising to a maximum of 16 gigatonnes per year in about 2050 and thence declining in a devastated world) and (B) various scenarios for capping temperature increase to about 2 oC (with carbon emissions declining about 80% from current levels by 2050, noting that much greater cuts now appear to be necessary to achieve this). However we are ALREADY on track to exceed the worst case scenario leading to a catastrophic temperature increase of 5 oC or greater.

This sobering information in a nutshell tells us that we are on track for a “worst case scenario†global biosphere catastrophe with rapid temperature rise in a few decades to take us beyond what the earth has experienced for millions of years.

However the possible scenario advanced by Dr James Hansen is that loss of Arctic summer sea-ice will speed up the ongoing loss of the Greenland ice sheet and a rise of sea levels by as much as 5 metres this century.

A key problem identified in “Climate Code Red†is the short-term global mean temperature increase expected in the next decade. We are already 0.8 oC above the pre-industrial temperature but there is an “in-built†“thermal inertia†capacity due to existing GHG pollution of the atmosphere for a further 0.6 oC increase over and above a baseline current increase of about 0.3 oC per decade and positive feedback elements (e.g. the albedo flip and GHG gas release from thawing tundra) may give a further 0.3 oC. Thus it can be argued that even if we stop GHG pollution NOW we have an inbuilt capacity ALREADY to achieve a 2 oC increase in global temperature over the pre-industrial in the coming decades.

Part 2 of “Climate Code Red†is entitled “Target Practice†and discusses what temperature and GHG pollution targets are realistic or safe. Their essential and important conclusion is that “we suggest the goal is a climate safe for all people and all species over “all generationsâ€. It is quite clear from massive species extinctions so far and to major damage to forests, soil, fisheries and other ecosystems (e.g. the complete loss of Arctic summer ice in several years’ time) that at 385 ppm atmospheric CO2 we have ALREADY passed a “safe point†and that a combination of GHG pollution cessation and “Hansen cooling†is required to return us to a safe and sustainable state.

Part 3 of Climate Code Red is entitled “facing up to the challenge†and deals with what has to be done in practice and how urgent action can be achieved. What has to be achieved is urgent cessation of GHG pollution through a rapid shift to already available renewable technologies plus mechanisms for reducing the existing CO2 in the atmosphere (re-afforestation, putting biomass-derived biochar back in the soil and further mechanisms for global cooling e.g. SO2 aerosols if need be as suggested by Dr Hansen).

Politically such rapid implementation requires global Declaration of a Climate State of Emergency and a successful analogy given is the extraordinary civilian-to-military turnaround of the US economy in World War 2 after Pearl Harbor.

The book concludes with the following assessment: “Many of us – in business and at work, in climate action groups, in NGOs and in political parties – know in our hearts that on climate the world is going backwards very rapidly and the sorts of solutions that currently dominate national and global forums are simply too little, too late because of the continuing pre-occupation with “politics as usual†and “business as usualâ€. But sometimes we dare to imagine that there could be a really rapid transition, a great national and international mobilisation, to a safe-climate, post-carbon sustainable way of living. We now need to “think the unthinkableâ€, because the sustainability emergency is not so much a radical idea as now simply a necessary mode of action.â€

I would urge you to read “Climate Code Redâ€, suggest this book to your friends and to libraries and to join with other citizens in demanding a national and global Declaration of a Climate State of Emergency and rapid implementation of a “negative CO2 emissions policy†involving rapid installation of renewable energy sources, cessation of fossil fuel burning and reduction of atmospheric CO2 back to a safe and sustainable level.

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Guest Indigenous peoples researcher


Thanks for the heads up about this book. I'm interested in seeing what they say about all of the new biodiesel development. It is causing tons of harm and displacement for indigenous peoples so that palm oil and soybean plantations can be developed - to feed the growing biodiesel need in the West. I just don't see it as a environmentally friendly alternative.

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While the absolute amount of global food production is maximal, the price of grain has increased enormously in recent years (the price of wheat doubled in the last year) - this is due to a variety of causes, namely biofuel diversion (10% of US grain currently; 30% of US corn by 2010); increase in oil price (and hence increased agricultural costs for fertilizer, running machinery, transport); drought impact on some local yields (e.g. CIS, Africa and Australia; grain production at a historical peak); competition by Asian giants India and China on the global food market - and exacerbated by increasing demand for MEAT. In January I took part in a BBC broadcast with 1998 Economics Nobel laureate Professor Amartya Sen (Harvard), medical historian Dr Sanjoy Bhattacharya (Wellcome Institute, University College London) and others about the 1943-1945 man-made and "forgotten" Bengal Famine that killed 6-7 million people in Bengal and adjacent provinces (see: http://www.open2.net/thingsweforgot/bengalfamine_programme.html , http://globalavoidablemortality.blogspot.com/2005/07/forgotten-holocaust-194344-bengal.html , http://janeaustenand.blogspot.com/ , http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ockham/stories/s19040.htm ) . When the price of rice doubled and finally doubled again people who could not buy food died under a merciless British regime due to denial of what Professor Amartya Sen calls "entitlement" to food for survival. Unfortunately the Bengal Famine is now being re-run in the Third World (history ignored yields history repeated) but potentially on a 100 fold greater scale - already the UN and FAO report that the impoverished 4 billions of the world are being priced out of the global food market. However it gets worse because biofuels are actually NOT CO2 neutral - whether it is fallow land or rain forest, the latest scientific studies say that there is a HUGE additional CO2 cost from diverting the land to growing the biofuel crops). Thus US scientists (Drs Timothy Searchinger, Ralph Heimlich et al) in the top journal Science (February 2008) state: "Using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. This result raises concerns about large biofuel mandates and highlights the value of using waste products." The Biofuel perversion is mass murder in a globalized food market and with only a 25% efficiency in going from grain to chicken meat so is the luxury of meat-eating as the world enters a price-based expansion of massive existing food deprivation that already kills 16 million people annually, 44,000 daily, 2/3 infants.

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Obviously, the mainstream solutions advocated -- including by "progressives" and reformers of various hues, from the Democrats' 80% reduction of GHG emissions by 2050 to the extreme forward position of Norway's goal of net ZERO CO2 emissions by 2030 are CATASTROPHICALLY insufficient. I have sent a letter to the editor of the NY Times in response to an editorial on a surprise collapse of ice in Antarctica, and will do so in response to future topical editorials when relevant -- insisting on this program of NET NEGATIVE GLOBAL GHG emissions ASAP. I doubt they will print it by they might print a letter or even an oped piece by Jim Hansen, or Dr Polya, or the authors of Climate Code Red . I urge others to write letters on this issue, with links citing sources and books like the abovementioned to major mainstream publications including the New York Times , as if they receive dozens of letters on this in response to EVERY editorial on global warming, they will feel obliged to print at least ONE representative letter. The same is true of other mainstream publications. Further, using c/c's of press coverage of this concern, as well as the book and copies of statements and reports by Jim Hansen, progressive organizations (like the anti-imperialist sds/mds, students for a democratic society/movement for a democratic society that has recently been restarted nationally in the US for the first time since the 60s), but also others, across the world, from Green Parties to environmental groups and churches and unions at all levels should be urged to at least call for the solutions that Jim Hansen and others have made clear are necessary. If these concerns can at least become part of the 'standard fare' of progressive media and institutions and discourse, then mainstream institutions will be forced to respond. I will be VERY frank and note that even if the system is responsive beyond even the rosiest of notions (remember how disappointing the CLINTON administration was on the environment, including global warming, after Gore on the ticket raised some hopes) -- the kinds of changes that will be needed will require an additional EXTREMELY HIGH level of militancy supported by HUGE mass-based movements. I confess that I am less than optimistic. For a picture of what an anti-utopia, where nature has been destroyed by a "Tory Horse-shit" elite so that they can preside over the ruins, see Walt Whitman's: "Respondez! Respondez!" See: http://www.bartleby.com/142/320.html To avoid such an outcome, the kind of confrontation with the massive underground repression in advanced industrial societies that progressives are too squeamish and/or too scared to do now will be ABSOLUTELY necessary. There are many requisites of this nature, and they will require a revolution not just in the social system, but first in the way that AUTHENTIC progressives think, and in our insistence on authenticity in order to build the kinds of movements that we need.

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To see what a future looks like where these necessary emergency measures have NOT been implemented in a timely way, read Walt Whitman's antiutopian description of a world where a Tory Horse-shit elite have wrecked the environment 'so that they might preside over the ruins', and essentially enslaved mankind in "Respondez! Respondez!" See: http://www.bartleby.com/142/320.html

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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.

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