Climate Code Red – Urgent excerpts – Part 5 of 5 – Our only chance: A global state of emergency

The following is part 5 of 5 excerpt collections from the Feb. 2008 report, Climate ‘code red’: The case for a sustainability emergency by David Spratt, policy analyst with CarbonEquity, and Philip Sutton, Director of the Greenleap Strategic Institute – published by Friends of the Earth (Australia).

We feel this is the best available, all-in-one, “brutal reality” source for the hard, undiluted truth about the URGENT GLOBAL EMERGENCY posed by climate change and the DRASTIC ACTION THAT MUST BE INITIATED ON A MASSIVE SCALE – RIGHT NOW – if humanity is to confront this unprecedented threat and mobilize to survive.

These excerpt collections are an effort to make the most essential, need-to-know info contained within the 70+ page report as accessible as possible. Ellipses (…) at the end and beginning of paragraphs, and after subsections, indicate material that has been excluded in the interest of brevity. You can reference the full report at

Climate Code Red – Urgent Report Excerpts: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

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3.7 What does an emergency look like?

…It is noticeable that the language used in talking about climate change is shifting from talk of a “crisis” to that of a “global emergency”. Al Gore’s film and book about the “Inconvenient Truth” has helped; in the lead up to the December 2007 Bali conference the UN Secretary-General spoke explicitly of a climate emergency. Why has the language shifted? Most likely because an emergency is a crisis that can only be solved by going well beyond “business as usual” and we cannot make this shift unless we unambiguously communicate the need to each other. Using the language of emergency is the start of this process. And perhaps the climax of the process is the formal declaration of a “state of emergency” by governments.

When a state of emergency is declared we know a number of things: that the authorities rate the problem as very serious, that priority will be given to resolving the crisis, that we are all in the crisis together, and that “business as usual” no longer applies — officially!…

…To deal with an unfamiliar emergency it is often necessary to undertake “crash programmes” —programmes that crash through the barriers to success — to create new capability. Iconic examples of crash programmes are the Manhattan project (through which the US developed the nuclear bomb) and the Apollo programme to get astronauts to the moon. But sometimes the emergency is so demanding that the whole economy needs to be mobilized to new purposes. The experience of the two world wars comes to mind: after Pearl Harbour in 1941, the USA was able to redirect and switch from being the world’s largest consumer economy to become the world’s largest war economy within a year…

…All of these very fast, large-scale transformations are characterized by a strong engagement by governments to plan, coordinate and allocate resources, backed by sufficient administrative power to achieve a rapid response or transformation beyond the capacity of the society or system’s normal functioning…

…With few exceptions, the present responses to global warming may be reasonably represented as the “Normal/political paralysis” mode. We are not always brutally honest about the new climate data and its consequences, nor about the severity and proximity of the impacts that will occur if present trends continue. Necessary targets and goals are being severely compromised, and the speed of response is hopelessly inadequate and will result in global warming worsening and moving beyond our capacity to construct practical responses. There is neither effective leadership nor bipartisanship. We are not devoting the necessary resources to solving the problem, whether it be research and innovation, planning for a rapid transition, or scaling up production. Not only has failure become an option, it has become the norm. On all objective measures the world is going backwards as emissions rise at an increasing rate, events occur more quickly than expected and positive feedbacks kick in.

In short, global warming is not being treated as an emergency, though it is the greatest threat in human history.

Contrast this with other emergency responses. If the planet’s health were being cared for in the emergency ward of a hospital, at this point the priest would be on standby. In a hospital emergency department when life is under threat, an immediate response is required and delay is not acceptable. Saving life is given top priority and other functions may be delayed or cancelled (e.g. scheduled elective surgery) if necessary. Resources allocated as necessary to respond to the emergency without an arbitrary limit, with specialist labour skills on standby. Compromise in patient care is not an option. As with runaway climate change, medical emergencies generally have only two possible outcomes: no compromise is physically possible between survival and death…

…Even amongst many of those who acknowledge that global warming is an urgent problem, there is a tendency to devalue the predicted impacts. Anyone who talks about living with a 3ºC rise, as some of the climate professionals do, appear not to have come to grips with what those impacts really mean in practice, in a very nitty-gritty, life-and-death way, as opposed to bouncing figures around models or negotiating tables. (We suggest that reading “Six degrees” (Lynas, 2007) and “With speed and violence: why scientists fear tipping points in climate science” (Pearce, 2007a) should be mandatory for anyone who wants to talk publicly about living in a 3ºC world!) In devaluing the real impacts and therefore the economic damage, the cost of doing nothing is undervalued and the cost of action is overvalued, especially since many energy efficiency measures, for example, are cost positive rather than cost negative. The concern about “economic damage” is not that the society as a whole will be worse off by becoming more climate friendly, but that corporations who have made themselves dependent on continuing to emit large volumes of carbon pollution free of charge will be worse off and long-established personal habits and cultural norms will have to change…

…Human societies are able to develop well-honed emergency methods for handling familiar crises, especially when they are frequently repeated, such as floods, fires, storms, droughts and, in some societies, wars. But we have the greatest trouble with unfamiliar crises, especially unfamiliar disasters that are anticipated but that are not yet physically fully apparent…

3.8 The climate emergency in practice

…We also need to find a fair mechanism for rapidly driving down the total demand for carbon-polluting products. We could virtually eliminate carbon pollution from most aspects of our lives, but leaving just one sector out of the loop could bring it all undone.

For example, air travel is the fastest growing sector of global carbon emissions, and there are few readily-available low-carbon substitutes…

…Aircraft emissions have a radiative forcing effect of 2.718, so effective total air travel emissions by 2020 will be two-thirds of a tonne of carbon per person, compared to the Earth’s net natural carbon sink capacity by 2020 of less than half a tonne of carbon per capita. Air travel alone is enough to blow the carbon budget…

…Personal carbon rationing appears more equitable than the alternatives. Because rationing works by imposing quantity restrictions at the outset rather than raising prices, it does not in itself increase the price of household and personal energy consumed. So it is fairer than tax increases because personal carbon allowances provide free entitlements and only impose financial penalties for those who go above their entitlement, while providing an income to those who use less than their entitlement. In general, people on low incomes use less energy and emit less CO2 than average (particularly if personal air travel is included), and the better off emit more than average. The rich will therefore need, on average, to buy allowances from the poor. Research in the UK shows that carbon allowances would be more progressive than a carbon tax. Even if the revenues were recycled through the tax system as effectively as possible through targeted increases in benefits to low-income households, rationing would produce a fairer outcome (Dresner and Ekins, 2004)…

3.9 Conclusion

…In having helped articulate and document the increasing gravity of climate impacts, Hansen, perhaps the world’s most reputable climate scientist, is now saying it is time to start taking carbon out of the atmosphere because it is now too late and no longer relevant to speculate on how much more may be safe. The game has changed and Hansen’s articulation of the 300–350 ppm target will be recognized as a great tipping point in the global debate about climate action. In many ways, it points the sign post down the emergency road…

…If we don’t stop emitting greenhouse gases rapidly, it will be too late…

…We can only say we must devote as much of the world’s economic capacity as is necessary, and as quickly as possible, because the alternative of not doing enough will likely produce a world where far fewer species and a lot less people will survive. It makes no sense to give high priority to producing yet more “cream on the cake” (more luxuries for the well-off) when the very viability of the planet as a life-support system is at stake.

Environment scientist James Lovelock, co-author of the Gaia thesis, says temperature increases of up to 8°C are already locked into the system and will result in large parts of the surface becoming uninhabitable, wiping out 90% of the world’s present human population (Lovelock, 2006).

Two years ago Lovelock’s view was widely dismissed as fanciful. But the non-linearity of some climate events we are now witnessing and the pressure building in the system that will rapidly bring catastrophic positive feedbacks into play — large ice sheet loss, carbon-cycle reverse, larger permafrost methane releases — make such an outlook not unreasonable unless we treat the situation now as an absolute emergency. We are close to blowing the system, as many leading figures are now saying with increasing urgency. UN climate chief Yvo de Boer said in Bali in December 2007 that reducing emissions by between 25-40% by 2020 would cap the average global temperature rise to 2ºC, but this could still result in “catastrophic environmental damage” (AAP, 2007); the UN Secretary-General calls it “an emergency” (ABC, 2007a); James Hansen says that “we are on the precipice of climate system tipping points beyond which there is no redemption” (Hansen, 2005c); and Mark Serreze, a senior scientist at the US government’s snow and ice data centre says “the Arctic is screaming” (Borenstein, 2007).

It’s “now or never” for truly radical action and heroic leadership. How much of our productive wealth we must devote to this life-saving action should not be calculated in tenths of a per cent, but in how many per cent and, if necessary, in how many tens of per cent. During the last global mobilization, the 1939-45 war, more than 30%, and in some cases more than half, of the economy was devoted to military expenditure…

…At a Sydney book launch in late 2007, Ian Dunlop, a former chair of the Australian Coal Association told his audience that “the Rudd government now faces the stark fact that we are in the midst of nothing less than a global sustainability emergency. The immediate pressure-points are human-induced climate change, water shortages and the imminent peaking of global oil supply…Unfortunately the political and corporate structures we have created render us uniquely ill-equipped to handle this emergency… Our ideological preoccupation with a market economy based on short-run profit maximization is rapidly leading towards an uninhabitable planet. As inconvenient as it may be politically and corporately, conventional economic growth and rampant consumerism cannot continue…” (Dunlop, 2007).

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 preoccupation with “politics as usual” and “business as usual”.

But sometimes we dare to imagine that there could be a really rapid transition, a great national and international mobilization, to a safe-climate, post-carbon sustainable way of living. We now need to “think the unthinkable”, because the sustainability emergency is not so much a radical idea as now simply a necessary mode of action.

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Here is the message from spaceship Earth:

Our planet’s health and capacity to function for the journey through time is now deeply imperiled. We stand on the edge of climate catastrophe.

Like Apollo 13, we have only one option and that is, for the duration, to abandon our life-as-normal project and hit the emergency button, to plan with all our ingenuity how to survive and with unshakeable determination build a path for a return to a safe-climate Earth and to act with great speed and efficacy. Our life support systems — food, water, stable temperatures — are at risk, and our consumption of fossil fuels is completely unsustainable. The voyage will be perilous and require intense & innovative team-work to find and mobilize technological and social answers to problems. Putting aside the “cost-too-much” mantras, our collective actions need to be driven by the imperative that “Failure is not an option!”

If we do not succeed, we lose not just a small spacecraft but most of life on this planet.For more information, contact

Read the rest of our excerpt collections:

Climate Code Red – Urgent Report Excerpts: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5


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