Can Humanity Save the World?

David SprattDavid Spratt


You can also listen to the interview (MP3 14.3MB).


Visit this channel at La Trobe on iTunesU.

Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith, and I'm here today with David Spratt. He's a climate policy analyst, the co-founder of the Carbon Equity Network and co-author of the book Climate Code Red. Thank you for joining me, David.

David Spratt:

My pleasure.

Matt Smith:

So can you please tell me what was your motivation behind co-writing Climate Code Red?

David Spratt:

I've been involved in a lot of other activities. And I think I had made an assumption that most people who are aware of this sort of issues are, that other people were looking after my interests on climate, as they do on health or education or a whole lot of other things.

And I assumed that the large environment NGOs, and so I'm really on top of the issue of advocating what needed to be done. And I got really shocked when I realized that they're actually engaged in a process which I called incremental policy-making, that is saying the sort of things that they thought might be politically acceptable but from a scientific point of view, would probably kill the planet. And that became my motivating point.

Matt Smith:

Is climate change science something that you've got a lot of knowledge in?

David Spratt:

Look, I sort of come from a science-math background. We actually sat down to write a very brief submission to the Garnaut inquiry when it started off in 2007. And I was just reading attentively and one of the things that was happening at the time was the people thought that in the Arctic there was a large area of sea ice, floating ice, very thin, 1 or 2 meters thick, sitting on the surface of the ocean, used to be about the size of Australia and not an insubstantial amount of ice.

And just as we started writing this short submission, it started to fall to pieces in the immortal words of one climate scientist, 100 years ahead of schedule. In fact the ice was not 100 years ahead of schedule. The scientific understanding was incomplete.

And so in one summer of August 2007, the ice basically dropped to ½ its normal extent and so we decided to put that in this little 16-page booklet, just talking about what happened. We were outside just watching it, and we called it the big melt. Put it in a website. It was downloaded 16,000 times in a month and we thought, "There's a real story here."

So a short submission accidentally turned into a book because the more we went into it, the more we realized that the public debate in Australia at that time was really behind the signs from a number of points of view, taking the most conservative options aside itself was conservative.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report had come out. Its cut-off point for research was 2-3 years earlier than its publication date. A lot of things have changed. A lot of scientists were very unhappy about the conservatism of that report.

And the more you get into it, the more you would find that there is a public conversation and a private conversation. So we were emailing and were talking to other climate scientists, particularly in the States. And they would answer these long scientific questions in gracious detail.

And then at the end of them, they would say things like, having never met them personally, they'd say, "Before I finish, I just have to say to you, things are a lot worse than anybody understands." And this of course, is the private conversation that scientists have around the tearoom.

And so that just led to an understanding that there was a conversation in two levels about climate science and politics and solutions.

Matt Smith:

So the aim of your book was to kind of bridge that level?

David Spratt:

Yes, because we were outside as we were heading our material into and we weren't employed by science. We weren't employed by government. We didn't have any academic careers to defend. We weren't employed by the environment organizations with a particular policy to defend. We had the wonderful freedom to say what we thought, which was just lay down the big picture as we saw it.

Matt Smith:

So the book came before or after the Garnaut report?

David Spratt:

It came out in July 2008 which was when most of Garnaut's report was released. He had some trouble with some modelling, which was delayed three months. But in the middle of last year when it was all happening.

Matt Smith:

They seem to be more or less agreed with by most people.

David Spratt:

We had no experience of people saying, "Your science is wrong." And we had no direct experience of people saying, "You're being unnecessarily alarmist." I mean the book was really for war. We laid it out. It said in the words of James Hansen, America's most eminent climate scientist, who has worked before at close and who has led the debate about getting the IPCC up to date.

He said in a famous essay in 2005, he said, "We're on the edge of a precipice beyond which there is no redemption." And so that's what the non-reticent scientists were saying. He said, "The debate in the IPCC about sea level rises being about half a meter was clearly wrong." And he could find evidence of 5 meters in a century and he would bet that he would be closer than the IPCC.

And in fact, we've seen since then that the debate has gone from half a meter to a meter. And now, the scientists are saying 1 to 2 meters. And now, they're saying, "Oh, dear, Greenland and Antarctica seem to be melting much more quickly than the ice shelves are going because of warmer seas."

So you can see that the whole scientific debate or debate of where scientists will go has actually shifted, partly with the evidence which, of course, they are bound to do to present the evidence as I understand it. But I think, partly, that they understand things are happening much more quickly than was even understood four or five years ago.

The impacts are happening at lower levels of temperature than they thought. Carbon cycle feedbacks, which when the carbon seems to be less efficient, was always called a long-term feedback. They said this is a thing that only happens on a century to millennia timescales.

And yet in the report that Will Steffen from the ANU wrote for the Federal Department of Climate Change and was published in the middle of this year, in the executive summary he said, "These long-term feedbacks may be kicking in now. So what was thought as a century timescale issue is a now issue." And I think that's the way it's changed.

Matt Smith:

Everything is saying that urgent action is needed. Why is there opposition? Why isn't urgent action being taken?

David Spratt:

Look, the scientists absolutely understand the problem now. My impression is that there are some people in business who really understand it. You talk to people in the insurance industry, the banking industry, they're really on top of how bad this is.

I think that in the international level, there's a new realism coming into parts of the debate. If you look at the Club of Rome, you look at the sort of things that the former senior leaders like Gorbachev, Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the UN, those sort of people on the cover of Roam. They are really on top of what's going on and understand this conversation that were happening.

The problem is at the political level, Garnaut has said in a speech last year, "I wonder whether the political process is actually capable of dealing with this issue because this issue is large, it's global, it's all or nothing. This is the biggest threat we've ever faced. This is the biggest challenge we've ever faced." It requires, in our words, transformative action. Politics is short-term, elected for three or four years, engaged in the process of spin, blame the last government, blame the next government, blame the GFC, blame somebody else, promise the world it will leave the 5% of it. That's just the nature of the political game.

Which means it is not amenable or finds it difficult to find solutions for climate where can't compromise. When the ETS came out, the Prime Minister said, "Our legislation is a balance between business and the environment lobby." We have a compromise approach.

It struck me that what he was actually saying, if you think that the business lobby had a particular material interest, then the environment lobby may be expressing some scientific imperatives. What he was actually saying is, "We as politicians think we can negotiate with the laws of physics and chemistry." And that is clearly a strategic mistake of a huge order, and that is reflected in the political process around the planet.

Matt Smith:

The first action of the ETS was essentially to compensate businesses that are going to be put out of pocket, isn't it?

David Spratt:

Basically, it does not reduce Australia's emissions below the baseline which is 1990 till after 2030. That's a long time away. And I happen to think it might work. The emissions reductions up to that time, below the baseline, are actually buying offsets from Indonesian and Papua New Guinea rain forests. And there was a report from the US General Accounting Office, which is the American government's order to general, a year ago saying, "Long-term climate mitigation reduction of emissions and carbon offsets are probably be incompatible at a large scale."

And so that's just one of the problems that we're facing that there's this constant need to reassure people that the economy and business is going to be OK. And the assumption that you can solve the climate problem and life will go on as it is. Tinker here, tinker there, no effect, there's no effect on anything. Everything is going to be OK. And they don't understand that either action here is going to require complete rebuilding of large sections of the economy.

We have to build a zero-emissions economy. We have to scrap most of our energy systems and start again. We've got to scrap half our transport system and start again. These are not impossible tasks but this is a major transformative effort and the political process doesn't do big transformations very well except on some very odd occasions which we look to and which actually inspire us to believe that there was a way out of this.

But it's really the upper side of the brain in terms of politics, the side of the brain we don't see very often. I think that they think normal politics in its usual mode can solve the problem, and you clearly can't.

Matt Smith:

Do you think there's any hope for Australia or the world?

David Spratt:

What we understand is that climate change is the greatest threat that our species has ever experienced, more than ice ages rowing backwards and forwards across the continents or any of that sort of thing. This is the greatest threat that we have ever faced because it threatens to wipe us all out.

The extinction rate now, not just because of climate but environmental degradation and loss of ecosystems is now about 100 species per year in 1 million. The background rate is between 0.1 and 1 so we're really out there in terms of that sort of thing.

It requires a large kind of rebuilding of large sections of the economy. It requires some reflection about how we live. We know that in the west or for example, Australia, our total environment footprint is between two and three planets, Earths.

So we are not just facing a climate problem. We are facing a water problem, a peak oil, an energy problem, and ecosystem degradation problem, an obesity problem, however you want to describe it. We have a large number of interrelated problems. And I think the climate is the one that really pins them together because we're now in a very short time fuse. We have a limited amount of time to start turning things around.

Can we do it? Yes, we can because we have history to show that we can. And in Climate Code Red, one of the things we pointed to was in fact, the Second World War. There are periods in history where economies and societies have been transformed in a really short period of time.

From the day after Pearl Harbor, within one year, the American economy was transformed from the largest producer of consumer goods in the world to the largest producer of military goods. In one year, the fundamentals of that economy was transformed because the government went to the car companies and said literally two days after Pearl Harbor, "You have produced the last civilian car til the war is over because your productive capacity is now going to be used for tanks and planes." And they did it.

And we know, for example, in the middle of the Second World War, that the large participants, the United States, UK, Germany, Britain, was spending between 40% to 70% of their economy on the war, between $3-4 out of $10 were being spent on the war. In Germany, it got up to $7 out of $10.

They were prepared to spend more than half of their economy in order to solve a problem, and transform economies and do amazing things, the greatest technological outburst of innovation and research in new ideas and new technologies. I mean half of what we got in this war, the electronics revolution really came out of the innovation to do with the Second World War.

So that is a clear example if you have the political will to solve a problem, you can turn things around very, very quickly. We also pointed to the Apollo program. Kennedy got up and said, "We would go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is difficult."

And when he made that speech, they had no idea how to get there. I mean rockets existed in a very punitive form. And within 10 years, they had got to the moon and back, an incredible technological feat.

We know that in the five years after he made that speech, the amount of non-military research in the United States had gone up by a factor of five. And three-quarters of their non-military R&D, and we're talking about pharmaceuticals and food and health and everything else, three-quarters of their national R&D was devoted to the Apollo Program.

So if you want to do it, if you want to apply the resources, you can and that was about problem-solving. Can renewable energy solve our problems? Well, it looks it can do. We need to do more. Yes, if we spent, would we get the answers? Undoubtedly.

So it's not that these things are technologically impossible. It's not that they're economically impossible. We have plenty of resources here which we're burning in stimulus packages and importing the flow of containers from China, and making bigger plasmas in everybody's lounge room. It's not that we lack capacity or inability of skill. It's just that we lack political will. And so the transformative circumstances, the China, the Asian Tiger economies -- and other interesting examples where states and governments have said, "We're going to transform our economies really quickly, really in 10-15 years from primitive agricultural societies, traditional agricultural societies, into modern industrial societies." They did it.

So there is the evidence that we can do it if there's the will. And that's why I believe we can do it.

Matt Smith:

What is something that everybody could do, every normal person can do to make a difference?

David Spratt:

Understand the issue, get mad and never stop. I think it's really important, bikes rather than cars, how you use energy in the house. Don't fly. It's the single worst pollutant for most people in this country is flying, London and Back East, 10 tonnes of CO2.

Personal sustainability is an interesting thing to do. If we all did that, the planet will probably still burn if there wasn't change at the political level. Absolutely get involved in the process as well. Hook in to local climate action groups. Get mad, get even, don't stop. I think it's really important that we be passionate about this and just hound the political process.

Matt Smith:

David Spratt, thank you for your time.

David Spratt:

My pleasure.