13 November 2002

Global warning

An eminent American academic came to Sydney last week to alert us to an ongoing war, one in which nothing less than our entire way of life is at stake, writes Michael Hutak.

Dr Stephen Schneider - adviser to every US president from Nixon to Clinton - arrived to spread the news not about global terror, but global warming.

With the issue of climate change hotting up, concerned citizens collected at the University of NSW in Sydney last Thursday to hear the accomplished "greenhouse guru" spell out the planetary consequences of the industrialised world's love affair with coal-fired production.

However, as one of the lead authors of the documents that formed the scientific basis for the Kyoto Protocol, Schneider is the first to admit that predictions of what will happen are not cut and dried.

"There's no statistical way to figure out what 2100 will look like," he told the audience. "The weather is a chaotic, dynamic system that cannot be predicted beyond two weeks. Instead what we have is climate models, which are inherently uncertain.

"Add to this the uncertainty of human behavioural activity and global warming by the year 2100 will range from anywhere from 1(degrees) or so to up to 6(degrees) - from the relatively mild to the catastrophic."

Pointing out that this uncertainty allows lobbyists to use statistics to push their own agendas, Schneider cites a Wall Street Journal article from December 1997 declaring "Science has spoken: Global Warming is a Myth".

The article is riven by such misrepresentations, says Schneider, that these can only be attributed to "either dishonesty or abysmal ignorance".

"What we can say with certainty is that global warming is a fact," Schneider told The Bulletin later, "and the fact that it is has coincided with the industrial revolution gives us enough circumstantial evidence to say that it is because of us that it has happened.

"It is no exaggeration that the actions we take over the next 20 to 50 years are going to have an affect for literally hundreds of years."

However Schneider acknowledges that in a world where politicians are obsessed with three- to five-year political cycles, it is a big ask to get them to focus on the next 20 to 50 years, especially when the results of that action can only be understood by what won't happen - rising sea levels, temperatures and global climatic turbulence on a scale we can only shudder to imagine.

"What we are talking about is a planetary gamble - an issue of risk management on a global scale. We're deciding here whether or not we want to buy insurance. It becomes a question of intergenerational obligation.

"But the worst policy is to do nothing, and hopefully my country and yours decide to assist in the solution, not contribute to the problem."

Schneider is referring to the decision of the Bush administration earlier this year not to ratify Kyoto, a decision Australia has since aped, some say to its economic disadvantage.

And with 25 per cent of the world's population in developed countries responsible for 80 per cent of the greenhouse emissions, it's a stance that has put the United States and Australia at odds with Kyoto signatories, the European Union, Russia, Canada, China and the developing world.

Australia does say that it remains committed to reducing greenhouse emissions but argues that Kyoto is meaningless with the world's biggest emitter, the US, "outside the tent".

At last week's COP8 conference in Delhi - the latest round of negotiations in the post-Kyoto process - federal Environment Minister David Kemp was characterised as a spoiler and mischief maker by turning up at the conference to argue that the world "needs to move beyond Kyoto".

Kemp dismissed the complaints but in Australia business is starting to twig that it may miss out on the emerging growth in green industries.

Last month, NSW Premier Bob Carr indicated that his state may go it alone in ratifying the protocol and former Liberal leader John Hewson, now chairman of the firm Global Renewables, has said the federal government had failed to provide leadership on Kyoto and was in danger of "being left out in the cold".

Schneider's advice for businesses worried about the long-term costs of going green is simple: "The sooner we invest in and develop new technologies, the cheaper they become."

He notes, somewhat cheekily, that catastrophic estimates of climate change put the average temperature in 2197 at the Western White House in Crawford, Texas, at an uncomfortable 49(degrees)C.

Not exactly ideal boot-scootin' weather.

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First published in The Bulletin

12 November 2002
Volume 120; Number 46

23 October 2002

Matthew Collings: Strictly modern

Intriguing connections surround the recent Australian visit of British art critic and author Matthew Collings, best known here for his British Academy Award-winning television series, This is Modern Art.

Collings, who has charted the rise of the so-called Young British Artists movement of the mid-1990s, wound up a sell-out speaking tour last week with a talk at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art, where his subject was "The Solemn and the Trivial versus the Serious and the Playful". Collings' witty, plain-speaking accounts of the works of YBA stars such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst have done much to demystify art for the general public.

But now he believes that, while the popularity of modern art is on the rise (in Britain, at least), artists should have no obligation to be popular. Indeed, art is "neither democratic nor a form of entertainment but is a specialised endeavour for those willing to make the serious effort to engage with it".

9 October 2002

Ken Burns: oxymoronic hybrid

Dubbed the world's most influential documentary film-maker, Ken Burns has made his name and fortune bringing the past to life. "I've become so influential," Burns told The Bulletin, "that one of our most respected historians said recently that more Americans get their history from me than from anywhere else, to paraphrase the [American] ABC news slogan."
Burns delivered the keynote address at the 2002 NSW Premier's History Awards last Friday. Premier Bob Carr had been trying to get Burns to Australia since he instituted the awards in 1997. He was booked to come last year but September 11 intervened. Yet the director of the most watched documentary in television history, the epic nine-part The Civil War, admits he is "completely untrained in American history".