Climate Emergency

Climate Emergency



Extract from: David Spratt and Philip Sutton, 2008 Carbon Equity, Greenleap Strategic Institute Climate ‘Code Red’ The Case for a sustainability Emergency


“This is an emergency and for emergency situations we need emergency action” – UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, 10 November 2007 (ABC, 2007a)

On 13 April 1970 and 321,000 kilometres from Earth, the Apollo 13 mission to the moon was hit by an explosion which crippled the main craft, resulting in a loss of oxygen and most electrical power and water. The access panel covering the oxygen tanks and fuel cells, which extended the entire length of the main craft’s body, had been blown off.

Apollo Commander Jim Lovell’s laconic message: “Houston, we have a problem” signalled a technological failure that led to the abandonment of mission objectives. The moon landing was aborted. The priority was survival at any cost. Life-support systems were at risk. Energy the main craft, to which the module remained attached. But the lunar module was equipped to sustain only two people for two days; now it needed to sustain three people for four days, confined in spacesuits to save oxygen, lacking heating and half frozen. CO2 rose to dangerous levels and sequestration capacity had to be invented on the go. Course alterations had to be negotiated with inadequate mechanical control.

There was no precedent, no manual, no set of pretested solutions. Intense creative team-work, physical and emotional support, and solving problems as they emerged combined with the driving imperative, reinforced by Mission Control in Houston, that “Failure is not an option!” The outcome was in doubt up to the last moment, but they made it, and survived to tell the tale.

Today the message from spaceship Earth can only be: “People of the world, we have a problem”. Our planet’s health and capacity to function for the journey through time is now deeply imperilled. 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. Energy use must be cut. The voyage will be perilous and require intense and innovative team-work to fin and mobilise technological and social answers to problems. Putting aside the “cost-too-much” mantras, our collective actions need to be driven instead 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.

Apollo 13, lacking its main motors and with uncertain technological control functions, had only one chance to position itself on the approach to the moon in exactly the right trajectory so that the moon’s gravitational force would act to “sling” Apollo 13 back to Earth and safety. We too have only one chance to get global warming under control and guide the planet back to the safe-climate zone. If we set our approach incorrectly and don’t do enough or do the wrong things, we will not have the time for a second chance.

We have already entered the era of dangerous climate change and it is a climate emergency. We now know that the dynamics and inertia of our social and economic systems, if left unchecked or inadequately addressed, will sweep us on to ever more dangerous change and then, most likely within a decade, to the start of the era of simply catastrophic climate change where humans will lose all control over what happens and most of the globe will become unliveable for people and many other species (Hansen, 2006a).

It is very important to pause at this point. This description of what our future could be, if action is inadequate, is not hyperbole or rhetorical flourish to make the story more exciting. It is a very careful, measured and factual description of what we are letting ourselves slip into. A climate emergency. It is the only conclusion to be drawn from the analysis in the first two parts of this report, and the thousands of other reports and scientific enquiries and elicitations that contribute to this view.

If climate public policy outcomes continue to be contained within the current parameters — bounded by 2ºC on the “low” side and 3ºC or more on the high side — they will only guarantee catastrophe, given the lessons from the Arctic summer of 2007 for ice-sheet disintegration and sea-level rises, the data suggesting that other positive feedbacks and weakening of the carbon sinks are happening more quickly and at lower temperature rises than expected, and the recognition that we are currently headed towards rates of temperature change that will tear apart virtually all natural ecosystems on the planet.

Planning to let the system run to even 2ºC, let alone the increasingly-advocated 3ºC, is reckless. Our targets for a safe climate, as we have established at length in the preceding section, must be to:

• apply a risk management regime based on a ‘less than one-in-a-million’ chance of major breakdown in the earth system, which would damage or threaten the welfare of all people, all species, and all generations;

• reduce the current warming and keep it to less than 0.5ºC above the pre-industrial level;

• reduce the current level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and keep them to less than 320 ppm CO2e (total);

• make the massive structural adjustments necessary in as little time as humanly possible, with an unprecedented application of human creativity as well as all available economic and other resources; and

• restrict the rate of climate change to less than 0.1 ºC per decade.

These are not a choice amongst many options, but a necessity for life. It requires a “crash programme” — as quickly as possible — to thoroughly decarbonise the economy in a time period measured in years to a decade or so, not decades to a century or more. 

The complete report including the section on Climate Emergency is available online at: Climate Code Red