One scary acronym: adaptation at the local level is now our Plan A.

One of the great tragedies of the current debate about the carbon tax in Australia is just how divorced from the reality it is.

While our politicians and media commentariat fight the “carbon tax debate” through the old culture war paradigm (left versus right, Liberal versus Labor, Fairfax/ABC verses News Corp) physics and chemistry blithely continue to do what it does: push global temperatures higher.

Ignore the sideshow in the media – watch the numbers the scientists are telling you.

“The rate of release of carbon into the atmosphere today is nearly 10 times as fast as during the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), 55.9 million years ago, the best analog we have for current global warming, according to an international team of geologists. Rate matters and this current rapid change may not allow sufficient time for the biological environment to adjust…”  – Penn State press release

Still, even the most well-intentioned science communicators are afraid to say the truth: things aren’t going to plan.

We should be reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, we’re doing the very opposite. As the above Penn State media release makes clear, we are releasing them at a rate higher than what was seen during the Palaeocene-Eocene-Thermal-Maximum, or PETM.

The PETM you ask?

This has to be just about the scariest acronym you’ll ever come across. Worse than AIDs, or SIDs.

Enough CO2 was released into the atmosphere during the PETM to push temperatures up by about 6 degrees over a 20,000 year period. Six degrees doesn’t sound that bad doesn’t it?

I mean it’s rather cold in Melbourne today! Brrrrrrrrr!

A few extra degrees would be lovely. Right?

Well, consider the fact that about 90% of life went extinct during the PETM and tropical forests grew at each of the poles. The PETM took place around 59 million years ago and is often referred to as the “Great Dying”.

As I said, PETM, one scary acronym.

When I read the Penn State media release, I did think it was a tad worrying. We’re pushing CO2 into the atmosphere at a rate faster than what happened then.

No nothing to worry about…

So that’s the bad news: what can you and I do today?

Much of the language framing the carbon tax positions it as a means to prevent climate change. If the messages are more nuanced – such as Tim Flannery’s recent comments that the climate will keep changing for a 1000 years – they still skirt the issue.

The conversation needs to be frank, in fact almost brutal. Too many people are afraid to say what they think: it’s not looking good.

So we have to face to the fact that we’re not going to prevent climate change, but to live on a very different planet.

To quote Bill McKibben in his brilliant book Eaarth:

“…We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways. And these changes are far, far more evident in the toughest parts of the globe, where climate change is already wrecking thousands of lives daily. In July 2009, Oxfam released an epic report, “Suffering the Science,” which concluded that even if we now adapted “the smartest possible curbs” on carbon emissions, “the prospects are very bleak for hundreds of millions of people, most of them among the world’s poorest.”

So what are we to do?


Take control at the local level.

We’ve spent decades trying to educate a public disengaged from the issues, a fact that can be mostly attributed to the mainstream media.

If the media aren’t actively confusing or lying – viz Andrew Bolt, Terry McCrann, Miranda Divine, and Alan Jones – they’ve chosen to titillate us with dancing soap opera stars and reality television.

They’re not going to help. Angry letters to the editor are a waste of time.

I’m not calling for armed insurrection, storming of the barricades or overthrowing democracy.

My advice – which I am doing myself – is to suggest that you get active in politics at the local level. Become a council member, or help others run for council. Get involved with local environment groups, and those interested in adaptation.

Make a difference where you can: it is the sum of our actions that will change things.

If the media and federal government aren’t going to help, there is no choice but to take our own destiny – and that of our children – into our own hands.

“The airwaves are filled with corporate-financed climate misinformation.” But the vanguard of action isn’t waiting any longer. This week, representatives from an estimated 100 cities are meeting in Bonn, Germany, for the 2nd World Congress on Cities and Adaptation to Climate Change. The theme is “Resilient Cities.” As Joplin, Mo., learned in the most tragic way possible, against some impacts of climate change, man’s puny efforts are futile. But time is getting short, and the stakes are high. Says Daniel Sarewitz, a professor of science and society at Arizona State University: “Not to adapt is to consign millions of people to death and disruption.” – “Are you ready for more?” Newsweek 

There is so much that can be done that is productive, useful and side steps the meaningless debate taking place.

So, help forge links with groups across the state and share information. Teach others how to grow their own food, reduce their energy usage and install solar panels.

Work to build a network of those thinking about adaptation and how to plan ahead.

Because being frank, we don’t have a choice.

There is no “plan B”.

We simply have to begin the adaptation process now.

Adaptation is Plan A, B and C.


5 thoughts on “One scary acronym: adaptation at the local level is now our Plan A.

  1. One thing many of us are going to have to do is to get ready to make some sacrifices of things dear to us.

    No, we’re not going to live in caves, dressed in sackcloth, gnawing on uncooked roots and tubers. But we’re all pretty unhappy about mountaintop removal to get at coal. We’d better start thinking that – sometimes – blowing up a mountain or three is a necessary thing to do. How else are we going to pulverise the vast quantities of rock needed to speed up geological weathering processes that absorb CO2?

    Many people interested or concerned about environment are also committed to heritage. The main impediment to more/ high-speed/ larger capacity trains in some countries is their old, not very high, not very wide bridges. They often are truly charming adornments to the countryside – but some of them will have to go. They might be relocated to enhance less vital locations – but go they must if more people are to travel by rail.

    There are lots of these issues which might seem very personal or minor in the larger scheme of things. We do have to be ready to weigh up the pros and cons of these things. Nobody asked our permission to put us in this difficult position. Now that we’re there, we really do have to be willing to seriously judge what we will and what we won’t do for the sake of future generations.


    1. Sacrifice will be necessary, however, I can’t help feel that it’s heavily reliant on one’s perception. For instance, should we have ever reached of an overtly wasteful linear consumptive society? From the inside, it certainly feels like sacrificing some status, if we’re being true to ourselves, but from the outside, I think we’d be able to look back on this system as it is; appalling and dysfunctional.

      I agree some hard choices have to be made, environmentally also. To assist with the CO2 capture, I think that’s a great deal of room in anaerobic digestion of all organic waste including (which will upset some, but I insist they will need to get over it) sewage. The end product is high quality fertiliser and is very useful biogas. The fertiliser, in my opinion, should be used to enrich landscapes of low ecological value and maybe human made lakes. In turn these will be assisted in greening with economically valuable produces which will lock in the carbon collected through the plant growth period. More than trying to engineer the air or geological landscape, we know for certain we can green the Earth – we’ve been cultivating for many thousands of years.. How we cultivate these new places and for what reasons is entirely up to us and can be very valuable for multiple outcomes.


      1. Of course we shouldn’t have got to the ridiculous, dysfunctional position we’re now in. Just how many pairs of shoes can we wear?

        We didn’t ask for it. The people who decided 100+ years ago to prefer burning fossil materials for power generation and abandon, rather than develop, the other technologies they already had, had no idea where this would lead.

        But we are now emitting 90+ million years worth of accumulated geological carbon dioxide each and every year. I’m all in favour of redesigning carbon cycle processes of various kinds as well as carbon free power generation to get to net nil annual CO2 emissions. But I don’t see how biological processes alone can get rid of the accumulated emissions – we need overtly geological processes to suck the stuff back out of the atmosphere. Maybe not matching the speed of the release, but certainly faster than background rates.

        I know 350 is the target set. That’s OK as far as it goes, but that’s not far enough. We should be aiming for less than 300ppm – not next week or next decade – but as the real longer-term goal of the policies and processes we set in train now.

        Some of this will be mere material substitution. Why use CO2 producing concrete for some structural work when you could quarry appropriate CO2 absorbing rocks and thereby expose more rock surface when it is used for walls or train tracks or, even better, reduced to gravels for paths, roadsides, mulches. My own feeling is that, eventually, people will just establish windmills (not turbines for power) to grind and disperse such rocks more or less in situ just to get maximum absorption going for a few decades. Won’t happen soon, but it will happen when our descendants realise just how badly they’ve been served by previous generations.


  2. I just read David Archer’s “The Long Thaw”, in which he talks about the PETM. Should we not be talking about the ATM – Anthropocene Thermal Maximum??

    Here’s a youtube video I recently made of the last 300 million years of history from the perspective of a carbon dioxide molecule. Hope you enjoy…


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