Yes, We Can Win The War Against Climate Change

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki has some great news: there’s still time! We can stop and even reverse the Greenhouse Effect.

Photo by Mel Koutchavlis.

I’ve been talking about the Greenhouse Effect for 40 years now. And science has known about it for a lot longer than that. It’s been called the Greenhouse Effect because certain gases – greenhouse gases – work a bit like the glass in a greenhouse. They let the incoming heat from the Sun pass through and hit the Earth’s surface – in other words, they’re transparent to heat from the Sun. But they’re not transparent to outgoing heat from the surface of the planet. So greenhouse gases trap extra heat in the atmosphere – which then warms up.

There are different greenhouse gases, and they all absorb different levels of heat. In 2019, the different gases absorbed the following percentages of the total heat trapped:

Now, I don’t want to demonise poor old carbon. This lovely little atom is innocent – it’s built into every single organic chemical and is fundamental to life. It’s what we currently do with carbon that’s the problem. The good news is we can both stop and even reverse climate change.

So why haven’t we? The answer is, a massive disinformation campaign by Big Fossil Fuel. Can we fix and reverse it quickly? Yes, remarkably easily.

Whose carbon footprint?

Now, if you’ve been following the science of climate change, you’ll have come across the term “carbon footprint”. This refers to the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions created by an individual – or product, event, service organisation or country.

What you probably don’t know is that the Big Fossil Fuel company BP popularised the term back around 2005. It was a cunning marketing ploy to shift responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions from Big Fossil Fuel companies to individuals. The hidden backstory is that the majority of an individual’s carbon footprint is set up by the society they live in.

Sure, it’s good for everybody (citizens, companies and governments) to reduce their emissions as much as possible. It’s a feel-good thing that resonates with all branches of society.

Unfortunately, however, the actions of individuals can reduce global emissions only slightly. In reality, making significant reductions depends on a major shift at the level of industry and government to move away from emitting greenhouse gases.

Per person, the global average carbon footprint is about 5 tonnes. Mind you, for countries such as Australia and the USA, it’s up at about 20-25 tonnes per person – so that means there are vast numbers of people around the world who emit a lot less. (As an aside, if you include all the fossil fuels that Australia exports around the world, our carbon footprint rises to about 70 tonnes per person. Those exports bring Australia’s emissions to about 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, or about 3.6 per cent of global annual emissions. And remember, we’re only 0.3 per cent of the world’s population.)

In fact, almost 50 per cent of global greenhouse emissions come from just 10 per cent of the people – the wealthiest 10 per cent. Furthermore, the richest one per cent of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as many carbon emissions as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorer half of humanity.

So how much can one Australian do?

Well, the biggest difference is having one fewer child in the family. Everything else has a much smaller impact.

90 companies generate two‑thirds of global emissions

Two-thirds of the world’s carbon dioxide and methane emissions are generated by just 90 major industrial carbon producers. Almost certainly, never before in human history have so few been responsible for so much.

Let’s zoom in on these companies. Just 20 of them are directly linked to more than one-third of all modern-era greenhouse gas emissions. As Michael Mann, the climate scientist who came up with the famous “Hockey Stick Curve” of Global Warming, said: “The great tragedy of the climate crisis is that seven-and-a-half billion people must pay the price – in the form of a degraded planet – so that a couple of dozen big companies can continue to make record profits.”

The Big Fossil Fuel companies have successfully slowed the transition from fossil fuel to renewables. They have done this for the last three decades. Fossil fuels are the major source of global warming. And yet, we citizens have to live in a world still mostly powered by fossil fuels.

According to Dr Benjamin Franta, a physicist who also researches law and the history of science at Stanford Law School, the BP carbon footprint campaign was “one of the most successful, deceptive ‘public relations’ campaigns ever”.

So yes, let’s lower our personal carbon footprints. But we need to recognise that “us” means all of us – individuals, governments and, yes, really big companies.

And perhaps the biggest change we individuals can make is to switch to a superannuation fund that doesn’t invest in fossil fuel companies. The other thing we can change is who we vote for.

With the hole in the ozone layer, as a global community we took quick and decisive action. In 1973, scientists discovered that CFCs could damage the ozone layer. Those scientists won a Nobel Prize. In 1985, data confirmed that ozone depletion was actually happening. Just two years later, in 1987, CFCs were banned.

With climate change, in about 1990, scientists confirmed that humans were causing it. Three decades later, we’re still waiting for action from governments and businesses.

What can we do?

Obviously, private citizens and responsible corporations can’t make all the changes on their own. Like the Montreal Protocol that successfully banned CFCs, there has to be government action, and different governments will have to work together. But that doesn’t have to take decades.

Governments can act quickly if they wish. They’ve certainly done it before. Take the US government and Pearl Harbor, for instance.

On 7 December 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and, suddenly, the USA and Japan were at war. Until that point, the USA had been neutral, and not a combatant in World War II.

Immediately, the USA moved to a “war footing”. Within one month of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it ordered the entire American car industry to stop making civilian vehicles and switch over to military production.

Up until that time, the US aircraft industry had produced about 3000 planes in total. But during the following four years, US car manufacturers built about 300,000 planes. This gave them an overwhelming technological advantage. For the Americans, the war was won as much by the machine shop as by the machine gun.

As an example of what we humans can do when we put our minds to it, take the American heavy bomber – the B-24 Liberator. This is a huge plane (20 metres by 34 metres) weighing up to 30 tonnes and with a crew capacity of 11.

Compared to a car, which had 15,000 separate components, the B-24 had some 500,000 separate components, mostly of high-tech materials. Furthermore, every component had to be manufactured, then assembled and fitted in place – to much tighter tolerances than in an automobile. Even so, just one Ford factory alone (Willow Run in Michigan) could pump out these highly complex machines at the rate of not one per month – but one per hour!

How Did They Do That?
  • Step 1: Ford got a few B-24s and carefully broke them down into their 500,000 separate components. Then, more than 200 people spent the best part of a year drafting some 30,000 blueprints – which took up enough space to fill two shipping containers.
  • Step 2: From scratch and on virgin ground, Ford built the largest single‑storey building in the world. It was about a kilometre long and about one‑third of a kilometre across.
  • Step 3: Ford gathered together a huge workforce. More than 40,000 people were involved, including people with dwarfism who had been specially selected for their shorter size, so they could crawl inside certain parts of the plane where a taller person could not. Suddenly, workforce minorities (the short-statured, women and many ethnic groups) were able to get not just skilled work, but also get the same full wage as their white male colleagues.

This is what being on a war footing means – the ability to pump out one B-24 Liberator heavy bomber per hour in response to an urgent need.

Shift climate change into reverse

If we were to go on a war(like) footing, we could easily stop, and then reverse, climate change, returning greenhouse gas levels to what they were in the mid‑ to late-20th century.

Prevention is better than the cure, however, so the sooner we start, the better and cheaper it will be.

Change is always a little messy. But the current and future dangers and costs from climate change are truly horrendous. We have to change. The transitions may be messy – but that will be only for a short time, and the long-term results will be so much better.

By Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. Extract from Dr Karl’s Little Book of Climate Change Science, published by ABC Books.

First published in ed#635.