Australians have had a polarised and sometimes ambivalent attitude to the threats to this planet, and to our comfortable Aussie way of life, from climate change. Most people, most of the time, want to make positive changes, but a sizeable minority follow the shock jocks and the Murdoch press in mocking climate change.
Governments have vacillated too, sometimes bravely moving forwards against the doom claims of some in the business lobby, sometimes doing the absolute minimum. As a result, Australia lags most developed countries, and quite a few less developed countries, in promoting renewable energy sources – all the more reprehensible since we have such a large land area and so many opportunities for solar, wind and tidal power generation.
But the battle goes on, and this week a new shot has been fired.
154 scientists, no less
This week 154 Australian atmospheric, marine, environmental, biological and medical scientists, including several leading climatologists, signed an open letter to Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull (pictured above), alerting him the the warning signs, the dire consequences and therefore the need for urgent action on climate change.
The letter, printed in detail below, makes the following main points, based on the research of major scientific organisations around the world:
- global temperatures are now the hottest on record – with significant increases this century;
- atmospheric carbon dioxide is also rising at an unprecedented rate, and is beginning to threaten the Antarctic ice sheet (I didn’t know before that carbon dioxide had this effect);
- ice sheets are melting and sea level rising at increased rates that threaten the land where millions of people live;
- there has been, as predicted, an increase in extreme weather events (storms, bushfires, hot days, etc) costing many lives and billions of dollars in damage;
- changing ocean acidity is affecting coral reefs (including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) and the marine food chain.
The scientists note Malcolm Turnbull’s previous support for strong action (he has been loath to act because of climate scepticism within his own party), and urge him again to act before things get even worse.
The great moral issue of our time
Climate change has become the greatest threat to the earth, humans, and global stability. Wealthy nations must act, even at some small cost to their way of life, and not acting would be, I think, immoral, as well as foolish.
I’m not holding my breath, but the tide will eventually turn, and Bob Dylan’s words are, as is often the case, apt:
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.
Text of the open letter
“Andrew Glikson, Australian National University
Dear The Hon. Malcolm Turnbull MP, Prime Minister of Australia,
The following is an open letter signed by 154 Australian atmospheric, marine, environmental, biological and medical scientists, including several leading climatologists, for your and your government’s attention.
There is no Planet B
In July 2016, global temperatures soared to the hottest in the 136 years of the instrumental record, 0.1℃ warmer than previous warm Julys in 2015, 2011 and 2009. It followed a succession of rising temperatures, moving from 0.42℃ above average in 2000, to 0.87℃ above average by 2015.
Developments in the atmosphere-ocean system reported by major climate research organisations (including NASA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US National Snow & Ice Data Center, the UK Met Office Hadley Centre, the Tyndall Centre, the Potsdam Institute; the science academics of dozens of nations; and in Australia the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology) include:
- A rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to 404.39 parts per million (ppm; as of July 2016), an average rise of 3.08 ppm per year. This rate is unprecedented in the geological record of the past 55 million years, and is tracking towards the stability threshold of the Antarctic ice sheet, estimated at around 450ppm atmospheric CO₂.
- The rise in greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere and oceans is leading to an increase in extreme weather events relative to the period 1950-60, including tropical storms such as those in Fiji, Vanuatu and the Philippines, with lives lost and damage estimated in the billions of dollars. In Australia the frequency of extreme weather events has been increasing, and since 2001 the number of extreme heat records has outnumbered extreme cool records by almost three to one for daytime maximum temperatures, and around five to one for night-time minimum temperatures.
- Impacts on a similar scale are taking place in the ocean, where the CO₂ rise has caused an increase in acidity from pH 8.2 to 8.1 already. The pH is predicted to decrease to 7.8 by 2100, affecting coral reefs and the marine food chain.
- Ice sheet melt rates have been increasing and the rate of sea-level rise has been accelerating, from roughly 1.7mm per year over the past century to 3.2mm per year between 1993 and 2010, and to about 3.5mm per year today. This threatens low-lying islands, deltas and lower river valleys where billions of people live – a problem that is compounded by increased variability of river flows in terms of floods and draughts.
We are concerned that global warming, amplified by feedbacks from polar ice melt, methane release from permafrost, and extensive fires, may become irreversible, including the possible collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, a crucial component of the global climate system that transfers heat from the tropics to the North Atlantic.
According to James Hansen, NASA’s former chief climate scientist, “burning all fossil fuels would create a different planet than the one that humanity knows“. Joachim Schellnhuber, Germany’s chief climate scientist, has summed up the situation by saying: “We’re simply talking about the very life support system of this planet.”
We note your broad agreement with this point, in light of your 2010 statement that:
…we are as humans conducting a massive science experiment with this planet. It’s the only planet we have got… We know that the consequences of unchecked global warming would be catastrophic… We as a human species have a deep and abiding obligation to this planet and to the generations that will come after us.
While the Paris Agreement remains unbinding and global warming has received minimal attention in the recent elections, governments worldwide are presiding over a large-scale demise of the planetary ecosystems, which threatens to leave large parts of Earth uninhabitable.
We call on the Australian government to tackle the root causes of an unfolding climate tragedy and do what is required to protect future generations and nature, including meaningful reductions of Australia’s peak carbon emissions and coal exports, while there is still time.
There is no Planet B.
The original letter contains many links to references if you want to check out the basis for the statements.