Scepticism is a valued human trait and we have celebrated it in our folklore in various ways. The Boy Who Cried Wolf warns us not to raise unneeded alarm. Chicken Little warns of the consequences in overreacting. Nobody wants to be taken for a fool. Even in Australia we have the literary character Hanrahan, an alarmist who is fond of saying, “We’ll all be rooned before the year is out.” Hanrahan’s words can be used to mock those who raise problems (if it is unclear “rooned” means “ruined”).
As you probably do, I like to think I question everything with appropriate rigour, and I also like to think I respond to facts with the willingness to admit faulty thought and correct myself. However, healthy scepticism is an appropriate defensive strategy in our world where there are plenty of people like the wolf boy, Hanrahan, or Chicken Little. But scepticism puts us at risk of disregarding alarming news when it is outside the bounds of usual events and the limits of personal belief. At this point another mythological figure becomes relevant – Cassandra. She was gifted and cursed. Gifted with the power to speak true prophecy, but cursed to always be rejected with disbelief in everything she foretold.
Events of the last couple of weeks demonstrates a triumph of scepticism for some and the failure of Cassandra for others. Representatives from nations met to discuss the progress on climate change management. Enough countries signed the 2015 Paris Agreement over the course of 2016 to bring it into force on 4/11/2016. Even Australia announced it would sign the agreement which means the government formally recognises and commits to the goals of the agreement – broadly to limit climate change to between 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming. This seems to be in opposition to how the government actually operates. However, with cynical analysis, it is possible it was only signed so Australia would be allowed into the discussion rather than be relegated to an observer role. One hopes Australia always intended to be a signatory, however actions of the Australian government speak louder than the relatively weak responsibilities of the Australian signature on the Paris agreement.
If we assume the Australian government signed the agreement in good faith, it means we have a budget of less than 5 years worth of emissions left to give ourselves a 66% chance of keeping climate change below the preferred goal. A level deemed to be severe but not catastrophic. At face value this looks like a crisis, however we do not collectively act accordingly. Decommissioning usage of fossil fuel energy systems seems improbable in short time frames (if ever) – consider petrol cars, coal/gas power stations, and so on. Given the difference between agreement and action we have to wonder whether this is a case of Chicken Little alarm or Cassandra catastrophe?
Recent events add further confusion for the casual observer. USA just voted in a president and political party whose policy is to dismantle the country’s involvement in climate change action and proceed with business as usual. Obviously there are many more factors involved in electing public officials, however the fact remains the American people have voted against acting on climate change. Members of the Australian government celebrated the USA election result. Senator Malcolm Roberts said, “The next point I make about the remarkable outcome in America is that the people of America are at last waking up to the establishment—the elite establishment—that is pushing fraudulent policies like the myth that humans are affecting the global climate.” A view on climate change which is at least perceived to be similar to the beliefs of members of the current Australian government which agreed to sign the Paris agreement, consider a few examples:
- Ian Macdonald: I have long accepted that the climate changes, but the notion that since the start of the industrial age, our actions are the sole cause are just farcical and fanciful. […] The north is on the cusp of a period of major growth and development, and it’s simply ludicrous to think that by reducing our meagre carbon emissions, which are less than 1.2% of the world’s total carbon emissions, Australia will have any real impact on the world’s changing climate.
- George Christensen: I know good science fiction when I see it. And that is what I have seen in the climate change debate – a lot of fiction dressed up as science.
- Julie Bishop: [The Great Barrier Reef is] not under threat from climate change because its biggest threat is nutrient runoffs from agricultural land [and] the second biggest threat is natural disasters, but this has been for 200 years.
- Cory Bernardi: I don’t and have never bought the alarmist hysteria attached to carbon dioxide as driving climate change. There’s no consensus of scientists, I’m afraid. There’s literally tens of thousands of scientists who have a different view on this. Over the course of time, a lot of the alarmists predictions and forecasts have been proved wrong.
Tony Abbot: It sounds like common sense to minimise human impact on the environment and to reduce the human contribution to increased atmospheric-gas concentrations. It doesn’t make much sense, though, to impose certain and substantial costs on the economy now in order to avoid unknown and perhaps even benign changes in the future.
Earlier in the week, just before the USA election and in contrast to the Australian signing of the Paris agreement, Malcolm Roberts released a report on climate change, the key findings of which are:
- CSIRO has no empirical evidence proving human carbon dioxide affects global climate;
- CSIRO relies on unscientific Australian and overseas manipulations of data that have fabricated warming temperatures and that the CSIRO has failed to do its due diligence on the data upon which it relies;
- CSIRO contradicts the multiple lines of empirical evidence that prove carbon dioxide from human activity does not, and cannot, affect climate variability. CSIRO’s approach has serious deficiencies.
He and members of the Australian government obviously disagree with the experts and therefore would appear to be representative of the general Australian viewpoint given they are elected by us. The foreign view of Australia is likely to be of interest as climate change has a global effect. At the start of the week Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, appeared on ABC show Q&A and stated Australia was relatively alone in giving the middle finger to the world with its stance on climate change. Obviously Australia is no longer alone given the USA election result.
The voice of scientists is notably absent from the above discussion. Earlier in the year they wrote an open letter to the Australian prime minister asking for action. They gave Malcolm Turnbull a blunt message – “There is no Planet B. […] governments worldwide are presiding over a large-scale demise of the planetary ecosystems, which threatens to leave large parts of Earth uninhabitable.” Scientists are the source of the facts on which the rest of us rely, throughout history the work of science has been the point of truth allowing us to differentiate Cassandra from Hanrahan and Chicken Little. The CSIRO 2016 State of the Climate report states :
- Australia’s climate has warmed in both mean surface air temperature and surrounding sea surface temperature by around 1 °C since 1910.
- The duration, frequency and intensity of extreme heat events have increased across large parts of Australia.
- There has been an increase in extreme fire weather, and a longer fire season, across large parts of Australia since the 1970s.
- May–July rainfall has reduced by around 19 per cent since 1970 in the southwest of Australia.
- There has been a decline of around 11 per cent since the mid-1990s in the April–October growing season rainfall in the continental southeast.
- Rainfall has increased across parts of northern Australia since the 1970s.
- Oceans around Australia have warmed and ocean acidity levels have increased.
- Sea levels have risen around Australia. The rise in mean sea level amplifies the effects of high tides and storm surges.
For the climate scientists who have reported, measured, and warned of the adverse effects humans have on the climate the general disbelief and political opinion must have a strange effect. They are being treated like the boy who cried wolf. Though this disregard is not without precedent – we humans have been fond of rejecting science throughout history. It always seems difficult to accept facts which contradict existing beliefs. From the universal to the mundane we have consistently condemned and rejected science. And it has been to our detriment – for example Galileo was arrested, subjected to inquisition, and condemned for his publications on Earth not being the centre of the universe, Ignaz Semmelweis suffered hardship and ridicule for promoting the scientific observation that washing of hands and medical instruments between patients saves lives. It would seem science could be well represented by the mythical Cassandra as a mascot – doomed to tell the truth, only to receive disbelief. At the start of last week an interesting edition of the ABC radio show Earshot interviewed Australian climate scientists about how they feel about the general reaction to their work. Here are a few statements from the show:
- Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick: Scientists are very conservative, we don’t just muck around with a few maps and here you go, here’s some pretty lines on a plot. We spend hours, thousands upon thousands of hours, making sure we’re doing it the right way. Checking with other people we’re doing it the right way, double checking, rechecking, I don’t know how many times I redo something to make sure it’s absolutely 100% correct before I divulge too much. And also they’re scary, no one wants to know that a 2 degree warming will have an extra 20 or so heatwave days here in Australia. That’s feasible in my lifetime, if not more warming the way we’re going right now. So it’s scary, I want people to know because it’s practically important information, but it’s not a good news story.
- Dr Sara Arthur: If I talk about it at a dinner party its a bit of a clanger. People were happy until I spoke. It’s a difficult thing to know and it’s not a nice thing to share. […] Forget climate change mitigation, I’ve formulated my family climate change adaption plan. What we will do over the next 10 years, what we will do over the next 20 years. I’ve got several decades of planning of where we will invest, where will live, how we will live, what skills I want to have for me, what skills I want to my daughter to have in readiness for the future. I’m not living in a tin hat in a bunker with my tin of beans, its not that…but its a version of that. Its kind of sad, and I don’t talk to people about it because it brings them down.
Professor John ‘Charlie’ Veron: I’m caught in a problem here because what I say is what I believe the science says. So that’s what I do, I say what the science says, but then I know that hope is a really essential ingredient for getting people to think and to do things that will make the world a better place. They have to have hope. If you lose hope then really you’ve lost the plot altogether, so I’m not speaking at these conferences anymore because I can’t match what the science says with any feeling of hope. It is hopeless and that’s bad. So I shouldn’t even be talking to you about this [the Great Barrier Reef] now, because normally I just shut-up, it’s best I do, it’s best I just don’t speak out anymore.
These interviews stick with me – particularly how we will soon be forced adapt. Another news report from last week resonates with the adaption message, it tells me today’s temperature records will be normal in 2030. It is a confronting message to consider; we have moved beyond the ability to restrict adverse climate change. We have no choice but to adapt to what has been done already, and from here we only have reducing chances to limit worse effects.
In an interview with scientists and farmers from October 2016 adapting is mentioned again. Australian farmers are dealing with climate change and attempting to adapt now. They are not being helped by the government cuts to CSIRO climate research early in 2016. These cuts were reversed to some extent in August however it should be expected the interruption to research in progress and loss of expertise will be difficult to reverse.
Bill Scott-Young (farmer): For all these events that are happening, there is government help. The recent floods is a good example. There is money coming forth, both federal money and state money, to help those that have been affected in Tasmania and probably on the mainland too with drought funding. But they are not looking at the core issue which is basically climate change. So here they are doing Band-Aid approaches when something happens, like there’s a catastrophe of some sort, and yes, there’s money, there’s low interest money to help you over, but they are not doing anything to address the fundamental cause of all these issues. Fundamentally everyone knows what the problem is, but no one wants to tackle it. And we are hopeful that the change comes slowly enough for us to adapt.
As we depart what has been it is easy to despair what will be. Collectively we have not listened to how dire is the current situation, so it will become worse through ignorance. In fact it is guaranteed to become worse because there is a lag between pollution and climate change effect. However, authentic action to restrict climate change is an ongoing concern. Energy efficient lightbulbs, closure of a coal power stations, halting land clearing, installation of renewable energy generation, leaving fossil fuels in the ground (and so on) all move us toward a sustainable lifestyle. Every single thing we do makes a difference. Setbacks will no doubt continue, and it unlikely all humans will agree with remediation of climate change until the problems are clear, present, and personally impacting. By that point we will be at a point of no return given the lag effect mentioned before. One would hope existing human issues elsewhere in the world (or even local to Australia) would be enough for a sufficient number of us to act now, before problems obtaining sufficient food and safe shelter will be impossible to ignore.
The effects of climate change are quickly becoming more obvious. It is a systemic change which affects everything in our environment. In 2016 I have witnessed storms, seen the unusual arrival of bats and butterflys, felt the record warmth and the heat waves (for example, February, July, November). In 2016 my home state has watched a significant portion of the Great Barrier Reef die, we have noted the first mammal to become extinct because of climate change. Of course the effects have been present for years now, my most significant experience to date occurred when I spent five months dislocated from my home due to a severe storm. For those who wish to argue the point, it is common to say that no single event can be attributed to climate change, but that is not an excuse for inaction. Given the systemic nature of climate change, I would reply that no event is independent – everything is affected. We are already adapting. Those who accept and act on scientific fact do make personal adjustments and agitate for repair. As a broader group of people come to realise the magnitude of this emergency and leave their scepticism behind, today’s efforts will be appreciated.
I hope it is enough, but I am afraid because hope is not enough.