Climate change may occur more rapidly and with far greater impact than even its chief exponents have so far been prepared to concede.
The warning comes from Australian atmospheric researcher Dr Barrie Pittock, who argues in a recent article (R&D Review, October 2006) there are firm scientific grounds for suspecting the pace of climate change may be faster and its manifestations more extreme than presently thought.
Pittock is a scientist one listens to with respect. Twenty-five years ago he was an influential figure in a group that persuaded the superpowers - the US and USSR - there would be no survivors of an atomic war, because of the nuclear winter it would unleash. Thus one of the first uses of climate modelling was to save the human race.
Pittock lists the following reasons for believing the present consensus on climate change may be understating its impact:
- Global dimming is decreasing, reducing the braking effect it applies to global warming.
- Permafrost is melting across huge areas, reducing the albedo - or reflectance - of the earth’s heat into space.
- There are signs that forests, soils and algae are becoming sources rather than sinks for atmospheric carbon as climate change stresses them.
- Arctic sea ice is retreating rapidly, also reducing the amount of heat being returned to space.
- Ocean circulation changes are occurring in the in mid- to high latitudes in ways which may have unpredictable effects on the climate.
- The ice cover of Antarctica and Greenland is shrinking, raising sea levels and reducing heat loss.
- Tropical cyclones appear to be becoming more intense.
- The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, one of the earth’s major heat transport systems, has slowed. This was not expected to occur for a century or more.
Scientists have been warning a largely-deaf Australia about climate change for more than 30 years. Indeed, CSIRO published a little book on it for the general public in 1976 or 77.
And, as if to confirm the scientific view about phase-shifts - sudden, irreversible changes from one state to another - there have been two more big developments. In the UK, the Stern Report is finally shifting economists’ attitudes to greenhouse economics - a very important development (though why cutting-edge economics should be 30 years behind cutting-edge science is worth considering).
More importantly research conducted by CSIRO for Coal21, the coal industry lobby which is committed to low-CO2 solutions for Australia, reveals a seismic shift in Australian public opinion on this issue. The survey, in New South Wales and Queensland, found 90-93 per cent of respondents now rate climate change as an important issue.
When was the last time 90 per cent of Australians agreed on anything? If this view pertains nationally, then climate change action is now a political no-brainer and the politician who ignores it merits whatever fate awaits them at the polls. Sudden moves on solar, nuclear and oxyfuels suggest the Federal Government’s pollsters may be telling it something similar.
So much for the three new climate shocks - social, economic and scientific. What can be done about it? Government policy and research activity to date has focused on mitigating CO2 emissions, but in reality these may take 10-30 years to cut in and 100-300 years to have a tangible effect on the global climate.
The real policy and research challenge for Australia, which remains broadly unaddressed, is how we will live day-to-day under a hotter, drier, more volatile climate. In other words, how we will cope in every walk of life with the inevitable.
Are we prepared, for example, for the migration of the wheatbelt into the racehorse belt in pursuit of reliable rainfall? Are we ready for the surge in insect-born disease, the higher rates of death and sudden illness among the elderly from heat stroke? Are our fashionable eave-less villas and tall apartment blocks due for a real estate crash as their unsuitability to the new Australian climate emerges?
Will our demand for light cotton garments and rice accelerate the destruction of inland river systems? Will air-conditioned offices with unopenable windows need fundamental redesign? Can our infrastructure withstand fiercer cyclones, bigger storm surges, heavier monsoons and longer droughts? Will we protect our coastal cities with levees, like New Orleans, or abandon the low lying suburbs to the waves?
It has already dawned on governments that greenhouse prevention is both urgent and costly. But the science necessary to adapt the whole of society to unavoidable climate change conditions is vastly greater - and has barely begun.
Australia urgently needs a national plan for coping with inevitable climate change in all sectors of industry, the community and daily life. And that requires the national scientific effort delivering the solutions to be placed on the equivalent of a wartime footing.
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