On Monday 3 February ABC’s Media Watch examined how News Corp’s loudest voices denied or downplayed the role of climate change. Those voices included Peta Credlin, Chris Kenny and Alan Jones:
Passionate denial that the bushfires should make us act on climate change runs right across the Murdoch media in this country reaching an audience of millions.
But it’s also echoed by Murdoch’s Fox News in the US…
I was astonished at how loud and shouty these people were.
Now an open letter on the scientific basis for the links between climate change and bushfires in Australia has been written by seven scientists and supported by, at last count, 446 scientists with research expertise across the fields of climate, fire and weather science. It appears under the heading There is no strong, resilient Australia without deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.
- Scientific evidence unequivocally links human-caused climate change to the increasing risk of frequent and severe bushfires in the Australian landscape. That same science tells us these extreme events will only grow worse in the future without genuine concerted action to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases.
On the scientific basis, they say:
- Human-caused climate change is increasing the risk of fires in various regions of the world, including Australia. Fire activity is controlled by four limiting factors: (i) a fuel load (vegetation biomass); (ii) the fuel being dry enough to burn; (iii) an ignition source (anthropogenic or lightning); and (iv) weather that is conducive to carrying that fire through the landscape (e.g. high temperatures, wind speed and low humidity). Climate influences all four of these factors. (Emphasis added)
They say that human activities have so far caused 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels. Here in Oz:
- 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. The average temperature for the whole of Australia in 2019 was 1.5°C above the 1961–1990 climatological average, and 1.9°C above the 1911–1940 average, noting that the national temperature dataset commences in 1910.
Remember that over 70% of the earth’s surface is ocean, and that on land higher latitudes will warm more.
In 2015 CSIRO and BOM compiled a report on climate projections for selected Australian cities. Their findings are cause for concern, and probably would now be revised upwards. We are currently on the RCP (Representative Concentration Pathway) 8.5 pathway, which, for example, would give Brisbane an extra 3.7°C average temperature in 2090, and 55 days over 35°C instead of 12 days now, with ‘now’ being the 1986-2005 average.
For Dubbo and Canberra the numbers are significantly worse. In Dubbo over 35°C days increase from 22 to 65, over 40°C days from 2.5 to 17. Under 2°C reduce from 39 to 6.
In Brisbane rainfall decreases in all seasons, while evapotranspiration quadruples.
Back to the scientists’ bushfire letter, in December 2019 the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) had the highest fire potential of any month since records began in 1950.
Higher variability has come with changes in the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), in the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), in the Southern Annular Mode (SAM), and in interaction between them. This time ENSO was neutral, but:
- During spring and summer of 2019 a rare sudden stratospheric warming event occurred over Antarctica and caused the SAM to temporarily shift to a negative state. A negative SAM at this time of year increases the forest fire danger in eastern Australia by reducing cloud cover and drawing hot and dry air across the continent to the eastern states. It is not yet known if climate change will alter sudden stratospheric warming events over Antarctica in the future.
During the Q&A Bushfires Special a woman asked whether 2019-2020 represented the ‘new normal’. The answer in ‘no’, there is not going to be any stability; we will experience change and scientists are telling us that such change will be worse than we have experienced to date.
If we want to do the best by our children and grandchildren we need to mitigate – hard!
I must say, however, that I was disappointed in this statement in the letter:
- Australia is part of the Paris Agreement and has a commitment to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, which would significantly reduce the intensification of Australia’s bushfire risk along with many other climate change risks.
That phrase I highlighted covers a multitude of sins. In brief it means, the situation will get worse, but we can take action to mitigate the harm. In the last section they say:
- Scientific evidence indicates a need for immediate action to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions and manage a rapid transition to net zero emissions by 2050 if we are to limit the many climate change risks facing the Australian people, economy and environment.
Last December I asked Has the climate tipped? when commenting on an article Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against by Timothy M. Lenton, Johan Rockström, Owen Gaffney, Stefan Rahmstorf, Katherine Richardson, Will Steffen and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. Some of them signed the bushfire statement, knowing full well that the climate is already dangerous and that net zero emissions by 2050 is insufficient, too slow and cannot be the endgame.
Prof John Quiggin in a recent article Humans are good at thinking their way out of problems – but climate change is outfoxing us says he thinks the climate has tipped here in Oz, so it is out of human control. In some areas of human activity such as farming, we are exhausting our capacity to adapt to climate change:
There is growing evidence that Earth’s systems are heading towards climate “tipping points” beyond which change becomes abrupt and unstoppable. But another tipping point is already being crossed – humanity’s capacity to adapt to a warmer world.
In my long-read article Climate emergency – ecological sustainability within planetary boundaries, and a safe climate I cited James Hansen:
- Hansen warned that if we reached 400ppm by 2015, as we would under BAU, then dangerous climate change would be unavoidable.
He advocated no new coal-fired power without sequestration in advanced countries from 2012, ditto for developing countries by 2022, bulldoze the lot by 2050. He saw sequestration as 10 years away as an available technology, but then we should use it to draw down CO2 from the atmosphere, ie. from 2017.
He said that in 2007.
I suspect that in retrospect we will see the record global surface temperatures of 2016 and the crazy hot northern hemisphere summer of that year as a turning point. The Australian bushfire season of 2019-2020 has simply highlighted in a spectacularly obvious way that dangerous climate change has not been avoided, it is with us now.
That long-read post also goes into a 2015 paper mainly hatched by Johan Rockström and Will Steffen Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. The paper has 29 authors, including H. Schellnhuber, J. Hansen, T.M. Lenton (known for tipping points) and T. Hughes (known for coral reefs).
A more readable version is Johan Rockström, Will Steffen, et al A safe operating space for humanity Sept 2015, which says about climate change:
- We propose that human changes to atmospheric CO2 concentrations should not exceed 350 parts per million by volume, and that radiative forcing should not exceed 1 watt per square metre above pre-industrial levels. Transgressing these boundaries will increase the risk of irreversible climate change, such as the loss of major ice sheets, accelerated sea-level rise and abrupt shifts in forest and agricultural systems. Current CO2 concentration stands at 387 p.p.m.v. and the change in radiative forcing is 1.5 W m−2 (ref. 11).
(The concept was originally aired earlier in 2009, before the UN Copenhagen climate conference, which famously went off the rails.)
These articles and the planetary boundaries concept constitute a meeting of great minds. These are the only references I know where Hansen and Schellnhuber are joint authors. Rockström has now succeeded Schellnhuber as head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
Sadly, we, climate scientists generally (there are exceptions), the IPCC and the UNFCCC, have taken no notice.
The planetary boundary of 350 ppm was passed in September 1988, two months after James Hansen’s Senate testimony made climate change a public policy issue.
There never was any burnable carbon for a safe climate.
In the bushfire letter, rather than hope of a safe climate we are being offered as a desirable goal a climate that is dangerous, but has a chance of not being catastrophic.
A different view prevails at Breakthrough, National Centre for Climate Restoration, where a new discussion paper Delivering Maximum Protection: An effective goal for a climate emergency response by Adam P.A. Cardilini and Philip Sutton says:
- The climate is already unacceptably dangerous. This means that the world is too hot, there is too much greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and there is no budget of acceptable further emissions. The Paris +1.5°C goal is not safe or acceptable. A safe climate needs to be restored by stopping emissions immediately and by taking the excess greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere as fast as possible.
‘Immediately’ is, of course, impossible. We should have taken emergency action after the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. We thought we did with the Kyoto Protocol, but as Greta Thunberg keeps reminding us the emissions just keep going up. Paul Gilding’s recent paper Climate Emergency Defined teases out the concept of climate emergency. I go into this more in my long-read post, but a real climate emergency means a full-on, whole-of-government effort and around 5-10% of GDP. We apply maximum effort, and in that sense preset targets are not the main issue. We need drawdowns ASAP as well as cuts in emissions.
Most of the declared ‘climate emergencies’ do not cut the mustard. Zero emissions by 2050, or indeed 2040, do not constitute emergency action.
But that is another story, which necessarily involves the political warrant to take.
The only MSM story I saw was in the SMH – ‘Strong links’ between worsening bushfires and climate change: experts
For those who think we are heading down the crapper, there is a forum for you. Join Prof Jem Bendall’s Deep Adaptation Forum:
an international space to connect and collaborate with other professionals who are exploring implications of a near-term societal collapse due to climate change. There is no need to wait for your fellow professionals to wake up to our predicament. Through this free forum you can join regular webinars, seek advice and co-create shared resources for your field of expertise.
Only together might we extend the glide and soften the fall. If you are starting on integrating your awareness of likely near-term collapse into your personal, professional and political life, then this forum is for you. – Professor Jem Bendell, originator of the Deep Adaptation concept.