Science

A four degrees warmer Australia: Hot not sexy

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While our volunteer firefighter PM hoses down discussion about the obvious link between climate change and extreme weather events, Lyn Bender takes us on journey to a four degree warmer Australia.

IN A FOUR DEGREE WARMER AUSTRALIA, temperate Dubbo would ‘migrate’ to the equivalent latitude of the desert town of Hermannsburg, Sydney would be the new Rockhampton, while Darwin and Cairns would be like no place yet on earth.

“We have come here to think about the unthinkable,” the introductory speaker proclaimed and so the seminar / come book launch began.

I had been hoping for a glass or two of wine and traditional nibbles to buffer and soften the blow of this event; for the chance to mingle with the ‘likeminded’ and the ‘sexiness’ of sociability. After all, the prospect of the world achieving four degrees of warming by the beginning of next century was devastating to contemplate. A traditional wake was called for.

I steeled myself for a depressing two hours of predictions, slides, graphs, statistics and stomach churning summaries, delivered by seven of the thirty distinguished scientists and experts who had contributed to the book. Its unequivocal message was captured by the title: Four degrees of Global Warming. Australia in a Hot World.

I already had commitments, but if I couldn’t stop my everyday life for two hours and pay attention to the implications of four degrees, how could I hope that the world would move beyond  business as usual?

It was a cool rainy summer day in Melbourne on Wednesday 4 December and I descended into the dark gloom of the dungeon like Carrillo Gantner at the Melbourne University Sustainable Society Institute. No natural light or token plants detracted from its sterility. But this may have been appropriate as belief in global warming is weaker when in the presence of even one green living plant. This was in contrast to a greater belief in warming being fostered with a dry dead plant in the room. An even greater ‘belief in warming effect’, would be fostered with three dead plants.

The dead plant factor is described by Stephen Lewandowsky in support of the ‘irresistible irrelevancy influence’:

Humans are swayed by immediate circumstance, like the hungry supermarket shopper, or the roof left unrepaired on a sunny day.

People are more likely to give credence to global warming on hotter than usual days, than on cold days and especially in the wake of fires and floods or extreme storms like the Philippines typhoon, Hurricane Sandy in the United States and the October 2013 bushfires in NSW.

Not surprising, then, that denier prone governments rushed to hose down the connection between extreme fire and climate change. With Prime Minister Tony Abbott famously accusing the UN Climate Negotiator Head Christine Figuerres  of “talking through her hat”, extreme weather events are part of the evidence that climate change is on track and exceeding predictions. If megafires, typhoons and floods, and increasing global warming were our goal, we would be achieving our own wildest predictions and beyond. We could pronounce ourselves successful. But instead, we are failing abysmally as emissions rise.

There was also an ill-fated irony in holding climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 in winter and in Warsaw during late Autumn this year.

For years, I have heard scientists lament that, despite the evidence ‒ that is now agreed upon by at least ninety five percent of scientists ‒ and the facts regarding human induced climate change, governments and people seem to be heading like lemmings on a suicidal course en masse. We are on the Titanic having set sail without enough life boats and we have been warned about the iceberg in our path. Yet the band plays on while we dance.

Climate scientists are mystified by this, and have turned to the social sciences for an explanation. In part, the answer to this conundrum seems to be, that humans are often irrational and believe what they want or need to believe until the truth and its consequences are unavoidably present.

Many scientists, like James Hansen, have warned us for decades about the greenhouse effect. His paper in the eighties predicted many of the impacts that are now occurring. These include the melting of ice sheets, increasing extreme weather events and loss of species. Hansen equates our failure to act as the equivalent to knowing that a giant asteroid is approaching earth, having the means to avoid it, yet doing nothing to stop its catastrophic impact.

The seminar concluded with a warning. Unless we seriously cut our fossil fuel usage leaving 80 per cent of coal reserves in the ground we were relentlessly heading for four degrees of warming.

This looming reality, of the fear of stranded assets, has lead the coal industry to doggedly oppose putting a price on carbon in this country, as though in a race to sell off horses and buggies as the car industry emerged. There was resistance and disbelief in the rise of the ‘horseless carriage’, now the fossil fuel industry debunks renewable energy as though it will never be as ‘reliable’ as good old coal.

Or like those who profited from asbestos concealing its lethal impact for decades in order to continue profiting from its sale.

But surely the chaos of food shortages, horrific fires, floods, losses of species, dangerous acidification of our oceans, increasing refugees, wars, insect borne illness and millions of deaths are an incalculable price to pay for our stubborn refusal to mitigate and adapt.

I, for one, can’t justify accumulating that kind of irreversible debt on behalf of my grandchildren.

At the end of the quiet calm presentation of the super reasonable scientists, I wished the voices of science would get louder sexier and shout out. Perhaps this is what is needed  to drown out the misinformation of high profile vested interest deniers, employed by the polluters, who have infiltrated government policies. The techniques to promote are those used by the tobacco industry to obscure the link of tobacco with lethal lung disease. Advertising by tobacco companies in the 1950’s encouraged smoking as being “healthy”     

This phenomenon is well documented by Naomi Oreskes in her book Merchants of Doubt.

Meanwhile the four degree show, was over and I sat silently stunned and reminded once more of the truth about how precarious and fragile our civilised existence may be. 

Someone near me voiced a lament:

“I wish the politicians were here listening to this.”

The book Four Degrees of Global Warming, edited by Associate Professor Peter Christoff, may be purchased here. You can follow Lyn Bender on Twitter @lynestel.

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