ANDREW GLIKSON. Abbott’s views on climate change

Since 2015 when the then Prime Minister stated Australia was making a “definite commitment” to a 26% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and possibly as high as 28% reduction”,  now Abbott states he did not foresee as prime minister “how the aspirational targets we agreed to at Paris would, in different hands, become binding commitments”.

In between these dates Abbott’s thoughts regarding climate change were expressed in an address to the “Global Warming Policy Foundation”, a body critical of the message of climate science, where he stated, among other:

There’s a veneer of rational calculation to emissions reduction but underneath it’s about “doing the right thing”. Environmentalism has managed to combine a post-socialist instinct for big government with a post-Christian nostalgia for making sacrifices in a good cause. Primitive people once killed goats to appease the volcano gods. We’re more sophisticated now but are still sacrificing our industries and our living standards to the climate gods to little more effect.”

More detailed responses to Abbott’s views of 2017 are given below:

Abbott claims “… over millions of years there have been warmer periods and cooler periods that don’t correlate with carbon dioxide concentrations.”

Response: Hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers document the close relationship between atmospheric CO₂ (+ methane) concentrations and temperatures, on both global and regional levels. This relationship is recorded in ice cores dating back 800,000 years.

Abbott went on to point out that prehistoric climate fluctuations have occurred “without any human contribution at all”. This is so, human industry did not exist then, and this doesn’t disprove the relationship between CO₂ and temperature and the consequences of human emissions, currently emitting CO₂ at a rate of 2 to 3 ppm per year.

Abbott referred to Europe’s “medieval warm period” (~900-1200 AD) and the subsequent “mini-ice age” in the 17th centuriy as evidence of natural climate fluctuations. The medieval warm period was roughly 0.5℃ warmer than the background average. By contrast, today’s global temperatures have risen by 1.5℃ over the continents since 1880, faster than at any time in the past 65 million years.

Abbott suggests the evidence points to other factors such as sun spot cycles and oscillations in the Earth’s orbit as important for climate change: “sun spot cycles and oscillations in the Earth’s orbit are at least as important for climate change as this trace gas (CO2) – which, far from being pollution, is actually essential for life to exist.”

Response: Fluctuations in the number of sun spots, and predictable changes to Earth’s orbit, can indeed change the amount of solar radiation that reaches Earth. However, solar radiation, which rose weakly during the first part of the 20th century, has not increased since the mid-20th century, a period during which global temperatures continued to climb – a trend that can only be explained by high greenhouse CO₂ levels.

Abbott states: “Certainly, no big change has accompanied the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration over the past century from roughly 300 to roughly 400 parts per million

Response: Mean global CO₂ during the Pleistocene (from ~2.6 million years ago) ranged between 180 and 280 parts per million. The increase to above 400 ppm since early in the 20th century represents an extreme rise above conditions of the Pleistocene and can only be accounted for by the anthropogenic emission currently releasing about 37 billion ton CO₂ per year .

Abbott suggests sea levels have not risen: “More than 100 years of photography at Manly Beach in my electorate does not suggest that sea levels have risen despite frequent reports from climate alarmists that this is imminent.”

Response: Some beaches are eroded by the waves and some are built-up by accumulating sand. The average sea level is measured by tide gauge and from satellites. According to NASA, NOAA and the USGS Global average sea level has risen by almost 24 cm since 1880.

Abbott claims Australia’s natural hazards are not getting worse: “Contrary to the breathless assertions that climate change is behind every weather event, in Australia, the floods are not bigger, the bushfires are not worse, the droughts are not deeper or longer, and the cyclones are not more severe than they were in the 1800s.”

Response: This assertion is contradicted by the rise in extreme weather events in Australia and around the world, including hurricanes, storms, floods, heat waves and fires, as documented among other by international insurance companies.

Abbott: “there was a pause in warming between the 1990s and 2014.”

Response: Following the peak El-Nino event in 1998 the rate of mean global temperature rise has slowed down, mainly due to the rise in sulphur aerosols which attenuates solar radiation and a decline in the 11 years sun spot cycle. Since 2015 the warming rate has increased dramatically reaching the highest global annual average temperatures measured

Abbott: “global warming could be good” … “In most countries, far more people die in cold snaps than in heat waves, so a gradual lift in global temperatures, especially if it’s accompanied by more prosperity and more capacity to adapt to change, might even be beneficial.”

Response:  In Australia From 1844 to 2010 extreme heat events killed at least 5332 people (). One would be hard-pressed to describe the rise in hurricanes, storms, floods, heatwaves, fires, droughts and sea levels as “beneficial”.

In summary, it is hard to reconcile Abbott’s claims with the scientific evidence, nor with the direct observational data. It is estimated that, to date, some 150,000 to 400,000 people world-wide have perished each year due to the direct and indirect effects of global warming. This includes, for example, 1833 in New Orleans, 6329 by typhoon Haiyan in the Philippine, possibly 5000 in Porto Rico. The list goes on. While these events have been documented in detail, the silence in most of the mainstream media regarding the connection between global warming and the rising spate of hurricanes, storms and fires is deafening.

Dr Andrew Glikson is Earth and paleo-climate scientist, Australian National University

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