40 Years of Climate Warnings Ignored by Australian Politicians  

Coronavirus will have a temporary effect on much of humanity but global warming will have a permanent impact on the whole of humanity. Our current federal government relies heavily on science to deal with the former but largely rejects it for the latter.

It could be said that we have had longer than 40 years of warnings that rising CO₂ levels in the atmosphere would result in dangerous global warming. A remarkable American woman, Eunice Newton Foote, conducted a series of experiments the results of which were published in the American Journal of Art and Science as a short paper in November 1856. This was her extraordinarily prescient conclusion: “An atmosphere of [carbon dioxide] would give to our earth a high temperature; and if as some suppose, at one period of its history the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature —-must have necessarily resulted”.

It took more than a century for the validity and high importance of Foote’s discovery to be acknowledged – almost certainly a consequence of her being a woman. (Because of her sex, she was barred from reading her paper at the 1856 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science!) Three years later, the Irish physicist, John Tyndall, who is still commonly treated as the founder of climate science, made similar though more detailed studies into the effect of gases, including carbon dioxide and water vapour, in trapping the sun’s heat. The last of the three notable 19th century investigators was the Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, who in 1896 showed that a halving of the then current level of atmospheric carbon dioxide would result a mean temperature drop of 4-5⁰C. Arrhenius received the 1903 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Articles of world-wide importance rarely appear de novo in small, regional newspapers, but in the current context we need to acknowledge an extraordinary exception. On 14 August 1912 the Rodney and Otamatea Times, a small New Zealand newspaper, under the heading “Coal Consumption Affecting Climate” published this brief text: “The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more efficient blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. This effect may be considerable in a few centuries”. The source or authority for this highly perceptive statement remains a tantalizing mystery, but because no similar accounts were recorded elsewhere at that time, it was presumably an original contribution from a smart New Zealander.

That the world did not sit up and take notice of these early, isolated observations is not too surprising – ignorance of them may be regarded as accidental rather than wilful. The story of wilful ignorance of climate change warnings begins in the 1970s and runs through to the present. From 1970 to 1979 at least 25 papers dealing with atmospheric CO₂ levels and climate change appeared in scientific literature. Even in the early 70s at least 5 papers correctly modeled atmospheric CO₂ levels and increasing temperatures. The journal Climatic Change was founded in 1978. An American group of scientists known as the “Jasons”, chairman of which was  Gordon MacDonald, presented their report The Long Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate to the U.S. Department of Energy in April 1979. The abstract of this report commences: “If the current growth rate of fossil fuels continues  at 4.3% per year, then the CO₂ concentration in the atmosphere can be expected to double by about 2035 [subject to conditions]”. And regarding impacts: “If civilization continues its heavy reliance on carbon based fuels, and if there are no major shifts in the current response of the oceans and biosphere to changing carbon dioxide content, then we should expect during the middle of the 21st Century a warming of 2 to 3⁰C accentuated by a factor of three or four at high polar regions.”

In November-December 1987, 260 people attended the conference “Greenhouse 87: Planning for Climate Change” organized by the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research and held at Monash University. More than 100 scientists and engineers presented 57 papers. Despite the large volume and complexity of this material, plus onerous refereeing requirements, editor Graeme Pearman had the752-page book “Greenhouse: Planning for Climate Change” published in 1988. This 1987/88 greenhouse conference and book was a landmark achievement in the history of climate science in Australia.

It is significant that in 1987 there was a federal Minister for Science [and Small Business] in the person of Barry Jones, and that it was he who opened the conference. More than 30 years later a substantially anti-science and visionless Coalition government continues to wage a war against the proper recognition of global warming and the dangers that it poses.

There are numerous important papers in the 1988 CSIRO Greenhouse book but a couple deserves special mention. First, in the context of Australia’s disastrous bushfires in the 2019/20 summer, is the paper by Beer, Gill and Moore, Australian bushfire danger under changing climatic regimes. Beer et al. found that relative humidity is the climatic parameter with the greatest influence on the Forest Fire Danger Index and concluded: “Estimating the likely changes in relative humidity for any future climate scenario is vital for examination of any future bushfire incidence.” This had not been done and required urgent attention.

On 17 November 2019 (shortly before bushfires dramatically worsened), the Guardian published an article “‘What could I have done?’ The scientist who predicted the bushfire emergency four decades ago”.  Graham Readfearn, begins: “From his lounge in Brunswick, Melbourne, 72-year-old Dr Tom Beer has been watching the fury of an unprecedented Australian bushfire season unfolding on his television screen. ‘I feel really sorry for the firefighters who’ve got extraordinarily tough jobs ahead, and it’s only going to get tougher’, says Beer. ‘But I feel maybe I was not enough of a prophet crying in the wilderness’”. No, Tom, you did your utmost to issue a warning, the fault was not yours; your efforts were defeated by our wilfully ignorant, and anti-science politicians aided and abetted by powerful fossil fuel lobbyists.

The same article has Pearman wondering what else he and Beer could have done to sound an early warning of forthcoming catastrophic bushfires. Why did science not lead to action? “I would blame most of that on the lobbying” says Pearman, now 78. “That lobbying has been extremely powerful in a country driven by the resource sector that includes uranium, coal and gas”. Even though Pearman gave more than 500 presentations on climate change between 2000 and 2010, he still asks himself if he could have done more. No, Graeme, you couldn’t have – you busted your guts trying to raise awareness. An aphorism, casting pearls before swine, comes to mind.

Another noteworthy paper in the 1988 Greenhouse book was Stark’s Designing for coastal structures in a greenhouse age. He predicted an increase in cyclone intensity with a rise in sea surface temperatures from 27⁰ to 29⁰C producing an expected increase of 11% in peak gusts and a 20% increase in pressure on structures. Further, an increase in sea surface temperature of 2⁰C would extend the area for potential cyclones from latitude 25⁰S to approximately 31⁰S – a southward extension of about 600 km on both the east and west coasts of Australia. Surely enough, in February 2020 Cyclone Uesi moved far enough south to cause extensive flooding near Brisbane and the Gold Coast, and significant damage along the northern NSW coast to as far south as Sydney. Eventually it passed over Lord Howe Island (latitude 31.5⁰S!) damaging buildings and ripping down trees. We were reminded of the prescience of Kevin Stark’s 1988 work by Ian Lowe in the July-August 2017 issue of the popular magazine Australasian Science.

A detailed account of the political twists and turns in the campaign to get effective action on climate change in America during the 1980s is contained in Nathaniel Rich’s 2019 book “Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change”. A central figure is the activist, Rafe Pomerance, whose brave, tireless efforts were largely frustrated by establishment figures. However, on June 23, 1988, James Hansen fronted a US Senate hearing and said that a human-induced warming trend could be detected with a high degree of confidence and then told reporters: “It’s time to stop waffling so much and say that evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.” The New York Times then ran the front-page headline “Global Warming Has Begun”.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 and its first major report was published in 1990. Further major (working group) reports appeared in 1995, 2001, 2007 and 2013-14, and numerous other reports appeared from 1990 up to the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5⁰C in October 2018. All major reports warn of the necessity to limit greenhouse gas emissions but all have been criticized as too conservative and for understating the risks. This is for several reasons: the perceived necessity for consensus in working groups, conservative scientists exercising excessive caution, thus erring on the side of least drama, and the time-lag between the dates of the literature reviewed and the date of publication of the IPCC report – in effect they are always somewhat out-of-date!

Starting in 2005 with “The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change”, Tim Flannery produced a series of books and two Quarterly Essays dealing with one aspect or another of climate change. His sustained and impassioned pleas for action on climate change are unrivalled but have largely fallen on deaf ears. In The Conversation on 17 September 2019 Flannery said: “In Australia, the disconnect among our political leaders on the deadly nature of fossil fuels is particularly breathtaking. Prime Minister Scott Morrison continues to sing the praises of coal, while members of the government call for subsidies for coal-fired power stations. A few days ago, the energy and emissions minister, Angus Taylor, urged that the nation’s old and polluting coal-fired plants be allowed to run ‘at full tilt’. In the past, many of us have tolerated such pronouncements as the utterings of idiots —- But the climate crisis has now grown so severe that the actions of the denialists have turned predatory: they are now an immediate threat to our children”. Flannery then said something which thinking Australians should find terribly sad: “No climate report or warning, no political nor technological innovation has altered the ever-upward trajectory of the pollution. This simple fact forces me to look back on my 20 years of climate activism as a colossal failure”.

In Time Magazine in May 2006, just as he was about to release his important book and film, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore published a tribute to distinguished American climate scientist, James Hansen, which concluded: “When the history of the climate crisis is written, Hansen will be seen as the scientist with the most powerful and consistent voice calling for intelligent action to preserve our planet’s environment”.  Three years later, and just over 20 years after his historic appearance before the U.S. Senate, Hansen produced his own landmark book “Storms of my Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity” (2009).

In December 2011, the British Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research found that Australia’s agricultural land would be more severely impacted by global heating than that of almost all of the 24 countries considered (only Spain would be worse off). Without action 97% of Australia’s cropland would face degradation additional to what has already happening through over-grazing and land clearing et cetera.

A carbon pricing scheme was introduced by the Gillard Labor government as the Clean Energy Act 2011 which came into effect on 1 July 2012. Greenhouse gas emissions from companies subject to the scheme dropped almost immediately, and as the official graph of total annual greenhouse emissions (excluding land use, land use change and forestry) showed, reduction continued in the years up to 2014. However, following the 2013 election, the Abbott Government came to power and in July 2014, in what may be regarded as a destructive act of bastardry, actively encouraged by the Murdoch media, repealed the Gillard legislation. It prompted an Age editorial “Repeal of Carbon Tax shames our nation” on 21 July 2014. Hereafter emissions resumed their upward march. In another highly destructive act, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, within days of his election, abolished the Climate Commission in September 2013.

In June 2015 Pope Francis published his remarkable, and for the Catholic Church revolutionary, encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care of Our Common Home, which unambiguously accepts the findings of climate science. This encyclical was published only months before the UN Climate Change Convention in December 2015 and immediately triggered an extraordinary reaction by a noted Australian climate-change denier. It threw Ian Plimer, originally a competent mining geologist who morphed into a charlatan commentator on climate science, into a frenzy. With amazing speed he authored a book, Heaven and Hell (borrowed partially from his discredited 2009 Heaven and Earth), with the expressed intention, which was realized, of getting it released before the forthcoming Paris conference. This book was an unscientific diatribe aimed at discrediting Francis’ encyclical together with environmentalism and conservation, and minimizing the effectiveness of the Paris conference.

December 2015 saw the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement which came into force I November 2016. This international treaty aimed to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and improve upon and replace the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.  It aimed to hold the increase in global mean temperatures to below 2⁰C above preindustrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5⁰C.

The agreement emphasized cooperation, flexibility, transparency and the regular reporting of progress in achieving intended nationally determined contributions. However, there was no mechanism to enforce compliance – only one to promote compliance. In June 2017, President Donald Trump signaled his intention to pull the United States out of the agreement. Despite the impending exit of the U.S., 187 countries had signed and ratified the agreement by the end of 2019.

The conservative and overly cautious nature of the IPCC Reports has already been noted. In 2018 Breakthrough Publications produced an incisive report by Ian Dunlop (former chairman of the Australian Coal Board!) and David Spratt entitled “What Lies Beneath: The Understatement of Existential Climate Risks”. Its summary starts: “Human-induced climate change is an existential risk to human civilisation: an adverse outcome that will either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential, unless carbon emissions are rapidly reduced.” In the foreword to this report, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said: “Climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences”.

Joelle Gergis, an award winning climate scientist, produced in 2018 the book “Sunburnt Country: The History and Future of Climate Change in Australia” which Nobel Prize winner, Peter Doherty said should be read by every Australian (if only it could!). Gergis starts out with the First Fleet in 1788 and reconstructs Australia’s climate through to the present making a distinction between natural climate variability and human-induced climate change. She poses the question: “Can we live with ourselves knowing that we are passing on an unsafe and unstable future to our young ones?”

The UN Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25) met in Madrid in December 2019. This had a disappointing outcome with our Australian representative, Angus Taylor, playing a significantly destructive role. Australia’s proposal to reduce its emissions to only 26 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and its plans to get most of the way there by using “carry-over credits” from the Kyoto Protocol was met with dismay and condemnation by many.

In January 2020 the journal Bioscience published a brief but data-rich paper “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency”. This article had five principal authors but was endorsed by 11,285 scientists from 153 countries commences: “Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to ‘tell it like it is’. On the basis of this obligation and the graphical indicators presented below we declare — clearly and unequivocally   that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency”.

Although well-intentioned people of good will continue to talk about limiting global warming to 1.5⁰C in accordance with the Paris Agreement, this is probably no longer an option, and we face a global heating in excess of 2.0⁰C. In Arctic regions warming of 2-3⁰C has already been experienced. After admitting failure in his 20 years of climate activism, Tim Flannery conceded that: “Many climate scientists think we are already so far down the path of destruction that it is impossible to stabilise the global temperature at 1.5⁰C above the pre-industrial average without yet to be developed drawdown technologies such as those that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. On current trends, within a decade or so, 2⁰C will likewise be beyond our grasp”.

Writing in The New York Review of Books on 12 March 2020, Bill McKibben said: “The United Nations Environment Programme released its latest annual report on the so-called emissions gap in December, and it was remarkably dire. To meet the Paris goal of limiting temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world would need to cut its emissions by 7.6 percent annually for the next decade. Stop and read that number again—it’s almost incomprehensibly large. No individual country, not to mention the planet, has ever cut emissions at that rate for a single year, much less a continuous decade.

And yet that’s the inexorable mathematics of climate change. Had we started cutting when scientists set off the alarm, in the mid-1990s, the necessary cuts would have been a percent or two each year. A modest tax on carbon might well have sufficed to achieve that kind of reduction. But—thanks in no small part to the obstruction of the fossil fuel industry, which, as we have seen above, knew exactly what havoc it was courting—we didn’t start correcting the course of the supertanker that is our global economy. Instead, we went dead ahead: humans have released more carbon dioxide since Hansen’s congressional testimony than in all of history before.”

In March 2020, Guardian writer, Graham Readfearn, revealed that in 2014 Joe Duggan, a science communicator at ANU, reached out to climate scientists by asking them: how does climate change make you feel? More than 40 responses, mostly as handwritten letters, were received and published online. The results upset and unsettled Duggan whose partner was expecting a child. He withdrew into himself and put the project on hold for about three years. Recently, however, he returned to the project and asked the scientists to write again: had their feelings changed during the intervening years? Here are some of the responses:-

Prof Katrin Meissner – “How do I feel about it? I am still very worried. I am also profoundly sad. I am probably sadder than I was five years ago. I feel powerless and, to a certain extent, guilty. I feel like I have failed my duty as a citizen and as a mother because I was not able to communicate the urgency of the situation well enough to trigger meaningful action in time. What we are doing right now is an uncontrolled, risky experiment with the planet we live on.”

Prof Will Steffen – “I’m angry because the lack of effective action on climate change, despite the wealth not only of scientific information but also of solutions to reduce emissions, has now created a climate emergency. The students are right. Their future is now being threatening by the greed of the wealthy fossil fuel elite, the lies of the Murdoch press, and the weakness of our political leaders. These people have no right to destroy my daughter’s future and that of her generation.”

Prof Lesley Hughes – “My emotions haven’t really changed since I last wrote one of these letters, but things around me have. The beacon of light that is Greta Thunberg, speaking truth to power. Our own wonderful, passionate school kids taking to the streets, making me cry with pride. The only way to cope with all of this is to focus on what I can do, what I’m best at, and hope like hell that enough people, doing what they do best, can overcome. I have some very dark moments, but more than ever before, I feel wrapped in a blanket of collective determination. Hope is a necessary emotion, but more than that, it must be our fundamental strategy to keep us going. Lose it, and we are lost.”

Dr Jennie Mallela – “Climate Change feels very real and I think this summer we reached a tipping point in Australia. As I write this my husband, a bushfire fighter, is battling a fire in Canberra and I’m working from home as a freak hailstorm destroyed my car three days ago. In four days, we’ve been smashed by our climate: hail, extreme winds, toxic smoke and fire. …. So how do I feel? Frustrated, angry that our science is ignored by politicians, scared for my husband and all the others who are on the frontline fighting these fires and trying to help. But mostly I feel devastated for my son, and his generation, who will have to heal this planet and live with the mass environmental destruction we have caused.”

As our climate deteriorates, and much of the Australian continent becomes uninhabitable, our grandchildren will start to struggle in an increasingly hostile world. This unfortunate cohort will deserve to have available to them a rogues’ gallery of media, politicians and commentators who were climate change and global warming deniers, skeptics or minimisers, and did their best to frustrate effective action. This rogues gallery includes: Murdoch media (for publishing lies about, and waging war against, climate science over a period of more than two decades), Institute of Public Affairs, Gina Rinehart, Ian Plimer, Andrew Bolt, Peta Credlin, Peter Gleeson, Ray Hadley, Alan Jones, Chris Kenny, Terry McCrann, Steven Price, Chris Smith, Tony Abbott, Matthew Canavan, George Christensen, Pauline Hanson, Barnaby Joyce, Craig Kelly, Michael McCormack, Scott Morrison, Malcolm Roberts, Angus Taylor, Nick Minchin, Maurice Newman and Dick Warburton.

Coronavirus will have a temporary effect on much of humanity but global warming will have a permanent impact on the whole of humanity. Our current federal government relies heavily on science to deal with the former but largely rejects it for the latter. Here we see politicians using science to take quick and effective action on Covid-19 partly to secure their immediate survival but callously, if not criminally, ignoring the science of climate change and with it the future survival of our young Australians. It is bad enough that we have now saddled future generations with an enormous financial debt in an endeavor to save the Australian economy from a virus-induced collapse. However, it is unconscionable that future generations should additionally suffer an existential climate crisis because of wilful ignorance.

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Ian Bayly was a Vice-President of the Australian Conservation Foundation from 1973-1975, and played a prominent role in the conservation struggles to save Lake Pedder and Fraser Island.

He is the recipient of the Australian Society for Limnology Medal. He is still publishing scientific papers, being co-author of a chapter in the book Plankton published by CSIRO in March 2019.

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