STEPHEN LEEDER- Global Change and Us

Recent fires in Australia and California have provoked discussion about the effects of climate change. These extreme events, not unknown in times past, seem to be more frequent now and suggest that the recorded changes in global temperature may be responsible. Blame – a common feature that follows disasters – is variously ascribed to political inertia over fossil fuels or local failure to take evasive preparative action as through preventive hazard reduction. Political polarisation has followed. We need a good dose of cooling off before developing effective stronger coping strategies. .

Richard Smith, former editor extraordinaire of The BMJ, has been appointed chair of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC) of which The BMJ and Lancet, its rival sibling, are members. Writing in The BMJOpinion blog, Smith says:

Nobody knows exactly what harm will come from climate change, but the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change, which is appropriately cautious, said that we are heading for an increase in global temperature of 3 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels, with potentially catastrophic consequences. To go beyond an increase of 1.5 degrees Centigrade is “dicing with the planet’s liveability,” and to stay below 1.5 degrees Centigrade requires “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.

He then quotes David Wallace-Wells, author of ‘the deeply researched, beautifully written, and terrifying book The Uninhabitable Earth: “The world has, at most, about three decades to completely decarbonize before truly devastating climate horrors begin. You can’t halfway your way to a solution to a crisis this large.”’ Smith continues:

I also think of the climate emergency in relation to Bangladesh, a country I have been visiting for more than a decade. The Bay of Bengal is already moving north, forcing people to migrate to Dhaka, a city that feels on the edge of collapse and where 30% of the 25 million people live in slums. Yet Bangladeshis have one of the lowest per capita carbon consumptions in the world. The climate emergency is an issue of social justice.

The Lancet has recently published the 2019 version of the ‘Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change’, a report produced ‘with strategic and [generous] financial support from the Wellcome Trust. The Lancet Countdown is hosted by University College London, and works with 35 partners around the world to track and understand the link between climate change and health’ with the ‘collaboration of over 120 leading experts from academic institutions and UN agencies across the globe, bringing together climate scientists, engineers, energy specialists, economists, political scientists, public health professionals and doctors.’ The Medical Journal of Australia has recently published a parallel assessment report for 2019 that tracks Australia’s movement against 31 indicators.

Australia is well positioned to take an active interest in climate change. The late Tony McMichael, professor of epidemiology at ANU, devoted much of his professional life to explicating the interplay between the environment and health and established our understanding of these relationships with rigour and intellectual elegance.

His last book, published posthumously in February 2017 and edited by epidemiologist and former colleague Alistair Woodward, and environmental historian Cameron Muir, was entitled Climate Change and The Health of Nations: Famines Fevers and the Fate of Populations. It provides a thoughtful, but nevertheless confronting, account of the challenges produced by human dominance of what has come to be called the Anthropocene, ‘an era defined by human influence rather than natural process.’

The science of climate change is ultra-complex. Those who maintain a negative view about the reality of global heating can legitimately claim that all that we would like to know is not yet known and that the sheer complexity of the science makes it inaccessible to critical appraisal. This matters. Leading Harvard environmental economist Martin Weitzman, 77, who died in August this year by suicide, considered that there were major limitations imposed on economic models of the effects of climate change because, as The Economist tells it, ‘the sensitivity of global surface temperature of atmospheric carbon dioxide remains uncertain’ so that even if we might cope with steady rises in temperature, ‘a cataclysmic event, such as global warming over six degrees Centigrade remains worryingly possible.’

Those who maintain that fluctuating global temperature is natural and not man-made have an uphill battle to establish their case when the observational data about temperature trends are examined alongside the upward movement of principal indicators such as atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, and ambient temperature.

Among the welter of statistics and the racket of polarised political discussion, the sound and fury and the despair, we would do well to read McMichael’s writing to clear our minds. We might also recall the words of St Francis of Assisi, quoted by Pope Francis at the start of his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ in which he urged deep environmental sensitivity and bold action. ‘Our common home,’ St Francis said, ‘is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.’

Our principal responsibility is to ensure that whatever changes occur we are well prepared. Extreme events can stir us up and may or may not be part of a larger problem. But the steady changes in global temperature – whatever we do to ameliorate them – are what we need to focus on, always remembering the broad environmental context of which climate is a part, but only a part.

Stephen Leeder is an emeritus academic in public health at Sydney University. 

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6 Responses to STEPHEN LEEDER- Global Change and Us

  1. Michael Hart says:

    Stephen, well put but I am afraid your championing a lost cause. The very idea of vagarity as to the climate is the trip hazard that prevents any meaningful action.

    As you stated: ” Those who maintain a negative view about the reality of global heating can legitimately claim that all that we would like to know is not yet known and that the sheer complexity of the science makes it inaccessible to critical appraisal”.

    Well just today, 21 November 2019, our Prime Minister positively and unshamadely revealed his decietful and wilful ignorance and offered the idea we can INCREASE OUR EMISSIONS, Yes, increase our emissions based on sham accounting and wilful deceitfulness. Then to rub everyones face in it foreshadowed legislation to prevent climate activists using the courts or even civil protest from doing just that protest, they are to become not quite Australians but silenced Australians.

    The hard part is not changing what we do to the world, the hard part will be not being able to live with the outcome. Its over for Australia as we knew, simple. Over for our so called democracy, over for our children and grandchildren and coming down the pipe, over for our economy and lifestyles. But I am sure we will have no shortage of polite and studied explanations to prevaricate obtusely. If people cannot understand the current fires and drought is not an environmental and social catastrophe then they never will and they will never miss it living in cities. Until they cannot live there any more.

  2. Chris Mills says:

    The COALition’s Prime Minister Abbot’s Paris Agreement is that by 2030, Australia will emit no more than 441 Million Tonnes of CO2 (Equivalent).

    The Department of The Environment and Energy’s Quarterly Update of Australia’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory (March) show the annual emissions rate is ~540 million tones and rising, ~22% above target.

    Dodgy accounting is being used to accumulate emissions over the years to ‘prove’ that Australia will meet its target ‘in a canter’.

    What about the emissions rate in 2031? On the current trajectory, Australia will exceed its targets by ~25%.

    OBTW, the Department’s Inventory does not include bushfire emissions.

    Humbug should be called-out when emitted!

    • Wayne Fyffe says:

      I am gobsmacked Chris, yet unsurprised, by your OBTW enlightening comment that our “Greenhouse Gas Inventory” (yet more bureaucratic obfuscatory jargon) does not include bushfire emissions in determining whether or not we are meeting our Paris emissions reductions targets.

      With all the bushfires enveloping, or perhaps set to envelop increasing numbers of us, apparently no mention of this glaring and grossly misleading omission in our MSM, including the ABC and SBS. Yet more censorship by omission? One of the first basic concepts I learned in uni Stats I: “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics”.

  3. John Ward says:

    I don’t know what coping strategies are being proposed for 3-4 degrees of warming. If the Antarctic melts, we may be talking about metres of sea level rise. I doubt that Bangladeshis or Pacific Islanders will be too interested in talking about coping strategies.
    I doubt that a period of “cooling off ” is required. What we need is more anger as expressed by Greta Thunberg and more action as per the Extinction Rebellion. We may then develop the political courage to question our greed and growth trajectory and limit the warming to sustainable levels.

  4. Ken Russell says:

    This article quotes Pope Francis as urging deep environmental sensitivity and bold action, but this isn’t happening in Australia and globally. For those of us who have a deep understanding of the problem I think our principal responsibility and what we need to focus on is doing all we can to get the world to accept the climate science and implement it. From an Australian perspective, our governments (federal and state) currently have fossil fuel supportive policies that make Australia part of the problem rather than part of the solution. It will take overwhelming people power to get both sides of politics to accept that fossil fuels must be phased out. The challenge is to mobilise the Australian public.

  5. Felix MacNeill says:

    Of course it’s more than just temperature and, for that matter, more than just global heating and broader climate change: rapid and increasing rates of species extinction threaten the integrity of the complex ecosystems on which we all rely to be able to function at all as embedded organisms.

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