STEPHEN LEEDER. Is the Climate right for Discussions about how to Adapt?

Whatever the cause of our changing climate – natural variation or human-made – we should invest in adaptation.

Climate change, or ‘climate heating’, The Guardian’s preference, has been amplified in popular discourse because of sustained droughts, heat and fire. These exceed Dorothea Mackellar’s “sunburnt country of droughts and flooding rains.” Nonagenarians recall ‘seeing nothing like it.’

Ancient myths persist – homosexuality and same-sex marriage have angered God, who has ‘loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword’ in reprisal. Most Aussies, however, getting on with daily living, are agnostic or do not see it as top priority. Others believe that too much fossil fuel has been, and is being, burnt; we are trapped in a greenhouse of ‘toxic’ carbon dioxide (from fossil fuels) and cows’ colonic methane, preventing reflection of solar heat.

Polarised disputation has followed; dark motives and behaviour are ascribed to opposing camps – the denialists and the latté-drinking evangelists – as though each were possessed by the Devil.

Jane and John Citizen, even with science qualifications, struggle to make sense of it. We do not have the knowledge to interrogate and critically appraise the science. We are in that most dangerous of positions – relying on the authoritative statements of others, apparently sufficiently skilled, but often disagreeing with one another.

Scientific ‘knowledge’ is always sceptical and provisional. Today’s truth can be tomorrow’s falsified hypothesis (think of Warren and Marshall and peptic ulcer). Science sits uncomfortably – perhaps not at all – with certainty. Those sceptical about our hot spring weather (climate is ever-changing with troughs and peaks) being due to carbon dioxide can also claim to be committed to science for this reason.

Politics, by contrast, is littered with fizzled certainties – balanced budgets, universal access to health care, costs of light rail, highways or bridges. As the late biologist, Sir Peter Medawar, put it, ‘politics is the art of the possible, while science is the art of the soluble’. Political ‘solutions’ to climate change might be the best we can do. But political decisions cannot claim to be based on ‘irrefutable scientific evidence’. There’s no such thing.

This is no reason for doing nothing, but a reason for being clear about the basis for a particular action. History is littered with irrefutable certainties later rejected as rubbish. With climate change, we need to be clear about why we respond the way we do – and that science remains annoyingly sceptical about everything.

A further reason for a cautious reading of the rhetoric is that climate is complex and manifests differently the world over. This complexity is apparent in its short-recorded history. Losing sight of that complexity – like the complexity of cancer – can mislead us – into a hopeless war like Nixon waged on cancer.

As the saying goes, simple solutions (derived from misreading the problem) almost always turn out to be wrong. Public policy cemeteries contain many corpses which, when alive, were hailed as simple solutions. Indeed, so complex is climate that changes might qualify for the highest accolade when describing problems – ‘wicked’ (the word used by that highly qualified dissenter, Prof Judith Curry, member of the US National Research Council’s Climate Research Committee) – meaning that proposed simple solutions are readily absorbed by the avaricious problem, becoming part of it, and nothing changes. Take our endless ruminations about private health insurance (another wicked problem) – many thousands of pages of proposed solutions – which simply become part of the charade.

An examination of the causes of chronic diseases, including cancer, teaches us that multiple factors contribute. Modification of one of these, even when feasible, might not prevent cancer and do nothing to ameliorate established disease. Yes, tobacco may be an exception, but detecting and treating people with high blood pressure, which is physiologically complex, does not automatically reduce all associated dangers. When I practised respiratory medicine, I was impressed with the many patients with cancer who gave up smoking after receiving the diagnosis – a sad belief in magic.

Mankind is not as influential as we wish. Reducing the load of CO2 might or might not reduce temperature. Natural experiments are impossible, as are intervention studies. Scientific insights into causes do not lead automatically to solutions. Consider world-wide obesity – our inability to influence it, despite knowledge about good nutrition, exercise and ‘energy in versus energy out’, should teach us humility.

What should be our climate priorities? Efficient profitable technologies might relieve our dependence on fossil fuels. We don’t know if temperatures would fall. Planning should assume continued or sustained temperatures and possibly higher oceans. Health care planning should note expected changing patterns of disease. The world might have to deal with massive migratory shifts if rising oceans reclaim settled land.

The planning would best be done globally, but this would depend on the coordination and cooperation of inevitably competing nations. The decline in respect for the UN and similar organisations makes this unlikely. As the BMJ has reported this week (Full story doi:10.1136/bmj.l6876), “although healthcare is one of the five sectors most affected by the climate emergency, only about 29% of plans had funding in place to implement them even partly, and only 9% were channelling resources to implement them completely.” National responses may be the best we can do.

As temperatures might increase, Australian health services authorities could fruitfully explore the environmental architecture of new facilities, their location and service profile.

We are not powerless in confronting global heating. But we need to forsake fantastical ideas about causes to embrace the realities which will challenge many of our social institutions in ways not previously encountered.

Stephen Leeder is an emeritus professor at the University of Sydney

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6 Responses to STEPHEN LEEDER. Is the Climate right for Discussions about how to Adapt?

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    “Reducing the load of CO2 might or might not reduce temperature.”

    I have to withstand the incredible temptation to mount an ‘ad hominem’ argument against the Emeritus Professor.

    Yet the quote is ridiculous. Does the Professor stand against 97 – 99.5% of climate scientists?

    Is the Professor seeking to lessen the political need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? (I could ask “Who benefits?” but I’m too polite to indulge in such political viciousness.)

    I could imply that the Professor seems enhabituated to arguments without consequence but I wouldn’t have the evidence.

    Sorry: I refuse to accept – and you should equally refuse to accept – this apologised half-hearted ambiguous diatribe against the bleeding obvious.

  2. Allan Kessing says:

    I have no scientific training but, now in my 70s, I have farmed in both the northern hemisphere and this country.
    Like my neighbours in both countries, keeping and interpreting weather records were second nature and essential to success.
    No-one I know who are still working the land(s) has the slightest doubt that the weather of the last 10 years has been unprecedented – not all adverse for farming but increasingly uncertain & unreliable which makes planning & what to plant more precarious.
    We no scientists cannot say “why” this is so but the reality is unarguable.
    Most evidence is that the quantity of GHG (CO2 & CH4) already in the atmosphere and increasing quantities still being released – as well as for the foreseeable future – means that we have reached tip-over point.
    If the world ceased all combustion tomorrow, or yesterday/last week/year, it would not stop the thawing of the Siberian & Canadian permafrost with the inevitable and release of unknown/unmeasurable quantities of methane locked up since the past Ice Age.
    The best that we can do is adapt. I doubt that is a palatable message for many as it denies agency, a very comforting delusion.
    I’m glad that I won’t see out this century but I fear for my descendants.

  3. Paul Smeets says:

    Thank you Andrew Glikson. Agreed. For me the opening statement in Leeder’s article, coloured his whole position. I read on with baited breath, fearing the nonsensical suggestion of the truth landing somewhere between the two extremes.

    The climate issue is not represented in equal measure by science and denialism. Any argument can only be one of science v science. Were doubts to arise in climate science, it is science which would tell us all about it.

  4. Ken Dyer says:

    All very good and true words.. But nothing that has not been said before by not only you but the many fine contributors to Menadue.

    Fact: we know emissions are increasing, weather events are getting worse and it’s getting hotter. But I am sick of blaming the government and the coal lobby, even though they could start fixing things tomorrow. I have gone past that.

    I am now asking, “Are you okay (with the change of the climate)?”

    No. I am not. I live in Queensland, and I am sitting inside in 25 degrees of solar powered, air conditioned comfort, as I do most days whilst outside the temperature soars. Today it is slowly declining from 40.2 degrees. Most days it gets up beyond 30 but the humidity is so high, that it seems like more. In the heat, I have discovered I am allergic to as yet unknown things, and I have a head cold. I never used to get head colds nor have allergies. Having been a smoker over a decade ago, I can’t handle the ever present smoke haze that seems to be the mark of this summer. My summer this year, will be a seemingly endless repetition of today for the next 12 weeks, until the arrival (or not) of Autumn. So far, in November and December, I had 56mm of rain, 25% of the average two months rainfall since 1898. No I am not okay.

    But I am lucky. I was fortunate that I had steady well paying jobs during my working life, that enabled me to afford a home, build some super, and generally provide for my future after retirement, albeit with the assistance of the age pension.

    There are millions of Australians who are in much deeper shit than I am, who don’t have the money or the ability to make money to get out out this predicament. Yet, Morrison wants them to be silent.

    Perhaps your good readers may like to consider their own situations, and how they have been affected by climate change. Perhaps they would like to be able take their children or grandchildren who are suffering from ashthma or have breathing problems to a place where they can breathe fresh air not soiled by emissive smoke. Perhaps they might like to afford to install an air conditioner, and what’s more afford to run it. Perhaps we need to start asking our friends and neighbours and relatives, “Are you okay (with climate change)?

    So whilst we may all rant about who is to blame, perhaps it would be more productive to share our climate change stories, come together as a community, and look after ourselves. Because surely, government will not.

  5. Jocelyn Pixley says:

    You make a terrific point, although there is a great deal to be said for evidence already in, such as from the former fire brigade chiefs. They are not like scientists but practical engineers, as it were. I’d prefer (being one!) a sociological view – no one is free of ‘ideology’ because we cannot help having slightly rose-tinted glasses. What is scandalous is the natural sciences broke away from positivist laws, predictions, ‘certainty’, after most of the social sciences with the more obviously interpretive approaches to humans who change their minds (unlike the ‘weather’).
    In marked contrast to the natural sciences now, the exception has been mainstream neo-classical economics: they know ‘everything’ and it’s difficult to avoid a crude marxian or a much older cui bono question to their crude certainties.

  6. Andrew Glikson says:

    The article states: “Whatever the cause of our changing climate – natural variation or human-made – we should invest in adaptation.”
    Global warming due to anthropogenic emission of some 910 billion tons of carbon gases since the industrial age is, consistent with the basic laws of physics (the Stephan-Boltzmann, Max Planch and Krichhauf laws of black body radiation), confirmed by >99 percent of the scientific literature, is beyond reasonable doubt:;

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