At the age of eighty-four I am, like most octogenarians, acutely aware of my own mortality. Will I live for another five years? Dare I hope for another ten? What will cause my death? Will pneumonia, which has visited me twice in recent years, get me in the end? Nobody knows the answer to these questions, but it is highly likely that I will die of natural causes. But what about my grandchildren? Will they die much younger than me from heat stroke, thirst, fire or starvation, or be killed in a war among hordes of people struggling to survive in a hellish world the like of which I never experienced at any stage of my long life?
I have just put down a superb 2018 book, Sunburnt Country: The History and Future of Climate Change in Australia, by Joëlle Gergis. I was already familiar with much of the material in this book, but the brilliantly clear manner in which it sets out the kind of world I am likely to leave to my grandchildren has spurred me into action. Gergis asks: ‘Can we live with ourselves knowing that we are passing on an unsafe and unstable future to our young ones?’ Bob Brown has said that our grandchildren will ask of their grandparents: ‘Where were you and what did you do?’ Would they be justified in thinking that I had been a passive party to an inter-generational crime threatening their very existence? Charlie Veron of coral-reef fame, and author of A Life Underwater (2017), thinks that we ‘are selling out the next generation of Australians as fast as we can’. My response is this document, which will show to my grandchildren that I was not a passive party to a crime that may imperil their lives.
First, it is important to acknowledge that warnings about climate change have been coming to us for a good three decades. James Hansen (author of the 2009 Storms of My Grandchildren) presented clear evidence of human-caused global warming to the American Congress in 1988. In the July–August 2017 issue of the popular magazine Australasian Science, Ian Lowe pointed out that a warning issued thirty years ago had been largely ignored. In Greenhouse 87, produced after the first Australian national conference on climate change, K. P. Stark of James Cook University showed, on the basis of CSIRO modelling, that increasing sea surface temperatures would inevitably result in more severe cyclones. Because the central pressure of incipient cyclones is directly related to oceanic surface temperature, Stark argued that Category 4 or 5 cyclones could be expected to hit the Queensland coast by the 2030s. Clearly, his estimate was overly conservative. Cyclone Debbie (March 2017) was the latest in a series of Category 4 or 5 cyclones to hit Queensland in recent years. These two examples suffice to show that in the late 1980s climate-change concerns were already well and truly in the air. During the last five years of my thirty-year stint at Monash University, prior to my retirement at the end of 1995, I taught the elements of climate change to second-year life-science students.
Using material in Sunburnt Country as our guide, what sort of climatic conditions might we expect in Australia in the second half of this century? The CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology have prepared a map showing projected temperature changes by 2090 relative to the period 1986–2005. The projected median surface-temperature increase for south-eastern and south-western Australia, including Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide and Perth, is 3.5ºC; for tropical northern Australia, including Townsville and Cairns, 3.7ºC; for coastal eastern Australia, including Brisbane and Sydney, 3.9ºC; and for the central arid and semi-arid core, accounting for the largest area, 4.3ºC (the median value for the projected range of 2.9–5.3ºC). This last figure would mean that for Alice Springs the number of days with a maximum temperature over 40ºC would rise from fewer than twenty per year to more than eighty—a more than four-fold increase. It is highly probable that by 2090 much of the outback will experience summer temperatures of over 50ºC and be essentially uninhabitable. For the whole of Australia there will be a marked increase in the intensity of heatwaves and extreme rainfall events. On 11 February 2017, Richmond, in the western suburbs of Sydney, recorded a maximum temperature of 47ºC. That was the highest February temperature ever recorded in the Sydney basin, and it is likely that future temperatures in Sydney will exceed 50ºC.
The secondary ramifications for Australia of these projected temperature increases are too numerous, varied and complex to explore here. But one issue deserves highlighting: the British Meteorology Office’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research has shown that, in terms of the percentage of land less suitable for agriculture as a result of climate change, Australia (97%) would be the worst affected among the twenty-four nations considered, except for Spain (99%). How long will it take for rural Australians to wake up to the fact that their ability to plan and adapt to an unfavourable future is being jeopardised by climate-change deniers in the Coalition? The National Party in particular is failing its rural constituents.
Who are the villains in Australia’s failure to take prompt and effective action to mitigate climate change? Perhaps foremost is former prime minister Tony Abbott. His abolition of the Climate Commission in September 2013 is a prime example of his vindictive vandalism. In July 2014 Abbott’s Coalition government, actively encouraged by the Murdoch media, repealed the legislation that put a price on carbon. In the lead-up to the election of the Abbott government in September 2013 we heard Abbott’s inane repetition of the slogan: ‘Axe the Tax’. In that he succeeded, but he also axed the interests of future Australians. It was Abbott who spearheaded opposition within the Turnbull government to the Clean Energy Target proposed by Chief Scientist of Australia Alan Finkel. This resulted in the federal government scrapping this target on 17 October 2017. As prime minister Abbott did his best, but failed, to coerce the University of Western Australia into forming a unit with climate-change sceptic Bjørn Lomborg in charge. Abbott has been disinclined to acquaint himself with the elements of climate-change science. He is infamous for his claims that ‘coal is good for humanity’ and climate change is doing ‘more good than harm’. His claim that ‘far more people die in cold snaps than heatwaves’ may be correct for the past but not for the future, and perhaps not even for the very recent past. It is estimated that more Victorians (374) died in the late-January 2009 heatwave than in the ensuing Black Saturday fires on 7 February 2009 (173).
It is my belief that when future generations of Australians examine the dire predicaments confronting them, they will regard Abbott’s actions (or inactions) on climate change as one of the greatest Australian crimes of the twenty-first century. To quote a Saturday Paper editorial on Abbott: ‘That one man could do so much damage is testament to his corrosive gift for harm’. The thoroughly discredited Barnaby Joyce is another Australian politician who, at a very early stage in the proceedings, played a major role in destroying Labor’s carbon tax. Joyce initiated a scare campaign by falsely claiming that a carbon tax would cause food and energy prices to skyrocket. It is ironic that after ‘axing the tax’, partly on that rationale, the Coalition government was unable to avoid a dramatic increase in energy prices!
Malcolm Turnbull’s performance on climate change has been truly bizarre. At the launch of the ‘Beyond Zero Emissions’ Stationary Energy Plan in Sydney in 2010 he said that humans were ‘conducting a massive science experiment with this planet’ that may be ‘catastrophic’, that ‘extreme weather events are occurring with greater and greater frequency’, and that ‘these trends are entirely consistent with climate-change forecasts [and] with the climate models the scientists are relying on’. He concluded that ‘The zero-emission future is absolutely essential if we are to leave a safe planet to our children and the generations that come after them’. However, by 2016 Turnbull had repudiated nearly all of these statements and was vigorously espousing diametrically opposed views. For this wishy-washy chameleon, the retention of the prime ministership proved much more important than the future of our grandchildren. Turnbull destroyed the initial faith that many people had in him and turned out to be just another, rather grubby, politician.
The second realm of villainy concerns a section of the Australian media. In his 2018 collection of essays On Borrowed Time, Robert Manne demonstrates the highly destructive role that the Murdoch press in general, and The Australian newspaper in particular, played in championing the cause of climate-change deniers. Manne carefully documents the way in which The Australian, under the decade-long editorship of Chris Mitchell, rendered great disservice to the cause of explanation and education and inflicted significant damage on our nation through its protracted war on climate science. To quote Manne: ‘In the real world, scientists accepting the climate consensus view outnumbered denialists by more than ninety-nine to one. In the Alice in Wonderland world of Chris Mitchell’s Australian their [climate scientists] contributions were outnumbered ten to one’.
The third type of villain concerns a strongly denialist Australian scientist. Mining geologist Ian Plimer, a competent if not distinguished scientist in his own field, fancied himself a climate scientist but overestimated his ability in producing his 2009 book, Heaven and Earth, which contains numerous serious errors and misattributions. It may be noted in passing that Plimer opposed a carbon-trading scheme in Australia and commented that this would probably destroy the mining industry, with which he had a close relationship. Plimer has not only produced a supposedly non-fiction book with numerous errors but also arrogantly refused to engage his critics in any meaningful way to admit, address or retract these errors. The book has been reprinted several times without corrections or admission of errors. It is not feasible to enumerate all the errors here; one important example will have to suffice. Plimer claimed that, ‘volcanoes produce more CO2 than the world’s cars and industries combined’. In fact, scientific estimates show that emissions from volcanoes on land over the past fifty years produced less than 1 per cent of the volume of total global emissions from human sources. Inclusion of underwater volcanoes does not help Plimer’s case because the net movement of carbon dioxide is from the atmosphere to the ocean, not vice versa.
This issue of volcano emissions was taken up in a 2009 ABC TV debate between Guardian journalist George Monbiot and Plimer, moderated by Tony Jones. Jones asked Plimer whether he stood by his claim about volcanoes. Instead of giving a simple, civilised reply, Plimer resorted to the miserable device of pulling rank, saying, ‘I’m heartened that a journalist [meaning Monbiot] is correcting me on my geology’. David Karoly, in his 2009 review of Plimer’s book in Australian Physics, concluded: ‘Given the errors, the non-science, and the nonsense in this book, it should be classified as science fiction in any library that wastes its funds buying it’. Nonetheless, Heaven and Earth has given succour to denialists like Abbott and to his ilk overseas. In 2015 Plimer authored a further book on climate change, Heaven and Hell, a diatribe directed against Pope Francis’s enlightened encyclical, Laudato Si’, and produced in haste to ensure publication before the UN Climate Change Convention in Paris in December of that year. It repeats the untruth that ‘Volcanoes add far more CO2 to the oceans and atmosphere than humans’. As recently as 3 June 2018 the Murdoch media were still peddling rubbish about volcano emissions, with special reference to the recent eruptions on Hawaii, via Chris Kenny on Sky News. Plimer has done a great disservice to climate science and to future generations.
In world history momentous new truths have often been most unwelcome—think of the reception to Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859. John Milton (1643) went further: ‘Truth never comes into the world but like a bastard, to the ignominy of him that brought her birth’. As contemporary evidence of this, the denialist camp has engaged in a protracted campaign of character assassination against climate scientists. Ruthless attacks, even death threats, have been mounted against several US climate scientists, especially James Hansen. Australian climate scientists have not been exempt. My heart went out to Joëlle Gergis as I read in her book the ordeal to which she had been subjected. She received hate mail and was the subject of a campaign aimed at discrediting climate science, and her reputation. It was only the steadfast support of her mentor, atmosphere scientist David Karoly, and that of other friends and colleagues that kept her going. Janette Lindesay and Will Steffen of the Australian National University have likewise been subjected to hate mail.
The common argument that because Australia is responsible for only 1.3 per cent of total global greenhouse-gas emissions we don’t need to act is a very egocentric and uncaring one. Many countries generate less than 2 per cent of global emissions, but the total emissions for such countries account for about 40 per cent of the global figure. New Zealand’s emissions are much smaller than ours, but its governments have done much more than we have about climate change, and now a Zero (2050) Carbon Act is under active consideration there. A degree of national altruism may be required in meeting our ethical responsibility to be a good global citizen. In this respect countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Germany are setting a good example. Australia should be far more considerate of our Pacific island neighbours, most of whom are facing catastrophic rises in sea levels and enormously destructive cyclones. To address these concerns Pacific leaders met from 24 to 29 July 2018 in Suva at the second annual Climate Action Pacific Partnership (CAPP) conference. Here Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, expressed deep concern and impatience in relation to the lack of progress in curbing climate change. He said that the latest projections were that temperatures would rise as much as 3ºC over the next century and added: ‘We cannot let that happen because it would spell the end of our way of life forever’. Unlike some aspects of climate change, with sea-level rise there are no winners.
Climate-change apathy is accompanied by a dark cynicism and a pitiless abandonment of future generations. Jim Flynn in his 2016 book No Place to Hide said: ‘Those who calculate that they will die before the point of no return and care nothing about the next generation…have declared war on humanity. They will ignore the wellbeing of the people of the future just as they ignore the misery of the people of the present’. Our grandchildren will come to curse and despise them. There is evidence that many young people are already smart enough to realise that their future is being placed in jeopardy by the recklessness of today’s adults. ANU research shows that 89 per cent of Australian year 7 students are worried about climate change, compared with 63 per cent of adults. It is also significant that we have a vigorous Australian Youth Climate Coalition but no corresponding seniors’ coalition.
Australia’s ‘godfather’ of corals and coral-reef ecology, Charlie Veron, has a house on the outskirts of Townsville located near a river and next to a large fig tree, which was once a pot plant in his office at the Australian Institute of Marine Science. In the evenings he likes to sit in a swinging chair and watch flocks of birds flying overhead and to listen to the diverse sounds of nature. He should be at peace with the world, but he isn’t. This is what disturbs him:
Nowadays, night takes away the river if the moon fails and brings with it the dark thoughts that plague me. Super-cyclones the likes of which I have never seen before impinge upon us, and the river I love could come threateningly close, yet I know that future climates could see it run dry for years. Science has revealed the facts of the matter and they are starkly clear; there will be no better future without drastic action on climate change. I will not be taken by surprise, but most of my countrymen will. The worst heat, fires, droughts and floods on record have already taken place in my fig tree’s lifetime, and in just that blink of an eye we have lost half the world’s coral colonies, and reefs everywhere are stressed.
If what I have written causes you any concerns about your grandchildren and their future, DO SOMETHING. Perhaps you could start by reading Sunburnt Country, which Nobel Prize winner Peter Doherty says is ‘A book that should be read by every Australian’. Then, armed with the facts, get to work on your local MP, or give financial support or make a bequest to an appropriate climate-change organisation such as the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, or the Climate Council, which receives no government funding.