Taking the temperature of climate scientists, part 2
Taking the temperature of climate scientists, part 2
Just metres from the water’s edge, under palm trees, tropical drink in hand, perfect weather. Of course it is North Queensland where holiday-makers like me blissfully nudge the shoreline alongside resorts and housing and business complexes. But scientists warn the shoreline is about to push back, catastrophically.
Think of the Maldives, that Indian Ocean idyll which could be wiped out by rising sea levels due to global warming by the end of the century. Maldives President, Mohamed Nasheed, recently announced plans to hold an underwater cabinet meeting to plead for global action to slash greenhouse gas emissions. That’s right – he and his ministers will don scuba skins to meet six metres under the ocean using hand signals and a whiteboard to communicate. Talk about a photo opportunity.
Many beloved parts of Australia’s coastline could face a similar fate – but scientists here say they’re struggling to get their message across. They joke that one of the most depressing places you can be is the morning tea room of a climate research centre. It must have been pretty bleak last Tuesday when the latest Lowy Institute poll revealed Australian concern about climate change as a foreign policy issue had slipped from number one in 2007 to a lowly seventh place. No ribbons for that result.
So what’s happening? Are sceptics having a serious impact? Is the drawn-out argy bargy over the proposed emissions trading scheme anesthetising public engagement? Have scientists failed to cut through because they’ve been too cautious or too inaccessible? Perhaps they need marketing advice from Mr Nasheed.
A couple of recent US books argue that scientists need to loosen their lab coats. Unscientific America by Chris Mooney urges young scientists to undertake communication courses. While the title of Randy Olson’s Don’t be SUCH a Scientist speaks for itself. (It has chapters called ‘Don’t Be So Cerebral’, ‘Don’t Be Such a Poor Storyteller’ and ‘Don’t Be So Unlikeable.’)
As previewed last week, here’s a sample of how some of the world’s leading climate change scientists who live in Australia are feeling as we hurtle towards the Copenhagen climate summit in just six weeks:
MONASH UNI, Amanda Lynch: What I am sensing right now is a very high level of anger and frustration particularly at the ‘sceptics’ who continue to derail the discussion. That frustration is probably at the forefront, and from many I’ve heard a real sense that to play the nay-sayer in the face of such serious consequences is deeply unethical. I’ve heard this directed both at scientists of various stripes and at members of the press
MELBOURNE UNI, David Karoly: The part that really concerns me is the separation between what the science says are the emission reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change, however that is defined, and what the politicians think needs to be done. A decision to wait is not a decision to do nothing; it is a decision to continue emissions at ever growing levels, which commits the Earth to ever more dangerous climate change.
CSIRO, James Risbey: With each passing year, my sense is that the issue is more urgent than I used to think it was. That is, the more we know about the interactions of climate warming with the biosphere, the more likely seem feedbacks of greenhouse gases from the biosphere. The more that is known about the current and past response of the major ice sheets to warming, the more apprehensive I become about them breaking down. The point at which we might commit to irreversible melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets seems closer with progressive assessments. What once seemed like a distant prospect suddenly feels like it could be inevitable. Some of my colleagues feel that we are already committed to melting the Greenland ice sheet, bearing in mind how close we are now and how little progress has been made in reducing emissions. I prefer to emphasize the fact that we can still avoid committing to these impacts, but it will take serious action in the here and now.
UNSW, Andy Pitman: I guess I am (a) pleased to see some progress while (b) depressed by the lack of recognition of the scale of the problem. Debating 15 per cent or 25 per cent or 30 per cent cuts misses the point that we need 60-80 per cent ASAP and even that is not 100 per cent "safe".
CSIRO, Michael Raupach: As for how I’m feeling: hard to summarise, but one word that covers some of it is ‘stretched’ … by the emerging gap between what the science says is necessary and what is humanly possible. Any way you look at it, there is now a nearly unbridgeable gap between emissions reductions needed to avoid 2 or even 2.5 degrees of warming and the reductions that can actually be achieved – not only because of the slowness of politics but also because the required reduction rates are approaching levels that can’t be done technically, let alone economically and culturally.
ANU, Will Steffen: I’m probably not as depressed as some of my colleagues. From a longer term perspective, we’ve come a long way in just five years and certainly in the last 10 years in terms of recognition of the issue. It has become a mainstream issue. The critical time is the next 10 years. We’ll have to be on top of the problem by then. Probably the most important challenge is getting a common way forward among the world’s richest and poorest countries. The climate change problem can’t be solved without solving the equity/development problem as well.
ADELAIDE UNI, Barry Brook: I think Copenhagen is doomed as an effective negotiating forum for carbon emissions reduction. I strongly suspect that even if we get ‘agreement’ to make cuts, it will be lip service only, like Kyoto turned out to be, with individual nations continuing to do what they perceive to be in their best interest. What is really now required is a very strong technology push, to commercialise and deploy energy systems that have the beneficial features of fossil fuels, but are as cheap, or potentially, cheaper. I can only realistically see nuclear power as doing that.