As Tony’s new age dawns, an entirely different one looms

Disdainful of ominous greenhouse warming signs, Tony Abbott’s climate “policy” amounts to little more than ending the carbon tax. [10 September 2013 | Peter Boyer]

Near the Yukon River delta on Alaska’s west coast, the village of Newtok is vanishing.

One by one, the homes of its 300-odd people are disappearing, sinking into mud that was once solid permafrost or dropping into water as a flooding river erodes softening ground. The US Army Corps of Engineers says that by 2017 the whole village is likely to be lost to water or mud.

Shorter winters, erratic snowfall, less sea ice and changing bird, fish and seal behaviour are the story of recent years at Newtok. The people are finding it tougher than ever to live off nature’s bounty, something these hardy folk have done for thousands of years.

Children leap across a gap created by erosion near Newtok, on the Bering Sea coast of Alaska. Climate change is forcing the villagers to evacuate to higher ground. PHOTO BRIAN ADAMS, THE GUARDIAN

Families are having to decide whether they want to continue their traditional life in a new village being built about 15 kilometres to the south, or move to the modern comforts of a larger town. Either way, their lives are being changed forever by a warming climate.

For many such Arctic communities, global warming isn’t some esoteric scientific debating point but an ever-present, in-your-face reality. Sea ice cover, which since 1970 has diminished by about 10 per cent each decade, is just the most visible sign.

Elsewhere, climate change impact may be harder to see, but it’s there. Data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that 2013 has so far been our planet’s sixth warmest year since global surface temperature records began in 1880.

If you’re younger than 37, the average global surface temperature for every year of your life has been warmer than the 20th century average. The last below-average year was 1976.

Last week the Bureau of Meteorology revealed that the year to August 31 has been Australia’s warmest 12-month period on record, surpassing the previous record set in January 2006. It included our hottest summer, our hottest month, our hottest summer day and our warmest winter day.

The mean temperature of every calendar month since September 2012 has been 0.5C or more above average. The warming was continent-wide, with no region recording below-average temperatures.

The record-breaking warming extended to ocean waters, especially off south-eastern Australia. The growing influence of the East Australian Current around Tasmania makes this one of the world’s ocean hotspots, already seriously damaging cold-water fisheries such as scallops.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth scientific report, to be released late this month, will reveal stronger-than-ever evidence that the warming around the planet is the result of human activity, mainly the burning of fossil gas, oil and coal.

The report, the work of more than 830 authors and thousands of peer reviewers, will reveal that scientists are 95 per cent certain that the warming is human-induced, up from 90 per cent in the previous report in 2007, 66 per cent in the 2001 report and about 50 per cent in 1995.

The science behind all this is well-understood. With growing confidence since the 1950s, scientists everywhere have anticipated the warming – except that they once thought it would happen more slowly and that we should be able to contain our carbon dioxide emissions. Not any more.

The best scientific advice available tells us that if the world’s people continue to increase fossil carbon in the air at the present rate of 3 per cent a year, emissions everywhere would need to crash to zero before 2050, and stay there, to avoid passing the danger mark of 2C of warming.

We are heading for a crisis of unimaginable proportions. We’re already in a climate emergency, right now, as a triumphant Tony Abbott takes the helm in Canberra.

But you’d never know it. The state of the climate rated barely a mention in this very wordy election campaign, and the man who is now prime minister took care to avoid it whenever possible.

In a rare departure from that, Abbott told The Conversation’s Michelle Gratton that the scientific debate “is not quite the one-way street that it might have seemed four or five years ago”. This in the face of the IPCC’s advice that the scientific case for man-made warming is stronger than ever.

Abbott’s views are informed not by the real science of research papers or the collective wisdom of IPCC reports, but by the fanciful, wishful thinking of contrarian books and blogsites.

What’s unimaginable for him is not a climate crisis, but recalcitrant Labor senators blocking his perceived mandate. At the National Press Club last week, he warned darkly that it would be “unimaginable” for a defeated Labor Party to oppose abolition of the carbon price.

At the Press Club and later in an ABC 7.30 interview, he said he was confident his alternative carbon mitigation policy, “direct action”, would achieve the bipartisan 5 per cent emissions reduction target by 2020.

Asked whether he’d achieve the target “whatever it takes”, he said he would spend the $3.2 billion allocated, but no more. So the 5 per cent cut is not a commitment, but an aspiration. Effectively he has opted out of the bipartisan target.

Abbott’s claims for his policy don’t stack up against Treasury modelling and independent studies. The most recent of these found that unless the Coalition spent at least another $4 billion to reach the target, emissions in 2020 wouldn’t be 5 per cent lower, but 9 per cent higher.

This is water off a duck’s back. For Abbott, carbon pricing is just a tax, not a climate measure, and man-made climate change is just nerdy-lefty-greenie hysteria. The real purpose of “direct action” is to appease the soft heads among his supporters who might be squeamish about emissions.

No target, no commitment, no concern, no understanding. Nothing. This is what a policy vacuum looks like.

• Two State government climate change grants programs – “Earn Your Stars” for projects to reduce emissions and “Climate Connect” for adaptation projects – are now open for applications. Call 6232 7173 or email climatechange@dpac.tas.gov.au for details.

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