A hero of science gets his due reward

Among climate scientists John Church is a global leader who has laboured over decades to understand sea level rise. Now that labour has been properly rewarded.

John Church during his CSIRO years

The huge contribution by Hobart oceanographer John Church to the world’s understanding of how our sea levels are changing has at last got the broad global recognition it richly deserves.

This month the Spanish BBVA Foundation announced Church as one of three joint winners in the climate change category of its 2019 Frontiers of Knowledge Award. Worth €400,000 ($A636,000), the award’s global reputation approaches that of the Nobel Prize.

The two others sharing the award are French geodesist Anny Cazenave, who specialises in satellite altimetry, and British climatologist Johnathan Gregory, a specialist in ocean heat uptake and climate sensitivity. Both have collaborated with Church in sea level studies.

Church had earned a place at the top of world oceanography and climate science long before CSIRO, the organisation he had served all his working life, shocked the world scientific community by declaring him redundant during a purge of climate science positions in 2016.

Now the same community has given him an emphatic thumbs-up. This quiet achiever would never say it, but after that experience the Frontiers of Knowledge Award must be especially gratifying.

Church quickly moved on, accepting a professorship offered to him by the University of NSW. As a senior research scientist with the university’s Sydney-based Climate Change Research Centre, he is able to continue living in Hobart.

Born in 1951, Church was raised and educated in Gympie, Queensland. He studied physics and oceanography at the University of Queensland, completing a PhD on water circulation in Moreton Bay, and in 1978 took up a marine science position with CSIRO in Cronulla, NSW.

In 1981 CSIRO moved its marine laboratories to Hobart. Church had to choose between Hobart, taking up a marine science position in Townsville or staying in Sydney without a job. He took the cooler option, moving to Tasmania in 1982 with his wife, Majnun, a doctor.

His focus widened to the global ocean during a six-month stint in the US, at Woods Hole Research Centre near Boston. A significant turning point in his career came in 1988 when he attended a seminar given by Graeme Pearman, later the leader of CSIRO’s atmospheric research program.

Originally trained as a biologist, Pearman identified climate signals as early as the 1970s when he noted species’ responses to changing rainfall patterns. As a leading climatologist he gave climate change briefings to prime ministers Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard.

Pearman’s concerns rubbed off on to Church, whose studies of Pacific Ocean warming led him to investigate how this might affect sea levels. In 1991 he published with three other authors “A model of sea-level rise caused by ocean thermal expansion”. His star was rising and his course was set.

Ever the scientist, Church treated the hypothesis of human-induced warming as simply that. But mounting evidence through the 1990s persuaded him to agree to be a co-lead author for the sea level chapter of the third UN international climate science report released in 2001.

The scientific reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (there are five so far) are huge intellectual achievements. For the most recent (published 2014), in which Church also had a key role, over 600 contributing authors and 1000 expert reviewers dealt with 9200 scientific papers.

Each of those cited papers is an achievement in itself, and Church’s own name featured prominently among them. His published output is prodigious. Since that most recent IPCC report he has authored or co-authored 50-odd papers or book chapters, an average of about eight a year.

Church has been a central figure among many scientists from all over the world whose combined efforts have helped identify key causes of sea level rise, improve measuring techniques including precise satellite altimetry and identify the role in all this of human activity.

Their analysis is hugely complex. It draws on evidence from ancient coastal geology, centuries of tidal measurement, 25 years of precise satellite observations and high-powered computer modelling of past, present and future change.

They have found that seas are not just rising, but rising at an accelerating rate. Their projections for 2100 if emissions remain high are for an average rise between 0.5 and 1 m, at a rate increasing from today’s 3.5 mm a year to more than 10 mm a year.

Church emphasises the uncertainty in these estimates because of what we still don’t know about the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Collapse of marine-based ice in Antarctica, for example, would likely push sea levels several tenths of a metre higher this century.

In both Antarctica and Greenland, says Church, we are already uncomfortably close to thresholds leading to many metres of sea level rise over coming centuries. Current research in Greenland is uncovering unexpectedly large rates of ice decay in the island’s west.

It’s hard to overstate the potential impact of such changes. Millions of people in low-lying countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam will be forced off their land. Other countries with coasts, including Australia, will have to deal with massive and expensive adjustments in coastal management.

So what should we do? We obviously have to adapt to substantial change that we cannot avoid, says Church, requiring a lot of planning at local and regional levels.

But if we want to avoid catastrophe we have to cut emissions, and this must be “significant, urgent and sustained… substantially more than Australia’s (and the world’ s) current commitments.”

John Church’s great achievement, acknowledged by his peers, has passed the government by. If our political masters can’t learn to listen to these heroes of science, we will all bear a heavy cost.

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Wanted: a national birthday we can all enjoy

What exactly do we celebrate on 26 January, and why?

“The Founding of Australia by Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788.” Watercolour by Algernon Talmadge R.A, 1937. COLLECTION State Library of NSW

Another Australia Day, another fracas. Once, when it was always the last Monday in January, we ate our sausages and never gave a thought to the First Fleet, but not any more.

In the lead-up to the Bicentenary in 1988, Canberra decided that it had to be massive. All government people – especially those like me working with history – were strongly encouraged to get on board. At the time I was on the payroll of the Port Arthur Conservation Project.

Writing a film script about Port Arthur, I found myself comparing our bicentenary with an earlier one. On 4 July 1976 the United States celebrated 200 years since the American colonies declared their independence from Britain.

But we had no declaration of independence. In 1788 it wasn’t a nation that was born but a penal colony. Battling to explain the significance of the Bicentenary and Port Arthur, I came up with this:

“Two centuries ago, an old, old land and its people were visited by an alien race, travellers from a place unbelievably distant.

“The strangers brought with them no grace or goodwill, no blessings or benefits. Their gifts to the land they claimed as theirs were their own social outcasts, the people they did not want.

“The newcomers seemed to fear this vast land they would call Australia. They clung to the coast, at first settling on a harbour they named Port Jackson, then slowly spreading to other coastal enclaves.

“Yet their spread was relentless; their effect profound and irrevocable. And within fifty years on a remote southern shore they had created the place that was to become the pre-eminent symbol of this invasion that transformed a continent.”

I was questioned about calling it an “invasion”, but my masters let it stand because they didn’t know what else to call it. Knowing that humans were already living here in 1788, it’s a struggle to explain why 26 January, important as it is, is something to celebrate.

When NSW premier Henry Parkes took charge of Sydney’s 1888 centennial party he said he wanted everyone involved. Someone asked whether that included Aborigines. “And remind them that we have robbed them?” he retorted.

How should we respond to such an obvious truth? The Australian Natives’ Association, which 100 years ago was the main driver of a national day on 26 January, chose to believe that Aboriginals were a dying race and therefore irrelevant to the nation’s story.

To join ANA you had to be a white man born here. A 1910 ANA badge bore the slogan “Australia for the Australians”, with the words “White Australia” written over a map of the continent.

The ANA’s platform of an independent federation was based on the firm belief that Australia began with the arrival of the British. That was the message which the 150th anniversary parade through Sydney in 1938 sought to press home.

As Australia Day historian Elizabeth Kwan noted, participants in this massive event included 26 Aboriginal people brought from outback NSW “to act out Aboriginal resistance to the British landing, and to pose on the first float in the pageant”.

That formula – a re-enactment in which Aboriginal people greeted the British and bowed to their authority – became the standard for Sydney’s Australia Day ceremonies in later years.

But there was another event in the same city on that day in 1938. Members of the Aborigines Progressive Association met in George Street to declare a “Day of Mourning”.

The group struck out at “the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years” and the use of “the whitemen’s seizure of our country” as a basis for celebration. Though oppressed, marginalised and deprived of citizenship, these people refused to remain silent.

For years we never questioned the origins of the 26 January holiday, or its impact on Aboriginal people. Now the wheel has turned, and we are having to confront what the date means to those first Australians. Some are bemused at this, others angry, but it will never go away.

The only official response to Aboriginal disquiet about the date in recent years has been the decision by a handful of local councils not to hold citizenship ceremonies on 26 January. Now the federal government plans to force all local councils to mark and support this now-contentious date.

Coercing local authorities to join in may be a sure way to win a battle, but it will surely lose the war. Invoking the law against actions of conscience, far from making them go away, will only make them more likely. Our national birthday is going to remain a bone of contention.

Scott Morrison has already put his finger on the problem, if unwittingly. A month into his prime ministership he said that “the course of the nation changed” on that day in 1788, acknowledging that a nation existed before 1788. That earlier Australia is now demanding to be heard.

Far better that the government accepts this issue as genuine, stops pretending 26 January is sacrosanct and starts looking for a birthday we can all share, one that doesn’t celebrate dispossession. Because until we do we will remain a fractured nation, and a lesser one.

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The emissions that no-one talks about

The climate impact of flying is already significant, but it’s set to get bigger.

That exotic holiday is costing more than we think. PHOTO Qantas

“Things are going great for airlines worldwide,” says Jason Rabinowitz, a self-described “aviation geek” based in New York.

Rabinowitz reports that the industry expects travel demand to grow by six per cent in 2019, and that aircraft makers are inundated with thousands of orders. Aviation is now bigger, richer, sexier, more popular than it ever was.

This is all very exciting. No-one is immune from the allure of air travel – bustling airports and big jet engines, the lure of exotic places and the power to be transported there in a matter of hours. It has become so entrenched in our culture that for some it’s almost routine.

The bug is catching everywhere. Business and leisure travel in China, India, Brazil, Russia and other developing economies has driven a doubling in airline passenger numbers world-wide since 2005, to a mind-numbing 4.3 billion bums on seats in 2018, or nearly 12 million every day.

Industry projections have numbers doubling again by the late 2030s, driven by rising Asian middle-class incomes and cheaper fares, a result of competition and more fuel-efficient planes.

All of which explains the huge demand for new airliners. Hundreds of them are being added to fleets every year. A single Boeing model is now being produced at the rate of 1.4 planes every day, and the company expects to come close to two per day in 2019.

This kind of exponential growth is the dream of every government minister and company executive, including tourism leaders like Luke Martin, CEO of Tasmania’s Tourism Industry Council.

Before the Gell River fire became page one news, Martin wrote a prescient article for the Hobart Mercury last year highlighting the negative impact of wildfire on tourism. In the article he declared his industry’s support for wilderness values and the need for more climate-savvy tourism policy.

One extension of this discussion would be to look at the impact of tourism on the environment. Martin pointed out that the industry is aware of local impact and seeks to minimise it. But it would seem less aware of another impact, more widespread and more insidious.

The booming aviation industry is powered by fossil fuel. Last year, air flights globally consumed 288 million tonnes of it, emitting 907 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, or 29 tonnes every second.

Taking account of the high-altitude impact of these emissions, this amounts to at least 2.5 per cent of the total from all sources. The industry claims the figure is around 2 per cent, but either way that proportion is only going to grow as other sources diminish, such as coal-fired electricity.

There are some mitigating factors. New aircraft today are about 10 per cent more fuel-efficient than those made in 2010, and under a global scheme starting this month the industry has agreed that from 2021 to 2035 it will offset 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, or 173 million tonnes a year.

But given that air traffic is expected to be double today’s level within two decades, these developments cannot cut emissions. Slowing their rate of growth is the best we can hope for.

International aviation is governed by a 74-year-old convention that exempts it from the government fuel taxes that apply to other transport modes. The same hands-off-aviation approach saw the industry excluded from climate agreements, including Kyoto in 1997 and Paris in 2015.

Last October’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on limiting warming raised the unsolved problem of aviation emissions, but offered little in the way of a solution other than replacing short-haul flights with very fast electric trains.

We all must bear some responsibility. For the record, in the past decade I have flown to overseas destinations six times, raising the awkward matter of hypocrisy. But I am slowing down, and although there are many foreign places I’d still like to see, I’ll be content if I see none of them.

Obviously I and millions of others should fly less often and over shorter distances, inform ourselves of aviation’s carbon footprint and pay more for effective offsets. Preferably we should stop flying altogether and use alternatives such as land or sea transport, video conferences and local holidays.

But this won’t happen at scale without some sort of coercion, and cheap flights have made that all but impossible. Picture the result: would-be travellers, egged on by tourism, aviation and all manner of opposing political and corporate interests, venting their fury on hapless governments.

Besides, politicians, business leaders and all the other string-pullers are personally addicted to aviation, for both their convenience and, as they would say, their nation’s economy. Short of climate catastrophe, there can be no resolution to this until we learn to fly without fossil fuel.

Mass air travel is cognitive dissonance writ large. We continue to take to the skies in numbers while being fully aware that it helps significantly to destabilise the climate. No wonder everything to do with climate change is so intractable.

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