For some, it takes time for the penny to drop

Scientists have done the heavy lifting on climate change. Now the Australian government chooses to ignore their findings. [19 November 2013 | Peter Boyer]

From The Saturday Evening Post, 1 July 1950

Sixty-three years ago, on 1 July 1950, the popular US weekly magazine The Saturday Evening Post featured a long article under the heading, “Is the world getting warmer?”

Promising to reveal “startling facts” from world-wide weather surveys, the article, by journalists Albert Abarbanel and Thorp McClusky, documented the musings of a leading climatologist from Sweden, Hans Ahlmann.

“If older people say that they have lived through many more hard winters in their youth, they are stating a real fact,” Ahlmann said in the article, which documented a long list of “mysterious changes” happening to Earth’s climate since the early 1920s.

There were receding glaciers, a retreat of Arctic sea ice, longer summers in Greenland and a “rift” in the island’s ice sheet, the 1930s “Dust Bowl” droughts, early spring thaws in Maine, snowless winters in New York and evaporating lakes in the US and Africa. And changing patterns of life: new bird migration patterns, Atlantic cod found in Arctic waters for the first time, the appearance of woody plants in places previously thought too cold for them.

The questions came thick and fast. “May we expect giant sequoias and ginkgo trees to bloom again in the Arctic, as they did 60 million years ago?… flourishing cities in Northern Greenland, coal, lead, copper, silver, gold and uranium mines, oil fields and fisheries in Antarctica?”

Ahlmann said that the warming began early in the 19th century and had been accelerating rapidly since around 1920.” It was no “brief, superficial change” but something much more permanent, “perhaps a millennium or more of balmier climate”. It all sounded pretty good.

Finally the big question: What might have caused this outbreak of warming? The authors consulted another Swede, a meteorologist named Carl-Gustav Rossby. The most plausible explanation, said Rossby, was some change in the activity of the sun. “It may be that more ultraviolet light is being produced. Such an increased production of ultraviolet light might affect the upper atmosphere and so make the climate warmer.”

Like everyone, scientists can get into a rut. Rossby was a giant in his field, remembered today by the “Rossby wave”, an Arctic weather phenomenon. But he couldn’t see that the key to the warming problem was not out there on the sun but literally under his nose, in the air he breathed.

The atmosphere’s capacity to trap infrared radiation had been known since the 1820s. What wasn’t known was the relative strength of this “greenhouse effect” and its power to change the climate.

The solution was pretty well nailed within a few years of the Post article. Puzzled by the continuing warming, physicists such as Gilbert Plass, Hans Suess and David Keeling did the calculations that showed how and why increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the air could change our climate.

Rossby and other top scientists overlooked greenhouse warming back in 1950, so it’s no surprise that so many lesser mortals have done the same ever since. Appearances can deceive. We can’t see the air, which is often cold, but we can see the sun, which is always warm.

I’ve often written about the complexity of climate, about the huge array of global and local influences in play. But in one sense, it’s not complex at all. At the heart of the global greenhouse theory is relatively straightforward mathematics.

After the sums were done in the 1950s, it took time for the theory to catch on. Back in the sixties, seventies and eighties, many scientists were as sceptical about it as the rest of us. A veteran Tasmanian physicist told me last week about his own experience in those times. Initially, he and his colleagues all dismissed the idea of greenhouse warming as completely outlandish. Then they did the calculations, and the results were clear. For each of them the penny dropped.

In Warsaw, the 19th UN climate conference is wrestling with the huge ramifications of these calculations. Delegates were shocked and dismayed last week at the news that Japan is abandoning its pledge to cut emissions by 25 per cent by 2020. Instead it will be increasing them.

Given this, what hope is there of anything better from Australia? None, if last week is any guide, when the federal government refused to consider raising our very modest pledge of a 5 per cent cut unless others locked in a commitment to raise theirs. Confirming this last week, environment minister Greg Hunt claimed that his party had always said that a stronger Australian target depended on binding commitments from others. But until last week the word “binding” had never appeared in Liberal Party statements.

Hunt shrugged this off, but the signal was clear in Warsaw. Another signal: at the weekend Abbott said he would not support a fund to help small island countries deal with climate impacts. The government’s claim to support climate action is now so thin you can see right through it.

International agreements happen because countries take a lead and make concessions. Negotiations for the remarkable 1959 Antarctic Treaty, for instance, would have failed had it not been for a bold initiative by Australia that led to big concessions from the United States and the Soviet Union.

No such leadership today. Not only is Australia backing away from all pretence to international initiative, we didn’t even send a political representative to the Warsaw meeting. For all his protests to the contrary, Greg Hunt is now a co-conspirator in a deliberate retreat from climate action. Abbott and most of his front bench have no sense of urgency about it because unlike the physicists they haven’t done the sums, or opened their ears to people who have.

They ignore scientists’ genuine fears about the consequences of inaction. They refuse to look at the evidence. They seem to enjoy walking with a blindfold. I certainly don’t.

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