Warming record gets the cold shoulder

Those who govern us are alarmingly indifferent to warming extremes


More heat = less ice: 2016 data from NASA and the US National Snow and Ice Data Center

More heat = less ice: 2016 data from NASA and the US National Snow and Ice Data Center GRAPHS courtesy OpenMind

As I write this, climate monitoring organisations around the world including our own Bureau of Meteorology are assessing where 2016 sits on Earth’s 136-year temperature record.

Very soon the various conclusions will be out. Monthly year-to-date data indicate that 2016 will be the third successive record-warm year, after 2014 and 2015 had each set new highs.

This amazing run of record-breaking global warming is likely to end in 2017, in the absence of the powerful El Niño weather event that dominated conditions in 2015-16. But any lull will be temporary as high greenhouse gas levels continue to drive a relentless upward trend.

Temperature wasn’t the only bad news from 2016. The average extent of sea ice globally – taking in both northern and southern polar regions – was the lowest on record, driven by near-record lows in the Arctic and a dramatic drop in Antarctic sea ice cover from August onward.

We keep hearing about government progress in cutting emissions, but data from air monitoring stations, including Tasmania’s Cape Grim, tell a different story – not just a record high level of CO2 at the end of the year, but a record rate of increase. That’s truly disturbing.

Veteran US physicist James Hansen told an interviewer for the magazine Rolling Stone last month that our only chance of stabilising climate is to reverse the present emissions trend by making deep emission cuts year-on-year, beginning now.

The last time Earth experienced today’s mean temperature, around 120,000 years ago, said Hansen, sea level was six to nine metres higher than now. He added that if warming gets to 2C above pre-industrial levels, seas will eventually rise even higher than that and weather will be dangerously unstable.

Yet our current trajectory has us headed for 3C to 4C of warming, possibly more. Hansen believes the point where an unstable climate causes the global economy to collapse and the world to become ungovernable isn’t far away.

In 1988 Hansen testified before congress about the danger of greenhouse warming. Many scientists consider his projections to be on the high side, but while they sometimes chide him for going out on a limb they don’t reject what he says out of hand. He knows too much for that.

Here’s the thing. A few thousand people on the planet have taken the trouble to develop the tools and skills necessary to work out what’s happening to the climate. Unlike everyone else, they’ve done the sums – and they say that if we don’t change things, we’re cooked.

Most people with power and influence know nothing about the science but feel threatened by the message and pretend they didn’t hear it. Others even declare the message to be wrong, and try to undermine scientists’ credibility. Unfortunately for us all, those tactics are working.

In May 1940, when Nazi Germany had Britain on its knees, Winston Churchill spoke of “an ordeal of the most grievous kind” ahead, for which he could offer only “blood, toil, tears and sweat”.

If we had leaders able to articulate the climate challenge with that kind of courage and honesty we just might secure what is needed: an agreement crossing the full political and social spectrum to do whatever it takes to achieve real, substantial, permanent emission cuts.

But to articulate the challenge you first must understand something about science and its method, and that is in alarmingly short supply among our political and opinion leaders. Instead, we’ve had to put up with wimps and charlatans unprepared to call this for the crisis that it is.

Above all we must end the silence. More dangerous than the outright deniers in political ranks are those who pretend to be on the side of the science and then ignore it, turn away and do nothing.

In Australia, while our political masters see, hear and say nothing, the crazies bang at the gates demanding to be let in. In America the crazies are in already and about to take over the whole show.

The hard-won achievements of science and learning can be all too easily lost. Maybe a short, sharp dose of madness at the top will teach us to appreciate anew the value of sanity, knowledge, thoughtfulness and sweet reason, and commit ourselves to a science-driven regime.

Maybe, but why are we even countenancing such a thing? Why has it come to this?

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