The dangerous times are upon us

Why climate change mitigation needs to have our government’s utmost attention, even in the midst of a pandemic

One more item on a lengthening bad-news list: the World Meteorological Organisation says we can safely assume that at least one of the next five years will be hottest on record and there’s a good chance it will reach the Paris Agreement’s “safe” warming limit of 1.5C.

And another: This year’s peak of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which happens late in May before northern forests start their growing spurt, was 419 parts per million. That’s over 50 per cent above its pre-industrial level and the highest ever recorded at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. 

Despite all the claims by world governments, including ours, to be lowering emissions, and despite the pandemic’s impact on travel as borders closed and cities locked down, there is far more carbon dioxide in the air now than in all the time humans have existed on Earth.

Continuing our present business-as-usual course would make the world 3C to 4C warmer within 80 years. Given that we’re currently dealing with the consequences of just over 1C of warming, that future doesn’t bear thinking about.

At least in the short term a lot of these excessive emissions – wildfires and methane from melting tundra come to mind – are unavoidable. But far more can be done quickly, like cutting fossil fuel use and stopping removal of carbon-rich natural forest, to name two notable Australian failures.

At the start of this century science was saying pronounced warming would happen gradually, allowing time to adapt as we lower global emissions. But the pace of change since 2010 is forcing us to juggle two balls at once – adapting to a warming, less stable climate while trying to slow warming before things gets completely beyond us. 

After deadly drought in eastern Australia, its worst wildfire season on record in 2019-20 and a multi-year “megadrought” in the American west, North America’s 2021 summer is already one for the ages. This year’s fire season seems apocalyptic – a word that is losing impact amid exhausting summers filled with seemingly endless firestorms.

For weeks the US northwest and Canada’s southwest have been really feeling the heat. In late June Portland’s all-time maximum was bettered by five full degrees Celsius. On the same  day, Lytton, a village in British Columbia at 50 degrees latitude, experienced Canada’s all-time high temperature of 49.6C. The next day the village was all but obliterated in a wildfire. 

After posting its second-hottest June on record, Europe has seen temperatures north of the Arctic Circle soar above 40C. Five Middle East countries have had days over 50C. Similar extreme heat rendered 20 Pakistani schoolchildren unconscious. None died, but death rates in all afflicted places rose substantially on the hottest days. 

Then last week, a warm, energetic, moisture-laden atmosphere dumped a massive load of water on western Germany, inundating hapless cities, towns and villages in the Rhine and other river basins of northwest Europe, wrecking infrastructure and killing around 200 people. Shocked survivors couldn’t recall anything like it.

Is this climate change at work? For many people in the US – and here – it remains a matter of personal belief and therefore impolite to talk about. A survey of regional US media coverage of the heat event there found that just six of 150 articles had referred to climate change.

Of course it’s climate change, said German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier after the floods. And scientists, though they still talk of probabilities and the continuing role of “normal” climate variability, are in no doubt that our climate is changing before our eyes.

It’s a far cry from a blazing northern summer to The Lodge and Kirribilli, where Scott Morrison recently spent weeks in quarantine or under lockdown. But if the PM is ever inclined to contemplation, this would have been the time for it. 

Climate change would be low on his thinking list, which is no doubt topped by the pandemic. But if he could only turn his attention from spinning narratives to the big picture, he might see connections between the two, and begin to understand our vulnerability – and that of his government – to forces of nature.

By December Australians should be nearing full vaccination, and the weather gods may give us another mild summer. Alternatively, the North American experience could be ours within six months, in which case nature would be the big issue in the next federal election.

So yes, the PM might learn something from the drought, the fires, the pandemic and the 2021 northern summer. But remember, this was the man who held up the lump of coal.

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