Rain in Greenland is our problem too

The US Summit Station, over 3 km above sea level on Greenland’s ice sheet, is the Northern Hemisphere’s coldest place. Only the higher Antarctic ice sheet is colder.

Field observers expected snow when a storm front approached one day in mid-August, because that was all you ever got in this frigid place where rain had never been recorded. But instead of snow they got several hours of drenching rain.

That day nearly half the surface area of Greenland’s ice sheet was subjected to melting, after a similar-sized melt in July. 2021 is just the second year on record, after the Arctic’s stand-out warm year of 2012, that melting on that scale has happened more than once. 

The Summit event shows that rain can now happen anywhere in Greenland, and that is seriously bad news. A US-German study published in The Cryosphere early last year found that rain is responsible for as much as 70 per cent of Greenland’s ice loss – currently running at around 270 billion tonnes a year.

Added to other indicators of a heating Earth – longer-lasting and deadlier summer heat, melting Arctic permafrost, animals on land and in oceans migrating to cooler places – Greenland’s vanishing ice is undeniable evidence that global warming is gathering pace. As the UN put it this month, its 2021 scientific report is a “code red for humanity”.

Tasmania and Greenland are truly poles apart. In this cool winter after a mild summer, climate change is not exactly on our minds. It’s even possible to imagine us avoiding the worst of it, just as (so far) we’ve managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic. 

Escalating Covid case numbers in south-eastern states are a warning to take nothing in nature for granted. But even in relatively untouched Tasmania, the immediacy of the coronavirus threat makes it hard to focus on anything else.

So it’s no surprise that a motion put to State Parliament by Greens leader Cassy O’Connor last Wednesday, asking it to declare that the state is in a climate emergency, raised little interest outside the three individual MPs who spoke to the motion.

It’s not the first time the Greens have sought such a declaration from parliament, and doubtless won’t be the last. But every time their effort has been stymied by the government standing firm, claiming there is no emergency, and this time was no exception.

Only O’Connor, Labor leader Rebecca White and Liberal Madeleine Ogilvie spoke to the motion. Absent were ministers responsible for climate change (Peter Gutwein), for emissions reduction (Guy Barnett), and for emergency management (Jacquie Petrusma). And Michael Ferguson, responsible for Tasmania’s biggest fossil fuel user, transport.

To an outsider those absences might seem outrageous, but it’s party politics at work. The government was never going to give any oxygen to a debate on climate. Especially premier Peter Gutwein, who having repeatedly declared Tasmania leads the world in cutting emissions would not want such claims opened up to scrutiny.

Tasmania’s effort to cut emissions is actually nothing special, especially when you take account of per capita emissions by our small population, but the premier  keeps claiming otherwise because carbon accounting conventions allow use of imprecise land carbon data to offset emissions. Note that he never refers to those offsets, just our “world leadership”.

Labor has gone along with this charade because it doesn’t want to miss out on any future tactical advantage offered by those accounting conventions, so White passed up the chance last week to call out Gutwein’s claim of reaching net-zero. But without realising it, Ogilvie hit the mark when she called the alleged achievement “incredible”. It is indeed not credible. 

The pandemic proves the premier is capable of grasping an unpleasant reality and acting on it. He knows that current multiple extreme events, including that rain on the Greenland ice sheet, underline that we’re in a climate emergency.

He gave his only response to the emergency motion outside the parliament, saying that the Greens were frightening children. If he had raised the topic in any primary or secondary school classroom, he would know instantly how silly that statement is. Children know the truth, and talk about it. They want action, not bland, baseless reassurance.

This month he did make a move in that direction by setting up the Premier’s Youth Advisory Council. He has not yet revealed its members – doubtless they’ve been carefully chosen – but he might be surprised at their views on a climate emergency.

We live on one planet. Rain at Summit Station, Greenland, is a warning sign for the world. Last time I checked that includes Tasmania.

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