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No need for extra fear in climate change report

Date

Peter Hartcher

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Illustration: John Shakespeare

In the lobby of the Sydney aquarium where the Australian launch of the UN’s latest climate change report was released on Monday is a terrifying great white shark.

The beast measures 7.5 metres long with a razor-toothed mouth so big it could easily swallow a human whole. It looks at least as big as the fibreglass monster used in the movie Jaws.

Thankfully, the aquarium shark is only a model. In real life, the biggest great white ever reliably measured was 6.4 metres. That’s still a whopper; the average mature specimen is four to five metres.

Why make a ridiculously outsized model for an aquarium? For effect, of course, to get the paying public in. Give ‘em a good scare.

Some of the authors of part of the latest climate report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have done something similar:

“In short, human-driven climate change poses a great threat, unprecedented in type and scale, to well-being, health and perhaps even to human survival.”

They might be able to argue the threat to well-being and health, but human survival? A temperature rise, even at the extreme end of projections, of four to five degrees Celsius, does not plausibly threaten homo sapiens with extinction.

The three scientists who wrote this summary for the website The Conversation are Anthony McMichael of ANU, and Colin Butler and Helen Berry of the University of Canberra. They contributed to the report’s chapter on health effects of climate change.

Presumably they’re trying to help the cause of addressing climate change, using outlandish fears to attract attention. More likely they will undermine it by scaremongering.

The two scientists who conducted the report’s Australian launch on Monday, both lead authors of the official IPCC report, would not defend the extinction claim.

One, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, of Queensland University’s Global Change Institute, politely described it as “extreme.”

A credible advocate of action, the Climate Institute’s John Connor, used the same word – “extreme” – when asked what he thought of the claim of the possible extinction of humanity.

Perhaps the three are frustrated by the pace of official action to limit carbon emissions. That’s understandable. The carbon concentration in the global atmosphere hit 400 parts per million last year, the highest in millions of years, according to ice core samples, and continues to rise at an average pace of two parts per million a year.

“We are on an inexorable march to 450 ppm and much higher levels” remarked a NASA scientist and program manager, Michael Gunson. “These were the targets for stabilisation suggested not too long ago. The world is quickening the rate of accumulation of CO2, and has shown no signs of slowing this down.”

The only serious way carbon output can be prudently managed is by the world’s governments.

Global government action has to catch up with change in the planet. But hysteria and exaggeration from concerned scientists won’t help. It will only damage their cause.

The three scaremongers undercut the work of the other scientists, the 309 lead authors and the other 433 contributing authors of Monday’s report.

The overall thrust of the IPCC report is credible and resists overreach.

It projects, for instance, that an extra two degrees of warming could lead to the loss of 2 per cent of global GDP, rather than the 5 per cent forecast by one of the earlier estimates, that of Britain’s Nicholas Stern.

And there’s certainly no need to exaggerate the dangers. The world is on a carbon trajectory for 4 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels.

This will pose “large risks to global and regional food security,” the IPCC warns, and “compromise normal human activities like growing food or working outdoors for some parts of the year.”

And it’s not all about the future; many effects are already upon us. In its annual report on world climate, the World Meteorological Organisation pointed to unusual weather events from Cairo’s first snowfall in a century to the widest US tornado on record.

Every continent, including Antarctica, saw some sort of record-breaking weather. The WMO said no single event could be attributed directly to climate change:

“But many of the extreme events of 2013 were consistent with what we would expect as a result” of man-made climate change, said the organisation’s secretary general, Michel Jarraud.

Its report included, for the first time, a separate sub-section on Australia. It pointed out that national 12-month temperature records were set for the periods ending in three consecutive months last year – in August, another in September, and a third October, topped off by a new record for the calendar year 2013.

These record Australian temperatures were notable because they occurred during a phase of the El Nina cycle that normally brings cooler conditions, not hotter.

Drawing on the work of Sophie Lewis and David Karoly of Melbourne University’s Centre of Excellence on Climate System Science, the report simulated conditions for 13,000 different climate years considering natural factors only.

They found Australia’s record hot 2013 would have been “virtually impossible without human contributions of heat-trapping gases, illustrating that some extreme events are becoming much more likely due to climate change.”

The world’s people need to know the science, so they can demand action from the world’s politicians. For scientists to scaremonger just gives recalcitrant politicians an easy way to laugh them off.

There’s no good reason to jump the shark.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.

205 comments

  • It's the facts that are scary, Peter. No "mongering" is needed.

    As to the amount of permanent heat increase that could constitute a threat to human survival on the planet - how are you qualified to dismiss a particular figure out of hand?

    Commenter
    James
    Date and time
    April 01, 2014, 1:34AM
    • How are you qualified to dismiss the dismissal? You have just made what is called the 'argument from authority'. Meaning, look at these guys in the IPCC, they're really smart, much smarter than us mere mortals, let's trust them! Every individual has to make up his or her mind based on the available evidence. The claim that humanity faces extinction due to the projected warming is utter nonsense.

      Commenter
      Patrick
      Date and time
      April 01, 2014, 5:45AM
    • Are we still here ? When the scientists were talking about 4 degree increases by 2100, didn't they mean nine o'clock last night ?

      James - jokes aside - Peter Hartcher conveys what many of us are concerned about - the stretching of scientific credibility. Besides the examples Hartcher points out, here's some recent commentary in Forbes:

      "The problem for Pachauri and the IPCC is the IPCC’s own scientists, such as Hans von Storch, directly contradict Pachauri’s denialism. And it is not just scientists pointing out Pachaui’s denialism. Even the IPCC’s reliably sympathetic media allies are unwilling to run with Pachauri’s whopper about no recent slowdown in global warming."

      It sounds like Pachauri himself isn't even sure if the science is settled. Many of us believe in climate change but also believe the likes of the IPCC and CCA in Australia have been pushing the barrow too far and suggesting the problem is worse than it is. It does their cause no favour, and cheapens the efforts of the hundreds of scientists who contributed to the IPCC report.

      The truth ? Well it's likely to be somewhere in the middle.

      Commenter
      Hacka
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      April 01, 2014, 6:05AM
    • Yep, no need for hyperbole - enough for concern already.
      Yet, when exploring possible options - and I may have just missed it - when it comes to the issue of world population, they dare not mention its name.
      Surely, an important consideration is the number of people on the planet?
      If worried about climate change, governments will have to address this issue - for long term consequences, how can it be avoided?
      Some initiatives, although driven by laudable motives, will do very little - and are little more than tokenism, although not intended as such.
      'Act local, go global' - to coin a phrase.
      What should be the targets, what is 'appropriate' regarding population - for Sydney, Australia, the world?

      Commenter
      Howe Synnott
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 01, 2014, 6:37AM
    • WOW a 7 year report to tell us that the climate is changing and that may lead to a mass extinction event. Well read the history books and you will find 5 snow ball earths... that's right the entire earth covered in 1km of ice. Also the permia event .... temperature 50 and above.

      What the report did not tell us is that it is the first world lifestyles that is causing the problem. That's right folks YOUR lifestyle is behind those big factors. What the report should of told us is what we would have to give up in the Western world to ensure human impact is minimised. That's right folks no TV, air-conditioning, mobile phones, 2nd car ( in fact no car with an engine size above 1.2L ) forget you holidays and air travel. Now that would of made a news worthy report. But I guess we do not want to hear that, just like we do not want to hear that every Greens senator is in the TOP 5% of CO2 emitters worldwide. Food for thought !

      Commenter
      abc
      Date and time
      April 01, 2014, 6:41AM
    • Agree completely James. The point about human survival arises because the 4 degrees Peter mentions is not the end point but just a conveniently chosen cut off time. Once it reaches 4 degrees it will continue to rise for a very long time even if drastic measures are taken. Feedback cycles where such things as the increasing temperature causing permafrost to thaw which releases ever larger amounts of CO2 and methane can kick in and solutions may no longer be practical. On Earth's twin (by size) Venus these feedback cycles gave rise to an atmosphere which is mostly CO2 and the temperature is high enough to melt lead.

      Commenter
      rickzane
      Date and time
      April 01, 2014, 6:41AM
    • Hacka

      It appears that the LNP are doing its best to look as though they are doing something about CC by introducing the DOA.

      I do not claim to an expert in this field, though all and sundry say that a carbon price / ETS is the way to go even Helen Ridout thinks so too and indeed Tony " say it two times" Abbott does as well.

      However a CP is just one element of tackling a problem that is gaining momentum and is becoming a real political issue,

      To me what it comes down too ( simplistically maybe) is either we do something or we don't it appears that one side of politics "had ago" the other is just paying lip service

      Commenter
      Buffalo Bill
      Location
      Sydneys Northshore
      Date and time
      April 01, 2014, 6:57AM
    • In Australia, addressing the issue of effectively tackling climate change seems to focus solely on whether we support a carbon tax or not. The logic appears ludicrous. A carbon tax, IMO, only makes people feel they are doing something, but clearly it is not going to stop, or even slow down the global problem. A five percent emission reduction is negligible, particularly when countries like India and China are massively increasing their emissions every year. In my view, the solution can only be found through science. I think Governments need to be committing significantly more funding into researching ways to reduce carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Abbott's decision to dismantle the Clean Energy Finance Corporation was bad policy.

      Commenter
      Flanders
      Date and time
      April 01, 2014, 7:41AM
    • Gee, perhaps Peter has noticed that there around 7 billion people living in across a planet in environments with a temperature gradient of more than 40degrees, so I think he's pretty certain that a 4 degree shift won't wipe out the lot. He's also noticed that people have the ability to move quickly, change their local environment, harness energy sources, transport food, employ machinery etc.

      Do you really think you are going to spontaneously die if the average temperature rises by 4deg?
      If you do, don't go for a holiday in Cairns.

      Commenter
      harry
      Location
      Granada
      Date and time
      April 01, 2014, 7:43AM
    • There goes Hacka again quoting the epitome of scientific knowledge, Forbes magazine, as the primary source on climate change, despite it's close links to the energy companies who want to kill off any talk of climate change as it affects their short term financial interests. Gee that's a really credible source!!!!

      Commenter
      Lesm
      Location
      Balmain
      Date and time
      April 01, 2014, 7:59AM

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