Horror start to the bushfire season: the recent blaze at Londonderry. Photo: Nick Moir
Understanding science is no longer an optional extra for Australian society. In 21st century democracies, knowledge is an essential currency for wise decision-making, whether it be the risks associated with nuclear energy, the latest ethical implications of medical research, or the role of human activities in changing the Earth's climate. Those societies whose populations have the best scientific understanding often make the wisest decisions.
As the world awaits the release of the latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, there is little doubt that climate change has taken centre stage in the science-policy interface. No other IPCC report has been awaited with such anticipation as this one, as evidenced by the number of leaks that have already found their way into the media.
But these leaks point to one of the challenges of communicating science in the 21st century. Because of the complexity of much of modern science – and climate science is the quintessential example – it is easy to misinterpret, either deliberately or unwittingly, what the scientists are carefully and accurately saying, in their own, somewhat obscure way.
That is where organisations like the now-defunct Climate Commission, and its successor the Climate Council, come in. 21st century society simply needs authoritative, accurate, reliable, nonbiased information on climate change (and other complex science-based issues) to function as a modern democracy. And it needs this information in a way that non-scientists can readily understand.
Let's look at some examples.
For far too long, the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events was erroneously framed as: “Does climate change cause extreme weather events like bushfires, heatwaves and floods?” It took a special IPCC report in 2012, and its interpretation by the Climate Commission and other groups, to reframe the issue to one of “influence”, and not “causation”. The physics, and in many cases the long-term data, were clear. For many extreme events there is already a discernible influence of climate change on their frequency and severity.
Perhaps even more perplexing is the dissonance between the need to rapidly and deeply reduce greenhouse gas emissions to stabilise the climate and the proposed development of massive new fossil fuel energy reserves. Somehow these jarringly incompatible trajectories have sat side-by-side in many governments around the world. Some straightforward mathematics, based on the fundamental physics of the climate system, show unequivocally that most of the world's fossil fuel reserves will have to stay in the ground if we are to stabilise the climate for our children and grandchildren.
But even in the here-and-now, communication of climate science has a critical role to play. Extreme events are already changing as a result of a warmer and wetter atmosphere, and to deny that simple fact unnecessarily increases the challenge that our health system, emergency management authorities and urban and regional planners face in dealing with weather extremes.
Clearly, the communication of climate science has a very strong role to play in the development of sensible policy and in present-day preparedness.
The demise of the Climate Commission is not a good sign for the future of our democracy. In the long term, shooting the messenger never works. The overwhelming support for the Commission's work from the Australian public shows that the need for clear, authoritative, nonbiased information on climate change is stronger than ever.
Will Steffen is the Executive Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute.