It's happening - just like climate scientists said it would
'Science is telling us that extreme weather events now happen more often.' Photo: Glann Campbell
In South Australia for a summer break, I saw an advertised opportunity for a game of golf at the famous Royal Adelaide Golf Club. So I put my name down to play on Monday, January 7.
In hindsight, it was probably not a smart move; the temperature in the shade reached 41 degrees as I finished my round in the blazing Adelaide sun. Wary of the risks of dehydration, I had consumed four litres of water and sports drinks on the course. I was still able to empty two of the largest glasses the clubhouse bar could provide as I recovered from the experience.
Of course, it has always been hot in Adelaide in summer. There have been days over 40 degrees every year since we abandoned the old Fahrenheit scale that gave us more impressive readings of over 100 degrees. Tasmania is recovering from dreadful fires and the heatwave in New South Wales is producing bushfire conditions described as catastrophic. Again, there have been bad bushfire seasons in the past.
No one extreme event is by itself an indication of climate change. However, we should recognise that the overall pattern of more frequent and more severe extreme events is exactly what climate scientists have been warning about for 25 years.
When I wrote Living in the Hothouse in 2005, the publisher put a striking picture of the 2003 Canberra fires on the cover. He explained his thinking to me. The science is telling us that such events, historically happening once in 100 years, would now happen much more often. That is what global warming is doing. It is increasing the probability of extreme events such as the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday fires or the current conditions in NSW.
For decades now, the insurance industry has recognised the reality of climate change and its costs. As one executive told me at the 1997 Kyoto conference: ''We see the evidence in the red ink on our balance sheet, the result of rapidly increasing property insurance payouts.''
In 1997, most commercial sectors were in denial about climate change, as the fossil fuel industries and their political supporters still are. But those who collect hard data on the consequences of extreme events already knew what was happening.
As Australia recovers from the events of last week, we face a future of increasing average temperatures and more severe extreme events: heatwaves, bushfires, cyclones, floods. It is getting harder to accept the obfuscation and delaying tactics of the fossil fuel interests and their supporters. Some are still saying they doubt the science, even though it has been correctly predicting what would happen for 25 years.
It is a question of risk. Even if we thought there was still some doubt about the science, how much should we be prepared to gamble on the hope that it might be wrong? Nobody would get into a car if they knew there was a 90 per cent chance its brakes or steering would fail and risk their life. Few would be prepared to accept a 10 per cent chance. Even the prime minister warned people in Tasmania of the likely consequences of failing to take concerted action to slow climate change. But we don't yet have a policy response that reflects the urgency of the situation.
We now have a modest price on releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but it should be increased to a level that would drive investment into clean energy supply technologies. We have a target of getting 20 per cent of our electricity from renewables by 2020, but we could do much more with policies to support solar and wind energy. We aim to reduce our national greenhouse gas pollution by a totally inadequate 5 per cent by 2020, whereas we should have a target that reflects the urgency of the situation. We are still exporting hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal and planning to open new large export coal mines, as if we just didn't know that the coal will be burnt and accelerate climate change. A visitor from another galaxy would conclude that we just did not understand the risks we are taking, as if we were all too stupid to have listened to our best atmospheric scientists.
We are now on the UN Security Council, an opportunity to influence global events. As well as getting our own house in order, we should be urging the world to respond. We face a bleak future otherwise.
Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe is president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.