The personal experience of the floods and watching the effects of Cyclone Yasi haven’t altered my views on climate change, which are based on a large accumulation of scientific evidence, so that one or two additional data points should have only a marginal confirming effect. But they have changed my personal attitude to those who persist in obstructing action to mitigate climate change. My piece in Thursday’s Fin (over the fold) was a final appeal to any of them still accessible to reason, but I haven’t seen any evidence that it had any effect.
Like thousands of others, I was affected by the recent floods in Brisbane, losing a car and some other possessions. Many others were hit far worse, in what seemed certain to be the worst natural disaster Australia would face for some time. Now, only a few weeks later, we are waiting anxiously for the arrival of cyclone Yasi, hoping that family and friends in North Queensland will emerge unscathed. By the time this column appears, Yasi will have wreaked havoc along hundreds of kilometers of the coast and far inland.
The only thing that will make the damage from this massive cyclone less than it might have been is that we have had plenty of warning. Weather satellites detected dangerous cloud formations last week, and the computer models of the Bureau of Meteorology predicted the likely path of what became cyclone Yasi, even before the cyclone pattern formed.
Of course, cyclones behave erratically and don’t always follow the predicted path as Yasi has done. But anyone who received the Bureau’s warning would have been foolhardy to ignore it. Anyone who justified such a course of action on the basis that ‘it’s only a model’ would be, quite simply, a fool.
Tragically, while only a few people have been silly enough to ignore the Bureau’s warnings about this cyclone, a great many have ignored equally dire warnings about the long-term impacts of climate change, including more extreme weather events.
The grounds for ignoring the warning have ranged from silly to outright offensive. Absurd talking points about statistical significance are promulgated on the Internet and then recirculated by people who wouldn’t know a t-statistic if it bit them. Climate models that have successfully predicted the warming of the last two or three decades are dismissed as spurious. Worse still the Bureau and other bodies have been accused of faking or fudging data to promote their case for motives that range from the venal (more funding for climate research) to the sinister (obscure plots for global domination). Such an accusation of fraud against the Bureau was published by the Melbourne Herald-Sun website only last week.
This is not happening because there is any genuine doubt about the accuracy of the warnings given to us by our own Bureau of Meteorology or other climate researchers around the world. Every major scientific organization in the world has endorsed the mainstream consensus view of climate changed, shared by the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. Most of those questioning the science lack the knowledge to understand even basic issues like the statistical significance of trends in time series or the fundamentals of the greenhouse effect. Worse, they haven’t bothered to learn.
Tragically, this vital issue has been ensnared in the pointless and long-running culture wars waged by segments of the political right in Australia and other English-speaking countries. The dangers of climate change, and the need for immediate and effective action to mitigate it, are conflated with the real or imagined faults of greenies, gays, Al Gore and the left in general. The whole debate is conducted in terms of the silly pointscoring and namecalling that characterises the culture wars as a whole.
But surely, in the wake of the recent run of disasters, we can, as a nation, get past this silliness. Whether or not the current events have been exacerbated by climate change, and whether or not the scientific evidence is absolutely conclusive, can anyone honestly deny that injecting massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that drives our climate is an absurdly risky thing to do?
Of course, Australia cannot achieve much acting alone. But we could be doing much more, both by example and through advocacy than we are at present. We need to begin by recognising that Australia has much more to lose through continued destabilisation of our climate than we have to gain by stretching out the period over which we can continue to burn and export coal in effectively unlimited quantities.
In the light of recent and impending climatic disasters, it’s time for the spoilers to stop playing culture war games and focus on the most cost-effective ways of reducing CO2 emissions.
Finally, let me express my hope that, as you read this, Yasi has proved less damaging than expected, and that the precautions taken against this disaster will have prevented the loss of life that might otherwise have been expected, and gone at least some way to reducing the inevitable destruction of property.