Time to be conservative on the climate

Whether it is cavalier ignorance, reckless indifference or subconscious refusal to engage, it’s been a couple of weeks where the failure to even take a conservative risk management approach to the climate data is yet again infuriating, intriguing or downright sad.

This was brought into stark reality by reports from the CSIRO and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the World Meteorological Organisation, experts in the peer reviewed Nature Climate Change and by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

Collectively these reports demonstrated that climate change is real, can only be explained by human activity, is impacting now and will incur greater costs in extreme weather events and ocean acidification. They link current human and economic suffering to climate change occurring now and project much more if we fail efforts on mitigation and adaptation.

Scientists are speaking with growing confidence and alarm about recent unprecedented extreme weather events around the world. Australia’s recent extremes of droughts, fires, cyclones and floods occur against this clarifying backdrop providing a chilling insight into the future that is almost certainly in store for us.

Australia is already a land of weather extremes—droughts, flooding rains. The latest IPCC report from Wednesday indicates that the risks for our communities and industry, our way of live, are undeniable and here to stay.

Climate change does not just mean warmer weather, it means wilder weather, which we have already seen stretch Australian communities and industries to the limit. Rising carbon pollution is loading the climate dice, making extreme events like the Eastern Australian floods, the Black Saturday bushfires, and the recent, extremely hot drought more and more likely.

The Climate Commission has gone through the IPCC report and pulled out the relevant sections for Australia – that summary can be found here. In short, we can expect worsening heat waves, drought, fire, cyclone, and flood risks, as well as a high risk to coastal communities from sea-level rise.

The journal Nature Climate Change on Sunday published research by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact in Germany showing that heat waves and precipitation extremes will increase. The authors look at a list of record breaking extremes and include a table reproduced in reports with Australia’s 2009 heat waves and 2010 floods and their impact. It’s my vote for table of the week:

Source: Coumou, D., Rahmstorf, S. (2012): A Decade of Weather Extremes. Nature Climate Change [DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1452]

In the two weeks prior we saw reports from the World Meteorological Organization that found 2011 to be the 11th warmest year since records began in 1850. It confirmed preliminary findings that 2011 was the warmest year on record with a La Niña, which has a cooling influence.

Domestically there was CSIRO’s State of the Climate 2012 report, which found that the level of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere is at its highest in 800,000 years.

New global temperature analysis by the Met office and the University of East Anglia in the UK shows that the world has warmed more in the last 10 years than previously thought and Oxford researchers found that global average temperatures could rise to 3°C above late 20th century averages by 2050.

Where this leaves us is frightening to consider.

Countries and companies around the world are beginning to find smarter, cleaner and healthier business and economic development. These reports remind us that we need to urgently speed this up as well as increase our work to minimise the human and economic loss from the consequences of climate change that are already happening or are unavoidable.

As Coumou and Rahmstorf conclude in their Nature Climate Change paper:

“In 1988, Jim Hansen famously stated in a congressional hearing that ‘it is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here’. We conclude that now, more than 20 years later, the evidence is strong that anthropogenic, unprecedented heat and rainfall extremes are here – and are causing intense human suffering.”

John Connor is CEO of The Climate Institute.