Climate debate burning fiercely


Peregian bushfire image by Rob Maccoll

As we prepared to move from the Sunshine Coast hinterland after 17 years, the air was full of bushfire smoke, dust and haze from an early, hot start to spring. It blew a gale up there for the best part of a week; strong south-westerlies, the last thing you need in an early bushfire season.

Multiple properties were lost around Stanthorpe and in the Gold Coast hinterland between Sarabah and Canungra as hot gusty winds sent bushfires out of control.

We all know how dry it has been around the Southern Downs and across the border in towns like Tenterfield and Armidale. The aforementioned towns join Stanthorpe and Warwick and at least six other regional New South Wales towns at risk of running out of water.

I recall being sent on assignment to Warwick in 1992 with a Courier-Mail photographer. We walked along the dry bed of the Condamine River with then mayor Bruce Green, commenting on the sparse pools of water here and there. The town’s main water supply, Leslie Dam, was at 3% capacity at the time.

In January 2011, I was marooned in Warwick. So much rain fell authorities had no choice but to open all seven floodgates on the Leslie Dam. Creeks rose and the main roads to Brisbane and Toowoomba were closed.

People who have at least one foot in the climate change denial camp will tell you it was always thus in Australia: floods, droughts, bushfires, insect swarms, dust storms and sometimes all five inside a few months.

The key differences between the long-lasting droughts of the late 1800s and what is happening now is a notable rise in average temperatures.

The CSIRO, the nation’s pre-eminent science organisation, states that Australia’s climate has warmed by just over 1C since 1910. Eight of Australia’s top ten warmest years on record have occurred since 2005.

University of Melbourne PhD researcher Mandy Freund and colleague Benjamin Henley studied climatic changes in Australia by studying seasonal rainfall patterns over an 800-year period.

“Our new records show that parts of Northern Australia are wetter than ever before, and that major droughts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries in southern Australia are likely without precedent over the past 400 years.

“This new knowledge gives us a clearer understanding of how droughts and flooding rains may be changing in the context of a rapidly warming world”.

The debate between those who accept what 97% of the world’s scientists are telling us and the contrarians who think it is a left wing plot is increasingly polarising people.

The Australian, our only national newspaper, has kept up a steady flow of news stories and opinion articles which by and large support the views of those in denial about climate change.  Similar views are consistently espoused by Sky News and populist radio shock jocks. Some would say that it is a good thing someone is putting the other side of the story.

What the Guardian Weekly now terms the “climate crisis” is well and truly on the agenda today with Strike4Climate, a globally coordinated series of rallies to emphasise the gravity of the situation.

The main idea is to support teenagers who have taken the day off school to protest. They, after all, will be the generation left to clean up problems left by their parents’ and grand-parents’ generations. The international protest movement was started by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. She called on school students who have concerns about inaction over climate change to go on strike and support climate rallies.

Given the increasingly strident coverage of climate change news and opinion from the both sides, it isn’t hard to mount an argument for having both points of view up for public debate, although you need a subscription to The Australian to read its coverage.

So let me summarise an opinion piece, forwarded to me by a reader.

On July 8, New Zealand geologist David Shelley refuted climate activist assertions that temperatures are at record highs, glaciers and sea ice are melting at unprecedented rates, and sea levels rising dangerously.

“A cursory examination of the geological literature shows that the first two assertions are simply not true, and that rising sea levels are par for the course.

“To assert that today’s temperatures are record highs is mischief-making of the highest order. Earth has been much hotter (up to 10C hotter) for the vast majority of geological time”.

Shelley goes on to say that sea levels were also significantly higher in the last interglacial 125,000 years ago.

“Florida Keys, for example, is the remains of a coral reef that grew then”.

David Shelley’s views are moderate compared to those of the Top 10 climate deniers.

Brendan Demelle, executive director of DeSmog, lists names including Fred Singer, Christopher Monkton and Bjorn Lomborg. Demelle says many climate change deniers start their pronouncements with: “I’m not a scientist, but…”

(Lord) Monkton, a former UK politician with a degree in the classics once said: “global warming will not affect us for the next 2,000 years, and if it does, it won’t have been caused by us.” 

Did I suggest the debate between believe and don’t believe is getting more strident? Environmentalist Tim Flannery went so far this week as to suggest that ‘predatory’ climate change deniers are “a threat to our children”.

A despairing Flannery now admits that his 20 years of climate activism has been ‘a colossal failure’.

Each year the situation becomes more critical. In 2018, global emissions of greenhouse gases rose by 1.7% while the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere jumped by 3.5 parts per million – the largest ever observed increase.

“No climate report or warning, no political agreement nor technological innovation has altered the ever-upward trajectory of the pollution”.

On Tuesday, The Conversation’s Misha Ketchell announced a surprise ban on those promoting climate denial views through the portal.

“The editorial team in Australia is implementing a zero-tolerance approach to moderating climate change deniers, and sceptics,” he wrote. “Not only will we be removing their comments, we’ll be locking their accounts”.

We believe conversations are integral to sharing knowledge, but those who are fixated on dodgy ideas in the face of decades of peer-reviewed science are nothing but dangerous”.

The Australian’s Chris Kenny said The Conversation’s decision was a fundamental assault on freedom of speech and intellectual integrity.

“This action flies in the face of scientific endeavour, where the scientific method is founded on the presumption of rigorous scepticism”, he wrote.

Kenny added: “The Conversation was founded with taxpayers’ support and still relies heavily on the involvement of publicly-funded universities. This is taxpayers’ money used for the silencing of dissent and the deliberate shrinking and censoring of scientific, academic, environmental, economic and political debate”.

“Who will decide what level of scepticism is acceptable?

The user-friendly website Skeptical Science (getting skeptical about global warming skepticism) should help clarify that question. The website lists 100+ common climate change myths, matching each one with the scientific facts.

I encourage you all to do your own research into this most urgent of issues. As the Joan of Arc of climate change Greta Thunberg said last year: “I want you to act as if our house is on fire, Because it is’.

Due to unforeseen circumstance I am unable to attend the Brisbane rally. I guess they’ll start without me!

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September 20, 2019 8:14 pm

Bob , this is a fine overview of where we are at, but how about searching for a way forward? The critical questiin, to my mind, is : what if you are wrong? If we cut back on CO2 emmisions we will change our economy with some winners and some losers, and possibly a drop in our overall standard of living. We will also preserve the finite reserves of fossil fuels for whatever purpose they might be essential. If we continue as usual, and the climate heats as predicted, the consequences for the world are dire. So why isn’t the… Read more »