1. Climate Change, the Australian Context

[return to Climate Primer main page]

The last few years have seen a series of exceptional natural events in Australia: Mass bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, heat waves causing wholesale deaths of native species, record dry spells (all documented below). Following the driest spring on record [report], large and destructive bushfires have burned through millions of hectares of bushland and grassland across much of Australia. These fires are unusual in their number (hundreds, burning through millions of hectares), intensity (many burning out of control and generating ‘fire tornadoes’), the places they have burned (including rainforests that have not historically burned), and their duration (now into their third continuous month).

There is compelling scientific evidence for human-casued global climate – mainly heating and its consequences, but also ocean acidification. There is strong scientific evidence that these changes increase fire risk, lengthen the fire season and contribute to fire intensity. For example, a substantial proportion of recent fires in the USA [paper] and Canada [paper] can be attributed to climate change. Yet mention of the link between climate change and the bushfires in Australia has become a divisive, contested and emotive topic.

According to recent polls [report], Australians overwhelmingly (~90%) accept the findings of climate change, and an increasing number of Australians (>60%) are prepared to take immediate steps even if that involves significant costs (Fig. 1):

Fig. 1

Figure 1: Australians attitudes to climate change [report].

 

Among younger Australians, only 1% polled stated that we should adopt a “wait and watch” approach (Fig. 2):

Fig. 2

Figure 2: Attitudes to climate change in young Australians (18-29 yrs) [report]

 

Despite the public sentiment supporting climate science, much of the language in the public domain since the bushfires has been acrimonious and hostile. There has been commentary in legacy and social media (including that coming from elected politicians) that clearly does not support climate science and as a result, there is a lot of information in the public domain that is contrary to peer reviewed science. Commentary from some of Australia’s political leaders has been at best ambivalent.

As reviewed in Section 3, scientific research that now stretches back for nearly 50 years has unambiguously a causal role of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions arising from human activity in global heating and associated climate changes. established However, despitr public sentiment, Australian government reports show that CO2 emissions continue to rise across major sectors of the Australian economy [report].

Fig 3

Figure 3: Emission trends in the Australian energy sector (top left); from direct combustion (top right); the transport sector (bottom left); and “fugitive emissions” from fossil fuels (bottom right) [report].

Although partly offset by changes in the “land use and forestry” sector, these emission rises are fundamentally inconsistent with the deep cuts required to stabilize global heating below critical levels (see below). Australia is the world’s third biggest exporter and fifth biggest miner of fossil fuels by CO2 potential (Fig. 4). Its exports are behind only Russia and Saudi Arabia, and far larger than Iraq, Venezuela and any country in the EU [report]. It is easily the biggest exporter of coal, more than the combined exports of the next three countries (Indonesia, Russia, USA) [report].

Fig 4

Figure 4: Australia’s increasing export of fossil fuels: Thermal (black) and coking (grey) coal (left) and liquid natural gas (right)

There already exist numerous independent overviews of the existence and impact of climate change, including that hosted by NASA [report] as well as Australia’s Commonwealth Science and Industry Research Organization (CSIRO) [report]. NASA put “man on the moon” and the CSIRO developed the wifi [report] – one would think these achievements would impart them with broad scientific authority in the community. An international consortium of scientists – the “Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change” (IPCC) publish regular, extensive reports on the magnitude of global heating and the associated scientific methods [report]. These are subject to strict independent peer review. Yet, in today’s contested social media and political landscape, even these entities have been claimed as compromised, a point I touch on below.

This primer is a collation of basic resources on climate change, its causes and impacts, with a special focus on Australia. Through the footnotes, all the major claims in the primer are linked directly to peer reviewed papers, which can be accessed and read. The purpose of this document is to provide direct links to peer reviewed papers, and to collate a brief but overall perspective for those interested in obtaining information for discussion in the current heated social environment. Engaging in this issue through social media has also led me to make some reflections on the sociological role of science and knowledge which I add at the end.

Next section: Is the climate changing?

Sources:

Papers:

Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests

Attribution of the Influence of Human‐Induced Climate Change on an Extreme Fire Season

Reports:

Australian Rainfall, Spring 2019 (Bureau of Meteorology)

Lowy Institute Polls, 2019: Climate change and energy

Australia’s emissions projections 2019

Quantifying CO2 from Australia’s fossil fuel mining and exports

NASA: Global Climate Change

State of the Climate (Bureau of Meteorology)

CSIRO: Top 10 Achievements

 IPCC Assessment Reports 

Published by

breakspearblog

I'm a psychiatrist and professor of neuroscience with about 200 peer-reviewed publications. I studied medicine at the University of Sydney but I also enrolled in an Arts degree and studied mathematics in parallel (I also did some history and philosophy). I hence did four years of formal undergraduate mathematics (the fourth, honours year was at the University of California on an exchange program) together with medicine. Following university, I did a PhD in computational neuroscience (including some post-graduate mathematics in the UK) and then a post-doctoral fellowship in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney. I graduated with a BA (hons), BSc (hon), MB BS, PhD and a Fellowship from the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (FRANZCP). I am currently the Global Professor of Systems Neuroscience at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. I also work part-time in private clinical psychiatry

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