Monday, June 17, 2013

We need to take climate change seriously NOW

Last month we passed an unthinkable benchmark - 400ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere. Yet, this terrifying piece of news made hardly any waves among the mainstream news media. Why not??? We should all be completely horrified. We should be out there working hard to change things before it is too late.

We can certainly do things on an individual level - and I firmly believe that there is a lot more individuals could do that would require a minimal investment and which would result in massive energy savings and better lifestyle outcomes. For example, our quarterly electricity bill shows how much electricity we use compared to other households in the area. Based on this chart, my family of six (parents and four boys aged between 6 and 18) uses less electricity than the average 2-person household in our area

The vast majority of households in our area are double income households, so most people are not even at home during the day. As I homeschool my three younger boys, we are at home a lot and use electricity during the day. I also cook every day on an electric hot plate and bake bread in an electric oven, and we have a range of electronic devices, so we certainly do not live a pre-modern lifestyle. It is clear to me that there is a lot of "low hanging fruit" - that is easy things individuals and families could do to improve the energy balance of their lives and thus reduce their carbon footprint. 

But that is not enough.

The latest Australian Climate Commission's Report "The Critical Decade: Extreme Weather" released yesterday said it very clearly: "Most of the available fossil fuels cannot be burnt if we are to stabilise the climate this century."

This is unpalatable news for almost everybody, especially for politicians in resources-rich Australia. It requires us to completely revamp our economy away from digging up fossil fuels towards a new society that we still have to imagine and create. 

The current Australian Labor Party minority government under Prime Minister Julia Gillard managed to put a price on carbon, but they did so without being able to communicate to the wider community how the carbon price works and what they are trying to achieve.

The carbon price has had a positive effect in reducing emissions without too much pain on consumers (who were handsomely compensated anyway), and all the doomsday scenarios conjured up by Liberal-National Party opposition leader Tony Abbott have proven to be complete nonsense. However, only cutting emissions in Australia while continuing to contribute and benefit from emissions abroad will not help fix the climate crisis. 

Unfortunately, Tony Abbott continues with his silly "Axe the Tax" slogan in the lead-up to the 2013 elections and seems committed to abandoning all sensible climate change policies if and, as currently looks likely, when he becomes Australia's next Prime Minister. 

It is easy to just throw our hands in the air and find it all too hard. It is also hard to image what our world will look like if we do not act urgently, but unfortunately, all indicators are that it will be far, far worse than the effects of acting now to prevent run-away climate change.

We already see the early effects of climate change in Australia and around the world, and it is not pretty. And we have not even reached the global 2 degree temperature increase that politicians and scientists believe will still be manageable! 

In December 2012, the Australian public broadcaster ABC's science program "Catalyst" put together a program that showed what effect global warming is already having in Australia: "Climate Change. Taking Australia's Temperature" outlines some of the visible impacts around the country. The show was produced before the "Angry Summer" heat waves of early 2013 which broke temperature records across Australia.










The full Climate Commission Report can be found here: http://climatecommission.gov.au/report/the-critical-decade-2013/. Below are the key facts from the report:

The Critical Decade: Extreme weather - key facts
1. Climate change is already increasing the intensity and frequency of many extreme weather events, adversely affecting Australians. Extreme events occur naturally and weather records are broken from time to time. However, climate change is influencing these events and record-breaking weather is becoming more common around the world. 
Some Australian examples include: 
• Heat: Extreme heat is increasing across Australia. There will still be record cold events, but hot records are now happening three times more often than cold records. 
• Bushfire weather: Extreme fire weather has increased in many parts of Australia, including southern NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and parts of South Australia, over the last 30 years. 
• Rainfall: Heavy rainfall has increased globally. Over the last three years Australia’s east coast has experienced several very heavy rainfall events, fuelled by record-high surface water temperatures in the adjacent seas. 
• Drought: A long-term drying trend is affecting the southwest corner of Western Australia, which has experienced a 15% drop in rainfall since the mid-1970s. 
• Sea-level rise: Sea level has already risen 20 cm. This means that storm surges ride on sea levels that are higher than they were a century ago, increasing the risk of flooding along Australia’s socially, economically and environmentally important coastlines. 
2. Climate change is making many extreme events worse in terms of their impacts on people, property, communities and the environment. This highlights the need to take rapid, effective action on climate change. 
• It is crucial that communities, emergency services, health and medical services and other authorities prepare for the increases that are already occurring in the severity and frequency of many types of extreme weather. 
• The southeast of Australia, including many of our largest population centres, stands out as being at increased risk from many extreme weather events - heatwaves, bushfires, heavy rainfall and sea-level rise. 
• Key food-growing regions across the southeast and the southwest are likely to experience more drought in the future. 
• Some of Australia’s iconic ecosystems are threatened by climate change. Over the past three decades the Great Barrier Reef has suffered repeated bleaching events from underwater heatwaves. The freshwater wetlands of Kakadu National Park are at risk from saltwater intrusion due to rising sea level. 
3. The climate system has shifted, and is continuing to shift, changing the conditions for all weather, including extreme weather events. 
• Levels of greenhouse gases from the combustion of fossil fuels have increased by around 40% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, causing the Earth’s surface to warm significantly. 
• All weather events are now occurring in global climate system that is warmer and moister than it was 50 years ago. This has loaded the dice towards more frequent and more severe extreme weather events. 
4. There is a high risk that extreme weather events like heatwaves, heavy rainfall, bushfires and cyclones will become even more intense in Australia over the coming decades. 
• There is little doubt that over the next few decades changes in these extreme events will increase the risks of adverse consequences to human health, agriculture, infrastructure and the environment. 
• Stabilising the climate is like turning around a battleship – it cannot be done immediately given its momentum. When danger is ahead you must start turning the wheel now. Any delay means that it is more and more difficult to avert the future danger. 
• The climate system has strong momentum for further warming over the next few decades because of the greenhouse gases that have already been emitted, and those that will be emitted in future. This means that it is highly likely that extreme weather events will become even more severe in Australia over that period. 
5. Only strong preventive action now and in the coming years can stabilise the climate and halt the trend of increasing extreme weather for our children and grandchildren. 
• Averting danger requires strong preventative action. How quickly and deeply we reduce greenhouse gas emissions will greatly influence the severity of extreme events in the future. 
• The world is already moving to tackle climate change. Ninety countries, representing 90% of global emissions, are committed to reducing their emissions and have programs in place to achieve this. As the 15th largest emitter in the world, Australia has an important role to play. 
• Much more substantial action will be required if we are to stabilise the climate by the second half of the century. Globally emissions must be cut rapidly and deeply to nearly zero by 2050, with Australia playing its part. 
• The decisions we make this decade will largely determine the severity of climate change and its influence on extreme events that our grandchildren will experience. This is the critical decade to get on with the job. 




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