News | 24th Jan, 2007

Science has facts on climate change and we should listen before it's too late

Tricia Phelan, Environment Victoria
The Age, Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Sceptics keep trotting out the same old arguments that don't hold water, writes Tricia Phelan.

Len Walker (Business opinion and analysis, 19/1/2007) was right arguing that cool heads combined with rational discussion and decision-making are required when it comes to climate change.
Unfortunately he offerred little. Instead of engaging with the rest of the community – governments, industry and the general public – in a constructive discussion to take us forward, he instead tried to take us backward into a quagmire of myths and confusion long-since discounted by the an overwhelming majority of the world’s leading scientists.

Next month the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), representing hundreds of scientists from 120 countries, will release its fourth report that is predicted to layout even stronger evidence of climate change impacts and its human causes. This group has been working for almost two decades to provide technical knowledge of climate change to underpin sound decision-making.

To ensure the IPCC reports are credible, transparent and objective, they must pass through a rigorous two-stage technical and scientific review process. As a result, the work completed by the IPCC is backed by the worldwide scientific community.

A joint statement of support was released in May 2001 by the science academies of Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the Caribbean, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, New Zealand, Sweden and the UK. It stated: “We recognize the IPCC as the world’s most reliable source of information on climate change and its causes, and we endorse its method of achieving consensus.”

The US National Academy of Sciences followed later that year with their own endorsement that “The IPCC’s conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue.”

It is only a tiny minority of voices that continue to dispute their findings, and coincidentally many of these are connected to industries whose profits will be adversely affected if actions are taken to mitigate climate change risks. These include Mr Walker, a fellow of Australian Institue of Mining and Metallurgy which represents the views of mining companies such as BHP Billiton, who condemns the world’s leading scientists for their “alarmist view’’.

Over the past decade, climate sceptics such as Mr Walker have repeatedly used the same arguments and ‘evidence’ to support their view. Those of us who monitor climate change developments have seen Mr Walter’s arguments, and their comprehensive rebuttals, many times before – unfortunately this does not stop them reappearing.

Siting of the 1975 Newsweek ‘climate cooling’ article is an old favourite. But let’s be clear: this article was written by a staff writer not a climatologist, in a popular magazine that is not by any stretch of the imagination a part of the scientific press, and thus the article was not subject to a robust peer review. Secondly the article reports on cooling as a speculative scientific curiousity, with grave potential implications – but, importantly, without any resolute scientific consensus supporting the hypothesis.

In any case, like many areas of science we’ve learnt a lot in the past 30 years.

Meanwhile, across the world businesses, communities and governments have accepted the facts on climate change and are now looking for practical, reasoned responses at the individual, industry-wide and government levels.

In April 2006 some of Australia’s leading companies from a range of industries – BP, Origin Energy, Westpac, Swiss Re, Visy and IAG – launched Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change. The Roundtable a report stating climate change is a major business risk and outlining the strong financial case to take action.
It found that taking early action on climate change could occur while maintaining strong economic growth, while delaying action would result in lower real GDP growth, and concentrate any disruption over a shorter period.

The Business Council of Australia and the National Farmers Federation have both publicly recognised climate change and the need for action.

In November the broader community added their support when 40,000 people in Melbourne alone took part in the Walk Against Warming, calling for legislated targets to reduce Victoria’s greenhouse pollution. Across the country over 100,000 people took part in local events.

Meanwhile governments across the globe are implementing laws, some better than others, with the ultimate aim of reducing greenhouse pollution and lessening the impact of climate change. In fact the US and Australia are the only industrialised nations who have failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Despite this, around 50% of American states have implemented their own greenhouse and/or renewable energy targets. In Australia both South Australia and Victoria have announced state targets – doubtless more will follow.

So by all means, let’s bring on a reasoned and rational discussion about climate change. Surely such a rational approach includes listening to the overwhelming majority of experts?

Surely clear thinking involves dispassionately assessing the risks – not ignoring them because we don’t like the action we must take to avoid them?

And surely wise heads, once risks have been identified, will take prudent action to avoid those risks particularly when they will dramatically impact on our economy and lifestyle?

What we need now is an intelligent way forward.

Armed with the facts on climate change, the risks and many solutions, we must cast off outdated attitudes that are no longer viable and embrace new practices that will mitigate the worst impacts of climate change and open up new business opportunities.