Climate emergency: more at stake than a hotter summer

September 12, 2019
With permission of Alan Moir,

Catastrophic fires in New South Wales and Queensland have come early in the fire season, which usually starts in October. Climate scientists and frontline fire fighters agree: they are a consequence of climate change.

Former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins told ABC Radio on September 6 “the supercharged weather condition” is out of control. Extreme weather conditions, less rainfall and stronger winds have “stacked the odds against firefighters,'' he said.

New records are being set for the numbers of fires, their ferocity and their destructive abilities.

They are not the only records being broken.

The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that July was the hottest on record. The next five hottest Julys were all in the previous five years.

While the huge fires in Greenland and the Amazon have captured most of the media attention, fires are breaking out in places no one could have predicted: Siberia, Britain, Norway, Sweden and Finland. The cool temperature heritage-listed north-west coast of Tasmania is also burning.

And it is not just catastrophic wildfires that are commanding attention, so too are the devastating droughts in parts of NSW and Queensland. In outback NSW, the drought and mismanagement of the Murray-Darling Basin has had disastrous impacts on communities.

NSW water minister Melinda Pavey confirmed last month that regional centres including Tamworth, Orange, Bathurst and Dubbo could run out of local water supplies. Smaller towns, such as Menindee and Wilcannia, have been struggling without drinking water while big agribusinesses continue to legally siphon off precious supplies.

Mullins said fire chiefs worldwide agree: we are entering a new and extremely dangerous time.

“I know what’s going on … I’ve been watching it for 50 years,” Mullins said. “It is being driven by climate change. There is no other explanation.”

The Climate Council says extreme weather events “are being influenced by climate change” and that “extreme weather events last year are part of a trend of increasing extreme weather since the 1980s, both globally and in Australia”.

The more climate scientists find out about climate change, the more dangerous and irrational it becomes to not act immediately to prevent a climate catastrophic.

Last year, Australian National University emeritus professor Will Steffen, along with six other Earth System scientists, went public with their argument that a “linear view” of the climate system was completely wrong because it underestimated the sorts of changes we are likely to see and experience.

They argued that climate change is driven by “complex” feedback processes internal to the system. It is therefore not enough to just focus on external climate change drivers (such as greenhouse gases) because doing that would downplay, or ignore, the accelerating impacts of global warming.

They believe that the “very high human emissions of greenhouse gases could activate some important feedback processes within the system”. They pointed to the melting Arctic summer sea ice and some permafrost regions in Siberia, as well as increasing wildfires in boreal forests and the Amazon rainforest as examples.

“Our analysis points to a risk that, if enough of these feedback processes are activated, they could act like a row of dominoes that would form a global cascade.

“Ultimately, such a feedback cascade could take the trajectory out of human control and irreversibly towards ‘Hothouse Earth’, with temperatures of 4 or 5°C above pre-industrial [levels].”

If carbon dioxide concentrations are pushed to 450–500 parts per million — which Steffen thinks is possible this century — the Earth System may return to a time similar to 15–17 million years ago when temperatures were 4–5°C above pre-industrial and sea levels were estimated to have been 20–30 metres above present levels.

“Such conditions would have massive impacts on humans, threatening the viability of contemporary civilisation.”

As Steffen and his colleagues put it: “There is likely to be much more at stake in transgressing the Paris climate targets than just a slightly warmer planet”.

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