Professor Greg Skillbeck, from the Faculty of Science at the University of Technology Sydney, delivers an overview on climate change.
Many of the predictions from climate models are coming true even though the magnitudes of effects might be different. Ice caps are still melting in Greenland in the northern hemisphere and while some parts of Antarctica are accumulating ice there are definitely areas of significant melting. Continental glaciers continue to melt and some of that ice ends up in the oceans which will cause sea levels to rise.
Scientists' attempts to provide simple indications of climate change may sometimes also give false impressions. For example, the single consolidated global temperature record is not a particularly good indicator now of the complexity of what is happening in climate change.
Importantly, it is an atmospheric record based on stations on land, even though the oceans comprise the majority of the Earth's surface. In addition, examining the land-based record alone ignores the fact that the atmosphere and the oceans work as a coupled system and that the oceans are getting measurably warmer – some of the heat energy is being stored in the ocean. Further, when water is heated it expands, thus becoming an additional factor in sea level rise, more water is being added through melting of continental ice, but the water is expanding as well, by heating.
This contribution to increase in sea level seems to be relatively minor, and overall the amount of sea level rise predicted by models over the next 100 years seems small (projected 30-50+ cm rise over 100 years), so it is hard for people to understand the significance of a few millimetres rise in sea level per year (and a projected 30-50+cm rise over 100 years) when they know Sydney tides vary by a metre several times each day. However, even a few millimetres is highly significant, for those people who live on Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean islands with average elevations of a single metre above sea level.
It is essential that facts rather than personal perceptions are the criteria for determining the veracity of climate related increases or decreases. There are only 170 years of recorded measurements of climate data in Australia, and that is simply not enough to make claims of a one in 500 year event or that storms now are more prevalent or worse, than in the past – we simply do not have a long enough record of data.
In the USA there is a perception that hurricanes and cyclones are increasing in frequency or severity, but based on the calculations with the available data and corrected for population increases and other factors, the data are inconclusive. However, the American insurance industry is gearing up for an increase in claims, a clear sign that the actuaries that study business sector risk are including climate change in their calculations.
The recent Paris talks do give hope that there is a global push to do something about climate change, the economic imperative being important because businesses can see what is happening. Fossil fuels are a finite resource and will have to be replaced eventually with something else. The Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stone* so we don’t have to wait until fossil fuels run out. Even noted republicans such as Arnold Schwarzenegger are making positive statements about what needs to be done. He sees the emissions from vehicles and the burning of fossil fuels as creating a pollution problem in the atmosphere, so that alone, should be enough for action to be taken, rather than debating whether climate change is real or not.
It seems that the bigger, richer nations are willing by default to sacrifice smaller ones like islands in the Pacific. Australian politicians may maintain that it was not their intention to lose those islands but it seems there is still no will to make economic changes to stop it happening.
Professor Skilbeck sees the new Prime Minister’s ideas around innovation underlining the fact that there is a lot of good work being done on solar and other alternative forms of energy, bringing hope of a change in attitude here. Australia may well be a small population country but, as a major per capita contributor to emissions, we have a moral obligation to do something about it. Australia could have gained an economic advantage decades ago by leading the world in alternative energy, so the new government’s focus on innovation is welcome, but may be too late.
Does this mean there is a climate for change?
The quote “The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil” appeared in The Telegraph 25 June 2000, attributed to former Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, (Sheikh Yamani predicts price crash as age of oil ends)
Professor Skilbeck was interviewed by Ruby Vincent for A Question of Balance. Summary text by Victor Barry February 2016