Tipping Point 07: Where we stand on climate change

Posted on 15 November 2010


On Friday morning at TippingPoint, there were two presentations. One I’ve already written up and the other was entitled Climate Change: Where We Stand.

It was delivered by Professor Jean Palutikof, Director of Australia’s National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility at Griffith University in Brisbane. The facility is charged by the Federal Government to provide the best information on climate change to those who have to make decisions about Australia’s response to it. There was a mention of a Nobel Prize in her intro by MC Dick.

Dr Palutikof’s presentation was structured around four questions to do with climate change:

  1. Is this something we’ve just thought up?
  2. What’s the effect of adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere?
  3. What’s going to happen in the future?
  4. What can we do about it?

Her answer to the first question was a resounding pfft. She pointed out that we need CO2 and methane in the atmosphere because without them the planet would be far too cold to live on at all. The problem, she continued,  is that we’ve been adding extra so that outgoing radiation from the earth no longer makes it to space and bounces back in.

The idea of the greenhouse effect is over 100 years old. It was first brought up in 1895 by scientists Svante Arrhenius and Arvid Hogbom and no one really paid much attention. Then in 1928 Guy Callendar began writing scientific articles about global warming. His take was that it would be beneficial because it would delay the return of the glaciers.

Questions two and three are being answered progressively from all areas of science (see the geologist’s presentation write up for one area doing this). Question four, Dr Palutikof discussed in some detail.

The two categories of things we can do about climate change are mitigation and adaptation. She stressed that we must do both as climate change has already happened, is already happening so we need to adapt; and we need to mitigate further effects because if we keep causing this accelerated climate change, nothing will survive.

Even though it’s hard to imagine our little actions making any difference, Dr Palutikof believes that adaptation happens from the bottom up with things like installing water tanks, planting native gardens, insulating  roof spaces. If everybody did these and similar things, it would make difference to the whole world.

But there also needs to be top down actions like improving coastal defences, adapting building and planning standards, greening cities, and building climate adapted houses. She warned against maladaptations such as air conditioning and desalination plants as they are not always environmentally kind solutions. She impressed upon the crowd that mitigation takes time and no matter what, there will be residual impacts. However, without adaptation, nothing will work.

She informed us that Australia is one of the most climate dominated countries in the world, and is definitely the most climate dominated developed country. Nowhere else has policy and legislation as influenced by current and projected changes to climate the way things like the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the 2009 Victorian bushfires Royal Commission. The Murray-Darling document’s recommendations are based on the assumption that there will be 10% less water in the basin due to climate change, and the Commission report focuses on adapting to the reality of bush fires becoming more intense, more common and more widespread as a result of climate change.

Dr Palutikof’s final message was about the uncertainty around predictions in warming and the general sense of what climate change means for us. She left us with a quotation from The Economist, a conservative US magazine one would expect to put down climate scientists as hysterical hippies:

Action on climate change is justified, not because the science is certain but precisely because it is not.

You can see all my Tipping Point posts under the Tipping Point tag.