Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A call for leadership over climate change, health, and human survival

In June 2016 severe weather events struck parts of NSW and Tasmania, characterised by the loss of several human lives, flash flooding, coastal erosion and considerable damage to coastal structures, including homes. Animals also suffered, as did people close to them, connected emotionally, economically, or in both ways. Sheep, cattle, bananas and even two horses in Western Sydney, used by disabled people died (one horse used by the disabled was rescued).

Some climate scientists still propose that no single event can be attributed to climate change, but an increasing number (including Kevin Trenberth) reverse the argument, pointing out that the climate is in a new state, and all such events are influenced by the hotter wetter atmosphere
Irrespective of their case, we know that the sea level is rising and its rate of increase is accelerating, as oceans warm and expand and as ice melts. Only very aggressive climate action can save parts of many of the world’s coastal cities from inundation by century’s end (including Miami, New York and New Orleans). 

Unfortunately, sea level rise is far from the end of the problems we face.

As I wrote in an article ("Sounding the alarm: health in the Anthropocene") currently under review: 

"Two recent papers and a commentary warn that parts of the Middle East and North Africa, especially near the Persian Gulf will become virtually uninhabitable under some plausible climate change scenarios by 2100, due to the combination of rising temperatures and humidity. Another, led by the director of the Max Planck center for chemistry in Germany, anticipates that: 

Australian non-leadership

Following the Sydney storm, NSW Emergencies Services Minister, the Hon David Elliott was asked on News Radio if he thought there might be a pattern emerging. After all, the world has recently experienced drought, fires, other floods, heatwaves, unusual lightning, coral bleaching, marine heatwaves..

Mr Elliott, who in 2012 attempted to ridicule Climate Councilor Tim Flannery about climate change (see facebook post to right), evaded the question, replying that he is “no weatherman” (listen at the 4 minute mark)

It is good that some in the media are finally raising the issue of climate change at the time of the latest tragedy, but lamentable that people in high office with a duty of care to lead on this issue (including Barnaby Joyce the temporary Australian Federal Minister for Agriculture) somehow think their background as a lawyer or an accountant qualifies them to understand the science better. What is the point of publicly funding science if that advice is then regarded with contempt by our "leaders"?

Mr Elliott has a background in the army and as a peacekeeper. Encouragingly, many in the military are connecting the dots between climate change, ethnic divisions, population growth and conflict.

But evasion such as his is not good enough. We instead need genuine leadership such as from UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres to slow the rate of climate change. Its current trajectory, unchecked, will ruin the health and well-being of our entire species. If we take the Paris Climate Agreement seriously we might yet rescue civilisation. But as Kevin Anderson has repeatedly pointed out, it too contains considerable wishful thinking. We thus need real leadership, at all levels, but especially the top.