Will Australia become uninhabitable?

Clem Sunter

Several years ago I was asked to facilitate a session of climate change experts in London on possible scenarios relating to how the issue would be tackled in the first half of this century. Two participants were key advisers to the US Senate and one was the principal adviser to the British Prime Minister at the time. In other words, it was a gathering of heavy hitters.

Two scenarios were offered post the Bali Conference: "Dances with the Wolves" where an agreement was hastily put together and promptly ignored by the super-emitters like America and China; and "Strictly Ballroom" where a tight agreement with measurable outcomes was formulated and everyone fell in line. The experts gave a 90% probability to the first scenario and only 10% to the second one playing out in the time period. In retrospect, their odds were right on the nose.

What intrigued me was the answer I got to a fundamental question I put to them: how certain are you that man-made climate change is for real? The response was this: there will never be 100% mathematical certainty on an issue like this, but as far as scientific certainty was concerned, we are prepared to give it a 95% probability i.e. close to that needed for a legal conviction, where the prerequisite is "beyond reasonable doubt". As one of them said: "Judging by the evidence, I would put the climate change hypothesis on a par with Newton's Laws of Mechanics where the basic propositions will remain valid; but the principles may be modified just as Einstein modified Newton's equations with the special and general theories of relativity."

The other unforgettable point that was made at the meeting was that it was almost impossible to give credibility to climate change when it came to addressing the public. Talking of small increments in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and small changes to the mean temperature of the planet made no mark because these phenomena were invisible. The only factor which could sway the public was the climatic VIX factor or volatility index possibly jumping to a much higher level; and weather extremes like hurricanes, cyclones, super-storms and extended periods of massive heat or chill - and rainfall or drought - becoming a more regular feature of our lives. As one representative said at the meeting: "Seven Katrinas in a row flooding seven different cities in the US would definitely raise the issue to an appropriate level in the public consciousness."

Maybe, the hammer has fallen, but it is not in the US - it is in Australia. The searing temperatures there last week and the resultant bush fires must have precipitated a revival in the debate over global warming. At the best of times, Australia is a tough place to live from an environmental point of view. I remember taking a light aircraft into the Kimberley Plateau in the North West and landing in an area where the temperature occasionally approaches 50°C. We had lunch in a farmstead with an especially thick ceiling to counter the heat. Nothing can prepare you for walking in that type of inferno and any outdoor hike must be very brief to survive it. The country's Bureau of Meteorology has just added a new colour - deep purple - for places recording all-time highs up to 54°C.  

Equally, reports have been coming in of abnormally high temperatures in the ocean driving sharks into the relatively cooler water closer inshore. Having been the "lucky country", Australia could be turned into the unluckiest country of all by Mother Nature. There's no such thing as outside air conditioning and the higher the temperature, the greater the evaporation of the limited water resources Australia possesses. Australia's population has more than doubled since the Second World War to a figure approaching 23 million. Jared Diamond in his book Collapse reckoned Australia had a sustainable capacity of around 8 million. He could have been prophetic for a reason he did not cite in his text.

The experts I referred to earlier made one further observation. They said there will be huge winners and losers as a result of climate change. However, it is too early to identify which nation falls into which category as computer modelling cannot handle all the complexities involved in regional predictions. What interests me is the response of the US and China in curbing their emissions if Australia is the fall guy. Getting the commitment of your own population to solve another country's problem is a tricky exercise. But the debate should start now.

Send your comments to Clem

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