It’s 30 years since scientists first warned of climate threats to Australia



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The Barossa Valley in 1987 – the year that Australians (winemakers included) received their first formal warning of climate change.
Phillip Capper/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

Keen students of climate politics might recognise November 30 as the anniversary of the opening of the historic Paris climate summit two years ago. But you might not know that today also marks 30 years since Australian scientists first officially sounded the alarm over climate change, at a conference hailed as the dawn of the ongoing effort to forecast and monitor the future climate of our continent.

November 30, 1987, marked the start of the inaugural GREENHOUSE conference hosted by Monash University and attended by 260 delegates. The five-day meeting was convened as part of a new federal government plan in response to the burgeoning global awareness of the impending danger of global warming.

The conference’s convenor, the then CSIRO senior research scientist Graeme Pearman, had approached some 100 researchers in the months leading up to the conference. He gave them a scenario of likely climate change for Australia for the next 30 to 50 years, developed with his CSIRO colleague Barrie Pittock, and asked them to forecast the implications for agriculture, farming and other sectors.

As a result, the conference gave rise to a book called Greenhouse: Planning for Climate Change, which outlined rainfall changes, sea-level rise and other physical changes that are now, three decades on, all too familiar. As the contents page reveals, it also tackled impacts on society – everything from insurance to water planning, mosquito-borne diseases, and even ski fields.


Read more: After Bonn, 5 things to watch for in the coming year of global climate policy


Internationally, awareness of global warming had already been building for a couple of decades, and intensifying for a couple of years. While the ozone hole was hogging global headlines, a United Nations scientific meeting in Villach, Austria, in 1985 had issued a statement warning of the dangers posed by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Pearman wasn’t at that meeting, but he was familiar with the problem. As he wrote after the 1987 conference, the strength of the Villach statement was “hardly a surprise, as recent evidence had suggested more strongly than ever that climatic change is now probable on timescales of decades”.

Meanwhile, the Commission for the Future, founded by the then federal science minister Barry Jones, was seeking a cause célèbre. The Australian Academy of Science organised a dinner of scientists to suggest possible scientific candidates.

The commission’s chair, Phillip Adams, recalls that problems such as nuclear war, genetic modification, artificial intelligence, were all proposed. Finally, though:

…the last bloke to talk was right at the far end of the table. Very quiet gentleman… He said, ‘You’re all wrong – it’s the dial in my laboratory, and the laboratories of my colleagues around the world.’ He said, ‘Every day, we see the needle going up, because of what we call the greenhouse effect.‘

Summit success

The GREENHOUSE 87 conference was hailed as a great success, creating new scientific networks and momentum. It was what we academics like to call a “field-configuring event”.

British magazine New Scientist covered the conference, while the Australian media reported on Jones’s opening speech, the problems of sea-level rise, and warnings of floods, fire, cyclones and disease

The GREENHOUSE conferences have continued ever since. After a sporadic first couple of decades, the meetings have been held biennally around the country since 2005; the latest was in Hobart in 2015, as there wasn’t a 2017 edition.

What happened next?

The Greenhouse Project helped to spark and channel huge public interest in and concern about climate change in the late 1980s. But politicians fumbled their response, producing a weak National Greenhouse Response Strategy in 1992.

The Commission for the Future was privatised, the federal government declined to fund a follow-up to the Greenhouse Project, and a new campaign group called Greenhouse Action Australia could not sustain itself.

Meanwhile, the scientists kept doing what scientists do: observing, measuring, communicating, refining. Pittock produced many more books and articles. Pearman spoke to Paul Keating’s cabinet in 1994 while it briefly pondered the introduction of a carbon tax. He retired in 2004, having been reprimanded and asked to resign, ironically enough for speaking out about climate change.

As I’ve written previously on The Conversation, Australian policymakers have been well served by scientists, but have sadly taken little real notice. And lest all the blame be put onto the Coalition, let’s remember that one chief scientific adviser, Penny Sackett, quit mid-term in 2011, when Labor was in government. She has never said exactly why, but barely met Kevin Rudd and never met his successor Julia Gillard.

Our problem is not the scientists. It’s not the science. It’s the politics. And it’s not (just) the politicians, it’s the ability (or inability) of citizens’ groups to put the policymakers under sustained and irresistible pressure, to create the new institutions we need for the “looming global-scale failures” we face.

A South Australian coda

While researching this article, I stumbled across the following fact. Fourteen years and a day before the Greenhouse 87 conference had begun, Don Jessop, a Liberal senator for South Australia, made this statement in parliament:

It is quite apparent to world scientists that the silent pollutant, carbon dioxide, is increasing in the atmosphere and will cause us great concern in the future. Other pollutants from conventional fuels are proliferating other gases in the atmosphere, not the least of these being the sulphurous gases which will be causing emphysema and other such health problems if we persist with this type of energy source. Of course, I am putting a case for solar energy. Australia is a country that can well look forward to a very prosperous future if it concentrates on solar energy right now.

The ConversationThat was 44 years ago. No one can say we haven’t been warned.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How we found 112 ‘recovery reefs’ dotted through the Great Barrier Reef


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Some reefs are strong sources of coral larvae.
Peter Mumby, Author provided

Peter J Mumby, The University of Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef is better able to heal itself than we previously imagined, according to new research that identifies 112 individual reefs that can help drive the entire system towards recovery.

The back-to-back bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 that killed many corals on the Great Barrier Reef have led many researchers to ask whether and how it can recover. Conventionally, we tend to focus on what controls recovery on individual reefs – for example, whether they are fouled by seaweed or sediments.

But in our study, published in PLoS Biology, my colleagues and I stepped back to view the entire Great Barrier Reef as a whole entity and ask how it can potentially repair itself.


Read more: The Great Barrier Reef can repair itself, with a little help from science


We began by asking whether some reefs are exceptionally important for kick-starting widespread recovery after damage. To do this we set three criteria.

First, we looked for reefs that are major sources of coral larvae – the ultimate source of recovery. Every year corals engage in one of nature’s greatest spectacles, their mass reproduction during a November full moon. Fertilised eggs (larvae) travel on ocean currents for days or weeks in search of a new home.

With our partners at the CSIRO we’ve been able to model where these larvae go, and therefore the “connectivity” of the reef. By using this modelling (the Great Barrier Reef is far too large to observe this directly), we looked for reefs that strongly and consistently supply larvae to many other reefs.

Healthy reefs supply far more larvae than damaged ones, so our second criterion was that reefs should have a relatively low risk of being impacted by coral bleaching. Using satellite records of sea temperature dating back to 1985, we identified reefs that have not yet experienced the kind of temperature that causes mass coral loss. That doesn’t mean these reefs will never experience bleaching, but it does mean they have a relatively good chance of surviving at least for the foreseeable future.

Our final criterion was that reefs should supply coral larvae but not pests. Here we focused on the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish, whose larvae also travel on ocean currents. We know that outbreaks of these starfish tend to begin north of Cairns, and from that we can predict which reefs are most likely to become infested over time.

Fortunately, many good sources of coral larvae are relatively safe from crown-of-thorns starfish, particularly those reefs that are far offshore and bathed in oceanic water from the Coral Sea rather than the currents that flow past Cairns. Indeed, the access to deep – and often cooling – ocean water helps moderate temperature extremes in these outer reefs, which also reduces the risk of bleaching in some areas.

Using these three criteria, we pinpointed 112 reefs that are likely to be important in driving reef recovery for the wider system. They represent only 3% of the reefs of the Great Barrier Reef, but are so widely connected that their larvae can reach 47% of all the reefs within a single summer spawning season.

Unfortunately, their distribution across the reef is patchy. Relatively few are in the north (see map) so this area is relatively vulnerable.

Black dots show reefs identified as strong sources of coral larvae; grey dots show other reefs.
Hock et al., PLoS Biol.

Our study shows that reefs vary hugely, both in their exposure to damage and in their ability to contribute to the recovery of corals elsewhere. Where these patterns are pretty consistent over time – as is the case for the reefs we identified – it makes sense to factor this information into management planning.

It would be sensible to improve surveillance of these particular reefs, to check that crown-of-thorns starfish do not reach them, and to eradicate the starfish if they do.

To be clear, these are not the only reefs that should be managed. The Great Barrier Reef already has more than 30% of its area under protection from fishing, and many of its other individual reefs are important for tourism, fisheries and cultural benefits.

But the point here is that some reefs are far more important for ecosystem recovery than others. Factoring these patterns into tactical management – such as how best to respond in the aftermath of a cyclone strike – is the next step. It’s a need that has been articulated repeatedly by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.


Read more: Coal and climate change: a death sentence for the Great Barrier Reef


Taking the long-term view, the greatest threats to the reef are rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification caused by elevated carbon dioxide levels. This is clearly a challenge for humanity and one that requires consistent policies across governments.

But local protection is vital in order to maintain the reef in the best state possible given the global environment. Actions include improvements to the quality of the water emerging from rivers, controlling crown-of-thorns starfish, and maintaining healthy fish populations.

The ConversationThis is an expensive process and resources need to be deployed as effectively as possible. Our results help target management effectively by revealing the underlying mechanisms of repair on the reef. If management can help protect and facilitate corals’ natural processes of recovery, this might go a long way towards sustaining the Great Barrier Reef in an already challenging environment.

Peter J Mumby, Chair professor, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A fresh start for climate change mitigation in New Zealand


Robert McLachlan, Massey University

The election of the sixth Labour-led government heralds a new direction for climate change policy in New Zealand.

As part of the new government’s 100-day priority plan, it pledged to set a target of carbon neutrality by 2050 and to establish the mechanisms to phase out fossil fuels. In doing so, New Zealand will join a small group of countries that have established this goal since last year: France, Germany, Sweden (by 2045) and Norway (by 2030).

From commitment to action

The government plans to set up an independent climate commission, likely based on the one established in the UK with nearly unanimous parliamentary support in 2008. UK emissions are down not just to 1990 levels, but to 1900 levels.

The climate commission’s tasks will include providing advice on effective pricing mechanisms for climate pollution, on the transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2035, and on bringing agriculture into the NZ Emissions Trading Scheme.

All parties to the Paris Agreement have already agreed to become carbon-neutral in the second half of this century. The snag is turning that commitment into action.

A story of good intentions

It is now 20 years since New Zealand first signed the Kyoto Protocol – two decades of fine words and twists and turns in policy while emissions continued to rise. Surprisingly, while Australia has followed a twisty path of its own, perhaps with not so many fine words, the effect has been the same: gross greenhouse gas emissions have risen 24% in New Zealand since 1990, compared to a rise of 27% in Australia.

New Zealanders built a lot of gas-fuelled power stations in the 1990s and bought a lot of cars in the 2000s. Astoundingly, we now have more cars per capita than Australia.

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The frustrating story is told in the documentary Hot Air. New Zealand spent ten years getting a strategy in place, ending up with an emissions trading scheme (ETS). Another decade of tinkering later, the scheme involves a complex system of discounts, free allocations, exemptions and, crucially, unlimited access to international emissions units.

After 2012, New Zealand companies used this access to buy large numbers of low-integrity units from the Ukraine, enough to officially cover a quarter of all our emissions. The price of carbon, currently NZ$19, adds about 4c per litre to the price of petrol, and about 1c per kilowatt-hour to gas-powered electricity. So far, New Zealand’s ETS – like others worldwide – has not delivered.


Read more: A new approach to emissions trading in a post-Paris climate


New Zealand’s state-owned mining company, Solid Energy, was pushed into some risky deals and ultimately into managed bankruptcy. The remaining assets have been sold to Bathurst Resources. Chief executive Richard Tacon said recently:

… there is no viable alternative to coal. I mean we realise it’s a transition fuel, but there’s a lot of business, dairy … that rely on coal to be a reliable, storable source of energy.

Has even an Australian coal baron ever called coal a “transition fuel”? But then again perhaps Tacon has a point: the dairy company Fonterra burns more than half of all New Zealand’s coal, and the dairy industry as a whole emits 2.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year burning coal to dry milk.

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Civil society perseveres

Against this background, climate activists have had a hard row to hoe. Law student Sarah Thomson took the government to court in July 2017 over its inaction on climate change. In a victory for both sides, the judge ruled that the government should have reviewed its 2050 target, but declined to order a judicial review because the government had since changed.

The youth climate group Generation Zero campaigned for a Zero Carbon Act. The former parliamentary commissioner for the environment, Jan Wright, called for a UK-style Climate Change Act. Thirty-nine mayors pressed the government to take stronger action.

Data from a 20-year longitudinal study of social attitudes in New Zealand show increasing agreement with climate change.

A third review of the ETS removed a 50% discount, with further strengthening scheduled. The Environment Ministry was asked to advise specifically on domestic emissions reductions. The Productivity Commission, a government think tank, was asked to report on a low-emission economy.

However, during the election campaign, climate change was not a major issue, and official projections showed a continued rise in emissions. Under current policy settings, net emissions will rise a further 58% by 2030.

Aiming for carbon neutrality

That brings the story to New Zealand First’s decision to choose a Labour-led government, with the Green Party in a confidence and supply arrangement. The Greens now have five ministers, including co-leader James Shaw as minister for climate change. Labour, having first introduced the ETS in 2008, will now amend it to try to make it work.

Already, since the election, Fonterra has announced a commitment to cut processing emissions (mostly due to coal, but also natural gas and transport) by 30% by 2030, matching the national target, and 100% by 2050.

Carbon neutrality calls for, among other things, a complete stop to burning fossil fuels and to buying products that burn them, such as petrol cars. The year 2050 is not that far away.

In truth, by 2050 anything might happen: organic solar cells might become as cheap as newsprint, unleashing economic growth and making “sunlight-to-liquid fuels” economic – or not. Positive carbon feedbacks from the oceans, forests and Arctic methane might overwhelm our mitigation efforts. Climate sensitivity might surprise us on the high or low side.

The ConversationWe can’t say what parts of the natural world will survive climate change and the attempted sustainability transition. But New Zealand is taking a step in the right direction.

Robert McLachlan, Professor in Applied Mathematics, Massey University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.