A landmark report confirms Australia is girt by hotter, higher seas. But there’s still time to act



Aerial imagery revealing the extent of storm damage in Dee Why on Sydney’s Northern Beaches in 2016 following wild weather.
NEARMAP/AAP

Jess Melbourne-Thomas, CSIRO; Kathleen McInnes, CSIRO; Nathan Bindoff, University of Tasmania, and Nerilie Abram, Australian National University

A landmark scientific report has confirmed that climate change is altering the world’s seas and ice at an unprecedented rate. Australia depends on the ocean that surrounds us for our health and prosperity. So what does this mean for us, and life on Earth?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings were launched in Monaco on Wednesday night. They provide the most definitive scientific evidence yet of warmer, more acidic and less productive seas. Glaciers and ice sheets are melting, causing sea level to rise at an accelerating rate.

The implications for Australia are serious. Extreme sea level events that used to hit once a century will occur once a year in many of the world’s coastal places by 2050. This situation is inevitable, even if greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically curbed.

The findings, titled the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, strengthen the already compelling case for countries to meet their emission reduction goals under the 2015 Paris agreement.

Beachgoers cool off in the water at Bondi Beach in Sydney, February 2019. Australia’s coast dwellers must adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change.
Joel Carrett/AAP



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A rapid and dramatic cut in greenhouse gas emissions would prevent the most catastrophic damage to the ocean and cryosphere (frozen polar and mountain regions). This would help protect the ecosystems and people that rely on them.

The report entailed two years of work by 104 authors and review editors from 36 countries, who assessed nearly 7,000 scientific papers and responded to more than 30,000 review comments.

The picture is worse than we thought

Mountain glaciers and polar ice sheets are shrinking and, together with expansion of the warming ocean, are contributing to an increasing rate of sea level rise.

During the last century, global sea levels rose about 15cm. Seas are now rising more than twice as fast – 3.6mm per year – and accelerating, the report shows.

The IPCC’s projections are more dire than in its 2014 oceans report. It has revised upwards by 10% the effect of the melting Antarctic ice sheet on sea level rise by 2100. Antarctica appears to be changing more rapidly than was thought possible even five years ago, and further work is needed to understand just how quickly ice will be lost from Antarctica in future.

Key components and changes of the ocean and cryosphere, and their linkages in the Earth system.
IPCC, 2019

If you live near the Australian coast, change is coming

By 2050, more than one billion of the world’s people will live on coastal land less than 10 metres above sea level. They will be exposed to combinations of sea level rise, extreme winds, waves, storm surges and flooding from intensified storms and tropical cyclones.

Many of Australia’s coastal cities and communities can expect to experience what was previously a once-in-a-century extreme coastal flooding event at least once every year by the middle of this century.

Our island neighbours in Indonesia and the Pacific will also be hit hard. The report warns that some island nations are likely to become uninhabitable – although the extent of this is hard to assess accurately.

Some change is inevitable and we will have to adapt. But the report also delivered a strong message about the choices that still remain. In the case of extreme sea level events around Australia, we believe a marked global reduction in greenhouse as emissions would buy us more than 10 years of extra time, in some places, to protect our coastal communities and infrastructure from the rising ocean.

Indonesian residents wade through flood water in Jakarta. The northwestern part of Jakarta is rapidly sinking.
MAST IRHAM/EPA

More frequent extreme events are often occurring at the same time or in quick succession. Tasmania’s summer of 2015-16 is a good example. The state experienced record-breaking drought which worsened the fire threat in the highlands. An unprecedented marine heatwave along the east coast damaged kelp forests and caused disease and death of shellfish, and the state’s northeast suffered severe flooding.

This string of events stretched emergency services, energy supplies and the aquaculture and manufacturing industries. The total economic cost to the state government was an estimated A$445 million. The impacts on the food, energy and manufacturing sectors cut Tasmania’s anticipated economic growth by about half.

Reefs and fish stocks are suffering

The ocean has taken a huge hit from climate change – taking up heat, absorbing carbon dioxide that makes the water more acidic, and losing oxygen. It will bring ocean conditions unlike anything we have seen before.

Marine ecosystems and fisheries around the world are under pressure from this barrage of stressors. Overall, the fisheries potential around Australia’s coasts is expected to decline during this century.

Heat build-up in the surface ocean has already triggered a marked rise in the intensity, frequency and duration of marine heatwaves. Ocean heatwaves are expected to become between four and ten times more common this century, depending on how rapidly global warming continues.

The report said coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, are already at very high risk from climate change and are expected to suffer significant losses and local extinctions. This would occur even if global warming is limited to 1.5℃ – a threshold the world is set to overshoot by a wide margin.




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Our choices now are critical for the future

This report reinforces the findings of earlier reports on the importance of limiting global warming warming to 1.5℃ if we are to avoid major impacts on the land, the ocean and frozen areas.

Even if we act now to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some damage is already locked in and our ocean and frozen regions will continue to change for decades to centuries to come.

Mertz Glacier in east Antarctica. IPCC scientists say the expected effect of melting Antarctic ice on sea level rise is worse than projected five years ago.
Australian Antarctic Division

In Australia, we will need to adapt our coastal cities and communities to unavoidable sea level rise. There are a range of possible options, from building barriers to planned relocation, to protecting the coral reefs and mangroves that provide natural coastal defences.

But if we want to give adaptation the best chance of working, the clear message of this new report is that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible.The Conversation

Jess Melbourne-Thomas, Transdisciplinary Researcher & Knowledge Broker, CSIRO; Kathleen McInnes, Senior research scientist, CSIRO; Nathan Bindoff, Professor of Physical Oceanography, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, and Nerilie Abram, ARC Future Fellow, Research School of Earth Sciences; Chief Investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Defiant Scott Morrison tells the world Australia is ‘doing our bit’ on climate change


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison has used his address to the United Nations to strongly defend the government’s performance on climate change, declaring defiantly Australia was “doing our bit” and “we reject any suggestion to the contrary”.

In a speech concentrating on Australia’s response to “the great global environmental challenges” Morrison emphasised dealing with plastic waste.

“To protect our oceans, Australia is committed to leading urgent action to combat plastic pollution choking our oceans, tackle over-exploitation of our fisheries, prevent ocean habitat destruction and take action on climate change,” he said.

Meanwhile, a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released on Wednesday, calls for urgent climate change action “to address unprecedented and enduring changes in the ocean and cryosphere”.

The IPCC says that with the increase in temperature that has already occurred “the ocean is warmer, more acidic and less productive. Melting glaciers and ice sheets are causing sea level rise, and coastal extreme events are becoming more severe”.

With much international attention on the Great Barrier Reef, Morrison declared the reef was “vibrant and resilient and protected under the world’s most comprehensive reef management plan”.

He said that on climate change Australia was “taking real action … and getting results”, and attacked critics.

“We are successfully balancing our global responsibilities with sensible and practical policies to secure our environmental and economic future.

“Australia’s internal and global critics on climate change willingly overlook or ignore our achievements, as the facts simply don’t fit the narrative they wish to project about our contribution.”




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Morrison’s speech came in the wake of considerable criticism of his failing to attend the UN leaders summit on climate at the start of the week.

Reeling off facts and figures on Australia’s performance, the Prime Minister told the General Assembly, “this is a credible, fair, responsible and achievable contribution to global climate change action. It represents a halving of emissions per person in Australia, or a two thirds reduction in emissions per unit of GDP”.

Australia had the world’s highest per capita investment in clean energy technologies, he said, and one in five households had rooftop solar systems.

Referring to the Australian government’s decision not to put more money into the Global Green Climate Fund, Morrison said it preferred to invest directly, targeting Pacific island countries.

In sum, Australia was taking “significant and comprehensive action … in response to the world’s greatest environmental challenges”.

On the push by young people on climate issues – highlighted last week by the school strikes and this week by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s much publicised address to the summit – Morrison said that like other leaders he received many letters from children about their future.

“I deeply respect their concerns and indeed I welcome their passion, especially when it comes to the environment.

“My impulse is always to seek to respond positively and to encourage them. To provide context, perspective and particularly to generate hope.

“To focus their minds and direct their energies to practical solutions and positive behaviour that will deliver enduring results for them.

“To encourage them to learn more about science, technology, engineering and maths – because it’s through research, innovation and enterprise that the practical work of successfully managing our very real environmental challenges is achieved.”




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The passion and aspiration of the young must be respected and harnessed, he said. At the same time “we must guard against others who would seek to compound or, worse, facelessly exploit their anxiety for their own agendas. We must similarly not allow their concerns to be dismissed or diminished as this can also increase their anxiety.

“Our children have a right not just to their future but to their optimism.

“Above all, we should let our children be children, let our kids be kids, let our teenagers be teenagers – while we work positively together to deliver the practical solutions for them and their future.”

Before delivering his speech Morrison visited an Australian company’s recycling facility in New York.

At a press conference there, he told reporters his talks had reinforced the fact “that we’ve just got to keep working hard to get our energy costs down” so they could compete globally.

“I keep coming back to this issue of gas and looking at all the alternatives on the table.” he said.

There was more work to be done on dealing with electricity prices.

“It’s a constant challenge”, he said, while shifting a lot of the weight to the state governments.

The federal government wasn’t the primary government with the impact on electricity prices, he said.

“We all know that it’s the state governments who basically are in charge of the assets and resources access that principally determines these costs and the cost of the system and the utilities.

“They also determine whether you can get gas out from under people’s feet. Now the reason electricity prices are as low as they are in the United States, and particularly down south, is because of access to gas. We’ve got heaps of gas and it’s being kept under people’s feet. So that’s something we’ve got to change,” he said. The states needed to change the rules.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

When it comes to climate change, Australia’s mining giants are an accessory to the crime



Australia’s major mining companies are significant contributors to global emissions.
Global Warming Images

Jeremy Moss, UNSW

There are many reasons for Australia’s absence from the podium of the the United Nations Climate Action Summit this week. No doubt it would send a poor message if emission reduction laggards such as Australia had taken centre stage.

But Australia is also the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquified natural gas. And by providing fossil fuel subsidies and exploration rights, the Australia federal government encourages its major mining companies to export more. This situation is now profoundly hostile to action on climate change.




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The emissions produced from the fossil fuels extracted by Australia’s major gas, coal and oil producing companies – our “carbon majors” – such as BHP, Glencore and Yancoal, are now larger than all Australia’s domestic emissions.

While these companies, and Australia itself, have no legal responsibility for these “exported” emissions, morally it is comparable to selling uranium to a failed state or dumping medical waste unsafely. We understand the harm our exports cause, and are therefore at least partially culpable for the harms they cause.

We think in nations, not companies

Why aren’t Australian carbon majors considered to be responsible for addressing their emissions and their consequences? One reason is when we think about reducing emissions, we typically focus on the role of nations.

After all, it is nations that negotiate climate agreements, and their policies are substantially responsible for the contribution their citizens make to the problem of climate change.

But the impact of carbon majors is now so large, we must make the case for holding them responsible for the consequences.

In 2018 alone, BHP’s global fossil fuel production led to the emissions of the equivalent of 596 megatonnes (Mt) of CO₂-equivalent . Over the last 15 years BHP’s Australian coal operations have produced 1,863Mt of CO₂-e.

These figures would be significantly higher still if we included the remainder of the emissions since 1990, when the first major report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed the risks of climate change and the consequences of emissions.

To put that in perspective, in 2018 BHP’s emissions from its global fossil fuel operations alone were more than the whole of Australia’s domestic emissions (534Mt CO₂-e) for 2018. If BHP were a country, the products it produces would cause emissions greater than those emitted by 25 million Australians.

As well as their current levels of production, many of the carbon majors hold vast reserves to be extracted in the future as well as new fossil fuel projects. Glencore, the largest coal mining company in Australia, reported in 2018 that they have 6,765Mt of measured metallurgic coal resources, and 1,565Mt of thermal coal in proved marketable reserves. Together, that’s the equivalent of 18,202Mt of CO₂, more than 34 times Australia’s 2018 carbon emissions.

Moral responsibility

But why should we hold the companies themselves responsible for these emissions? After all, except for the emissions created during the extraction process, they don’t themselves directly produce these emissions. For the most part, carbon majors contribute by being producers and suppliers of fossil fuels.

Like nations, carbon majors are seen as having responsibility only for emissions they have produced directly in operating a mine or transporting their commodities to port. This is the “territorial” model of emissions attribution.

Yet the responsibility of carbon majors is much greater than this territorial model suggests. To see how this might be the case, it is useful to draw on some basic moral and legal theory.




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For example, a murderer or thief is directly responsible for the harm they cause their victim. They pulled a trigger or absconded with the money, and no-one else shares that direct blame.

But in the case where a person intends to shoot another person and I announce that I will sell them a gun — knowing full well what it will be used for — the responsibility for the murder no longer falls solely on the person who pulls the trigger. Given I sold the gun knowing that someone would be harmed, I am now an accomplice to the crime and should share at least some of the blame.

In this case, there is a relationship between my actions and the murder that ought to make me at least partially responsible.

In the case of carbon majors, by producing and selling fossil fuels which are, in turn, consumed in another country, they are complicit in the harm directly caused by their customer: the releasing of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere by consuming the fuel.

Australia’s carbon majors are accessories to the wrongful harm of climate change.

Shared blame

These companies of course point out they are not wholly responsible – other companies and people actually use the fossil fuels overseas, where the emissions count towards another country’s tally. But accepting even some fault for the effect of their exports is a huge increase in a company’s moral responsibility over what they currently admit.

What does this mean in practice? First of all, it means that they have a strong moral reason to stop contributing to the harm by appropriately cutting their fossil fuel operations in line with IPCC timeframes and take a fair share of their climate-related liabilities. They should also stop seeking support for fossil fuels through lobbyists, politicians, “think tanks” and industry groups.

It will be argued that such actions will be costly to the carbon majors. But unless we are willing to concede that it is acceptable to harm others without sanction or an end it sight, this is not a convincing response.




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However as citizens, we also need to move beyond reducing our domestic emissions. As voters, investors and consumers, we share a responsibility for our exported emissions. Ending state and institutional support for carbon majors should now be a major focus of climate action.The Conversation

Jeremy Moss, Professor of Political Philosophy, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.