Some say we’ve seen bushfires worse than this before. But they’re ignoring a few key facts



Australia is a bushfire-prone nation. But several factors make this fire season worse than those past.
Victorian Government

Joelle Gergis, Australian National University and Geoff Cary, Australian National University

Every time a weather extreme occurs, some people quickly jump in to say we’ve been through it all before: that worse events have happened in the past, or it’s just part of natural climate variability.

The recent bushfire crisis is a case in point. Writing in The Australian recently, columnist Gerard Henderson said:

In Victoria, there were further huge fires in 1983 and 2009. But until now, there was no suggestion that the state’s future would be one of continuing apocalypse.

Of course, Australia has a long history of bushfires. But several factors make eastern Australia’s recent crisis different to infamous bushfires in the past.

First is the enormous geographic spread of this season’s fires, and second, the absence of El Niño conditions typically associated with previous severe fires.

Thirdly and most important, these fires were preceded by the hottest and driest conditions in Australian history.

Record-breaking hot and dry conditions preceded this fire season.
David Mariuz/AAP

Understanding Australia’s climate

As Australia’s climate has warmed since the 1970s, fire weather conditions have become more extreme, and the length of the fire season has increased across large parts of the nation.

Human-induced warming has been evident in Australian temperatures since 1950. This has contributed to a clear long-term trend toward more dangerous fire weather conditions in many areas.




Read more:
Weather bureau says hottest, driest year on record led to extreme bushfire season


As the planet continues to warm, natural climate variability in the Pacific, Indian and Southern oceans will continue to drive variations in Australian climate.

These natural climate drivers are complex. But taking the time to understand them, and how they interact with human climate influences, is critically important.

Natural climate variability refers to processes such as El Niño and its opposite, La Niña in the Pacific Ocean. Together these are known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. Other such processes include phases of the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) in the Indian Ocean and fluctuations in the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) across the Southern Ocean.

Australia’s natural climate influences.
Bureau of Meteorology

Right now, ENSO is not active, and a very strong positive IOD event – the strongest since 1997 – has just ended. Positive IOD events typically result in below average winter-spring rainfall over southern and central Australia, and are often associated with more severe bushfire conditions.

There has also been a marked warming of the atmosphere over Antarctica, known as sudden stratospheric warming. This has led to a weakening of the polar vortex, resulting in more negative conditions in the Southern Annular Mode – essentially the north-south movement of the westerly wind belt that loops around Antarctica.

New Australian research has found weakening and warming of the stratospheric polar vortex over Antarctica significantly increases the chances of hot and dry extremes, including more severe fire weather conditions across subtropical eastern Australia than is normal for spring-early summer.




Read more:
The air above Antarctica is suddenly getting warmer – here’s what it means for Australia


This combination of unusual natural variability in the Indian and Southern Oceans, the unprecedented lack of winter rains in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and Australia’s hottest summer on record, have contributed to the extreme drought currently affecting 100% of New South Wales and 67.4% of Queensland.

These factors have combined to bake the landscape dry, even transforming usually wet sub-tropical rainforests into available fuel for this season’s catastrophic bushfire conditions.

Winter rainfall in eastern Australia, 1900–2019.
Bureau of Meteorology

How climate influenced past Australian bushfires

Historically, the most severe Australian bushfire seasons and droughts occurred when the Indian Ocean Dipole combined with El Niño to reinforce dry conditions. Both these climate drivers influence Australian rainfall and soil moisture, with the driest conditions over the southeast, but more broadly across most of the country (with the notable exception of coastal NSW).

As Australia’s climate continues to warm, a range of scientific sources suggest some established relationships between the historical drivers of Australian climate and their impact on rainfall and temperature may be breaking down.




Read more:
‘This crisis has been unfolding for years’: 4 photos of Australia from space, before and after the bushfires


For example, Australia’s hottest years on record were historically associated with El Niño events, in line with global temperature trends. However, global warming means even traditionally cooler La Niña years are now warmer than many El Niño years of the past. This suggests natural variability may be increasingly swamped by human influences on the climate.

Following Australia’s hottest summer on record, and a record-breaking year of heat and drought, the 2019-2020 bushfire season started as early as winter 2019.

Mount Macedon in Victoria, after the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983.
Wikimedia

In September, barely a week into spring, catastrophic bushfires wrought havoc in many areas of southern Queensland and northern NSW.

Even the usually moss-covered rainforests of the World Heritage-listed Gondwana Rainforests of Australia burned.

Similarly in Tasmania, the 2016 fires destroyed large areas of ancient Gondwanan forest, triggering a cascade of changes through the entire ecosystem.

Strikingly, the current catastrophic bushfires are occurring in the absence of El Niño conditions typically associated with severe bushfires in the past.

The notorious Ash Wednesday fires that devastated parts of south-eastern Australia in February 1983 occurred during one of the most intense El Niño events on record. Some 75 people were killed across the country’s south-east, and more than 2,000 homes were lost.

Ash Wednesday was also preceded by a positive Indian Ocean Dipole event. Together with the El Niño, this created a “double whammy” of drought conditions which provided the climatic backdrop for the fires.

Average rainfall deciles for total winter-spring rainfall for six positive IOD events that have occurred with El Niño event since 1960.
Bureau of Meteorology

Similarly, the 1994 Sydney fires were also influenced by a combination of El Niño and positive IOD conditions.

However the current drought is affecting areas such as coastal NSW which have not historically been influenced by positive IOD and El Niño events. This suggests other drivers are at play.

Rainfall deficits experienced from 1 July 2018 until 31 December 2019.
Bureau of Meteorology

Perhaps most alarmingly, this summer’s bushfire crisis also differs from the past in the spread and extent of landscape burned. More so than during Victoria’s Ash Wednesday or Black Saturday, this season’s fires have burned large swathes of the country. In some cases, fires merged to form unprecedented “mega fires”. It is sobering to consider what might happen to the Australian landscape the next time an El Niño hits.

Of course it will take time before researchers can pinpoint the full extent to which climate change influenced the current drought and associated bushfires.

But it is already clear to experts that natural variability and human influences on the climate system are now interacting to generate extremes that may have no parallel in Australian history.

Firefighters recover after battling blazes at Kangaroo Island on 10 January 2019.
David Mariuz/AAP

What this means for bushfire danger

As with land and sea temperatures, Australia has seen rising trends in fire danger indices in recent decades.

In particular, the annual accumulated Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) – which takes into account drought, recent rain, air temperature, relative humidity and wind speed – has increased in eastern and southern Australia.




Read more:
Bushfires, bots and arson claims: Australia flung in the global disinformation spotlight


The bushfire season has become longer and more intense. In fact, the extraordinary conditions experienced during Victoria’s Black Saturday fires in February 2009 later prompted the creation of a new “catastrophic” fire rating, represented by a FFDI of 100 or greater.

On September 6 last year – less than a week out from winter – severe bushfires burned across Queensland and NSW. In most affected areas, daily FFDI values that day (pictured in the bottom right of the graphic below) were higher than anything observed so early in the season since records began in 1950. Astoundingly, a FDDI of 174 was recorded at Murrurundi Gap in the Hunter region of NSW.

Comparison of historical bushfires using the Forest Fire Danger Index for February 16, 1983 (Ash Wednesday, top left), January 6, 1994 (Sydney fires, top right), February 7, 2009 (Black Saturday, bottom left), and September 6, 2019 (bottom right).
Dr Andrew Dowdy, Bureau of Meteorology

Rewriting history

In the past, Australia only had to contend with natural climate variability. Now, our entire weather and climate systems are being altered and amplified by human activity. Climate change is making extreme events even more severe, resulting in unprecedented conditions that are rewriting our nation’s history.

The CSIRO’s most recent climate projections reconfirmed their projections released in 2015 which clearly showed Australia faces more dangerous fire weather conditions in future.

It will take time to understand the exact contribution of each climatic factor in the bushfire season of 2019–2020. However one thing is certain: unless there are global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures will continue to rise, increasing the risk that catastrophic bushfire conditions become Australia’s “new normal”.The Conversation

Joelle Gergis, Senior Lecturer in Climate Science, Australian National University and Geoff Cary, Associate Professor, Bushfire Science, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

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

The too hard basket: a short history of Australia’s aborted climate policies


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

Less than three years ago, after Malcolm Turnbull had wrested the prime ministership from Tony Abbott, I wrote an article entitled “Carbon coups: from Hawke to Abbott, climate policy is never far away when leaders come a cropper”.

Less than two weeks ago I wrote again about climate policy’s unique knack of causing leaders to falter, with terminal results for the policies and, often, the leaders themselves.

Now Turnbull has added a new chapter to this saga. He has abandoned the emissions component of his beleaguered National Energy Guarantee, in what has been characterised as a capitulation to a vocal group of backbench colleagues. The climbdown may still not be enough to save his leadership.




Read more:
Emissions policy is under attack from all sides. We’ve been here before, and it rarely ends well


A workable, credible climate policy has been the impossible object that has brought down every prime minister we’ve had for a more than a decade – all the way back to (and including) John Howard.

Howard’s way

Howard had spent the first ten years of his prime ministership denying either the existence of climate change or the need to do anything about it. In 2003, virtually all of his cabinet supported an emissions trading scheme. But, after meeting with industry leaders, he dumped the idea.

The following year Howard called a meeting of large fossil fuel companies, seeking their help in destroying the renewable energy target that he had been forced to accept in the runup to the 1997 Kyoto climate summit.

However, in 2006, the political pressure to act on climate became too great. The Millennium Drought seemed endless, the European Union had launched its own emissions trading scheme, and Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth cut through with the Australian public. Late in the year, Treasury came back for another bite at an emissions trading cherry.

In his book Triumph and Demise, journalist Paul Kelly describes how Treasury secretary Ken Henry convinced Howard to adopt an emissions trading policy, telling him:

Prime Minister, I’m taking as my starting point that during your prime ministership you will want to commit us to a cap on national emissions. If my view on that is wrong, there is really nothing more I can say… If you want a cap on emissions then it stands to reason that you want the most cost-effective way of doing that. That brings us to emissions trading, unless you want a tax on carbon.

The moral challenge

Howard’s problem was that voters were not convinced by his backflip. In November 2007, Kevin Rudd – who had proclaimed climate change “the great moral challenge of our generation” – became prime minister. A tortuous policy-making process ensued, with ever greater concessions to big polluters.

In late 2009, according to Kelly’s account, Rudd refused to meet with the then opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull to resolve the outstanding issues around Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Then, in December of that year, Turnbull was toppled by Abbott and the legislation was doomed.

Meanwhile, the Copenhagen climate conference ended in disaster, and although advised to go for a double-dissolution election, Rudd baulked. In April 2010, he kicked emissions trading into the long grass for at least three years, and his approval ratings plummeted.

In July 2010 Julia Gillard toppled Rudd, and the prime ministership has never been safe from internal dissent since. Not since 2004 has a federal leader won a general election from which they would survive to contest the next.

In the final days of the 2010 election campaign, Gillard made the fateful statement that “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead”.

That election resulted in a hung parliament, and after meeting climate policy advocates Ross Garnaut and Nick Stern, two crucial independents – Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott – made a carbon price their price for supporting Gillard.

The carbon tax war

Gillard steered the legislation through parliament in the face of ferocious opposition from Abbott, who declared a “blood oath” that he would repeal her legislation. After winning the 2013 election, he delivered on his pledge in July 2014. Gillard, for her part, said she regretted not taking issue with Abbott’s characterisation of her carbon pricing scheme as a tax.

Abbott also reduced the Renewable Energy Target, and tried but failed to rid himself of the Australian Renewable Energy Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

Abbott’s demise as prime minister was not as directly tied to climate policy as Howard’s, Rudd’s or Gillard’s. Far more instrumental were gaffes such as giving the Duke of Edinburgh a knighthood.

But as Abbott’s government was descending into chaos, Turnbull seemed to many middle-of-the-road voters like the perfect solution: Liberal economic policy but with added climate concern. On today’s evidence, he seems to have been willing to trade that concern away to stay in the top job.

The future?

As of the time of writing – Monday 20 August (it pays to be specific when the situation is in such flux) – it is clear that the NEG is dead, at least in its original incarnation as a means of tackling the climate issue. No legislation or regulation will aim to reduce greenhouse emissions, with the policy now addressing itself solely at power prices.

It is not clear how long Turnbull will remain in office, and one could make a case that he is no longer truly in power. Thoughts now inevitably also turn to what a Shorten Labor government would do in this area if the opposition claims victory at the next election.




Read more:
It’s ten years since Rudd’s ‘great moral challenge’, and we have failed it


The first question in that regard is whether Mark Butler – an able opposition spokesman on climate change – would become the minister for a single portfolio covering energy and environment. The next is the degree of opposition that Labor would face – both from members of the union movement looking out for the interests of coal workers, and from business and industry. If Australia’s environment groups win the battle over Adani’s planned Carmichael coalmine, will they have the heart to win the wider climate policy struggle?

As ever, it will come down to stamina and stomach. Would Shorten and Butler have the wherewithal to face down the various competing interests and push through a credible, lasting policy, in an area where all their predecessors have ultimately failed?

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The Conversation

Will the Coalition government formulate a new emissions policy – one that can withstand the feet-to-the-fire approach that has killed off every other similar effort so far?

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

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

Islands lost to the waves: how rising seas washed away part of Micronesia’s 19th-century history



File 20170824 6594 1ussrse.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Laiap, to the west of the site of the now-disappeared Nahlapenlohd.
Author provided

Patrick D. Nunn, University of the Sunshine Coast

At first glance it may not seem so, but the story of the now-vanished island of Nahlapenlohd, a couple of kilometres south of Pohnpei Island in Micronesia, holds some valuable lessons about recent climate change in the western Pacific.

In 1850, Nahlapenlohd was so large that not only did it support a sizeable coconut forest, but it was able to accommodate a memorable battle between the rival kingdoms of Kitti and Madolenihmw. The skirmish was the first in Pohnpeian history to involve the European sailor-mercenaries known as beachcombers and to be fought with imported weapons like cannons and muskets.

Today the island is no more. The oral histories tell that so much blood was spilled in this fierce battle that it stripped the island of all its vegetation, causing it to shrink and eventually disappear beneath the waves.


Read more: Sea level rise has claimed five whole islands in the Pacific: first scientific evidence


Like many oral tales, this one tries to explain island disappearance post-1850 by making reference to an historical event. But in light of what we know today, the more plausible cause of the island’s disappearance is the sea-level rise in the western Pacific since the early 19th century, which has accelerated significantly over the past few decades. The disappearance of islands in the Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific has recently been attributed to sea level rise. Further north, the same is true of several reef islands off Pohnpei.

Pohnpei and its surrounding islands, both past and present.
CREDIT, Author provided

Surveys of 12 of these islands have shown that not only have some – like Nahlapenlohd – completely disappeared, but that most others have shrunk over the past decade. Islands such as Laiap and Ros, which have lost two-thirds of their land area over this time, are likely to disappear completely within the coming decade.

The island of Laiap has shrunk since 2007.
CREDIT, Author provided

Why are islands in the western Pacific becoming the earliest casualties of sea-level rise? Partly because sea levels in this region have risen at two to three times the global average over the past few decades.

In parts of Micronesia, sea level has risen by 10-12mm each year between 1993 and 2012, far outpacing the global average of 3.1mm a year. While this rate is unlikely to be sustained indefinitely, the current trend would raise sea levels by a further 30-40cm by mid-century if it were to continue.

What’s more, reef islands are particularly vulnerable to erosion by rising seas, being made almost entirely of sand and gravel. Whole islands – even some island nations with which we are familiar today – are likely to be rendered uninhabitable or even disappear within the next 30 years. These include islands in nations like Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu, as well as some in other island nations that comprise mostly larger islands, such as the Federated States of Micronesia, of which Pohnpei is one.

Armoured islands

Yet we should note that not all of Pohnpei’s reef islands are disappearing, at least not at the same rate, and some have fortuitously evolved protection that will likely help them outlive their neighbours.

The coasts of some islands – like Kehpara and Nahlap – are “armoured” by beaches of huge boulders left there by large storms, often along their most exposed coasts. Other reef islands off Pohnpei’s leeward coast, such as Dawahk, are becoming “skeletonized” as waves wash across the island removing the sand and leaving only rocks, held in place by a maze of giant mangrove roots.

Whether or not the islands themselves succumb or survive, sea-level rise is a clear threat to their habitability for humans. Short-term interventions – either natural fortifications such as boulder beaches, or human-built defences such as seawalls – are unlikely to change the long-term outcome.

This underscores the fact that low-lying reef islands are transient – most Pacific reef islands formed only in the past 4,000 years after sea levels fell and sediment began to pile up on exposed reef platforms. The sea will remove today’s islands, just as it has washed away countless others before.

But of course we cannot ignore the human dimension. While only a few dozen people today call the reef islands of Pohnpei home, they are similar to many larger reef islands in Micronesia from which people may well be involuntarily displaced during the next few decades. Where these people might go, and how they can be accommodated in ways that preserve their dignity as well as their unique cultures, are very real questions for community leaders.


Read more: Australia doesn’t ‘get’ the environmental challenges faced by Pacific islanders


People first reached the islands of Micronesia from the Philippines, about 3,500 years ago after an unbroken ocean crossing of 2,300km. It’s an extraordinary achievement when you consider that people in most other parts of the world at that time rarely sailed out of sight of land. To have survived on islands in the middle of the ocean for more than three millennia, Micronesians and other Pacific islanders must have developed considerable resilience.

On high islands in Micronesia, the evidence for this is manifest. Ancient stonework constructions line many parts of the coastline, testament to a long
history of resisting shoreline change, and sometimes of manipulating it for human advantage.

Perhaps nowhere is more evocative of this today than Nan Madol, a megalithic complex built 1,000 years ago on 93 artificial islands off southeast Pohnpei. There are many explanations about why Nan Madol was created. Perhaps the truth is that it is an expression of dogged human resilience – one of hundreds along Micronesian coasts – in the face of an unruly nature.


The ConversationI thank my co-researchers on the project focused on Pohnpei’s reef islands, Augustine Kohler from the Department of National Archives, Culture and Historic Preservation of the Government of the Federated States of Micronesia, and my colleague Roselyn Kumar from the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Sustainability Research Centre.

Patrick D. Nunn, Professor of Geography, Sustainability Research Centre, University of the Sunshine Coast

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

A brief history of Al Gore’s climate missions to Australia


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

Al Gore has been visiting Australia this week – partly because he has a new film to promote, but also because he and Australian climate policy have had a surprisingly long entanglement. Given that this year is likely to be a bloody one as far as climate policy goes, don’t be surprised if he’s back again before 2017 is out.

Gore has a long and honourable record on climate change, although ironically his weakest period on climate coincided with the peak of his political power, as US Vice President.

As he says in his 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, he was first alerted to climate change by Roger Revelle, who can justly be called the (American) father of climate science. On becoming a Congressman, Gore was part of the move by Democrats to sustain momentum on climate policy that had stalled with the arrival of Ronald Reagan as President.

Gore organised Congressional hearings in 1981, and 1982 (NASA climatologist James Hansen’s first congressional testimony).

Even back then, the familiar political narrative around climate change had already formed, as journalism academic David Sachsman recalls:

The CBS Evening News for March 25, 1982, included a two minute and 50 second story by David Culhane on the greenhouse effect. Chemist Melvin Calvin raised the threat of global warming, Representative Al Gore called for further research, and James Kane of the Energy Department said there was no need for haste.

This report from the following year tells a similar tale, noting the political difficulty of solving the climate problem:

A youthful Gore in 1983.

By the time of the seminal Villach conference of October 1985, Gore was a Senator, and helped to organise the first Senate hearings since 1979. Gore’s colleague, Republican Senator David Durenberger remarked that “grappling with this problem [of climate change] is going to be just about as easy as nailing Jello to the wall”.

The following year, as Joshua Howe notes in his excellent book on the politics and science of climate change, Behind the Curve (2014), the then Senator Joe Biden introduced an initiative mandating that the president commission an executive-level task force to devise a strategy for responding to global warming – a strategy the president was meant to deliver to Congress within one year.

Gore scored another political victory on May 8, 1989, when Hansen testified that George H. W. Bush’s administration had ordered him to change the conclusions in written testimony regarding the seriousness of global warming

From Vice President to movie star

However, as Vice President to Bill Clinton, Gore disappointed environmentalists. An energy tax was defeated by industry lobbyists in 1993, and the Clinton administration (perhaps wisely) opted not to try and pass the Kyoto Protocol through a defiant Senate.

After leaving the West Wing he embraced Hollywood, where his budding movie career attracted derision in some quarters, despite the hefty policy achievements earlier in Gore’s career.

Besides an Inconvenient Truth (see here for an account of its impact in Australia), Gore “starred” in another movie, the 1990 philosophy-based talkie Mindwalk, starring Sam Waterston as Senator Jack Edwards, a thinly veiled version of Gore.

Former Australian industry minister Ian Macfarlane certainly considered Gore more entertainer than policymaker when speculating on his reasons for visiting in 2006:

Well, Al Gore’s here to sell tickets to a movie, and no one can begrudge him that. It’s just entertainment, and really that’s all it is.

Gore and Australia

Gore has been on these shores many times. During his May 2003 visit Gore urged the then Prime Minister John Howard to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. He met with the then New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, and also with former Liberal leader and current climate hawk John Hewson. He spoke at an event co-hosted by the Business Council of Australia to advocate sustainable development.

After a controversial visit in 2005, Gore visited twice in 2006. As Joan Staples notes in her PhD, he teamed up with the Australian Conservation Foundation to launch his Climate Project:

Having reached out to the wider NGO sector, to doctors, unions, and the corporate sector, this initiative then moved ACF’s efforts towards influencing individual citizens. Gore’s organisation aimed to harness the power of mass mobilisation by expanding the message of his film An Inconvenient Truth.

Gore returned in 2007 and spoke at a A$1,000-a-plate event on the Sustainability and Cleantech Investment Market, with Carr introducing him while clutching a copy of Gore’s 1992 book Earth in the Balance.

He had his share of Australian critics too. On a frosty morning in July 2009 Gore’s launch speech of the Safe Climate Australia initiative attracted around 30 members of the newly formed Climate Sceptics Party, who handed out leaflets and wore t-shirts bearing their slogan: “Carbon Really Ain’t Pollution – CRAP”.

Gore also offered an opinion on Kevin Rudd’s proposed climate legislation:

It’s not what I would have written, I would have written it as a stronger bill, but I’m realistic about what can be accomplished in the political system as it is.

Gore seems to have (wisely) eschewed direct involvement during the tumultuous Julia Gillard years, but pitched in in October 2013 when the new Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to link bushfires with climate change.

The Palmer moment

Perhaps the most bizarre, rub-my-eyes-did-that-just-happen moment came in June 2014, when Gore stood alongside Clive Palmer in a deal to save some of Gillard’s carbon policy package from Tony Abbott’s axe.

In July 2015, with the Paris climate conference approaching, Gore visited on a whistlestop tour that included meetings with senior business figures (BHP, National Australia Bank, Qantas, and Victorian state government ministers) to try and build momentum ahead of the crucial summit.

Looking into the crystal ball

Despite his Nobel Prize shared with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, not everyone is a fan, with Canadian journalism academic Chris Russill arguing that Gore’s approach “narrows our understanding of climate change discourse”.

And just because some climate sceptics think he’s a very naughty boy – and can change the weather by his mere presence – that doesn’t mean he’s the messiah.

Ultimately, we all need to find new and better ways of exerting more sustained pressure, not only on policymakers but also other institutions and norm-makers in our society, to change the trajectory we’re currently on.

The ConversationGore will keep banging on about climate change. He will turn up to give speeches, and will be both praised and derided. What matters is not what he does the same, but what we all do differently.

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

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

A brief history of fossil-fuelled climate denial


John Cook, The University of Queensland

The fossil fuel industry has spent many millions of dollars on confusing the public about climate change. But the role of vested interests in climate science denial is only half the picture.

Interest in this topic has spiked with the latest revelation regarding coalmining company Peabody Energy. After Peabody filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, documentation became available revealing the scope of Peabody’s funding to third parties. The list of funding recipients includes trade associations, lobby groups and climate-contrarian scientists.

This latest revelation is significant because in recent years, fossil fuel companies have become more careful to cover their tracks. An analysis by Robert Brulle found that from 2003 to 2010, organisations promoting climate misinformation received more than US$900 million of corporate funding per year.

However, Brulle found that from 2008, open funding dropped while funding through untraceable donor networks such as Donors Trust (otherwise known as the “dark money ATM”) increased. This allowed corporations to fund climate science denial while hiding their support.

The decrease in open funding of climate misinformation coincided with efforts to draw public attention to the corporate funding of climate science denial. A prominent example is Bob Ward, formerly of the UK Royal Society, who in 2006 challenged Exxon-Mobil to stop funding denialist organisations.

John Cook interviews Bob Ward at COP21, Paris.

The veils of secrecy have been temporarily lifted by the Peabody bankruptcy proceedings, revealing the extent of the company’s third-party payments, some of which went to fund climate misinformation. However, this is not the first revelation of fossil fuel funding of climate misinformation – nor is it the first case involving Peabody.

In 2015, Ben Stewart of Greenpeace posed as a consultant to fossil fuel companies and approached prominent climate denialists, offering to pay for reports promoting the benefits of fossil fuels. The denialists readily agreed to write fossil-fuel-friendly reports while hiding the funding source. One disclosed that he had been paid by Peabody to write contrarian research. He had also appeared as an expert witness and written newspaper op-eds.

John Cook interviews Ben Stewart, Greenpeace at COP21, Paris.

The bigger picture of fossil-fuelled denial

Peabody’s funding of climate change information and misinformation is one episode in a much larger history of fossil-fuel-funded misinformation. An analysis of more than 40,000 texts by contrarian sources found that organisations who received corporate funding published more climate misinformation, a trend that increased over time.

The following figure shows the use of the claim that “CO₂ is good” (a favourite argument of Peabody Energy) has increased dramatically among corporate-funded sources compared with unfunded ones.

Prevalence of denialist claim from corporate funded and non-funded sources.
Farrell (2015)

In 1991, Western Fuels Association combined with other groups representing fossil fuel interests to produce a series of misinformation campaigns. This included a video promoting the positive benefits of carbon dioxide, with hundreds of free copies sent to journalists and university libraries. The goal of the campaign was to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact)”, attempting to portray the impression of an active scientific debate about human-caused global warming.

ExxonSecrets.org has been tracking fossil-fuel-funded misinformation campaigns for more than two decades – documenting more than A$30 million of funding from Exxon alone to denialist think tanks from 1998 to 2014.

Exxon’s funding of climate science denial over this period is particularly egregious considering that it knew full well the risks from human-caused climate change. David Sassoon, founder of Pulitzer Prize-winning news organisation Inside Climate News led an investigation into Exxon’s internal research, discovering that its own scientists had warned the company of the harmful impacts of fossil fuel burning as long ago as the 1970s.

John Cook interviews David Sassoon from Inside Climate News.

Even Inside Climate News’s revelation of industry’s knowledge of the harmful effects of climate change before engaging in misinformation campaigns has precedence. In 2009, an internal report for the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing fossil fuel industry interests, was leaked to the press.

It showed that the coalition’s own scientific experts had advised it in 1995 that “[t]he scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO₂ on climate is well established and cannot be denied”. Nevertheless, the organisation proceeded to deny climate science and promote the benefits of fossil fuel emissions.

Ideology: the other half of an “unholy alliance”

However, to focus solely on industry’s role in climate science denial misses half the picture. The other significant player is political ideology. At an individual level, numerous surveys (such as here, here and and here) have found that political ideology is the biggest predictor of climate science denial.

People who fear the solutions to climate change, such as increased regulation of industry, are more likely to deny that there is a problem in the first place – what psychologists call “motivated disbelief”.

Consequently, groups promoting political ideology that opposes market regulation have been prolific sources of misinformation about climate change. This productivity has been enabled by the many millions of dollars flowing from the fossil fuel industry. Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt, refers to this partnership between vested interests and ideological groups as an “unholy alliance”.

Reducing the influence

To reduce the influence of climate science denial, we need to understand it. This requires awareness of both the role of political ideology and the support that ideological groups have received from vested interests.

Without this understanding, it’s possible to make potentially inaccurate accusations such as climate denial being purely motivated by money, or that it is intentionally deceptive. Psychological research tells us that ideologically driven confirmation bias (misinformation) is almost indistinguishable from intentional deception (disinformation).

Video from free online course Making Sense of Climate Science Denial (launches August 9).

The fossil fuel industry has played a hugely damaging role in promoting misinformation about climate change. But without the broader picture including the role of political ideology, one can build an incomplete picture of climate science denial, leading to potentially counterproductive responses.

The Conversation

John Cook, Climate Communication Research Fellow, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

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

500 years of drought and flood: trees and corals reveal Australia’s climate history


Patrick Baker, University of Melbourne; Chris Turney, UNSW Australia, and Jonathan Palmer, UNSW Australia

Australia is the land of drought and flooding rains, and in a recent paper we’ve shown that’s been the case for more than 500 years. As part of our Australia and New Zealand Drought Atlas we’ve published the most detailed record of drought and wet periods (or “pluvials”) since 1500.

The data reveal that despite the severity of the Millennium Drought, the five worst single years of drought happened before 1900. But 2011 was the wettest year in our 513-year record.

The dominant theme of Australia’s drought history is variability. We may get one year of extremely wet conditions (for example in 2011) or we might get six years of extremely dry conditions (such as 2003-2009).

North Queensland may be flooded out while Victoria suffers with drought. Or in extreme circumstances, the entire eastern half of Australia might be bone dry.

Even as people change the climate by adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, variability will continue to play a large role in Australia’s climate. This year one of the strongest El Niños on record is kicking into high gear in the tropical Pacific, driving global temperatures higher still.

To tease out these complex patterns we need to look deep into the past.

It’s in the trees (and coral)

The existing drought records are relatively short and geographically patchy. Measurements from weather stations rarely extend beyond the early 1900s and informal historical records from diaries and ships logs — some of which go back to the first days of European settlement in Australia — are relatively uncommon and limited to a few sites. This has limited our understanding of drought variability to what has been directly observed over the past 120 years.

To extend the drought record beyond 1900, we used 177 tree ring and coral records from Australia, New Zealand, and Indonesia to reconstruct summer (spanning December to February) drought conditions in New Zealand and most of Australia.

Trees and corals are sensitive to their environments. For example, trees grow less in dry years and more in wet years. We carefully examined, dated, and measured each growth ring in thousands of trees and then compared the patterns of growth to an index of drought variability, the Palmer Drought Severity Index.

One of the researchers (Kathy Allen) retrieving a tree core from a king billy pine in Tasmania.
Patrick Baker, Author provided

This index takes into account air temperature, rainfall, and soil water-holding capacity to give an indication of the water status of the environment. However, the data only extend back to 1900. By using the statistical relationship between drought and our tree rings and coral, we can translate the growth patterns into data going back hundreds of years.

What we found was a remarkably rich and complex history of wet and dry conditions, particularly across eastern Australia.

A slice of coral from the Great Barrier Reef, photographed under UV light. The lines show periods when sediment from flood plumes affect coastal reefs.
Eric Matson, Australian Institute of Marine Science, Author provided

A history of drought

Over the past five centuries we found extreme droughts similar to the recent Millennium Drought, but we also discovered wet periods that lasted decades.

We found short droughts of brutal intensity that blanketed all of eastern Australia, while other droughts of similar intensity were confined to small pockets across the continent.

The atlas also provides new geographical context for early historical droughts. For example, diaries from early settlers near Sydney documented a crippling drought in 1791-92. Our data demonstrate that this was one of the worst drought years in the past 500 years with extraordinarily dry conditions that stretched from Cape York to eastern Tasmania. The early colony was fortunate to survive.

1792 was one of the worst drought years Australia has experienced since 1500.
Patrick Baker, Author provided

An obvious question is how do our modern droughts and floods stack up against earlier events? Of the five most extreme single years of drought in the past 500 years (when averaged across all of eastern Australia), not one occurred after 1900.

In contrast, two of the five wettest years in our data took place after 1950 (2011 was the wettest year in the 513-year record). The 1700s were particularly dry with three of the five worst drought years, but also notably had the most prolonged wet period (1730-60).

In eastern Australia, wet and dry conditions cycle back and forth over several decades, driven by the oceans around us.

When we compared the data to a recently developed index of changing atmospheric pressure called the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO), we found remarkable consistency between the two. The IPO tells us when we have unexpectedly warmer or cooler sea surface temps and air pressures. The IPO also interacts with El Nino and La Nina to make them stronger or weaker.

When the IPO was positive, eastern Australia experienced drought conditions for several decades; when it was negative, eastern Australia experienced pervasive wet conditions. From 1999-2012 we were in a negative phase of the IPO; now it appears we have just entered a strongly positive phase.

You may have noticed that the Millennium Drought happened in a negative IPO phase. Our data show that there is a strong relationship between the phases of the IPO and drought – until around 1976. After that the relationship gets weaker. Why is a question for further research, but one possibility is human-caused climate change.

This new data will help us understand what drives these swings between drought and floods, and help us predict what might happen in the future.

The Conversation

Patrick Baker, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Silviculture and Forest Ecology, University of Melbourne; Chris Turney, ARC Laureate Fellow and Professor of Earth Sciences and Climate Change, UNSW Australia, and Jonathan Palmer, Research Fellow, Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW Australia

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