Transcript

The lies of climate change denial

David Karoly
Email: d.karoly@latrobe.edu.au

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host, Matt Smith and with me today is Professor David Karoly. He is a professor of meteorology at the University of Melbourne. Thanks for joining me today, David.

David Karoly:

You're welcome, Matt.

Matt Smith:

Now I was going through your very impressive CV. Is it fair to describe you as a climate change scientist for many years now?

David Karoly:

That's right. I mean, my original background was in fact in math and physics. But I then worked in atmospheric science and climate science in general for more than 30 years and worked on climate change as a scientist for nearly 30 years.

Matt Smith:

You've been studying the impacts of climate change on weather extremes. What repercussions of climate change have you been able to see during your career?

David Karoly:

My main emphasis recently has been looking at the impacts of climate change on extremes, particularly using temperature and rainfall extremes. And what we are finding is that there are both some good things and some bad things about the changes in extremes. We're actually getting less cold extremes in Australia, which for many parts of Australia is a benefit. For agriculture, less cold extremes helps crops grow earlier.

But unfortunately, we're also getting more hot extremes. And we've been experiencing that in many parts of Southern Australia, particularly Melbourne, with major increases in the frequency and intensity of heat waves and also even worse conditions associated with bush fires, example in February 2009. But other bush fires such as in Canberra and in Sydney and around South Australia, there have been marked increases in frequency and intensity of bush fires. And they can be linked to changes in the weather and climate conditions associated with human-caused climate change.

Matt Smith:

We've had some extreme changes in recent years. Do you expect these changes to continue? Will they get worse? Will it abate in some aspects?

David Karoly:

It's clear that human-caused changes in climate change, particularly due to the increases in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, will get worse for a substantial period of time. And we know that increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are causing large-scale changes in temperature, so increasing the temperatures around the globe. And than has impacts on changes in rainfall patterns, changes in wind patterns and other impacts on the climate system.

Yes, they are going to get worse. But we do have choices that we can make as to how much we want them to get worse. And so we can make decisions about reducing our greenhouse gas emissions or changing our energy sources to low-carbon sources so that we don't emit as much as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And then we can, in fact, reduce the impact of human activity on climate change. But it can't just be done locally. That has to be done by all people around the world.

Matt Smith:

If we can come back to that in a second?

David Karoly:

Sure.

Matt Smith:

What I'm curious about is you've just given me all these things that are happening due to climate change, all these wild weather extremes we've been experiencing in recent years you're saying to be clearly attributed to climate change. How can there be climate change denial, if that's the case?

David Karoly:

Well, there have obviously in the past been large variations in the climate which are not due to human activity. We've had ice ages and warmer periods in the climate in the past, not while human society has existed. But certainly 20,000 years ago, Australia and the whole planet was experiencing an ice age where global temperatures were substantially cooler than the present. A hundred and ten thousand years ago, temperatures across the globe were warmer than at present. And those are just natural climate variations.

So, the hard part is trying to distinguish how much of the recent variations, the changes in extremes, are in fact due to changes in greenhouse gases and how much is just due to natural variability. We know in fact that we have had large variations in rainfall over the last 200 years, while Australia has been inhabited. There was substantial drought in the Federation period. There was another substantial drought around the time of the Second World War and substantial droughts in the 1820s and 1850s.

So, those dry periods make it difficult to distinguish the rainfall changes due to just natural factors from the temperature changes and other factors due to increases in greenhouse gases. It's much easier to identify the impact of increasing greenhouse gases on temperatures. We have much greater difficulty in linking them to changes in rainfall.

Matt Smith:

The way that I see humans having an effect is that we have affected the rate that this is happening. We're making things happen quicker or sooner than they would normally. Is that the right perception to have?

David Karoly:

That's certainly one way of looking at it, although in practice what human activity has done in the last 2000 years and in fact much of the last 10,000 years, global temperatures have cooled, perhaps would have continued to cool although we can't be sure of that. But certainly over the last 1000 years global temperatures have cooled.

And yet, what we've seen in the last 100 years is marked warming, a change in the direction of that change globally. So, it's not just a change in the rate of warming; it's actually a change from a cooling globally over much of the last 1000 years to actually a significant warming. And the rate of that warming and its magnitude is greater than any 100-year period for which we've got estimates for at least the last 2000 years.

Matt Smith:

What is it about the Australian mentality then? Are we thinking the right way about climate change? Are we still denying it too strongly?

David Karoly:

Well, there are a range of different perspectives and understanding of climate variations and climate change across the Australian population. If you talk to people in country areas, they will certainly tell you that there have been changes in the patterns of rainfall and in the patterns of, for instance, the times of flowering of the wattle or when you'll see plants and animals, insects hatching and things like that. There have been marked changes. Most people, however, can only talk about that in terms of their experience over the last 30 or over the last 50 years. What we have to do is to look at longer terms of observation in order to be sure whether those changes are just natural variations.

The perceptions from different groups of people can also be affected by their background and their interest. And it is clear that there are some people who deny the influence of human activity on climate change because they're quite happy with their current lifestyles, using electricity with burning coal and power stations and driving cars over large distances.

There are in fact alternative solutions that will allow us to continue the same lifestyle but do it in an environmentally sustainable way, still using energy but using that energy produced from low carbon emission sources so that we don't in effect influence the climate while also continuing on a sustainable lifestyle.

Matt Smith:

If you had to categorize us, would you call us, broadly speaking, believers or deniers in Australia?

David Karoly:

That depends on who you talk to. I would have said that in the political environment, based on the recent policies of both the Labor and the Liberal Party, they have both policies to respond to climate change. So, their policies are in fact accepting in general that climate change is a concern for the Australian community and that the community wants action on climate change. However, the policies and the actions are too slow in terms of adequately dealing with the rate of climate change that is already affecting Australia and the whole globe.

So, I would have said that in terms of the balance between, if you like, accepting climate change and skepticism in general ways and acceptance that climate change is happening and that action is needed but that acceptance is in fact not of sufficient speed to really address the seriousness of the problem.

Science is very much about weighing up different pieces of evidence, of being skeptical and critical in your evaluation of those lines of evidence and then accepting the explanations based on all the body of evidence. Unfortunately, there are some vested interest groups that are keen to promote misinformation that is aimed at either confusing the public or delaying policy actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Australia or to set up a price on carbon in the Australian community.

Matt Smith:

Can you give me an example of some of the misinformation out there?

David Karoly:

Certainly. There are a range of pieces of misinformation. A classic one is from Professor Ian Plimer, now at the University of Adelaide but formerly from my department at the University of Melbourne. And Professor Ian Plimer says that the increase in greenhouse gases in atmosphere over the last 100 years is primarily due to volcanoes emitting carbon dioxide.

And in fact he's correct when he says that. In the past over Earth's history, volcanoes were the major source of carbon dioxide in atmosphere. However, we know for absolute certain that volcanoes are not causing the increase in greenhouse gases in atmosphere over the last 100 years because those volcanoes, if they were erupting, would have had to have a massive increase in emissions in volcanic eruptions.

So then Professor Plimer says, "Well, therefore, they've got to be underwater volcanoes." But in fact we can look at the isotopic evidence for the different isotopes of carbon in the carbon dioxide. We can look at the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere compared within the ocean. And those pieces of evidence show that the carbon dioxide is in fact in the atmosphere higher than it is in the oceans. So it's not coming out of the ocean. It's also old carbon dioxide that has been photosynthetically processed and that also doesn't come out of volcanoes.

And the really key piece of evidence is at the same time as the carbon dioxide increased, there have been increases in methane and nitrous oxide in atmosphere. And volcanoes don't emit methane and nitrous oxide. So you cannot explain the observed increases simultaneously in methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide from emissions from underwater volcanoes. And so, they have to be underwater because it's harder to observe them. This claim by Ian Plimer is patently false.

Matt Smith:

I find it interesting that the piece of misinformation that you described then was from a fellow academic that you know quite well. Is part of the problem with climate change denial the fact that we look to scientists for our information but we're not getting the same information from scientists or we're getting conflicting views? Are scientists doing their jobs? You're doing your job, right?

David Karoly:

Well, that's a really good question because you're right. If it was just David Karoly arguing against Ian Plimer, it's really hard to make a decision. But in fact Ian Plimer has not published any of this argument about volcanic emissions of carbon dioxide in any peer-reviewed scientific literature. He has published it in a book funded by a group of industrialists, I believe. And he hasn't published it in scientific literature. It is patently false and can be shown to be false.

And so, I don't know why he has raised it. But it is not a scientifically based argument. In fact, when you look at the published peer-reviewed scientific literature and look at assessments of the scientific literature, 98% of actively publishing climate scientists and actively publishing geologists who are working in the area with climate scientists agree that the climate is changing significantly over the last 100 years and that increases in greenhouse gases from human activity are the main cause of that increase in global temperatures over the last 50 years.

So, there's a vast majority of active researchers and climate scientists who agree with the sorts of information and conclusion that I have talked about. So, there is just a very small minority of geologists and somewhat sidelined climate scientists, a very small number, who are arguing with this misinformation. And usually they're doing it not in the normal scientific process, which would be to publish it in peer-reviewed scientific literature mainly because there is no scientific basis for their arguments.

Matt Smith:

Is a part of the problem with misinformation as well the stories that will get the headlines in the press? We see once a day, I didn't read the complete story, but the world is going to end in 2012. I think the moon has been shrinking as well. So, it seems that scientists have trouble getting the right information into the media outlet?

David Karoly:

Yeah. Certainly what headlines you can get into the newspapers or into the media depend enormously on having a catchy grab. And it is not news to provide information that supports the existing scientific understanding about climate change. It is news to contradict that or to say that it's all wrong. That is news. And so, if you're getting news coverage, it often is easier to do that if you disagree than if you provide something which agrees with the existing body of evidence.

So, it is much harder to get supporting evidence published in news media than it is contradictory evidence, even if there is in fact absolutely no support for that contradictory evidence except one person saying that it's the case.

Matt Smith:

Is the sun going to destroy the world in 2012?

David Karoly:

Certainly not that I'm aware of.

Matt Smith:

That's good, OK.

David Karoly:

And the moon, yes, it's shrinking. But we don't have to worry that it's going to disappear anytime soon.

Matt Smith:

That's good. I was slightly worried about that. I can continue this podcast now. I feel that when the response to climate change is concerned, that Australia is being left behind from other countries. Is that the case? And are our politicians taking a sufficient amount of action to address climate change problems?

David Karoly:

Australian politicians are not taking sufficient action in terms of addressing climate change. Australia has been very slow in responding to climate change. And it's very interesting because when assessments have been done over the impact of climate change on Australia, Australia is the developed country which has the biggest adverse impact from climate change. Australia is already a hot and relatively dry country. And climate change that I have talked about already will make the world hotter.

So, making Australia hotter has lots of adverse impacts and relatively few beneficial impacts, whereas other developed countries that are at higher latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere like in Europe, Russia, Japan, North America, they will benefit from a slightly warmer climate, allowing them to have slightly warmer winters, longer growing seasons. These are some benefits.

So, Australia for some surprising reason has been slow to respond. There are in fact within Europe, within Japan, within New Zealand, major political and organizational actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The activities are already having substantial targets for greenhouse gas admissions in Germany, in the UK, in Spain. And even New Zealand has set a price and admission trading scheme for carbon emissions. Even China has major emission reduction actions that have been instituted and policies on fuel efficiencies in cars. So, the average fuel efficiency on cars in China is a much greater efficiency than the average car in Australia.

Matt Smith:

If we were taking sufficient steps to address climate change, could our economy survive that sort of pressure?

David Karoly:

There are a lot of arguments and misinformation that addressing climate change is bad for the economy. The really interesting thing is that there are all sorts of pieces of evidence, for instance, within Germany where major solar panel technologies and intensive solar thermal power stations are being developed where there have been increases in employment, in the renewable energy industries, increases in commercial activity and exports in the renewable energy industries.

So, a number of pieces of analyses are being done that have shown that in fact there are more employment opportunities and more export opportunities in renewable energy industries than there are in many of the existing fossil fuel industries. It's important to point out also that the Stone Age ended many thousands of years ago around the world not because of a lack of stones. In fact, it was a transfer to a new technology. And so, we don't actually have to dig up all the coal and use it before we can move to a new technology.

Matt Smith:

So, what's holding us back then? What do you think is holding us back the most?

David Karoly:

What's holding us back at the moment is in fact a range of vested interest groups who have a lot of investment locked up in fossil fuel-based technologies and fossil fuel-based energy production as well as the mining industry. And they do not want to see alternative energies being used to drive the Australian industry and to provide the energy sources that are needed.

A similar analogy is that when the modern automobile, the smoky, polluting automobile, was being introduced in the 1890s and 1900s, the horse and cart industry required people to travel in front of cars waving flags. There has in fact been a major opportunity from 1900s to the present in manufacturing automobiles. And in fact, there has been a marked decrease in the number of people who are employed in manufacturing horse-drawn vehicles and in fact in the blacksmith industry.

So, yes, there will be a change in the employment. And not everyone employed in digging up coal will still be able to get the same job digging up coal. But there will be many more jobs in renewable energy industries than there are currently in fossil fuel industries in Australia. It requires leadership from business and leadership from political leaders in changing directions from fossil fuel-based industries in Australia to renewable energy industries in Australia. And there will be major opportunities not only for new jobs but for export industries as well.

Matt Smith:

So, you, David Karoly, I'm giving you a blank check tomorrow to do whatever you like with it to save the world, of course, and there is no red taping your way. What would you do to solve the problem?

David Karoly:

Well, what we need to do is to introduce a broad range of zero carbon and low carbon energy production technologies as quickly as possible all around the world. There is no single solution. So, that means we need to introduce solar power and wind power and wave power and tidal power and geothermal power and hydro power across the world.

And Australia has enormous resources in each of those areas. In fact, Australia has more energy opportunities than any other country in the world per head of population. And so, that means that we can produce plenty of this energy and then export it into a range of other countries throughout Southeast Asia, where they don't have the same energy production opportunities from renewable energies.

Matt Smith:

That's a hell of a blank check. Do you have hope that this sort of thing you say could work?

David Karoly:

Well, a recent study was done at the University of Melbourne and beyond zero emissions that Australia can in 10 years produce all its energy needs while using existing technologies and go to zero greenhouse gas emission technologies in 10 years. It is possible.

Matt Smith:

But do you have hope?

David Karoly:

It will require a significant shift in the federal political agenda. So, I have hope but it will require considerable community and business as well as political action.

Matt Smith:

Professor David Karoly, thank you for your time today.

David Karoly:

You're welcome.

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