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Grief, anger and climate change

Aug 26, 2019 • 15m20s

Joelle Gergis is one of Australia’s leading climate scientists. She says there is resistance to talking about emotions around science, but she feels grief and anger.

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Grief, anger and climate change

65 • Aug 26, 2019

Grief, anger and climate change

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

Joelle Gergis is one of Australia’s leading climate scientists. She says the current modelling is worse than previously thought… but she also says the most extreme effects of climate change can still be arrested - they just need immediate and radical action.

[Theme ends]

[Music starts]

Archival tape — Unidentified male reporter:

“A new report by the United Nations intergovernmental panel on climate change, says it will take rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society in order to keep the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees celsius over pre-industrial levels, endangering millions of people.”

Archival tape — Unidentified female reporter:

“The report from IPCC found global population growth and changes in consumption patterns have led to a perfect storm...”

Archival tape — Unidentified female reporter:

“Early action to limit, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is possible - there are options available, there are signs that mitigation is going on, but if this is to be achieved there is an urgent need to accelerate…”

ELIZABETH:

Joelle, you're one of Australia's lead authors on the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, which is currently being written, it's due out in 2021. What's it like to be part of that group?

[Music ends]

JOELLE:

It's a real privilege. It involves around 200 international experts who actually volunteer their time to provide a state of the art assessment of the physical basis for understanding climate change. But it's also a huge amount of work and it spans around four years.

ELIZABETH:

Joelle Gergis is an award-winning climate scientist and writer based at the Australian National University. She wrote about the alarming truth of climate change in the latest issue of The Monthly.

JOELLE:

And when you're involved in a United Nations process like this, you're looking at global trends and it provides us with a real perspective hit. It's like zooming out to be able to clearly see the bigger picture. For example the earth just experienced its hottest July on record. There've been wildfires in the Arctic Circle. So we're seeing unusually extreme events playing out and their record breaking and unfolding more often across the planet. And these things I wouldn't have expected to see until perhaps the middle of the century.

ELIZABETH:

And what is it like to see this kind of data coming in, and I mean that in a personal sense?

JOELLE:

Yes the results coming out of the climate science community at the moment are alarming even for experts.

The only thing I could really think about, in terms of the feelings I was processing at the time, was it was grief and it was really the loss of my father around 18 months ago. I do remember being in an intensive care unit and seeing this really quite a horrific C.T. scan of a brain haemorrhage that my, my father had just experienced and and really talking to the doctor there and really being in that position where, when all the evidence is laid out in front of you, I mean you can sit there and you can argue with the doctors if you like but that doesn't make the reality any different.

When you actually confront reality it is a really difficult emotion to grapple with. I know that it's a difficult thing to feel an emotional response to something like climate change, it sometimes feels really far away, but when you start to piece it all together and you can see the impacts it's having on our natural ecosystems and our societies all around the world, it's hard not to have an emotional response.

ELIZABETH:

Since you began work on this sixth IPCC report, some new modelling has come out regarding CO2 carbon concentration in the atmosphere. What does that early modelling show?

JOELLE:

So the new climate modelling results that are being used for the IPCC’s global assessments are still coming online -- but some of the early results really are concerning, for example, a common metric that's used to investigate the effects of global warming is known as ‘equilibrium climate sensitivity’ and it's sometimes referred to as the holy grail of climate science because it helps quantify the specific risks posed to human society as the planet continues to warm.

And so when the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report came out in 2013, it estimated that such a doubling of CO2 was likely to produce warming in the range of about 1.5 to around four and a half degrees, as the Earth reached a new equilibrium over decades to centuries. But these preliminary estimates that have been calculated from the latest climate models are far higher than with the previous generation of models. And these early reports are predicting that a doubling of CO2 may in fact produce between 2.8 and 5.8 degrees of warming. What this is really doing is suggesting the planet may warm a lot more than we previously thought.

ELIZABETH:

And by extension this warming is going to mean what, what kind of significant or extreme effects are we going to see in other parts of the environment?

JOELLE:

Well, for example just under a business as usual scenario Australia's average temperature is projected to increase around 4 degrees across the country by the end of the century and this makes our climate even more extreme than it otherwise would be.

Archival tape — Unidentified female reporter:

“This is a disaster zone, and you can really see that, take a look around me, I’m on a boat here, we are driving into one of the suburbs called Idalia and it is completely underwater, this suburb has been turned into a sea…”

Archival tape — Unidentified female reporter:

“January was officially Australia's hottest month since records began more than a century ago and there's no relief in sight from the sweltering conditions.”

JOELLE:

So our droughts become even hotter, our heat waves become more intense and our bushfire season is now extending into winter as we're currently experiencing in New South Wales.

Archival tape — Unidentified female reporter:

“And the RFS says the race is now on to carry out back burning and as many hazard reduction burns as possible before the actual bushfire season starts…”

JOELLE:

We also start to see an increase in intensity of rainfall, tropical cyclones drifting further south into areas that weren't previously impacted and more heat related deaths. The spread of mosquito borne diseases. So we're really talking about a very different Australia than the one that we used to.

ELIZABETH:

And Joelle, what happened when these early modelling results started coming across your desk?

JOELLE:

So these results were first released at a climate modelling workshop In Spain earlier this year.

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JOELLE:

And I had a colleague who was attending and he basically updated the group and, and then my inbox was just inundated with a whole range of quite panicked e-mails if you like from my IPCC colleagues and, and we were wondering well what if the models are right?

Has the Earth already crossed some kind of tipping point? And are we experiencing abrupt climate change right now?

And many people in my chapter team were concerned but just as with everything in life we need to keep A cool head and we need to wait before we have more information at hand to know exactly what we're dealing with.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

So Joelle as you work on this sixth IPCC report and this new modelling is coming through suggesting that the outcomes of climate change could be more extreme, more catastrophic than anybody thought. What does this mean for the targets that were set by the Paris Agreement in 2015?

JOELLE:

Well these results suggest that the climate's response to increasing greenhouse gases from human activity might be a lot more sensitive than we previously thought. So we really do need to do everything within our power to put the brakes on rising emissions. And to restrict warming to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, as was agreed under the upper target of the Paris Agreement, the world needs to actually triple its current emission reduction pledges. And with two degrees a staggering 99 percent of tropical coral reefs will be lost. So we're talking about an entire component of the Earth's biosphere, which is our planetary life support system would be eliminated.

ELIZABETH:

Where does Australia's contribution sit within that very grim picture?

JOELLE:

Well the Australian Federal Government has a target of reducing emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, which experts believe is more aligned with global warming equivalent around 3-4 degrees. And really the outcome of that would be quite catastrophic.

Archival tape — Scott Morrison:

“And so our target is no slouch, and let no one tell you it is. It’s a fair dinkum commitment, it’s a serious commitment that requires real effort to achieve. And we are playing our part, we are doing our bit.”

JOELLE:

And despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison's claims that we will meet the Paris Agreement commitments in a canter, Australia's clearly identified as one of the G20 nations that will fall short of achieving its already inadequate nationally determined contributions by 2030.

And despite Australia's alarming vulnerability to climate change some people argue that because we are only responsible for 1.3 per cent of total global emissions that what we do doesn't really matter. But if you add up all of the countries that have emissions under 2 per cent, pretty quickly it adds up to around 40 per cent of total global emissions. And when you look at it in terms of emissions per person we are the most emissions intensive of Western society in the world. So we really do have a decision to make about whether Australia wants to position itself as one of the last bastions of the fossil fuel era, or a leader in the clean energy revolution that is currently sweeping the world.

ELIZABETH:

And Joelle, as you say, the government describes Australia as meeting its reductions in a canter. Are they essentially lying?

JOELLE:

Well I'll leave it up to others to comment on that but I would say that the government's claim is not supported by the science.

ELIZABETH:

And in your mind Joelle, are we at a point where we could still arrest the impacts of climate change?

JOELLE:

Yes it's possible but the window is rapidly closing.

So the climate science community has clearly stated that limiting warming to 1.5 is in fact geophysically possible. So the IPCC report states that any further warming beyond one degree that we've already experienced would likely be less than half a degree over the next two or three decades if all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions were reduced to zero immediately. So that is if we act urgently it's technically feasible to turn things around but we have to stop immediately in terms of the emitting of greenhouse gases.

ELIZABETH:

And what would it actually look like if we said, yes we are going to me as a country to do the very best we can to reach zero emissions immediately, what would it actually require?

JOELLE:

It would require unprecedented political courage and cooperation. The economic and social transformation um that's urgently needed over the coming years is it's possible if the world goes into an emergency response as it did during World War Two. So it's big, but I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the future fate of humanity rests on the decisions we make right now and it is in fact possible. The only thing missing here is strong political will.

ELIZABETH:

At the moment we're on track for something like a three to three and a half degree rise in global temperatures. Where does that sit for scientists in what we understand of the Earth's history of warming?

JOELLE:

As scientists we are looking very closely at research into how the planet has responded during other warm periods in the Earth's history. So we know that temperature rises of around one and a half degrees to two degrees in the past was enough to see significant changes in our climate zones um and also in terms of our land and aquatic ecosystems. And these changes triggered substantial long-term melting of ice in places like Greenland and Antarctica, which unleashed around 6 to 13 meters of global sea level rise which lasted thousands of years. So examining the Earth's climatic past tells us that even between 1.5 and 2 degrees, as set out by the Paris Agreement, still sees the world warm in ways that people don't really yet appreciate. And all bets are off between 3 and 4 degrees, which is where we're currently headed. So parts of Australia would become uninhabitable and other parts of the country would become increasingly ravaged by extreme weather events. So we are talking about a very different Australia.

ELIZABETH:

You’re at the frontline of all this. How do you process the data that‘s coming through?

JOELLE:

Well I have to be honest and say that some days I just feel really overwhelmed by the challenges we face, and I feel really saddened at the loss of, you know, magnificent ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef and some of these things that are unfolding in real time right now. And I just find that just generally distressing.

[Music starts]

As a climate scientist talking about the way we feel about what we're seeing that kind of cuts both ways because I've had some commentary from climate change skeptics saying that that makes me emotional, that makes me irrational. I stand by what I've said. I think it's important and it also provides other people with a space to be able to process their emotional response to this crisis, the same way you would process the news of a medical diagnosis. It’s actually a visceral experience. It's a head and heart connection rather than it just being an intellectual exercise.

But I can also sometimes feel really frustrated because all the technology we need to limit the amount of dangerous climate change that we will experience actually already exists. Really it's time for our business leaders, our community leaders, our political leaders to really step up. And the question is whether we will muster the very best of our humanity in time.

ELIZABETH:

Joelle, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JOELLE:

My pleasure.

[Music ends]

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[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Early reports from the Nauru elections suggest president Baron Waqa has lost his seat in the Parliament. According to an early count he placed third in his electorate, just ahead of opposition member and Nauru19 leader, Mathew Batsiua … further results should be known today.

And Ivan Milat, the convicted serial killer, has written a long letter to the Nine newspapers, claiming he’s innocent of the seven murders for which he was convicted and that he was framed... Milat has esophageal cancer and is thought to be gravely ill.

Joelle Gergis is one of Australia’s leading climate scientists. She says the current modelling is worse than previously thought. She also says the most extreme effects of climate change can still be arrested - they just need immediate and radical action. She says there is resistance to talking about emotions around science, but she feels grief and anger.

Guest: Climate scientist Joelle Gergis.

Background reading:

The terrible truth of climate change in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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65: Grief, anger and climate change