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Why we need to “feel” climate change

Jul 20, 2020 • 15m 18s

As climate models predict even worse outcomes for the planet, some scientists believe the way to change what is happening is for people to “feel” the emotion of it.

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Why we need to “feel” climate change

268 • Jul 20, 2020

Why we need to “feel” climate change

JOELLE:

Well over the past, I guess, few months, I've been starting to dream of just watching these really large waves approaching the shore, and basically looking around and seeing that no one else can see these waves that are approaching.

And then sometimes I get sucked out to sea and other times I run. And I'm really surprised that nobody else is paying attention. And other times I just get sucked in by these waves and I just float and I’m in these enormous waves and I guess it's just something that's started to become a bit of recurring dream for me over the past few months or so.

To me, it feels like it's a case of feeling a real sense of inundation and feeling that this is an uncontrollable force moving towards us... And maybe subconsciously, I guess I'm grappling with those feelings of overwhelm and something that feels a bit out of control.

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Joelle Gergis is one of Australia’s lead authors on the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

Recently, she wrote for The Monthly magazine about new climate models, and how the terror of what she’s seeing in the science has started to invade her dreams.

The new research predicts outcomes that are far worse than before.

Today, Joelle Gergis on what she calls “the last fork in the road”.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

Joelle, you’ve written for The Monthly about new climate models. And as part of that, you wrote about your emotional response to the predicted devastation. Can you tell me about that terrain - what it’s like to be a climate scientist writing about your own personal reactions?

JOELLE:

Well basically my work as a climate scientist, I think it's becoming increasingly stressful. And I'm certainly not the only one. And I guess it's probably no surprise that I'm starting to see these sorts of things turning up in my dreams.

So it's not comfortable for me, I have to admit, as a scientist coming out and saying these things from more of a human perspective. But I guess at the end of the day, I am a scientist, but I'm also a human.

And I think that with medical doctors, you can still be very professional and go about your business of treating patients. But that doesn't mean that at night you don't lay awake thinking about that person who didn't make it or thinking about is there something else I could have done?

And I think a lot of people in my position are now feeling that. Actually, at this moment in time, it's the only thing I can do is to be real. It's actually that bad.

RUBY:

Joelle, I’m wondering if you could take a step back, and take me back in time a little, and tell me about what it was like for you, last summer, when the bushfires hit. What was that like for you?

JOELLE:

Well, to be honest, it was really surreal and for me, this whole event really started in September last year. So I was at a IPCC lead author meeting in southern France and we were experiencing unprecedented heat.

There was a heatwave going on outside as we sat in these rooms trying to discuss the state of the science. And meanwhile, there's no air conditioning and everybody was having to use like handheld fans and things like that. And then I arrived back in Australia to the news that south east Queensland was on fire.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman # 1:

“Emergencies are scattered one thousand kilometres from the Pioneer Valley west of mackay to Stradbroke island west of Brisbane.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man # 1:

I’ve never seen this before in recorded history. Fire weather has never been this severe, this early in spring.

JOELLE:

To see areas like rainforests, which are usually really wet areas that are drenched in moss, and just these really lush areas. And these are rainforests that have been with us since the age of dinosaurs.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man # 2:

It's all rainforests, and normally it just shouldn’t burn like this.

JOELLE:

These are really ancient parts of the Australian ecological landscape. And to see those burning was truly extraordinary for me.

And all the while I was working on the IPCC report and having to synthesize that information. And then, of course, summer came along.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man # 1:

“Sydney has been choking under a blanket of smoke, our air quality hitting hazardous levels for the second time this week.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman # 1:

“20,000 people are tonight in the path of the megafire rolling down the blue mountains into the town of Lithgow.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman # 2:

“Thousands of people displaced by a bushfire crisis that can be seen from space.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man # 2:

“The worst I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. I’ve been in some big fires but nothing like this. Terrifying.”

JOELLE:

We're actually witnessing these really extreme events unfolding in real time. And I think when we talk about climate change, sometimes people think, oh, it's really far away and and it's impossibly far away. But I think after this summer, we've really experienced firsthand how unprecedented extremes can play out really abruptly and faster than anyone really thought.

We are the generation that is going to be witnessing this destruction of our earth. And I think for me, as a scientist, working at that U.N. level and seeing things happening on a global scale, and then to come home to a country like Australia and see the destruction of large parts of the Australian landscape in a single event, it is just extraordinary.

Archival Tape -- [Fire and helicopter sounds]

JOELLE:

There were times where I had to walk away from the news because it was really devastating just seeing, you know, fellow Australians stranded on beaches and being evacuated by the military.

Archival Tape -- [Navy evacuation boats and wind sounds]

JOELLE:

That's not that's just something I never, ever contemplated I would witness in my lifetime.

So I think for me, the summer was really the summer that changed everything.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Joelle, you’re one of Australia's lead authors on the next IPCC report on climate change. That report is coming out soon - can you tell me a bit about the science that you're seeing?

JOELLE:

Yeah, So in terms of, it's part of this synthesis effort for the IPCC. There's been a group of Australian scientists that published an analysis of the latest generation of climate models. And really, it's taken years to refine some of these climate models that have significant improvements in physical processes, mostly associated with clouds and aerosols and things like convection.

And so there's been a real update in terms of what sort of warming these models are showing. And basically, we're starting to see a lot more warming than we had previously seen in the last generation of climate models.

RUBY:

And so specifically, can you talk me through some of the numbers in those models?

JOELLE:

According to this new study, which was led by scientists at the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and a range of university groups, we see some of the worst case scenarios. So the current trajectory that we're actually on, we could see Australia warm by up to seven degrees above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. On average, the results are showing warming of about 4.5 degrees by the end of the century.

And there is a range and that has to do with the fact that there are many models that go into this type of assessment. So for this particular analysis, there's 20 global climate models that have been used. And so there's a range between 2.7 and maybe 6.2. And with single models even saying up to seven degrees. And so that is effectively a catastrophic level of warming.

It really caught my attention because it is significantly higher than the sort of results we've seen in the past.

We're on a business as usual trajectory at the moment. But there are other pathways out there. So the IPCC actually looks at five different model scenarios in the assessment report. But currently we are facing the prospect of these really high levels of warming.

RUBY:

Mmm. And what about other scientists? How are they dealing with this? People like your colleagues? What are they saying as they confront these models?

JOELLE:

Well, I guess it's not just the models, it's also the observations. Somebody like Professor Terry Hughes, who monitors the Great Barrier Reef. He's one of our most eminent coral reef scientists in the world.

And he is devastated to be watching the Great Barrier Reef starting to collapse and to really transform into a really different ecosystem in real time.

Archival Tape -- Professor Terry Hughes:

“There's no doubt it’s very confronting to witness the rapid decline of the Great Barrier Reef. We are very surprised by just how fast it has been. “

JOELLE:

So this isn't something that is happening far away in the future. It's actually happening right now.

Archival Tape -- Professor Terry Hughes:

“We didn’t see any bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in the decades preceding 1998 and now just in the last five years, we’ve seen three of these catastrophic mass bleaching events that have killed about half of the corals.”

JOELLE:

It's really heartbreaking for people who are aware and can join the dots and understand that what they're witnessing is part of this broader trend of a warming planet and what that means.

Archival Tape -- Professor Terry Hughes:

“It’s like an art lover walking through the Louvre as it slowly burns to the ground.”

JOELLE:

I found that even my IPCC colleagues, after I wrote my piece for The Monthly, actually had a couple of people contact me and say: “Thank you for writing that. I feel that, too. And I'm really glad that you actually put that down into words, because I'm also feeling really depressed since working on this report. And sometimes I feel like I'm staring down the barrel of a black hole. And, you know, no one's listening.”

Archival Tape -- Professor Terry Hughes:

“So it is quite an emotional time to be a coral reef biologist or indeed many other types of ecologists because many of the ecosystems we know and love and have studied, in many cases, for years or for decades are changing, not necessarily for the good and the pace of that change is pretty scary.”

JOELLE:

What this next IPCC report will be telling us is that things are getting worse and it'll basically give us a series of options about which path you want to go down and the likely impacts associated with those different scenarios.

And so increasingly at our conferences, I've noticed in the last couple of years, particularly, a lot of people are ending their talk saying, “I really hope we're wrong. But…”

And I think that was something that was pretty new. A lot of us are starting to feel that on a personal level.

And for me, I mean, I've, you know, like I said, I've been having these recurring nightmares. I started grinding my teeth since I started with IPCC. So I now have to wear a dental plate when I sleep at night. I know it's crazy, maybe, but I guess I think many people who are in positions like mine really understand that situation's very serious.

RUBY:

So what happens? What do we do?

JOELLE:

The most difficult thing for me probably is realizing that all the solutions actually exist.

So to me, it's just mind boggling that we don't actually do what we know we can do. And so it's this profound moment in human history where this is, you know, it really is the last fork in the road here. And we could turn it around.

And I think the coronavirus lockdowns and the responses that our governments made are an example all over the world, I should say. It's possible to do things very, very quickly. And so I think for me, I really feel like if we really wanted to get on top of the climate crisis, we could. But the political will isn't there. And that, to me, is the most heartbreaking aspect of it.

I think what I've come to realize is that unless we start to actually feel something about this issue, nothing's going to change. And I came across a quote by Rachel Carson, who is an American ecologist, and she was the author of Silent Spring, which was this really seminal book, which was looking at the effects of dangerous effects of pesticides. And there was a quote in there that says, “It's not half so important to know as to feel.” When I read that something clicked.

Because I realised that someone like me, I'm trying to give people more and more facts so that they understand it intellectually. But I realise now that this doesn't actually make too much of a difference for a lot of people, because I think when you feel something, when you actually feel something, a visceral response, then things start to shift.

We're talking about the planetary system starting to collapse and parts of it dying, then it's a very normal response to actually to feel those really difficult feelings. And I think until we realize what it is that we have to lose on an emotional level, then I don't think this is going to change.

RUBY:

Joelle, thank you so much for your time today. And thank you for your work as well.

JOELLE:

No worries.

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[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news:

Face masks will become mandatory in Melbourne from Thursday. People who do not wear a mask outside will face a fine of $200. The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, said the measure was a powerful next step in containing Coronavirus.

And three more people have died from the virus in Victoria, bringing the state’s death toll to 38. All three were in their 90s.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

[Theme music ends]

As climate models predict even worse outcomes for the planet, some scientists believe the way to change what is happening is for people to “feel” the emotion of it. There is still time to halt the crisis, but we are at a fork in the road.

Guest: Climate scientist and writer Joëlle Gergis.

Background reading:

Witnessing the unthinkable in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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268: Why we need to “feel” climate change