Climate change and the disconnect between science and policy: Do we have to learn the hard way?

The Climate Commission was established, among other things, to provide Australians with an independent and reliable source of information about the science of climate change. Last week the Commission released its latest report, Off the Charts: Extreme Australian Summer Heat; authored in response to questions from citizens and media seeking to understand the link between climate change and the intense heat wave experienced in recent weeks.

Understanding this link is important because having good knowledge of climate change risks enables us to take appropriate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to put measures in place to address the rising incidence of more extreme weather events.

Drawing on CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology research, the report points out that Australia’s average temperature has risen by 0.9°C since 1910. On the face of it, this may not seem like a huge increase, but according to the Climate Commission it has contributed to a doubling of the number of record hot days across Australia since 1960.

The key point here is that we are likely to see many more record hot days in Australia if global warming continues unabated. The time has come, it seems, when we must act on what the climate scientists have been telling us for a long time now.

This time last year NASA announced that, globally, the 10 hottest years on record have all occurred in the last 15 years. In November, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the US Department of Commerce told us that the 10 warmest Novembers have occurred in the past 12 years, and that November 2012 was the 36th consecutive November and 333rd consecutive month with global temperature higher than the 20th century average.

The likes of NASA and NOAA are respected scientific bodies, and their analyses need to be taken seriously. Indeed, very few academics within the climate science community would likely disagree. A number of surveys in recent years show almost total unanimity in their views about climate change, the most recent of which was conducted by James L. Powell, the Executive Director of the National Physical Science Consortium, and member of the National Science Board under both the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.

Powell reviewed 13,950 peer-reviewed papers published between January 1991 and early November 2012, and only 24 (0.17%) clearly reject global warming or endorse a cause other than CO2 emissions for observed warming.

There is also a growing consensus among the general population as research published in August last year through the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCAF) demonstrates. The two-year project, led by Griffith University academic Joseph Reser, involved nearly 7500 Australians and 1800 Britons and found 90 per cent of Australian and 89 per cent of British respondents accepted human causal impact on climate change.

Australian respondents, the report noted, were beginning to adapt to climate change by modifying their thinking, feelings and behaviours; some 71 per cent declaring an increasing concern about climate change over the two year period prior to the surveys, citing increased awareness, media coverage, perceived lack of government action, and increasing frequency of natural disasters and extreme weather events.

If there has been some reassessment of climate change risk among the general public, it is highly likely that stock market investors will be doing the same. HSBC Global Research published a report last week, Climate Inflation Hits Australia, that recommends investors push companies harder for disclosure on the financial materiality of risks associated with weather disruption from both an operational and supply chain perspective.

To deliver emission reductions in line with a carbon budget of less than a 2°C warming, says HSBC, governments must step up in their policy ambition for emission reduction. The catalyst for such policy momentum, says the bank, will be ‘increased disruption caused by extreme weather, combined with a greater focus from climate scientists on attributing short-term weather extremes to longer-term temperature gains’.

A useful first step might be for politicians of all persuasions to accept the science. Only then can a sensible policy debate can take place. Sound policies will deliver outcomes that send clear signals to the marketplace about how resources can be allocated to minimise the risks associated with climate change.

The sooner there is a political consensus to match the scientific consensus, the easier it will be all of us to adapt to the new reality of a warmer world.

(This article was published in the Courier-Mail under the title, Consensus on science will take the heat out of debate, on 21 January.)