In its role as a leading scientific institution, the Australian Museum recognizes that climate change poses a serious environmental, economic and social threat to our current way of life and to the security of future generations across the globe.
To evaluate the scale and nature of climate change, we adopt the procedures of high quality science. We therefore base our conclusions on findings that have been rigorously peer-reviewed and published in respected journals where the data and arguments are widely debated.
The Museum recognizes that world climate has never been static and so some part of the current changes may well be natural, like those, such as the Pleistocene ice ages, which have occurred throughout the history of the world. Current climate change is radically different, however, because human activities are implicated. The scientific consensus, best expressed through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is that modern human practices are playing a major role in causing environmental changes.
As with all scientific research, there are disagreements about the IPCC findings, and in particular ongoing discussions about the nature and extent of the human contribution. Debate is at the crux of how science works, is a healthy state of affairs, and should improve and fine-tune our understanding of how and why climate change is occurring and what can be done to ameliorate its effects.
All those involved in scientific debates accept climate change is happening and that humans play a major role in causing it. Some of the disagreements among climate scientists themselves relate to the specific predictions and data used to obtain them. Which is the better model for understanding a particular set of data? Are the data actually sufficiently robust to be used in a particular model? Such questions can be expected to sort themselves out through normal scientific processes. As in all science, we can expect those participating to alter their opinions as research proceeds, though we must also recognize that scientists are people and personalities can influence any debate. So, occasionally, scientists will wrongly let their personal feelings into the process, as when someone requested in the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (CRU) certain emails be deleted (they weren’t).
There is another whole group of criticisms of the IPCC report that are not conducted within the scientific realm and are resistant to scientific argument. First and most obviously, objections come from those whose lifestyle and wealth will be affected by measures taken to change ‘business as usual’ in order to ameliorate the impacts of climate change. One clear example are the fossil fuel industries, such as coal and oil, who are one of the most significant contributors to rising levels of carbon-dioxide in our atmosphere. The steadily rising global surface temperature during the 20th and 21st centuries is correlated almost exactly with the increase in carbon dioxide from around 310 ppm to the current 380 ppm.
Challenging the assumptions within the scientific models that have linked temperature with atmospheric carbon dioxide has been a common method of disagreement, particularly by those whose current livelihoods depend on the fossil fuel industries. But such objectors have rarely shown why the assumptions they favour provide a more accurate and reliable basis for predicting how climates will change in the future, and rest on claims which have already been disproved. As in any industry under threat, fighting the facts with dubious claims is a common tactic.
A second group of sceptics commonly pick up an error in some small aspect of the overall scientific analysis and assume that this invalidates the whole model for climate change and the role of human activities in it. One good example is the recent furore concerning the IPCC prediction for the rate of retreat of the Himalayan glaciers. There is little doubt that the IPCC statement was based on inadequate research, but this minor error does not invalidate the scores of other similar studies which show that there is major climatic change at present. For example, the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland are shrinking: in the northwest Antarctic Peninsula sea ice forms, on average, fifty-four days later in autumn and retreats thirty-one days later in spring, with serious effects on the breeding cycle of Adélie penguins. Similar effects across the world are seen in the seasonal timing of physiological process in plants and animals and significant geographical shifts in populations. Human induced climate change is a reality.
A second example of a picayune criticism is the recent ‘climategate’. A scientist at the Climate Research Unit, University of East Anglia, used the term ‘trick’ in an email discussing the presentation of some data. Sceptics saw this as an attempt at fraud, but the term was used colloquially to mean simply a clever thing to do. This is clear when the entire email is read.
One of the difficulties with such criticisms is that answering them, and supplying data as required under Freedom of Information laws, takes away large blocks of time from the research process. But, as scientists, transparency is essential, and data must be freely available. Fortunately, the UK Meteorological Office has now released climate data from nearly 1300 measuring stations around the world, making the evidence for global warming freely available.
What can we do about climate change? Australian Museum scientists are making significant contributions to the science that will help improve models for predicting further climate change. Their studies are directed to finding better models to monitor the effects of climate on biodiversity and are actively monitoring how past distributions of animals and human societies have responded to climatic variations in the past as well as how current changes are impacting on the region’s fauna.
How can we minimize the effects on climate change caused by our current way of life? The three R’s are a good way to start: Reduce, Repair and Recycle. Now we know that human inputs are a major cause, cutting back on our consumption, especially in aspects which rely on polluting industries, is vital. In the short term we have to make sacrifices that will ensure the long term survival of modern civilization and the ecosystems on which we depend.