Bush fire, Australia

Climate change is burning up Australia: are we losing the battle?

Image credit: Getty Images

We may ‘muddle through’ and adapt to climate change, but the latest disturbing news from Australia shows that it may be too late to save some of its ancient wonders, like Tasmania’s prehistoric forest and Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef.

On 28 September, the entire state of South Australia lost power. Severe storms brought down pylons, lightning hit generators, wind turbines had to stop and the whole SA power system, including back-ups, went into auto shut-down, leaving 1.7 million people in the dark. Then another struggle began. Australia’s climate change policies came under the spotlight and it seemed they were diverging. South Australia’s impressive 41 per cent power generation from renewables was called into question by the federal government. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke of the intermittency of solar and wind power and said that although emission targets were important, energy security should come first.

This was echoed by the environment and energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, who wants to bring other states’ “unrealistic” renewable-generation targets into line with the federal one: from 15 per cent to 23.5 per cent by 2020; compared to Victoria - from 12 per cent to 40 per cent by 2025, Queensland - from 4.5 per cent to 50 per cent by 2030 and SA’s target of 50 per cent by 2025.

Meanwhile,  SA’s Labour-party premier Jay Weatherill said that the blackout was due to weather and not renewables; any source of energy would have failed.

Frydenberg has conceded that renewable energy was probably not to blame, but has called for an inquiry.

Earlier in September, two board members from the advisory Climate Change Authority criticised a report produced by their colleagues, saying that stronger measures were needed to cut emissions than the  government target of 26-28 per cent by 2030. Frydenberg responded that others on the board agreed with the report and there would be five-year reviews in order to keep within the 2°C target agreed at the 2015 Paris climate conference.

In August, well-known scientist Professor Brian Cox came face-to-face with Queensland senator Malcolm Roberts on Australia’s ABC television ‘Q&A’ panel programme. Roberts, who represents the nationalist, right-wing One Nation party, has a background in coal mining and is a climate change sceptic. When Cox produced a global-warming graph to show temperature increase and its human correlation, the senator blamed  manipulated data, citing Nasa as a culprit. “Nasa?” exclaimed an incredulous Cox. 

Before that, a new and controversial chief executive of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) - the federal government agency for scientific research in Australia - downsized CSIRO’s climate science group. About a week before the ‘Q&A’ broadcast, the new science minister reinstated CSIRO’s climate change focus and some of the jobs, but the balance has still not been fully redressed.

In January, around 11,000 hectares (110km2) of Cretaceous World Heritage Area forest was lost to fires in Tasmania. “The survival of these ecosystems is truly in doubt, just like the Barrier Reef is under threat from climate change,” warns Professor David Bowman of the University of Tasmania. So can the Great Barrier Reef survive, what is the future for Tasmania’s prehistoric forest, how is Australia being affected by climate change in general and how should it cope?

According to a 2011 Climate Change report by CSIRO, temperatures in Australia have risen by 1°C from 1910 to 2009 and 2000-2009 was the warmest decade on record. CO2 is increasing by two parts per million (ppm) per year, due to the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and industrial activity.

Yet in 2013, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government (a conservative Liberal-National Party coalition) abolished the Climate Commission. Like a phoenix out of the global-warming flames, the commission crowd-funded itself and is still alive today as the Climate Council.

Commission chairman Tim Flannery now heads the Council. Flannery is former director of the South Australian Museum and is involved in conservation, sits on sustainability boards and writes and broadcasts for the world’s press. He is unenthused about Australia’s emission reduction targets. “I’ve lost interest and lost track,” he says. “All the indications are that we won’t make even modest targets. Policies are not adequate.”

In 2014, the same Tony Abbott abolished Labour’s carbon tax, which had been having an effect, says Flannery. However, Abbott’s successor, Malcolm Turnbull, has reversed a plan to disband the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

Australia has high per capita energy use. Fossil fuel is cheap and transport distances are large, so how much of Australia’s energy comes from it? About 77 per cent, thinks Flannery, though a number of mines have shut down or are in receivership. However, a giant new coal mine could still be built in Queensland, which will produce enough coal for 100 million people to have electricity. Yet he is cautiously optimistic that coal will become less dominant, saying that economic forces are changing its profitability.

Jeff Angel heads The Total Environment Centre (TEC) lobbying and campaign group. Part of a recent TEC campaign showed a battered plastic bottle lounging in a fishtank. It is labelled ‘Kindergratus abandoni’. The label goes on to detail its lifespan of 100-1,000 years, its behaviour - washed out to sea - followed by a list of its pollutants. You could even be ingesting some of those pollutants in the fish you eat. The campaign, Ocean Action Pod, was made to raise awareness in schools.

Angel thinks it is important to control land clearing if we want to keep emissions under control. A Labour government tends to put more rigorous controls in place, he says, whereas the current coalition of conservative Liberals and the farmer-representing National Party winds them back. He agrees with Flannery that fossil fuels will have diminishing influence and thinks climate sceptics are dwindling, too.

Amongst the 11,000 hectares of World Heritage Area that was burnt down this year was “a temperate wilderness with plants and animals that were more widespread in geological time,” including living fossil species and whole ecological communities. Professor Bowman describes it as a region of extraordinary beauty with “a cultural history dating over 35,000 years”.

Bowman is professor of environmental change biology at the School of Plant Science at the University of Tasmania. He describes himself as a pyrogeographer - someone who studies the geographical spread of fire - with an interest in “how people use and abuse fire and how this affects the environment.”

Tasmania is particularly vulnerable to climate change, Bowman says, because it has unique vegetation that depends on moist, cool conditions. Yet, he warns, “the climate is becoming increasingly variable with more extreme floods, winds and droughts...fires are increasingly destructive due to strong winds and dryness.” He goes on to say that floods on burnt ground then cause “erosion and destructive flooding - with bridges and roads being washed away.” So how much longer can Tasmania’s prehistoric forest survive under current trends?

Seven years ago, a former chief scientist of Australia’s Institute of Marine Science, Dr John Charlie Veron, gave a talk in London, where he was introduced by David Attenborough as a modern-day Charles Darwin. His talk was called ‘Is the Great Barrier Reef on Death Row?’

In fact, Veron was first nicknamed Charlie after Darwin when he was six years old. More recently, he has been called the godfather of coral. In between, Veron has done a lot of diving (about 6,000 hours) and got higher degrees in reptilian physiology, insect neurobiology and coral taxonomy. He was the first full-time Great Barrier Reef researcher, has named about a quarter of the world’s coral species and has mapped them all.

Why are the corals on death row? As it stands, the main threats to them are mass bleaching caused by warming temperatures, more crown-of-thorns starfish consuming coral (because of increased nutrients and decreased predators) and sediment in the water. When sea temperatures rise and the water quality is low, marine algae called zooxanthellae start to deplete. It is these that gives the coral its energy and colour - so now the coral begins to starve.

This is our last chance, as reefs cannot be artificially conserved elsewhere. Veron says they are ecosystems. Although about A$1bn of government money is being invested over the next 10 years, mainly for clean energy, improving water quality and tackling the starfish threat, Veron says that climate change was completely omitted from the coalition’s election platform.

Flannery dived on the Reef earlier this year. “Catastrophe,” he comments. “It was still bleaching in July [Australian winter] - the temperature was 27°C and it was supposed to be 25°C.”

The CSIRO report states it is “increasingly likely that the level of global warming will exceed that 2°C threshold of ‘dangerous’ climate change.”

For Australia, Dr David Jones, manager of climate monitoring and prediction at the Bureau of Meteorology, says the amount of future warming will depend on greenhouse gas emissions, with low emissions producing a rise of 1-2°C by 2100, while high emissions could potentially result in warming of more than 4°C. The warming trend will be faster inland than nearer the coast, he adds.

Yet the coast will have other problems. John Church, a sea-level expert and one of the senior scientists let go from CSIRO, said in The Sydney Morning Herald that “with unmitigated emissions we will be in for metres of sea-level rise in the longer term...The only issue is how quickly we get there.” As he points out, Australia has a population concentrated along the coast.

Flannery predicts rainfall increase in the north-west of Australia, with decrease in the south and east. CSIRO predicts more extreme rainfall, storms and floods, more fire, more coastal erosion and loss of plant and animal species. There will also be less water security and wheat quality and quantity. So what are the choices? Adaptation or reduction?

The CSIRO report says that adaptation could include urban greening, heat-resistant transport, drought-tolerant crops, coastal defence, flood-and-fire-tolerant architecture and species management. Energy solutions could be in this order: solar energy, followed by wind (although as this is intermittent, storage options will have to keep up), carbon capture and storage, and biofuels.

Angel says that there is a lot of scope to reduce. “Our most potent weapon is a new energy target, if there is no new fossil fuel baseload.” He describes adaptation as “things get bad and people live with it”. In other words, “people will die, be less healthy and prosperous”. What does he think about carbon capture sinks? Not much, is his brief answer. “Ridiculous expense. Pipelines are needed, energy is required to pump, then online monitoring, ridiculous add-ons etc.”

What about solar panels? Angel says the public has realised that their neighbours with panels aren’t sitting in the dark, but he adds that feed-in tariffs from the Australian government are ending this year. If it is no longer cost-effective to sell to the grid, then on-site storage, i.e. batteries, will have to become more affordable. Angel calls that “the next big energy challenge.”

Flannery gets all his home energy from solar panels. “The cost of solar has reduced 10 per cent per annum year on year,” he notes. But is it too late for individual lifestyle choices? Flannery doesn’t think so, and it’s good to be a conscientious citizen, he says. He urges people to carry on recycling and using ‘bags for life’ and ‘keep cups’.

Angel agrees that it’s always good to change, but he argues that it takes too long to ‘mainstream’ green-conscious behaviour. “I’ve never been a fan of the boutique approach,” he says. “It will take centuries.” Most people are passive supporters “and not everyone has the capacity.” We don’t have that much time, he insists. “Instead, it’s down to the government, and even solar panels are a ‘boutique exercise’ until the government makes them mainstream.” So onward with the vigorous campaigns.

Flannery seems to think that we will adapt somehow. Unbridled growth has slowed. “In the last two years, emissions have flat-lined - that’s the first time that has happened without a recession,” and the ‘population bomb’ has also defused, with birth rates reducing. “I expect that we’ll muddle through, at greater social cost than required.”

While we are adapting or muddling through, what do the experts predict for Tasmania’s ancient forest and Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef?

On an island with weather not unlike that of Great Britain, Bowman predicts that “temperature rise is certain and I expect the intensity of climate variation will increase. Sea level rise will become a bigger issue, with storm surges destroying infrastructure on the coast.”

It is too late for response and recovery, he says. “In reality, the only way to save the wilderness is to decarbonise and stabilise the climate, but I am not optimistic that we can do this quickly enough.” Bowman has three solutions. Firstly, to control invasive plant growth through native or exotic animals (elephants have been suggested). Another idea is the ancient practice of “Aboriginal patch burning”, where fires are deliberate and controlled rather than random, spontaneous and out of control. His last solution is a massive ecological restoration programme, “building repositories, where we save as many of the valuable plants and animals as possible.” This could include husbandry, translocation and storage.

Meanwhile, over in tropical Queensland, what chance is there for the Reef algae to adapt to harsher conditions?

Veron says temperature-tolerant zooxanthellae have adapted in the past, but it has taken thousands of years.  He mentions the same solution over and over: “drastically reducing global CO2 emissions...warming can only be counteracted by lowering CO2... reducing Australia’s role in CO2 emissions”. This does not foresee new coal mines being built. “If [the Carmichael coal mine] goes ahead, which seems increasingly unlikely, it will be the worst thing Australia could possibly do to the Great Barrier Reef.”

Veron believes the Great Barrier Reef is dying and will eventually perish. Mass extinction will be “in full swing by the end of the century,” he believes.

Flannery describes adaptation as natural selection, genetic diversity or death - “mass mortality with only a few surviving species”. Whilst the southern end of the reef has minor bleaching, he says that the Northern Great Barrier Reef is devastated, and this will spread to every reef on the planet “The era of reefs as we know them is finished.”

Only time will tell whether more adverse weather and climate change will defeat this climatically-diverse continent or whether it will win the battle to reduce emissions.

Australia: Five things that have changed

1. More days of extreme fire weather - Australian householders are supposed to have a fire evacuation plan in place.

2. In schools, children aren’t supposed to go out in the hotter months without sun hats. They also wear ‘rashies’, rather like wetsuit T-shirts, on the beach.

3. Sunscreen is often available free at public events. However, all this ‘slip-​slap-slopping’ and covering up means Vitamin D supplements are often needed.

4. During the hotter months, different stages of water use can be imposed state by state - e.g. restrictions on garden-watering, topping up pools and sometimes even showering if drought is severe.

5. Plants are flowering earlier and creatures nesting earlier.

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