On 30 November 1987, 266 of Australia’s pre-eminent environmental scientists gathered for Greenhouse 87, at Monash University in Melbourne for a five-day conference which, it would turn out, marked the beginning of the climate crisis debate in Australia.
It was also one of the first major national gatherings of its type anywhere in the world. For a short while Australia was the climate change debate’s epicentre.
In the audience were hundreds of sceptical scientists.
Neville Nicholls, then a senior researcher with the Bureau of Meteorology Research Unit with 10 years of high-level study into the impact of greenhouse emissions on tropical cyclones, admits he attended the meeting with an air of scepticism.
Nicholls and his colleagues Greg Holland and John McBride had been the first to examine the complexities of how tropical cyclones would be affected by global warming. When he left the Monash meeting after five days, he didn’t think that climate change caused by increased greenhouse gases would be a catastrophe.
“My attitude,” says Nicholls 35 years later, “was partly because I thought we needed to do more work to determine the balance between the deleterious and the positive effects of a warming climate.
“At the final session I asked a question: do we know that, overall, the bad impacts outnumber the good impacts? I loved Barrie Pittock’s response, which was that it is hard to think of a winner from sea level rise!”
The conference organiser, CSIRO senior atmospheric scientist Graeme Pearman, also admits that many were not convinced: “All of us had a degree of scepticism still, at that point. The details of exactly how climate change would unfold, particularly on a regional basis, these things were developing and we didn’t know for sure.”
In 1972, Pearman had undertaken the first-high precision measurements of carbon dioxide over south-east Australia from an aircraft. He later confirmed his research with US scientist C. David Keeling at the Mauna Loa monitoring station in Hawaii, who told him the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was rising inexorably.
Pearman says now that at that time there was a poor understanding of the global biogeochemical cycling of carbon dioxide: “…that is, if it is added to the atmosphere does it get soaked up by the oceans or the vegetation or stay airborne?
“The net result of this was the establishment of a significant carbon cycle research effort that continues today. It appeared that about 57% of the carbon dioxide emitted from the burning of fossil fuels was remaining airborne.”
Another young attendee was David Karoly, now an honorary Professor at the University of Melbourne. He retired at the start of February 2022 from his role as Chief Research Scientist in the CSIRO Climate Science Centre. He is an internationally recognised expert on climate change and climate variability.
He is also a Councillor on the Climate Council. He says Greenhouse 87 was among the series of meetings and conferences funded by the Australian Greenhouse Office under the “Australian Climate Change Program”.
The first, at Melbourne University in 1985, focused on science.
Karoly says Pearman’s 1987 conference was pivotal to the Australian response to the unfolding greenhouse challenge.
“It wasn’t only about the science but also about the solutions, and planning that was needed. Graeme Pearman and the CSIRO were keen to inform the community and business and state and federal Governments.”
In 1986, Pearman contacted about 70 scientists around the country who were experts in a wide range of disciplines – including oceanography, agriculture, forestry, energy use and conservation – and asked them to spend time during the next 12 months to consider what climate change might mean for their respective discipline/sector.
They were asked to prepare their material based on a frightening climate scenario prepared by Barrie Pittock – a doubling of greenhouse gas levels by 2030. At the time so little was known about the science of global warming that it would not have been possible to have come up with a better framework.
The conference was attended by 266 scientists. Some were engaged with the issue and had prepared papers for presentation; others had, in the interim, become interested in climate change.
In hindsight, Nicholls says the scenario was a bit extreme, and is now more relevant to 2050 than 2030.
“I think that overall, the participants thought we could handle the negative impacts mostly. But that perception was based on a naïve belief that action would be taken to slow warming and prepare to adapt as well.”
Pearman says the conference had two outcomes: “The primary aim was to encourage the research activities within all aspects of potential impacts, risks, and mitigation options. Contributors covered a wide range of issues related to hydrology and water resources, changes to the natural environment, agriculture, and societal impacts.
The second outcome was almost accidental. The media got interested. Clippings from the time show reporters paraphrased the principal outcomes determined by many of the presentations.
Under the headline: “Scientists warn of floods fires cyclones and disease” The Canberra Times wrote: “Grim predictions about the impact of greenhouse effect have been made at a five-day conference in Melbourne, but the strongest point to emerge was the uncertainty over what will happen.
“Conference speakers based their forecasts on a two to four degree increase in average temperatures, more summer rain and less winter rain and a sea level rise of between 20 and 140 cm.”
The paper ticked off what we now know to be the impacts of climate change: more fires, floods and cyclones, “mostly impacting northern Australia and the coastline;” the loss of plant and animal diversity; halving of the ski season. It also mentioned problems with mosquito borne diseases and “polyarthritis” – a rheumatic disease.
“On a brighter note,” the report said, “Professor David Hopley of James Cook University, said the Great Barrier Reef would become more beautiful and prolific with the rise in water level and predicted increase in water temperature. But in the longer term, growth would lag behind the sea level rise, spelling disaster for island tourist resorts, which would disappear.”
It was also reported that crop yields would benefit from carbon dioxide “fertilisation”.
Even now Nicholls recalls the media coverage. “There was a lot of media attention in the weeks running up to the conference. But I’ve found surprisingly few articles in the week of the conference. The media were there but I wonder if the lack of fireworks left them with little to write about?”
The ABC Radio Science Program doyen Robyn Williams, who started at The ABC in 1975, told me this week he, did not attend.
Pearman is proud of the work done by all the people at the conference, the BoM and CSIRO.
The papers were edited, submitted for two peer reviews, then incorporated into a 700-page book Greenhouse: Planning for Climate Change, edited by Pearman. It’s no longer being printed but is available in digital form from the CSIRO.
“The book was more important than the conference, although it couldn’t have been written without the conference,” says Karoly, who compiled one of the chapters. He still flicks through it to this day.
Nicholls says he’s re-read it three times in the past few months as he prepares for presentations around the anniversary. (This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark environmental book Limits to Growth and many events will commemorate that.)
In 1989, CSIRO and the Commission for the Future were elected to the United Nations Global 500 Honour Roll. The award citation ends with: “No other organisation or nation has so far conducted any comparable public awareness programme on climate change.”
The book was reviewed in an international science journal, and the author summed up: “Most of the chapters … leave the impression that the climate scenario would not have catastrophic consequences for Australia…The participants saw Australia as a rich, industrialized country that could cope with the kind of climate change proposed in the scenario.”
Nicholls recalled this week: “That perception was based on a naïve belief that action would be taken to slow warming and prepare to adapt as well.
“Graeme Pearman had energised the scientific community to really look at whether global warming would be a problem in all their fields of interest.
“At the time of the conference only a handful of papers were published each year on global warming or climate change. Now about 70,000 such papers are published each year.
“I’m not saying, of course, that this explosion of interest was caused by the conference, but it certainly had an influence, here and globally. Within Australia it focused the attention of a wide variety of experts onto the question as to whether global warming would be a problem in their field of interest.”
Today the climate crisis debate puts people and communities at the centre of the discussion, but Nicholls doesn’t recall any social, political or environmental advocacy groups at Greenhouse 87. It was however “white older males, no Indigenous people, and only a handful of women”.
“There was no-one gluing themselves to art works, or suggesting a School Strike For Climate.”
More importantly, Nicholls says, the conference did lead to government action, including the establishment of government climate bodies.
“It certainly enhanced the interest of scientists from many fields in the climate change issue. I would probably argue that the conference did manage to (slightly) slow the growth of emissions, but not by very much. I think vested interests turned it from a science-engineering-economics problem into a political issue.”
Nicholls will be presenting to the Australian Meteorology and Oceanographic Society annual conference in Adelaide this week.
“As I have been preparing this presentation I’ve been thinking about the fact that 35 years is a long time and wondering what might have been done to speed Australian and global action.
“I know many of my colleagues are depressed about the slowness of action. But I, most of the time, think the world has changed so much more dramatically than I thought, back in 1987, was likely.
“I could never have predicted that I would have grandmothers and 16-year-old school girls and Uber drivers asking me serious questions about climate change, on those few occasions when I let slip that I’m a climate scientist.
Read more: “Absolutely diabolical” challenge of climate change addressed by Australia’s top and emerging scientists.
“And the wide range of people who are actively trying to get governments to move faster just excites me. I would never have thought, back then, that the majority of the Australian population would get a pretty good understanding of the climate change problem, including its causes and ways to solve it.
“In the end, it is a complicated subject. So I’m often blown away by how good the general understanding of the issue is, nowadays – again, not just due to the conference, but it played an important role.
Karoly left the conference after a week feeling optimistic and looking forward to getting more money for research.
Nicholls says he started to overcome his scepticism at the conference. “I didn’t see it as a catastrophe because I thought, naïvely obviously, that we (the world) would work this out pretty quickly,” he says. “For many years after the conference if family or friends asked if I thought global warming was a problem my standard response would be that it will only become a problem if we let it. Unhappily, that is what we have done.”