Climate change report shows the current reality

The World Meteorological Organisation’s State of the Global Climate report has been released and makes for grim reading.

The 25th annual edition of the report describes in detail the shocking effect human actions are having on the climate, including record sea level rises, as well as exceptionally high land and ocean temperatures over the past four years.

Carbon dioxide levels, which were at 357.0 parts per million when the statement was first published in 1993, keep rising – to 405.5 parts per million in 2017. While the numbers for 2018 weren’t calculated in time for the report, they’re expected to have increased further, and will continue to do so in 2019.

“The data released in this report give cause for great concern. The past four years were the warmest on record, with the global average surface temperature in 2018 approximately 1°C above the pre-industrial baseline,” says UN Secretary General António Guterres.

“There is no longer any time for delay.”

Climate change is impacting us now

In 2018, natural hazards affected nearly 62 million people, with most associated with extreme weather and climate events. Floods were the biggest hazard, impacting on more than 35 million people worldwide. Over 2 million people were displaced due to disasters linked to climate change.

Hurricanes Florence and Michael in the United States were just 2 of the 14 “billion dollar disasters” in 2018. They triggered around US$49 billion in damages and over 100 deaths. Super typhoon Mangkhut affected more than 2.4 million people and killed at least 134 people, mainly in the Philippines.

Last year also saw new records for ocean temperatures, breaking the previous record set in 2017. More than 90% of the energy trapped by greenhouse gases is absorbed by oceans, and ocean heat content provides a direct measure of this energy accumulation in the upper layers of the ocean.

Sea level rises were also reported to be increasing faster than ever before.

Meanwhile Arctic sea ice was well below average, and set new record lows in several months. Antarctic sea ice also measured near-record low levels, with monthly levels regularly in the lowest-5 ever recorded.

The extensive report also described the impacts on food security, coral health, ocean oxygen content, ocean acidification and glacier extent, among other climate indicators.

This is, unfortunately, the reality we are experiencing right now.

We checked in with ten Australian experts for their responses to the report.

Associate Professor Pete Strutton

The Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania

“The WMO State of the Climate 2018 report reiterates the scientific consensus around climate change, and importantly highlights the economic and societal impacts. The report documents continued increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, land and ocean temperatures, sea level rise and ocean acidity, as well as continuing decreases in glacier mass and low ice extent in the Arctic and Antarctic. All of the major indicators are confirming the impacts of climate change.

“Importantly, the report makes links between climate change and societal issues such as human displacement and nutrition. For example, in 2017 the number of undernourished people increased after a prolonged decline, due to droughts associated with the strong 2015-16 El Niño.

“For Australia, the most pertinent aspects of the report are the indicators for increasing land and ocean temperatures (including heat waves in both and the links to drought) and sea level rise, given the coastal concentration of the Australian population.

Dr Liz Hanna

Chair of the Environmental Health Working Group at the World Federation of Public Health Associations, and an Honorary Senior Fellow at the Climate Change Institute, The Australian National University.

“The key word in this report is ‘accelerating’. Impacts are accelerating as global CO2 emissions are again accelerating, they rose 2.7 per cent last year. Rather than offering intelligent respite in this mad trajectory to species suicide, Australia is only making it worse. Excluding the unreliable land use data, Australia’s emissions hit an all-time high last year.

“Acceleration of warming, of heat extremes, fires drought, damaging storms and sea level rise sends shivers up the spines of the health sector. These rising climate tragedies spell disaster for human lives, human livelihoods, and our collective health and happiness crumble. The health sector is left to pick up the pieces and try to restore health.

“As individuals, humans have a strong survival instinct, it appears that collectively we do not.

“Rich countries are not immune to the damage and misery global warming is starting to deliver. While we watch Cyclone Idai devastate three nations in Africa, Australians are still reeling from two synchronous cyclones across the north, swathes of flood damage across drought-stricken Queensland, with heat fires and droughts sending the southern half of Australia into despair. And all this is accelerating!”

Professor Peter Newman AO

The John Curtin Distinguished Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University. He is the Coordinating Lead Author on Transport for the IPCC.

“Australia has had its hottest year on record, by far, with huge swings in rainfall, what else do we need in Australia to motivate us to do more about demonstrating leadership on reducing greenhouse gases?”

Professor John Quiggin

Australian Laureate Fellow (Economics) at the University of Queensland.

“Following the depressing news from the International Energy Agency that global CO2 emissions rose to a record high in 2018, the WMO report confirms that severe impacts of climate change are already being felt.

“This scientific analysis only confirms what is evident to anyone who examines the evidence with an open mind: the global climate is changing in ways that are unprecedented in human experience.

“Sadly, many of our leaders do not have an open mind. Rather, they are committed to denying the findings of climate science at any cost, in order to defend sectional economic interests and backward-looking identity politics. Australia in particular needs urgent action to achieve substantial reductions in emissions over the next decade.”

Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe AO

Emeritus Professor of Science, Technology and Society (School of Natural Sciences) at Griffith University.

“This latest statement from the World Meteorological Organization is truly alarming. It documents increasing average temperatures, more extreme weather-related events such as heatwaves, cyclones and fires, accelerating sea level rise, shrinking sea ice and retreat of glaciers. Greenland has lost about 3600 cubic kilometres of ice since 2002. As the UN Secretary-General says, the data in the report ‘give cause for great concern’. ‘There is no longer any time for delay’, he said, calling for concerted international action.

“Our national government is still dithering, as if responding to climate change is an optional extra to be implemented only if it doesn’t slow economic growth. There is clear evidence that it is technically possible, as well as economically prudent, to move rapidly to de-carbonise our electricity supply. A recent opinion poll in South Australia showed an overwhelming majority of voters recognise the urgency of the situation and support moving to 100 per cent renewables by 2030.

“We also need, as a matter of equal urgency, to tackle the problem of increasing greenhouse gas emissions from transport. Governments are still investing billions of public funds in dinosaur road schemes which will worsen the problem. That money should be invested in providing world-class public transport systems for our cities and high-speed inter-urban rail.”

Ian was formerly President of the Australian Conservation Foundation 

Professor Jim Salinger

Visiting Scholar from Penn State University, USA and a University Associate at the Tasmanian Institute for Agriculture at the University of Tasmania. He is a former president of the World Meteorological Organization’s Commission for Agricultural Meteorology.

“The 25th Anniversary issue [of the WMO report] shows hastening climate warming globally.

“This was true for the New Zealand region, a combined land and marine area of 4 million sq. km (the size of the Indian subcontinent), with the warmest year on 150 years of land and sea records.

“It is very alarming that the carbon dioxide levels reaching a highest 406 ppm – up from 280 ppm in the 19th century, and methane jumping unexpectedly by 25 ppb to a record 1850 ppb by 2017.

“The extra 3.7 mm of sea level rise will be very significant for the coast of Australia, and especially New Zealand with its many seaside urban areas and long coasts.

“The record warm summer ending in February 2019 produced the largest ice loss on the Southern Alps glaciers since the regular end of summer snowline surveys started 42 years ago.

“As well, Queensland Groper occurred in the Bay of Islands, Northland, 3,000 km out of range, Snapper in Milford Sound in Fiordland, with massive mortality in the aquaculture fisheries of the Marlborough Sounds.

“These are a harbinger of climate in the latter part of the 20th century if we do not take action to reduce emissions from combustion of fossil fuels and production of greenhouse gases from other sources such as waste and agriculture immediately.”

Professor Samantha Hepburn

Director of Research and Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resource Law at Deakin University.

“This report makes it very clear that the impacts of climate change are accelerating.  We know that if the current trajectory for greenhouse gas concentrations continues, temperatures may increase by 3 – 5 degrees celsius compared to pre-industrial levels by the end of the century and we have already reached 1 degree celsius.

“The 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22 years, 2018 was the fourth warmest year on record, ocean heat content is at a record high, global mean sea levels continue to rise, Arctic and Antarctic ice content have been severely diminished, extreme weather patterns have impacted life in every continent and imperil sustainable practices and global emission reduction targets have not been met.

“Clearly, the soft law processes of international law have not been effective in addressing this profound threat to humanity.  Domestic regulatory and policy frameworks across the world must take immediate, strong and direct action to stem the growth of global carbon emissions.

“In addition to pricing carbon and accelerating the trajectory of renewable energy, there are many multi-dimensional options that may work. These include climate accession agreements, bottom-up approaches, green clubs and strategies grounded in behavioural science.

“Responding to climate change is fundamentally a legacy decision. It connects to our global intergenerational responsibilities.  Even if we do manage to reduce emissions by 2020, the global average temperature will rise for many decades and sea levels will continue to rise. The benefits of near-term emissions will therefore not be apparent for decades. But this is our moral imperative.

“In the words of Obama, ‘Someday our children and our children’s children will look us in the eye and ask us did we do all we could, when we had the chance, to leave a cleaner, safer world? And I want to be able to say yes.”

Professor Kadambot Siddique AM

Hackett Professor of Agriculture Chair and Director of The UWA Institute of Agriculture, The University of Western Australia.

“A major challenge of our time is to produce sufficient nutrient‐rich food for the ever-growing human population with limited land resources at time when climate change is occurring.

“Globally, farming contributes around 8–15 per cent of the total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. More than 60 per cent of the emissions associated with food come from farm‐gate raw materials; as such, grain producers, agri‐food industries, policy‐makers, and consumers share the responsibility of securing the food supply while mitigating the environmental footprint.

“Farming is a socioeconomic‐ and technology-driven ecosystem with the complexity of simultaneously implementing technologies for quality food production, ensuring positive economic and environmental outcomes, maintaining and improving soil quality and health, and endeavouring to uphold societal values.

“Adopting ‘systems integration’ of proven farming strategies… can lead to the ‘decoupling’ of increasing land productivity and reducing GHG footprints.

“Specific cropping strategies that can be integrated into farming systems include (i) diversifying crop rotations to break pest cycles, and increase the use of residual soil water and nutrients; (ii) optimising fertilisation and improving fertiliser‐Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) in crop production; (iii) incorporating pulse crops into rotations to enhance biological N2‐fixation and reduce fertiliser use; (iv) enhancing soil carbon sequestration to partially offset GHG emissions from inputs; (v) adopting low soil–disturbance practices, where possible, to increase soil organic carbon; and (vi)  intensifying crop rotations with reduced summer‐fallowing frequency to increase carbon inputs to the system.

“Integrating these proven practices in a system, with the support of relevant policies and consumer intervention, would enhance the synergy of individual components, leading to increased system productivity and profitability, while reducing the end–product footprint and environmental impacts, and enhancing societal values.”

Dr Paul Read

Sustainability Criminologist at Monash University.

“The latest report on the state of the climate from the World Meteorological Organization is in its 25th year. The science has never been more certain and the impact of climate change is in the news daily, Mozambique and Zimbabwe being the latest casualties to its growing and tragic consequences.  The developed world, in particular countries like Australia, are more blameworthy than others for 25 years of political inaction.

“The issue of climate change in Australia has toppled Australian governments one by one since Professor Garnaut tried to introduce a program that would have Australia on track to meet its global obligations; sea levels are definitely rising, deaths from climate change are rising, oceans are becoming acidic, and still Australia fiddles like Nero as Rome burns.

“The Australia-wide strike of school children reminds me of the Children’s Crusade of the Middle Ages. After 25 years of inaction we need our children to remind us what’s important and sadly their initiative becomes yet another example of an intergenerational social contract shattered – between the older ‘haves’ and the younger ‘have nots’.”

Associate Professor Linda Selvey

School of Public Health at the University of Queensland.

“The WMO report highlights the unprecedented climate extremes around the world in 2018, as well as the continued growth in carbon emissions and ocean acidification.

“Australia is not immune and in Australia we experienced unprecedented heat waves, fires, floods, drought and storms. Heat waves are deadly and also affect peoples’ general health and wellbeing. Floods, fires and storms injure and kill people and also have long-lasting impacts on peoples’ mental and physical health. Our food security is also under threat by severe droughts and flooding.

“While most of us in Australia have enough food to eat, droughts and floods can limit the affordability healthy food, particularly fresh fruit and vegetables. This has major implications for public health.”

Linda was formerly CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

Please login to favourite this article.