Climate scientists face a dilemma when discussing the current Australian bushfires. Anyone with a basic understanding of climate science knows that it is not strictly correct to say man-made climate change caused this disaster. In fact, the immense complexity of the climate system means that such direct causal statements are rarely felt appropriate by the scientific community at all.
Bushfires are a natural part of the ecosystem in south-east Australia, but this year is completely abnormal in the scale of the fires. These are by far the largest wildfires in recent years and the numbers are pretty distressing. 2019 was the hottest year on record in Australia with the Sydney suburb of Penrith reaching the record temperature of 48.9°C. An area the size of 60% of England has been ravaged by fire, 26 people have been killed and over a billion animals are estimated to have died including a third of the koala population. At least 2,000 properties have been destroyed and many people will suffer health complications due to the smoke blanketing south-eastern Australia which carries particulates in concentrations far above established safe limits. Some ecologists have commented that they expect some species will not recover and could, as a result of this year’s bushfires, go extinct.
2019 also saw record high temperatures recorded in many other countries including the UK; some of you no doubt will remember when the UK record high temperature of 38.7°C was recorded at the Cambridge Botanic Gardens on the 25th July last year.
Facts like these seem to offer some clarity but the Earth is a labyrinthine web of interconnecting processes. To get a sense of just how impenetrable the science of climate change is, pick up a copy of the IPCC Physical Science Basis 2013. That is, if you’re feeling strong: the report in print is over 1500 pages long, with a shipping weight of nearly 10 pounds according to Amazon. Because of this complexity, scientists find themselves compelled to remind people that we cannot say climate change ‘caused’ a particular weather event, only that anthropogenic climate change will make such events more severe and more frequent.
Sometimes I struggle with this kind of language because avoiding the suggestion of direct causation has the side-effect of suggesting some false separation between the root of climate change and the devastating human cost. On top of that, while scientists carefully choose their words to keep far within the bounds of what is strictly and completely correct, climate change deniers and polluting corporations pretending to care don’t seem to have any compulsion to avoid misleading statements or even outright lies. We find ourselves on an unequal playing field in so many ways and it often feels as though we make it worse for ourselves with insufficiently forceful language.
The scientific line is that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases will cause more frequent and severe natural disasters. What should be appended to all such statements is that radical changes to the way we organise our societies and live our lives are necessary to avoid an ever-worsening crisis.
Never let the lack of direct causation throw you off the scent. The truth is that, while climate science is complex, we know what we need to do to curtail this crisis: we must reduce our net emissions of greenhouse gas. I think most people have a good idea of what that involves already, so it would be redundant for me to write here a list of ways we as individual people or as a society could work towards that goal.
The frightening thing is that there are powerful, entrenched interests all over the world that introduce inertia into our system and prevent radical change on this issue at the necessary rate. Amongst those preventing adequate policy-change is the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who famously brought a lump of coal into parliament when he was Treasurer. Consider the language he used: he accused the opposition of being “coalophobes” while explaining how “coal is an important part of our sustainable future.”
More recently, when asked about how his government will act to tackle the devastating consequences of climate change in light of the bushfires, Morrison insisted that his current policies were already ahead of where they needed to be (Australian emissions have flat-lined but not decreased in recent years) and that he would not see his government move to “either extreme.” This is precisely the dangerous language we must tackle head-on. If we take one lesson from this terrible disaster, it should be that, in reality, inaction is the extreme option.
Continuing as we are is the same as saying that we do not care if there are more frequent, more severe disasters. This is not an obscure or abstract effect; unchecked global warming will carry an immense human cost. Ultimately, those who refuse to take the necessary action to tackle global warming and to safeguard future generations are the true extremists.