Australian Academy of Science brings climate change closer to home

Water in Western Australia is one of the Academy’s examples of where climate is having an impact, and where communities are already adapting. Bram Souffreau/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The Australian Academy of Sciences today released the new The Science of Climate Change: Questions and Answers. This is an extensively revised update of a similar publication in 2010. Its stated purpose is to “provide an understanding based on our present scientific knowledge, of some key questions about climate change”.

What is notable about the new publication (on which I was a member of the working group) is the extent to which it has moved to respond to the real-world needs of ordinary people, organisations and communities trying to understand what climate change means to them.

It represents a determined attempt by scientists to be relevant to the everyday concerns of people and organisations, and to support – through the delivery of up-to-date scientific knowledge – those who want to take meaningful climate action.

Relevant knowledge, or ‘what does it mean for me?’

Both the 2015 and 2010 versions of the Q&A have sought to answer questions about climate change by bringing the best science to bear. But some of the questions in the earlier version, for example about climate change in the distant past, might only be of limited interest to the general public and wouldn’t contribute in obvious ways to debate about present-day climate change.

So the latest version introduces two new questions that focus on the issues people talk about in the pub and on the train when they are trying to get their heads round climate change. How are extreme events changing? And how are sea levels changing?

These are the things that people can easily see are likely to affect them personally. And they want to understand their exposure – how big is the risk, when will it affect me, how will it affect me?

By bringing climate change firmly into the realm of people’s everyday concerns about their and their family’s well being, this new version will get people to think about taking action to address the challenge. This is crucial, because it is increasingly becoming clear that it is at the grassroots level that meaningful action is going to take place.

Who will act?

We have spent years, even decades, arguing at the highest international levels about climate mitigation – who should be reducing their emissions, by how much and when, how can technology be transferred to help less-developed countries cut their emissions, and a million other esoteric and detailed questions that have really, in the final analysis, achieved very little.
At the same time, the sceptics have had the ears of the great and the good at a domestic level, so that in Australia and many other countries very little, if anything, has been achieved to mitigate climate change. We will have to adapt to the inevitable impacts.

Yet although there is a vacuum in leadership at national and international levels, at the grassroots levels of households, community organisations and local governments, there is a growing recognition of this need to adapt. People and organisations begin to see that there’s likely to be a financial penalty if they fail to act, and that there might be a commercial advantage in being an early adopter. It is very clear to local governments along the coast, for instance, that they must act to ensure that today’s planning decisions take into account future risks of flooding.

These groups can almost be defined by their desire to keep their heads below the parapet – they are utility companies, farmers and agricultural enterprises, local governments and their employees. They are moving to protect their businesses and their stakeholders against the present and future effects of climate change and, where they can, to turn a profit through these early actions.

These people need and deserve information to support their willingness to undertake action and to provide them with authenticity and the authority to act. This new publication from the Academy has moved a considerable distance from the 2010 publication to address these needs. There is a much greater emphasis on present-day and future climate change. The question from 2010’s version “What are the consequences of climate change?” has been replaced in the 2015 edition by the much more succinct “What are the impacts of climate change?”. The answer, with the benefit of five years’ extra knowledge, has been much extended.

By delivering information on present-day and future changes, and how these will affect people and their environments, it provides those who are willing to act with the scientific evidence to justify action.

What do I need to do?

Finally, the new publication recognises that people and organisations want to know what they can do, what their governments can do, and what it might be unwise to do to address climate change impacts. A final, and new, question has been added: what does the science say about options to address climate change? This question provides a very introductory exploration of the triumvirate of mitigation, geoengineering and adaptation.

The booklet also includes a very brief case study demonstrating that adaptation is possible and is already taking place, taking the example of the response of Western Australia’s Water Corporation to persistent drought and declining water resources.

Although these elements are only a small part of the booklet (and indeed of the wider issue), they do show that action is possible, and that there can be penalties for making unwise and ill-considered choices.

Disappointingly for some, the booklet shows clearly that there are unlikely to be technological quick fixes. It highlights some of the potential pitfalls of geoengineering, for example, that solutions such as creating a shield in space totally fail to address ocean acidification. It won’t come as news to many people, but there are no simple or easy solutions to climate change - if we don’t change our ways, the world of our grandchildren and their children will be a very different one from ours today.