September 01, 2005

Article at Cosmos Magazine

OPINION | Global Warning

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
– Woody Allen

HE WAS, of course, joking. But you almost have to pinch yourself to see the humour these days, what with all the talk of climate change and what the future holds.

Global warming used to be something you debated with friends, and something you could have an opinion about. But here we are in 2005 and, suddenly, it’s no longer academic: cities such as Sydney are running short of water and citizens are being told to get used to it because rainfall patterns have changed.

In fact, predictions are that by 2030, Adelaide will be the only city in Australia self-sufficient in water. That’s 25 years away: the duration of many mortgages taken out today. Only in July 2005, the Australian federal government released a report, produced by the CSIRO, entitled Climate Change: Risk and Vulnerability. I could scarcely believe what I was reading.

Climate change was inevitable, it stated: Australia faces more frequent and severe droughts, increasing numbers of floods and storms in the years ahead.

Regions such as Cairns, the Murray-Darling Basin and south-west Western Australia were the most vulnerable; but alpine areas and low-lying eastern seaboard coastal towns were also “at risk”, and some of the country’s most remote northern communities could face depopulation.

Average rainfall in much of the south-east of the country will decrease, the report predicted, with the volume of run- off into the Murray-Darling Basin plummeting by 20 per cent within 25 years. The dry south-west of Australia (where much of the country’s wheat is grown) faces a similar drop in rainfall, by about one-fifth of the volume it enjoys today.

Meanwhile, rainfall would increase in much of the tropical north. Along the eastern seaboard, coastal towns are likely to experience more severe wind speeds during cyclone season and even more cyclones; storm surges would likely be amplified by rising sea levels.

There would be more heatwaves and fewer frosts across the country, an increase in severe weather events generally, including hailstorms, and many more days throughout the year when bushfires are likely to ignite.

These changes are inevitable. The report said they will take place: “over the next 30 to 50 years irrespective of global or local efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions”.

So there you go. Climate change is no longer a topic of debate, it’s something you prepare for – like your retirement, or paying off a house, or planning a big overseas trip.

A couple of weeks before this issue went to press, I was in the Adelaide office of Tim Flannery, director of the South Australian Museum and author of several hugely influential books, The Future Eaters among them. For the past few years he’s been researching a new book on climate change, and he said that what he’s found alarms him – as a scientist, a citizen and a father.

He said there was a real possibility that within a century, some cities in Australia will fail and be abandoned. It’s likely that large numbers of people will perish the world over as the changing climate plays havoc with crops, rainfall and sea levels, or as freakish weather intensifies and natural disasters like cyclones become more common and more ferocious.

As the government report predicts, this will occur irrespective of what we do to reduce global warming. There’s so much greenhouse gas in the atmosphere already that the weather will change no matter what we do. So time to batten down the hatches and prepare for bad weather.

Could our cities be in peril, our standard of living – the highest of any time in the history of humanity – be merely a fleeting moment of glory?

It may sound preposterous, and perhaps it is. But what if these predictions come to pass? What if our top scientists are right, and the entire world is about to change dramatically on us? How will we feel having known decades in advance – and having done nothing?

IT IS TOO OUTRAGEOUS to think climate change might topple our species from its commanding perch? We know extinctions happen: 99 per cent of all the creatures that have ever lived are now long gone. But it seems a ludicrous question to ask: could human beings one day also pass into history? Could modern civilisation collapse?

We are accustomed to seeing ourselves as the dominant species on the planet. And we are: we have harnessed the awesome power of the atom, built massive canals that link oceans, propelled humans to the Moon and space probes toward the stars. We build great cities housing millions, travel vast distances with little effort, and have dramatically boosted crop production – enough to feed millions more.

Our societies are powerful, complex and advanced. Our cities are mass concentrations of people and machinery, sucking resources from all corners of the globe to meet our daily needs. We think nothing of eating mahi mahi fish captured off Hawaii, reading a London magazine made from trees felled in Madagascar, or driving cars powered by fossil fuels extracted from deep beneath the sea and refined on far-off shores.

But it is because our cities are so populous and complex and our supply chains so numerous and extensive, that we are so vulnerable. Cyclones and hurricanes devastate population centres as never before, partly because we have so many more people and so much more property to damage ... and our cities take longer to recover. It’s the same with floods, earthquakes and tsunamis; even snow and hailstorms now exact a higher toll and require more recovery time.

We are masters of the planet. But though we may well marvel at our dominance, we are still subject to the vagaries of nature. Natural disasters can humble cities, bring death and destruction on a mass scale and make areas uninhabitable for years. Our proud and sophisticated technologies repeatedly tremble and fail in the face of nature’s violent onslaughts.

We may be capable of bending nature to our will, but we do not live beyond it. We are subject to nature, and we rely on it to survive. We need nature to provide water, air and sunlight, soils to grow our crops, rain to fill our dams and trees to produce the oxygen we breathe.

Although we rely on nature, we take it for granted. And so powerful and numerous have humans become that we are now affecting the natural world.

This effect is no longer local, like polluting a river or creating unsightly chemical smog, it’s global: we are changing the Earth’s climate. Precisely what proportion of climate change is natural and how much is caused by humans is really a moot point: it’s clear that our actions are accelerating the process.

If climate change is going to upset our weather patterns as dramatically as scientists forecast, we must prepare for them. To disregard alarming numbers is unwise; to dismiss them because they do not fit with pre-conceived notions is arrogant. To dismiss them because we don’t like what we hear could be suicidal.

Humans are incredibly adaptive, and have overcome many challenges before. It may be unlikely that our great cities will tumble, and that our species will pass into history; but some cities may indeed fail and be abandoned, and many people perish.

If natural disasters and extreme weather become the norm as the climate changes, casualties will result, and cities may become uninhabitable. Shortages in food and water could occur where none previously existed. We don’t have to be facing extinction for things to get ugly.

And yet, we also now know that great civilisations, powerful and dominant for centuries, have nevertheless fallen because of environmental factors.