The truth about climate change

Dr Sarah Perkins, Research Associate for UNSW’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science.
Dr Sarah Perkins, Research Associate for UNSW’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science.

Green Lifestyle talks to Dr Sarah Perkins, Research Associate for UNSW’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, about the IPCC report, bushfires, the carbon tax and her recent NSW Young Tall Poppy Awards nomination.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) AR5 report stated that climate change is very real, and is most definitely the result of human actions. Today, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, told CNN about her concern for the current bushfires in Australia, and that while a direct link with the wildfires and climate change isn’t clear yet, “what is absolutely clear is that the science is telling us there are increasing heatwaves in Asia, Europe and Australia”.

Dr Sarah Perkins studies heatwaves and changes in extreme temperatures in Australia and globally. Sarah gives us some sage advice that we need to act now in order to prevent further rising heat of levels, particularly in light of the recent temperatures.

What are your thoughts on the IPCC claims that climate change is undeniably caused by humans?
I fully support that statement. More specifically, the IPCC said they are “95 per cent certain that humans have played a large role in the climate change we’ve seen since 1950”. In terms of climate science it doesn’t get more certain than that, because when scientists are talking about observations and trends there’s always going to be a little uncertainty. It’s simply impossible to have all the observations for all climate variables for every global region. We have numerous comprehensive records, but it’s never going to be complete.

Do you think the current bushfire emergencies in Australia are related to our changing climate?
Many temperature records have been broken around the country recently, including the warmest 12 months ever, as well as last month being the hottest September since Australia’s temperature records began. NSW has not been exempt from these records, and with reduced rainfall during winter, conditions have been ripe for increased bushfire risk. The increased summer rainfall during 2010 to 2011, and 2011 to 2012 – which were in what’s known as the ‘La Niña’ oceanic and atmospheric phases – has seen an increase in the amount of available fuel, therefore increasing the bushfire risk even more. Hazard reduction burning could not occur at the scale that was necessary, as conditions were much warmer than average.

There are numerous concerning issues here from a fire and a climate perspective. First of all, as pointed out, the spate of record-breaking temperatures increased the fire risk for the entire summer season in general. Secondly, the fire season has started much, much earlier than usual – bushfires, and higher risk of them, are generally seen in January, when high temperatures and dry conditions are more common from a climate perspective. Thirdly, we are in a neutral phase of the climate cycle, coming out of the La Niña phase into El Niño, whereas generally high fire risk at any point in the season is in the drier El Niño phase. Such high risk and devastating events like those we are experiencing now are generally not as expected from a climatological perspective during neutral summers, such as this one. Fourthly, Australian studies have shown, and it has been highlighted by the recent IPCC report, that the frequency and intensity of extreme temperature events such as heatwaves have increased, and will continue to increase further throughout the 21st century due to human-induced climate change. This is worrying because extreme high temperatures are one of the key ingredients of wildfire-prone weather.

Recently Federal Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt said the carbon tax isn’t the best strategy for reducing levels of carbon being released into the environment. Do you agree with that statement and, if so, do you have any ideas of what Australia and the government can do to reduce emissions?
This is my personal opinion coming here, not my professional opinion. I think the carbon tax was a great initiative. It wasn’t the one and only thing we should have done to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions but it was a starting point. The scrapping of the carbon tax doesn’t send out a good message about the importance of climate change to the public or encourage people to change their behaviour, but I’m not a politician and I need to make that clear.

Personally I would like to see a lot of money invested into greener energy as well. No one – that goes for you and I as well – really wants to compromise their lifestyle. So if we can change where we get our energy from so we don’t have to change our way of life, I believe that’s a situation where everyone can benefit.

How do you feel about your recent nomination for the NSW Tall Poppy Awards?
I was very honoured to be nominated for that. That came from my old PhD supervisor. He is very well-renowned in climate science, so to have him think that I’m pretty good is a great honour. I feel great to be nominated because it means I must be doing something right in my communication of climate science. I don’t want people to think that I’m sitting up in a little ivory tower plotting away at a computer with data projections, and this nomination shows me that I am actually making an impact. It’s quite humbling to be recognised for that.

Why is communication about climate science important to you?
Whether I like it or not, I’m in an industry or field which has huge potential to have impacts over so many different sectors – health, agriculture, infrastructure, ecosystems, you name it. Climate and, therefore, weather impacts everything. Through my research, I’ve seen that many of these changes are not stable, and I have to be careful to report these findings accurately so that appropriate policy, mitigation and plans can be set in place. I know some of my colleagues don’t necessarily feel the same way and I guess that’s their personal choice. I guess most of them are older and have come from a different generation but I think communication is quite important. My concern is that if people don’t hear about climate science directly from the experts that they are going to hear it from someone who isn’t so well-informed.

What can Australians do to reduce their impact on the environment?
If you want to take it a step further, start lobbying with your local member of parliament that you’re not happy with current policies or current situations. Start interacting with other people in the same mind frame and see how maybe together as a community, not just individuals, you can actually make a difference.

Human-induced climate change is real and we are unfortunately starting to see the effects now whether we like it or not. Regardless of that I think, what people forget is we still have this year-to-year variability in the climate system. So, while we’re experiencing a really hot summer this summer, we might have a cooler summer next summer. But what’s really happening is that we’ve seen those warm summers become warmer and warmer and more frequent. That’s what we need to be more concerned about, the overall trend in climate that’s the worrying part. I just think people forget about that sometimes and they think about the seasons and how they change from a year-to-year basis. It’s about the long-term change and we definitely know that that’s happening, and that’s scary.

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You can follow Sarah on twitter (@sarahinscience) and on her blog (www.sarahinscience.com).

Writer’s note: A version of this article was originally published at Green Lifestyle Magazine on Tuesday, 22 October 2013.

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