Features Australia

Tipping point of hysteria

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

Since the dawn of the climate debate in the late 1980s, any number of tipping points for the earth’s ecosystem have been forecast and then come and gone without anything much seeming to happen. Instead we seem to have reached a tipping point in hysteria about climate, where commentators rant that doom is at hand irrespective of what might be happening in the real world.

The floods at Townsville in Queensland, for example, prompted Professor Ian Lowe, a member of the Queensland Climate Advisory Council, to declare that climate was changing. Never mind that the area had experienced floods as recently as 2009, and Townsville itself had been flooded in 1953, 1946, 1892 and 1881. For good measure Professor Lowe threw in coral bleaching, bushfires and drought as evidence of change, although they involve quite different mechanisms, while drought and floods would seem to contradict one another. But he is not alone in forecasting doom.

Responding to a survey on global risks organised by insurance giants Marsh McLennan and Zurich and presented to the World Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland in January, senior business leaders nominated extreme weather events as the most likely risk facing us all. In a separate listing of effects expected from the nominated risk categories, extreme weather events scored second place, just after weapons of mass destruction. Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse was listed as the eighth-most likely risk.

To top this off venerable television presenter Sir David Attenborough fronted the gathering of world leaders at Davos to claim that the world’s climate had fundamentally shifted, meaning that it was time to get rid of emissions. These and similar sentiments have frequently been repeated by businesspeople and commentators.

But where is the evidence that climate events of the past few months are unusual or that the ecosystem is about to collapse due to shifts in climate, as opposed to local problems caused by gross mis-management of farming or fishing areas?

To judge from the conference reports, Attenborough did not trouble to give specific examples of his concern, while the Marsh and Zurich report points to other reports which found that wildfires and hurricanes had increased disruption over the last couple of years. The Duke of Cambridge, who turned up at Davos for a show interview with Attenborough, has expressed concerns over the fate of African elephants, but this is known to be due far more to poaching the animals for their ivory tusks than anything to do with climate. A backdrop to this interview showed polar bears but these creatures have largely ignored suggestions that their numbers are being reduced.

Admittedly the European winter has proved bitterly cold and the Australian summer hot, or at least a number of days of record-breaking heat have been recorded. But it is typical of such reports that there is no attempt to compare them with the hot days of the 1930s and early 1940s when temperatures were also high, where those records exist.

As for ultimates in extreme weather events, hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons, the IPCC 2014 report has this to say. ‘Globally there is low confidence regarding changes in tropical cyclone activity over the 20th century owing to changes in observational capabilities, although it is virtually certain that there has been an increase in the frequency and intensity of the strongest tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic since the 1970s. In the future, it is likely that the frequency of tropical cyclones globally will either decrease or remain unchanged, but there will be a likely increase in global mean tropical cyclone precipitation rates and maximum wind speed.’

In other words, statistically speaking, the strongest tropical cyclones (not cyclones overall, just the strongest) have become somewhat more intense and frequent and may get worse. Very little has happened since then to change that far from devastating conclusion. The last few hurricane seasons (June to November) have been more active than usual, but the 2017-2018 Australia cyclone season (November to April) proved below average. Cyclone activity helped flood Townsville this season but, as noted, flooding is a part of Townsville’s history.

Bushfires, or wildfires as the Americans say, have proved more spectacular of late with at least 88 civilians being killed in one fire in the US in November 2018. That terrible tragedy is reminiscent of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in which 173 people lost their lives. Global warming/climate change has been blamed for both extreme death tolls, but major fires are never caused by one factor. They require at least a couple of wet seasons to build up fuel (the bush or forests grow), and then a hot season to dry out that additional fuel plus strong winds and perhaps a failure to clear certain areas as fire breaks due to environmental concerns. Other considerations are changes in settlement patterns combined with failures in warning systems,

Much more could be said about incidents such as the drought affecting parts of Australia, but drought has been a feature of Down Under agriculture since settlement.

Does any of this add up to a world- threatening crisis rather than business as usual? The US Food and Agriculture Organisation compiles a food price index which shows that after spiking in 2012, for a host of reasons, food prices are now, in real terms, back to where they were in the mid-’70s. Attenborough talked of securing fish stocks, apparently unaware that according to FAO statistics wild-catch fish production (that is fishing) levelled off sometime in the 1980s. In 2014 almost 45 per cent of sea food came from aquaculture – fish farming. Fish stocks are already secure.

Attenborough and others are entitled to see terror and collapse in every change in the weather but the rest of us are entitled to get on with the job of coping with natural events as we have always done.

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