A weather eye on climate change

The climate debate has misled people about the quality of the science around climate change

A FEW years ago my oldest daughter came home from school in a state of high agitation. I quizzed her on what was concerning her, to which she replied angrily that I was killing the polar bears.

Apparently she had learned at school that our collective continued use of petrol and diesel was causing global warming and this was threatening the bears. In her young mind this was interpreted as the fuel use on our farm was directly and singularly the cause of the problem.

“My agricultural science training compels me to rely on good science in forming my own opinion”

I was more than a little disgusted that climate activists were able to terrorise my daughter in such a way. However, as much as it pains me to say so, it did cause me to check my own assumptions and attitudes to climate change.

In my farming system we employ strategies to manage and mitigate as much as possible the risk associated with climate variability. I am as prepared for the impact of climate change as anybody, particularly in the context of my likely tenure in the farming business. Furthermore, the farming systems deployed on my farm are also probably the most environmentally responsible systems in terms of water, soil and atmospheric considerations.

However, farmers are demonised by biased emission assessments and a hypocritical latte-sipping green set who have no real appreciation for the fact that modern agriculture is essential to sustain the global population.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am deeply concerned about the future my children will inherit. I am not a devotee of the late Reverend Malthus, but I do see real problems in the libertarian approach to climate and environment that at best suggests clever people will solve the future problems, or at worst simply suggests it is not a problem today so we do not need to do anything about it.

The climate debate has misled people about the science and more importantly about the quality of the science around climate change. In considering my daughter’s emotional and slightly illogical thought process, it seems the broader debate mirrored her reaction and shifted too quickly to a black and white, believe or deny faith-driven conflict.

My agricultural science training compels me to rely on good science in forming my own opinion. As a father and husband I have learned that life and its problems are rarely black and white. As a practising farmer I know that nature is similarly complex. Middle age has brought me a more pragmatic outlook.

We know that climate is continually changing. These changes have been relatively slow throughout history and there has been ample opportunity for humanity to cope and adapt over our much shorter history. We also know that the effects of relatively rapid climate change coupled with the stage of earth’s Precession was instrumental in the evolutionary success of our species in the Rift Valley.

At this time there is an extraordinary and unprecedented level of scientific consensus around climate change with 97 per cent of climate scientists agreeing that man is contributing to climate change. This is a higher degree of consensus than exists around the effects of smoking or asbestos. So what can we draw from this consensus?

“From an agricultural perspective we see modelling suggesting a 6pc decline in global wheat production with every degree of global warming”

We know that atmospheric CO2 levels are now at the highest levels since humankind has existed. We also know that CO2 and other gases have a greenhouse effect trapping radiant heat in the atmosphere and incidentally increasing global oceanic and atmospheric temperatures. We know this system is incredibly complex and well buffered so the full impacts of the changes are difficult to predict accurately. We know that atmospheric CO2 levels have risen with a strong correlation to human exploitation of fossil fuels.

I am the first to admit that I am not a climate scientist and happily not an expert on all aspects of the arguments. This gives me a massive out in the underlying conflict. However, there are useful tools to use in making risk assessments in uncertain circumstances.

It is helpful to ask how likely an outcome might be and then ask how serious that outcome would be.

The current climate models show a high degree of variability in rate of warming and similarly a high degree of variability in the impacts of that warming. Our own CSIRO has recently reported that, in line with universally forecast increases in weather volatility, Australia will likely see a doubling of the incidence of devastating floods this century.

From an agricultural perspective we now see modelling suggesting a 6pc decline in global wheat production with every degree of global warming. I think these models are founded on too many assumptions to be useful. However, the more important concerns are around an increasingly volatile production environment overlaid against a just in time supply management culture. This predisposes the market to acute shortages which will lead to inevitable social and political instability.

“If the outcomes of unchecked climate change are only half as bad as the moderate predictions, the human cost warrants immediate action”

Some of the more credible modelling suggests that if global temperatures reach two degrees of warming our existing agricultural systems and infrastructure will only reliably support a global population of four billion. Four degrees of warming will cause even greater disruption to global agriculture and resultant production may only reliably sustain one and a half billion people. It begs a slightly terrifying question about who and how we will decide which portion of our population will survive.

Let us go back and ask the important question. How likely is two degrees of warming? The answer is very likely. How likely is disruption to agriculture? The answer is very likely. How likely is it that we won’t be able to reliably feed the global population? The answer is very likely, but the extent is unclear. How serious would such a disruption be? The answer is that it would be devastating as isolated occurrence, but catastrophic if frequency increases.

I have already referenced Reverend Malthus and his predictions of dire outcomes from overpopulation as far back as 1798. I am not a Malthusian enthusiast, but if the outcomes of unchecked climate change are only half as bad as the moderate predictions, the human cost warrants immediate action or at least commitment to meaningful action.

“We must move quickly to address the carbon problem collectively ... and farmers should not be compelled to again absorb the cost of this structural reform on behalf of the rest of society”

As with all problems it is essential to acknowledge and define the problem before you can hope to meaningfully address it. I think back to my daughter’s angst and consider my obligation to provide a better future for her often. It frustrates me that today’s politicians regard this issue with little more consideration than garnering short term party advantage.

Joe Hockey, our Treasurer, announced in a television interview recently that he could not conceive any circumstance where climate change could affect the economy. His ignorance is culpable and constitutes a real threat to my children’s future safety and prosperity.

The truth is that for quite a few generations now we have consumed fossil fuels and liberated previously sequestered carbon into the atmosphere with reckless abandon. We are now completely reliant on industrial agriculture and committed to continue to use liquid fuels at least for some time yet.

We must move quickly to address the carbon problem collectively and with full consideration of the impacts of our and previous generations on the opportunity for future generations. Similarly, the cost of any mitigation must also be borne collectively and farmers should not be compelled to again absorb the cost of this structural reform on behalf of the rest of society.

In truth it is now a matter of highest order for global stability that we empower our farming communities and reprioritise the agricultural enterprise to the top of the political and social agenda.

FarmOnline
Pete Mailler

Pete Mailler

is a farmer on the Qld/NSW border and a co-founder of the Country Party of Australia
Date: Newest first | Oldest first

READER COMMENTS

nico
6/03/2015 7:53:32 AM

You are (deliberately?) misrepresenting my view, daw. Climate science is not a political issue, and is like all science subject to empirical evidence. The response, however, is a political and economic matter, which I have never discussed. ( I don't think "que sera sera" is an adequate response, however.)
Sandman
6/03/2015 6:34:18 AM

If you can't explain the pause you can't explain the cause. http://hockeyschtick.blogspot.com .au/2015/03/dr-richard-lindzen-in -wsj-political.html
Sandman
6/03/2015 4:36:46 AM

Why do you keep telling the same tired old jokes Nico ? We have heard them all before and they are no longer funny at all.
daw
5/03/2015 4:55:25 PM

Therein lies your confusion Nico. The 'problem' relates to a scientific issue - climate change and the chemical composition & behaviour of the air. It is not a political, economic or governance issue it is a science based issue that only science can resolve. We have already seen catastrophic disruption around the world caused by political meddling in this science based (non) issue. Even if the world stops CO2 producing electricity generation it won't stop CO2 producing industrial usage or domestic heating for cooking food or keeping warm/cool. Que sera sera.
Max
5/03/2015 3:29:56 PM

Wrong yet again Nico. Talk about half stories and half truths, you are champion at it Nico. Adjustments have given all your warming figures and record warm years. Even NASA admits that they can be only 38% sure of last years record, and that is with the adjustments (homogenisation). Go to the REAL raw data figures and you won't have a record anywhere in sight. TC Marcia is another glaring example, real weather station figures can't be relied upon because they don't give the record cat 5 figure they wanted so they make up some which they can splash record headlines with. Pathetic really.
nico
5/03/2015 2:17:06 PM

Only half the story again, Sandman. The global pause so loved by denialists is not real. There is no pause. Some normal, natural, variations in surface temperatures, combined with rising absorbtion of heat by the oceans, have given the anti-scientiific journalists, and their readers, a non-story. The globe as a whole continues to warm as energy is trapped by "greenhouse" gases, which is why we have had a succession of record warm years in the past decade (as reported by NASA.) See:http://www.nature.com/nclimat e/journal/v4/n3/full/nclimate2106 .html
Max
5/03/2015 10:41:05 AM

Nico one thing you are right about is that scientific research admits the possibility of error, but the trouble is that is as far as they go. How much error or uncertainty is too much. is 50/50 uncertainty still ok to believe the result or where should it be. NASA seems to think it can go way beyond that. "The data reporter Caroline Zielinski relies on to claim last year was the hottest has a huge measure of uncertainty - NASA said it was only 38 per cent sure." So 62% uncertainty and NASA still accepts and reports the results. Very scientific indeed Nico.
Sandman
5/03/2015 9:29:03 AM

Yes I agree with Nico . Scientific research admits the possibility of error, and seeks to correct it through observation and measurement. The observation and measurement tells us that around 1/3 of the entire rise in atmospheric CO2 since the 1800s till now has happened in the last 20 years, but the temperature in the last 20 years has not risen at all. So can we please stop the denialism and lets just accept the AGWers are simply wrong with their alarmist theory.
nico
5/03/2015 8:14:02 AM

Sorry, but I don't see how science can provide an answer to political or economic questions about governance, resource usage etc. Science can provide observation, but not the societal pathway. That's not hypocritical, daw, it's just common sense. It's not contemptuous joy, either. It's concern, and especially concern about the refusal by most "leaders" to seriously address the problems.
nico
5/03/2015 7:16:06 AM

Once again, Max, you produce a stream of increasingly absurd assumptions. I refer you to the same NASA page as I cited for daw. If you can't distinguish between scientific research and denialist fantasy, conversation is impossible. Note: scientific research admits the possibility or error, and seeks to correct it through observation and measurement. Denialism does not.
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Burrs under my saddlePete Mailler is a farmer on the Queensland/NSW border. His perspective and opinions are borne from seeing more than one side of many problems in his various farm leadership roles and in wanting to ensure a future for his children in agriculture.

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