‘It’s a Fact, Like Gravity’: Conversations with Climate Scientists

The five writers involved in the Weather Stations project around storytelling and climate change have been travelling Australia, consulting with climate change experts and observing the effects of climate change in action.

The Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case sat in on a session at University of Melbourne with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science.

Headlines during one of our - more frequent - hot summers.

Headlines during one of our - more frequent - hot summers.

Climate change ‘a fact, like gravity’

Oceanographer Eric van Sebille, from University of New South Wales, gave a presentation explaining the science of climate change to set the stage for discussion.

‘In science, there’s not really a debate anymore,’ he said, showing a graph that demonstrated that 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is happening, and that it’s caused by humans.

‘There’s a consensus of science because there’s a consensus of evidence,’ he said. ‘We work with this data every day. There is no debate anymore. We’d like to move on.’

‘The theory stands against all the tests we can throw at it. It’s gone beyond a theory. It’s a fact, like gravity.’

’The real uncertainties are in our politics’

He explained that climate scientists came up with a list of 20 fingerprints of climate change – effects that would be caused by an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, like increasing sea level and ocean temperatures, ice sheets decreasing, and species migrating poleward and upward. All 20 of these things are happening.

‘You couldn’t explain the observations of scientists without the presence of increased carbon dioxide. And without human activity, you can’t explain the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the 1970s.’

The real uncertainties are in our politics – what we will do with our emissions and how much fuel we will burn in the future. If we continue with business as usual, there will be a rise in temperature of four and a half degrees Celsius by 2100. In the best-case scenario, where we reduce our emissions, the temperature will rise by two and a half degrees Celsius.

‘We can change the temperature if we want to.’

’A writer can imagine scenarios’

The scientists gathered to consult with the writers were speaking from three locations – live at University of Melbourne, and remotely from the University of Tasmania and University of New South Wales.

Professor Steve Sherwood of UNSW, described as one of the world’s leading atmospheric scientists, said that he was enthused about the Weather Stations project’s potential to communicate the urgency of climate change to a wide audience. ‘To me, the hard part is sketching something the average human would relate to. That requires a lot of detail, the level of detail a novel can have. A writer can imagine scenarios and make them seem real.’

’People believe them because they sound sure’

Oisin McGann, a children’s writer and illustrator from Ireland, said he worries that detail can get in the way of understanding. ‘People aren’t persuaded by detail.’ He believes that people don’t understand because of the facts and figures – these things can make it harder for them. Part of the problem, he said, is that the scientists who know what they’re talking about sound less sure than those arguing against the facts of climate change, because the scientists adhere to the details, the proven facts. Those who argue against climate change ignore the detail and privilege certainty. ‘People believe them because they sound sure.’

Oisín McGann, Mirko Bonné and Jaś Kapela at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science.

Oisín McGann, Mirko Bonné and Jaś Kapela at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science.

‘Now that we’ve been informed, how do we transfer this knowledge back to people?’ asked Chinese novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo. ‘I’m feeling powerless when it comes to action. We know the facts, but how can we influence policy?’ The problem, she said, is that governments are ‘in bed’ with the corporations who believe it’s not in their interests to take meaningful action on climate change.

‘We need to show people things that are happening now and how it could get worse,’ said McGann. ‘That very human stuff that people can relate to.’

Climate scientists on their inspirations

Van Sebille spoke about being inspired to work in his field because of his personal experience and observations; having grown up in Holland and then lived and worked in Miami, now (in Australia) is the first time he’s lived above seal level. ‘It’s always frightened me, the idea of the sea getting higher and higher.’

He spoke about growing up near a river that was three or four metres higher than his house. When he was 13 years old, Holland needed to raise the dykes to ready the nation for rising sea levels. A few years later, it needed to be done again.

Sherwood spoke about being driven by the legacy we’re passing on to the next generation through our inaction. ‘My greatest fear was having to explain to my kids that there’s this problem we’ve known about not just since they were born, but since I was born, and we’ve nothing about it. It’s really disturbing that we’ve done nothing for four decades.’

’People are choosing not to make this important’

‘If people wanted to do something, they would put climate change priority number one, not whatever it is they’re worrying about this week, whether it’s going to McDonalds or not,’ said Alvin Stone, media and communications manager the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Systems Science, UNSW. ‘They would agitate and governments would respond, because at the end of the day, they respond to the concerns of people.’

‘The problem is that people are choosing not to make this important and using the excuse of powerlessness or apathy and they are not wanting to believe it because it involves some hard changes. It’s like being told to tidy up your room when you don’t want to do it. Until your parent gets you to do something, you’re not going to do it.’

‘I’m tired of this powerlessness argument, because people are not powerless. History has shown us that. To me, people are making a clear choice. They’re choosing what to believe and how to act.’

Hope for the future: new technologies

Van Sebille refuted the argument that we can only fix climate change by making big changes to the way we live our everyday lives – he believes that it’s possible to ‘engineer our way out of this’ with advances in renewable energy and similar changes. ‘I’m not sure it’s going to happen, but it could.’

He explained that the old technologies we use, like carbon-based electricity, are ‘extremely inefficient’. For example, only 15% or so of the energy we burn to is used to propel the car; only 1% is used to propel a person. ‘From an economic point of view, it doesn’t make sense to burn oil to drive a car.’

‘It’s a really stupid 150-year-old technology that we’re using.’

The scientists explained that one of the things that could really change how we use renewable energy and how viable it is as a major power source is developing battery power: the ability to store it. Stone suggested that once we can store renewable energy, it will be cheaper than carbon-based electricity and we’ll be able to generate it on a house-by-house basis. Some houses will be off the grid.

‘You need to have support at the top of governments,’ said Stone. ‘I do believe that there is a solution. I do believe that if we take action and focus on it, that it won’t be this mad transition that will send us back into the caves. It will be a consistent and economically decision to make. But it requires people to take the lead.’

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