Saturday, February 20, 2010

Wong must back climate clarity with action

Update: There's a bit of a discussion going at Larvatus Prodeo about communicating the science of climate change. Where do you think the responsibility for communicating about climate change lies, and what should be the role of governments?


In Friday's edition of The Age, Australian federal opposition leader Tony Abbott taunted the federal government for delaying action on the "moral issue of our time" in postponing the Senate vote on the emissions trading scheme.

Despite Abbott's claims of a government "backflip", any breathing space in the vote could prove useful in negotiating an interim carbon price with the Greens while serious flaws in the scheme are worked out. Claims of backing down by the government, at least in terms of its climate rhetoric, should also be dismissed following a speech by climate change minister, Senator Penny Wong, at a National Climate Change Forum held 18-19 February in Adelaide.

In the speech, Senator Wong spoke convincingly and with great authority to dismantle the arguments of climate sceptics of the kind Tony Abbott is only too happy to meet. In this sense, the Senator is poles apart from an opposition leader whose "direct action" is focused not on the climate, but on preserving the interests of the big polluters heedless of the catastrophic warming to which the world would be consigned.

The challenge for Senator Wong and the Rudd Government is to match the understanding so clearly demonstrated in the Adelaide speech with the action that science tells us is necessary to avoid dangerous warming.

The Senator claimed a positive outcome of the failed Copenhagen talks was a new commitment by developed and developing nations to keep warming within two degrees of pre-industrial levels. Yet, speaking at Melbourne's Transition Decade launch last Sunday, climate researcher Professor Will Steffen said that the risks at even two degrees of warming were increasing as our climate knowledge accumulates.

With the Senator conceding there is a greater than 90 percent chance that human activity is causing climate change, the news of worsening impacts at lower temperatures merits substantially tighter emissions targets and international leadership by Australia.

Further coverage of the Adelaide forum in today's edition of The Age reports comments by Professor Tim Flannery blaming the re-emergence of climate scepticism in part on the failure of scientists to communicate clearly on the issue:
He [Professor Flannery] said a lack of simple communication to the public about the science of climate change meant sceptics had been able to fill the void with misinformation.
Yes and no. Climate clarity from the scientists is most welcome, but is hardly lacking for those who take the very small amount of trouble to find it. Instead, there's a clear obligation of governments "to fill the void", when they at least acknowledge the obligation to do so on public interest issues such as the swine flu pandemic and, in Victoria, the imperative for better bushfire preparation and public warnings following Black Saturday, itself and early and tragic climate impact.

While Penny Wong's Adelaide speech is a contribution in this regard, there needs to be a large-scale public information campaign by government about what the latest science says on the Australian and global impacts of climate change caused by human activities. Surely this should find a place within the national science communication strategy recently launched by science and innovation minister, Senator Kim Carr?

Unfortunately, "public engagement with the sciences" around climate change is made politically difficult by the actions of state and federal governments that run counter to any effective climate solution - the expansion of coal-mining and exports among them. Clearer communication by government on climate science will only highlight the kind of compartmentalised thinking that threatens a further dangerous increase in our carbon emissions. Climate clarity from government must be matched by climate action.


For further thoughts on communicating climate science, see a recent presentation by Professor Will Steffen at the 2010 Australian Science Communicators National Conference, available at the website of the Australian National University's Climate Change Institute, of which Professor Steffen is Executive Director.

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