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It’s 30 years since scientists first warned of climate threat to Australia

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The Barossa Valley in 1987 – the year that Australians (winemakers included) received their first formal warning of climate change.
Phillip Capper/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

Keen students of climate politics might recognise November 30 as the anniversary of the opening of the historic Paris climate summit two years ago. But you might not know that today also marks 30 years since Australian scientists first officially sounded the alarm over climate change, at a conference hailed as the dawn of the ongoing effort to forecast and monitor the future climate of our continent.

November 30, 1987, marked the start of the inaugural GREENHOUSE conference hosted by Monash University and attended by 260 delegates. The five-day meeting was convened as part of a new federal government plan in response to the burgeoning global awareness of the impending danger of global warming.

The conference’s convenor, the then CSIRO senior research scientist Graeme Pearman, had approached some 100 researchers in the months leading up to the conference. He gave them a scenario of likely climate change for Australia for the next 30 to 50 years, developed with his CSIRO colleague Barrie Pittock, and asked them to forecast the implications for agriculture, farming and other sectors.

As a result, the conference gave rise to a book called Greenhouse: Planning for Climate Change, which outlined rainfall changes, sea-level rise and other physical changes that are now, three decades on, all too familiar. As the contents page reveals, it also tackled impacts on society – everything from insurance to water planning, mosquito-borne diseases, and even ski fields.


Read more: After Bonn, 5 things to watch for in the coming year of global climate policy


Internationally, awareness of global warming had already been building for a couple of decades, and intensifying for a couple of years. While the ozone hole was hogging global headlines, a United Nations scientific meeting in Villach, Austria, in 1985 had issued a statement warning of the dangers posed by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Pearman wasn’t at that meeting, but he was familiar with the problem. As he wrote after the 1987 conference, the strength of the Villach statement was “hardly a surprise, as recent evidence had suggested more strongly than ever that climatic change is now probable on timescales of decades”.

Meanwhile, the Commission for the Future, founded by the then federal science minister Barry Jones, was seeking a cause célèbre. The Australian Academy of Science organised a dinner of scientists to suggest possible scientific candidates.

The commission’s chair, Phillip Adams, recalls that problems such as nuclear war, genetic modification, artificial intelligence, were all proposed. Finally, though:

…the last bloke to talk was right at the far end of the table. Very quiet gentleman… He said, ‘You’re all wrong – it’s the dial in my laboratory, and the laboratories of my colleagues around the world.’ He said, ‘Every day, we see the needle going up, because of what we call the greenhouse effect.‘

Summit success

The GREENHOUSE 87 conference was hailed as a great success, creating new scientific networks and momentum. It was what we academics like to call a “field-configuring event”.

British magazine New Scientist covered the conference, while the Australian media reported on Jones’s opening speech, the problems of sea-level rise, and warnings of floods, fire, cyclones and disease

The GREENHOUSE conferences have continued ever since. After a sporadic first couple of decades, the meetings have been held biennally around the country since 2005; the latest was in Hobart in 2015, as there wasn’t a 2017 edition.

What happened next?

The Greenhouse Project helped to spark and channel huge public interest in and concern about climate change in the late 1980s. But politicians fumbled their response, producing a weak National Greenhouse Response Strategy in 1992.

The Commission for the Future was privatised, the federal government declined to fund a follow-up to the Greenhouse Project, and a new campaign group called Greenhouse Action Australia could not sustain itself.

Meanwhile, the scientists kept doing what scientists do: observing, measuring, communicating, refining. Pittock produced many more books and articles. Pearman spoke to Paul Keating’s cabinet in 1994 while it briefly pondered the introduction of a carbon tax. He retired in 2004, having been reprimanded and asked to resign, ironically enough for speaking out about climate change.

As I’ve written previously on The Conversation, Australian policymakers have been well served by scientists, but have sadly taken little real notice. And lest all the blame be put onto the Coalition, let’s remember that one chief scientific adviser, Penny Sackett, quit mid-term in 2011, when Labor was in government. She has never said exactly why, but barely met Kevin Rudd and never met his successor Julia Gillard.

Our problem is not the scientists. It’s not the science. It’s the politics. And it’s not (just) the politicians, it’s the ability (or inability) of citizens’ groups to put the policymakers under sustained and irresistible pressure, to create the new institutions we need for the “looming global-scale failures” we face.

A South Australian coda

While researching this article, I stumbled across the following fact. Fourteen years and a day before the Greenhouse 87 conference had begun, Don Jessop, a Liberal senator for South Australia, made this statement in parliament:

It is quite apparent to world scientists that the silent pollutant, carbon dioxide, is increasing in the atmosphere and will cause us great concern in the future. Other pollutants from conventional fuels are proliferating other gases in the atmosphere, not the least of these being the sulphurous gases which will be causing emphysema and other such health problems if we persist with this type of energy source. Of course, I am putting a case for solar energy. Australia is a country that can well look forward to a very prosperous future if it concentrates on solar energy right now.

The ConversationThat was 44 years ago. No one can say we haven’t been warned.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.  

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  • howardpatr

    Try 1912 when the then “Briadwood Dispatch” raised the matter of carbon dioxide from the burning of coal.

    See this extremely informative link for confirmation:-

    • Ian Franklin

      Thank you very much for the link to Dr Angove’s excellent presentation of the evidence for AGW. I remember, in 1975, the warnings laid out by Lord Calder during the very first Science Show. But, of course, science has known of the dangers for over 100 years. I despair at the idiocy of our politicians.

  • Joe

    Collectively at international level the world got serious with the establishing of The IPCC in 1988. In 1992 The UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ) was established which allows the annual COP meeting ( Conference of the Parties ) with COP23 in Bonn the most recent. These are important things where the science is laid bare for all to see. All we need is the urgent actions but still we see CO2 emissions rising. Holding warming to 1.5 degress or below is all but forlorn. Holding to 2.0 degrees is hard to imagine when we are still increasing emissions and we have recalcitrant Federal Governments in Australia and USA…in the top tier of per capita CO2 polluters. Maybe another mega drought in Australia will finally ring our bell.

  • Neil Barrett

    Even the schoolkids and their teachers got some warning very early. In an unusual few moments of prescience, our company Environment Audio Visuals produced an AV kit in 1985 entitled Heating Up the Earth. It was probably the first in the world. I would guess around 600 copies went out to the 2500 secondary schools in Australia over the following few years. Sadly, if produced today, it wouldn’t differ much at all in content.

  • Paul

    Looking at NemWatch, one can see that the closure of Hazelwood & Northern are driving major gas burns in Vic & SA, in place of high emission coal.

    This forced fuel switching, along with significant recent & imminent growth of the solar and wind fleets, distributed / roof top solar, and demand reduction from the recent closure of Holden, Ford, Toyota etc may produce a meaningful reduction in emissions when the next national emission accounts are published.

    If so, this may present both the Coalition & ALP with really interesting communications challenges.

    The challenge for the coalition to find a way to claim credit for something apparently good that has happened because of what they’ve been labeling as grossly irresponsible state labor governments letting coal fired power stations shut down. They may want to suggest their ERF get the credit, but would be wise to look for expert agreed evidence first.

    Labor’s challenge will depend on whether we have blackouts this summer.

    Without blackouts the ALP will be able to gloat about the success of their defense of the RET and the success of their state colleagues policies. (But so will the Coalition for setting up the ESB and firing up the AEMO).

    If there are blackouts, the ALP will be able blame the coalition for policy uncertainty delaying renewable investment, and claim that it’s impact was so severe even their state colleagues doing everything humanly possible wasn’t enough to prevent them.

    Abbott will have the easiest task, with the option of being consistent with (one of) his previous positions (for a change) by saying that a drop in emissions is nothing to get excited about because emissions may on balance be beneficial. And he could also take credit for providing a Treasurer who drove our car industry over a cliff.

    Paul

    • Joe

      If the blackouts are a result of Coalers falling over due to another heatwave then The COALition will have nowhere to hide. Last February showed up ‘intermittent baseload coal’ for what it is…unreliable when the weather gets too warm. But hot sunny days is literally manna from heaven for Solar PV, yes.

      • Paul

        If clapped out coal fried clunkers conk in the heat, or storms blow down power lines again, renewables will still be blamed, as we saw last year in SA, because the coal pushers know that mud sticks. That’s why I’ve focused instead on how a fall in emissions will be spun. That said, you’re right, in that if clunkers do fail, it’ll provide huge headline fodder. If the blame gets attached to coal, then there will be massive finger pointing in both directions over who’s to blame for our over dependence on coal clunkers.

  • Lifeboatman

    I am very intrigued by the Don Jessop quote in which he states that continuing with the “business as usual” policy towards global warming “will be causing emphysema and other such health problems”. I am 82, never smoked a fag in my life,or worked in mines or anywhere with a polluted atmosphere, yet have just been diagnosed as having emphysema. Am I one of the first victims of a Climate Change medical problem?

    • Medical practitioners are reluctant to attribute direct causation without proof. They talk of factors that contribute to conditions.

  • A liberal senator made such a statement? Wow, what has gone wrong since?