September 2023


The summer ahead

By Joëlle Gergis
Close-up image of building and red sun in Sydney during the Black Summer bushfires, December 6, 2019

Sydney during the Black Summer bushfires, December 6, 2019. © Paul Braven / AAP Images

The climate disasters unfolding in the northern hemisphere are a sign of what’s in store here, as governments fail to act on the unfolding emergency

Deep in the winter of 2023, in an attempt to escape the barrage of bad news, we pack up the car and head off for a weekend camping in the rainforest. It’s my husband’s birthday, so we settle on a favourite place from his childhood – the Nightcap National Park in northern New South Wales. This remote region is part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, a network of protected areas that contains the largest remaining stands of subtropical rainforest in the world. These moss-drenched forests are packed with life, including remnants of the most primitive plant families found on Earth. These are the trails he spent exploring as a boy, and even now his eyes glow excitedly as he leads me through the tangled forest. The spirit of this primordial place electrifies him in a way that reminds me that, despite the complexities of modern life, humans are still simply animals inextricably embedded in the natural world.

When you walk through a subtropical rainforest, the last thing you expect to encounter are groves of blackened trees with charcoal littering the forest floor. These lush ecosystems are usually too cool and wet to burn. But in Australia’s Black Summer bushfires of 2019–20, many of our World Heritage rainforests were impossibly ablaze following the hottest and driest year in our nation’s history. By the time our horror fire season came to an end, more than half of Australia’s ancient Gondwana rainforests – ecosystems that have clung on since the age of dinosaurs – were burnt, damaging these areas irrevocably.

In the aftermath of the fires, I visited this very patch of rainforest with a documentary film crew and wept as I tried to explain the significance of what we were witnessing. These forests form part of the remaining 1 per cent of subtropical rainforests left anywhere in the world. These evolutionary relics of the Earth’s history are now under siege as our planet relentlessly warms. And with the seasonal forecast showing a swing of the pendulum back to hot and dry conditions following Australia’s three-year drenching, I have a terrible knowing that it is only a matter of time before these precious rainforests burn again. While the damp provided by the big wet of 2020–23 is unlikely to see a repeat of Black Summer conditions this year, I know that when the rains start to fail again and we inevitably slip back into the grip of drought, climate change will eventually outrun evolution.

As one of the few Australian climate scientists who worked on the latest United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) global assessment report, witnessing the unrelenting procession of extreme heatwaves, floods and wildfires battering the world right now is becoming harder and harder to bear. After four years spent immersing myself in the minutiae of the global climate emergency, it’s painfully clear that the extremes we are witnessing right now are simply a prelude of what’s to come. For those of you trying to avoid the news, here’s a very quick wrap-up of what’s been going on. So far in 2023, brutal heat has swept across southern Europe, North America, China and South-East Asia. Temperatures soared to 48.2°C on the Italian island of Sardinia on July 24 – just shy of the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe – while Sanbao in China’s Xinjiang province registered 52.2°C on July 16, setting a new national temperature record. In Canada, record-breaking wildfires continue to burn enormous tracts of boreal forest, forcing 120,000 people to evacuate from their homes and polluting the air for millions of people across North America. Meanwhile, biblical rain has pounded many parts of the world, with India, Korea, Japan and China particularly hard hit. In the final days of July, the Chinese capital, Beijing, recorded its heaviest rainfall since records began 140 years ago, logging 744.8 millimetres in just 40 hours, eclipsing its average rainfall for the entire month of July. Torrential rain saw roads transformed into rivers, washing away cars and submerging the ancient courtyards of the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing.

As the dramatic month came to an end, the World Meteorological Organization declared July 2023 the hottest month ever recorded by modern measurements. António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, responded by declaring that, “The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.” While cynics might dismiss his comment as hyperbole, the scientific community know he’s not wrong. Using geologic records that extend centuries back in time, scientists estimate that temperatures are now the warmest they have been in at least 125,000 years, when the Earth was last in a lull between ice ages. Current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are 418 parts per million – the highest they have been in at least two million years, around 1.7 million years before modern humans evolved. The IPCC pointedly states that human influence on the climate system is now “an established fact”. The evidence is so indisputable that it’s like stating the sky is blue or the Earth is round. Our report also concludes that virtually all of the 1.2oC of global warming we have experienced since the Industrial Revolution has been caused by human activities, namely the burning of fossil fuels. Or put another way, scientists can now definitively say that humanity’s use of coal, oil and gas is cooking the planet.

Although I’m writing this on a rainy Sunday from the safety of my peaceful home, I can still feel my anxiety rising as I pore over the technical reports detailing the mess we are in. Things are now so bad that scientists like me are starting to wonder how we can be most helpful during this time of crisis. Despite the endless demands of an academic job, many of us feel compelled to keep trying to sound the alarm, even though it often comes at great personal and professional costs. It forces us to face the confronting reality of our destabilising climate in graphic detail; it’s an unspoken occupational hazard that people in my industry now face. But because our profession demands fierce objectivity in the face of hostile scrutiny, sharing our emotional response to our work has long been considered taboo – people fear it will undermine our rationality. Scientists are often pilloried if we dare to share the emotional impact our work is having on us. But experience has taught me that when experts fail to engage authentically in public conversations about climate change, others will step in to fill the silence. Commentators unconstrained by the professional ethics and rigour of our discipline have generated rife misinformation that has led to the shameful complacency plaguing the political response to the climate change problem for decades.

As someone who understands the seriousness of what is at stake, some days it’s hard to not be consumed by despair, anger and grief. Although there are some efforts being made to address the mental health impacts of our work – for example, a researcher from the Black Dog Institute gave a plenary address at the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society’s annual conference in 2022 – we are all still facing the personal toll of the climate crisis alone. While first responders on the frontlines of other emergencies, such as firefighters and paramedics, are offered counselling and institutional support to deal with their exposure to disturbing experiences, scientists documenting the destabilisation of the planet are expected to “harden up” and avoid being unscientifically “emotional”.

In the 2020 study “The Cost of Bearing Witness to the Environmental Crisis”, Finnish environmental theologist Panu Pihkala explains how researchers working on environmental issues are often unprepared to deal with the traumatic potential of their work. Their distress is compounded by the fact that their knowledge about the scale of environmental degradation is poorly understood or actively ignored by the general public, leaving them to face unbearable realities alone. This isolated state of environmentally conscious “early mourners” can result in traumatic stress, with symptoms including constant worry, sadness and anxiety. The result can be psychological numbing, compassion fatigue and eventual burnout.

And to make things worse for those of us who engage in the public conversation about climate change, in the eyes of our employers, the communication work we do responding to journalists, writing books or recording podcasts “doesn’t count” when it comes to applying for a promotion. They would rather our nation’s top scientists engage in inane university administration or develop strategies to outsmart artificial intelligence cheats in our classrooms than try to warn the public about the climate emergency that is escalating by the day. Those who keep their head down and avoid any substantial engagement with the public are rewarded with career progression by ticking the traditionally defined boxes of academic promotion. The system devalues the contribution of scientists who spend a lot of time communicating with general audiences, with the implication being that this public service we essentially provide for free is not considered “real work”. It reflects an outdated notion that scientists should not engage in advocacy, even if it is simply relaying consensus messages from the global climate science community. The conflict I feel around this dilemma is becoming so difficult to reconcile that I am seriously reconsidering my career path. And I know I’m not alone.

If I’m honest, most of the distress I feel about climate change these days does not stem from the sheer scale of the destruction we are experiencing in every corner of the world. Although watching communities and ecosystems being needlessly destroyed is incredibly difficult, the real stress comes from knowing that all the solutions we need to stabilise the Earth’s climate exist right now. One of the key messages of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report is that there are options available today across all sectors that could at least halve global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Most of the reductions come from solar and wind energy, energy efficiency improvements and habitat conservation. Yet despite the enormous potential of these low-hanging fruit, our leaders are instead choosing to support the expansion of the fossil fuel industry to the bitter end.

Here in Australia, the sunniest continent on the planet, less than 15 per cent of our electricity is currently generated by solar power. Despite the federal government’s renewable energy target of 82 per cent by 2030, only 36 per cent of Australia’s energy is generated by clean energy sources. Instead of providing unprecedented support for the immediate deployment and scaling up of renewable energy technologies, our political leaders continue subsidising the fossil fuel industry, the culprits squarely responsible for ushering in this new era of “global boiling”. In 2022–23, Australian federal and state governments assisted fossil fuel industries with $11.1 billion in spending and tax breaks, with a particular focus on gas projects such as the Middle Arm oil and gas hub in Darwin. And just as the world’s warmest month on record came to an end, on July 31 the UK government announced its intention to grant hundreds of licences for new North Sea oil and gas extraction in an attempt to “boost British energy independence and grow the economy”. These moves blatantly ignore one of the key messages of the IPCC report, which states that around 80 per cent of coal, 50 per cent of gas and 30 per cent of oil reserves cannot be burned if warming is to be limited to 2°C. And if we want to achieve the 1.5oC Paris Agreement target, which aims to avoid unleashing millions of climate change refugees, those numbers need to be significantly lower. Banking on carbon capture and storage – a technology that currently only captures one tenth of 1 per cent of annual global carbon emissions – to reverse-engineer our way out of the problem is nothing short of insanity.

Nonetheless, expect to hear more of the carbon capture industry’s virtues during COP28, the next UN climate summit, to be held in December this year. The event is being hosted by the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s largest oil and gas producers, and headed by Sultan Al Jaber, chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Given that COP28 is being run by a top fossil fuel executive who has plans for a large expansion in his company’s production, it’s easy to feel extremely pessimistic about the likely outcomes of this meeting. It is clear that the urgency of the clean energy transition is being downplayed by vested interests with a criminal disregard for science and morality. As researcher Pascoe Sabido from the Corporate Europe Observatory bluntly observed in The Guardian: “The UN climate talks have become an oil and gas industry trade show, not the flagship for climate action. An entire industry has successfully co-opted the process and is leading us in a death spiral to climate catastrophe.”

Despite the IPCC clearly demonstrating that the burning of fossil fuels is causing the type of extreme conditions being experienced right now, our political leaders are not prepared to be brave and shut down these polluting industries fast enough to avoid locking in destructively high levels of global warming. We know – without a shadow of a doubt – that increasing levels of carbon dioxide from the use of coal, oil and gas is leading to a rise in global temperatures, which causes heatwaves to become hotter and extreme downpours more intense. Unless we urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the global-scale disruption we experience in 2023 will soon be considered mild compared to what is to come. Right now, climate policies implemented globally have the world on track to warm between 2.5 and 3oC by the end of the century, with temperatures continuing to rise until we begin to drastically remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and reach net zero emissions. The world’s collective policies represent a catastrophic overshooting of the Paris Agreement targets, which promises to reconfigure life on our planet as we know it.

If the political commitment to achieving net zero targets ends up being nothing more than empty promises based on dodgy carbon credit accounting schemes and the “business as usual” exploitation of global fossil fuel reserves, the latest climate models show that under a very high emissions pathway, global average temperatures could warm as much as 3.3 to 5.7°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century, with a central estimate of 4.4°C. Under this fossil fuel–intensive scenario, land areas of Australia are projected to warm between 4 and 7°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100, with a central estimate of 5.3°C (note that, on average, Australia has already warmed 1.47oC since national records began in 1910). Such catastrophic levels of warming will render large parts of our country uninhabitable, profoundly altering life in Australia. The IPCC report patiently explains that the risk of heat extremes increases substantially with higher levels of warming. For example, heatwaves that used to occur once every 50 years on average in pre-industrial times will be nearly 10 times more frequent with 1.5°C of warming, and 40 times more likely at 4°C. Even with 1.5°C of global warming, 40 per cent of the largest cities in the world will become heat-stressed, endangering the lives of millions of people each year. Unless we rein in the burning of fossil fuels, we risk a future where humanitarian disasters are likely to play out every summer across the world.

The truth is that some scientists fear that the writing is already on the wall. If we are struggling to cope with the major disruption to society caused by the 1.2oC of global warming we have experienced so far, then what will warming of 1.5 degrees, or 2 degrees, or 3 degrees or beyond bring? Once again, the IPCC report provides detailed information on what we can expect in every single region of the globe. We know from the geologic record that 1.5 to 2°C of warming is enough to seriously reconfigure the Earth’s climate. In the past, this level of warming triggered substantial long-term melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, unleashing six to 13 metres of global sea-level rise that lasted thousands of years. Once 2°C is passed – which could happen as early as the 2040s on our current trajectory – the only glaciers that will be left will be limited to polar areas and the highest mountain ranges, such as the Himalayas.

The current loss of ice means that we are already committed to a cascade of changes – even if we manage to stabilise our greenhouse gas emissions – as the world’s oceans reconfigure to increased influxes of meltwater, altering the behaviour of ocean currents that distribute heat around the planet. This process is now irreversible and will go on for centuries. Bear in mind that a quarter of a billion people already live on land less than two metres above sea level. The IPCC report doesn’t mince its words here, stating that beyond 2°C, adaptation is simply not possible in some low-lying coastal cities, small islands, deserts, mountains and polar regions. We are tragically unprepared for the warming that is already in the pipeline, and we haven’t seriously begun the colossal task of decarbonisation.

Unfortunately, this coming summer will be a grotesque showcase of what we can expect as our planet continues to warm. As the northern hemisphere summer comes to an end and the El Niño ramps up in the Pacific, it will be the south’s turn under the climate blowtorch. Coral reef scientists are already panicking, as global reefs are being besieged by record ocean temperatures. On July 24, sea surface temperature around the Florida Keys in the United States reached a staggering 38.4oC, a level commonly found in a hot bath. Record heat has now triggered severe coral bleaching in the region, which has already seen 90 per cent of coral cover disappear since the 1970s. As awful as this is, these impacts are entirely consistent with what scientists expect. The IPCC warns that even with 1.5°C of warming, which we are set to breach in the early 2030s, 70 to 90 per cent of the world’s coral reefs will be destroyed. That number rises to 99 per cent with 2°C of warming, which could happen as early as the 2040s. An entire component of the Earth’s biosphere – humanity’s planetary life-support system – could be lost in under 20 years. Given that 25 per cent of all marine life depends on these areas, it’s hard to comprehend the domino effect that will be unleashed as these key ecosystems start collapsing globally.

Closer to home, scientists monitoring the Great Barrier Reef are very, very nervous about the summer ahead. During the last El Niño, in 2015–16, more than 75 per cent of the world’s coral reefs bleached. As ocean temperatures continue to climb, it is virtually certain that the seventh mass coral bleaching event since 1998 will strike our beleaguered reef. The problem is that these events are now happening closer together, not allowing corals enough time to regenerate. The latest research shows that approximately 98 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef bleached between 1998 and 2020, with at least 50 per cent of shallow water corals dying off between 2016–17 alone. While that figure is bad enough, the reality is likely to be much worse as this estimate does not take into account the impacts of additional mass bleaching events in 2020 and 2022. It is still unclear – or, more likely, undisclosed – exactly how much more of the reef has died off recently. And yet, on July 31, UNESCO decided to delay the assessment of whether to place the Great Barrier Reef on the World Heritage “in-danger” list until 2024.

It’s hard not to feel cynical about the politics playing out here. According to James Cook University’s Professor Terry Hughes, one of the world’s foremost experts on coral reefs, “The Morrison government successfully lobbied individual members of the world heritage committee to ignore UNESCO’s recommendation for an in-danger listing in 2021.” And since November 2022, Labor’s environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, has been pressuring UNESCO to ignore the scientific reality of the degradation of the site, saying that there is no need to “single the Great Barrier Reef out in this way”. It’s pretty easy to understand why Australia wants to avoid an “in-danger” listing – tourism on the Great Barrier Reef supports around 65,000 jobs and generates more than $5 billion for the Australian economy each year. Any tarnishing of the reef’s condition on the world stage will cost our tourism sector dearly. But the truth is, warming ocean temperatures from the burning of fossil fuels is the biggest threat to the reef, and our government is still committed to the expansion of the very industry responsible for making things worse. No amount of political spin can hide the fact that the Great Barrier Reef is in terminal decline; we must face the fact that we are soon likely to witness the death of the largest living organism on the planet. I dread to see what this summer will bring.

As overwhelming as all of this is to take in, the imminent demise of the world’s coral reefs isn’t the only thing keeping scientists up at night right now. There is something far more sinister plaguing our minds – the possibility that the Earth might have already breached some kind of global “tipping point”. The term refers to what happens when a system crosses into a different state and stays there for a very long time, sometimes even permanently. We know that once critical thresholds in the Earth system are passed, even small changes can lead to a cascade of significantly larger transformations in other major components of the system. Key indicators of regional tipping points include dieback of major ecological communities such as the Amazon rainforest, boreal forests and coral reefs; melting of polar ice masses such as Arctic sea ice and the West Antarctic ice sheet; and disruptions to major circulation systems in the atmosphere or oceans, including changes in the North Atlantic Ocean. It’s pretty safe to say we are witnessing dramatic new developments in all of these elements right now.

Lately there has been a lot of news coverage of the alarming decline of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, which is starting to alter previously stable ocean circulation. The presence of ice is very important because it influences the energy balance of the Earth – it acts like a giant mirror, reflecting sunlight back into space, but once it’s gone, the ocean begins to soak up more heat. As temperatures increase, there are fewer reflective surfaces to deflect incoming heat, resulting in more solar energy being absorbed by the darker ocean, causing temperatures to rise even further. Once this self-reinforcing feedback loop kicks in, it accelerates warming to a level that our geologic records tell us can lead to abrupt changes in the climate system. We are seeing dramatic declines in ice coverage at both poles at present, the stand-out being sea ice around western Antarctica failing to form this year during the height of the southern hemisphere’s winter. Conditions in the Arctic are not much better, with the southern sector of the Greenland ice sheet currently melting at a record pace. Meanwhile, ocean temperatures in the North Atlantic hit a record high in July, well ahead of its annual peak usually registered in September. These unnerving observations have scientists very worried.

If you have ever seen the science fiction film The Day After Tomorrow, you might be familiar with the idea that changes in the North Atlantic can cause the ocean current responsible for bringing warmth from the tropics to Europe to “switch off”. As the planet warms, the Greenland ice sheet melts, releasing huge pulses of fresh water into the North Atlantic. The influx of meltwater dilutes the salinity of one of the world’s most important areas of ocean circulation, which distributes heat from the equator to polar regions and back again. Because fresh water is lighter and less given to sinking, the overturning circulation begins to slow down, altering the behaviour of the ocean and the atmosphere above it. This change in ocean density can cause a weakening or even a shutdown of key regions of ocean circulation. The reason why this is important is that conditions in the North Atlantic are part of a wider network of global ocean “conveyor belts” that transport heat around the world. In the past, when ocean circulation in this region “switched off”, it caused major disruptions to the climate of northern Europe and the tropical rain belt that today influences half of the world’s population reliant on monsoon rains.

Unlike in the Hollywood movie, abrupt climate change won’t happen overnight, but once critical thresholds have been passed, the Earth will shift into a drastically altered state that will be with us for thousands of years. The problem is that we will probably only know we have crossed a tipping point after the fact, once scientists have enough data points to make a definitive call. Although the latest IPCC report concludes there is currently limited evidence of abrupt climate change on a global scale below 2°C of global warming, it mentions that regional tipping points – which can have severe impacts – “cannot be excluded”. A major review paper, published by British scientist David Armstrong McKay after the IPCC report was released, found that several tipping points, such as the disintegration of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, may be triggered within the Paris Agreement range of 1.5 to 2°C of global warming. In fact, he concludes that “we cannot rule out that the [Greenland-and-West-Antarctic-ice-sheet] tipping points have already been passed … and several other tipping elements have minimum threshold values within the 1.1 to 1.5°C range”. What this means is that it is possible that the Earth will experience major transformations even under “moderate” levels of warming. We must do everything in our power to reduce emissions before we push the planetary system past the point of no return.

As I watch the embers of our campfire radiating, I listen to the night-time sounds of the rainforest and try not to dwell on the fact that the Black Summer flames stopped less than two kilometres from where I am now sitting. Local volunteers battled to protect the ancient forests surrounding Minyon Falls, a spectacular cascade that plunges 100 metres into the heart of a prehistoric canyon. I wonder if this might be the last time I will experience this place as it is today. But perhaps, just for tonight, I can simply enjoy the primordial pleasure of beautiful humans gathered around a campfire.

While I do my best to try and switch off, it isn’t always easy. It is heartbreaking to accept the reality that our planet is warming, faster and more ferociously than we thought – and that our politicians are still not doing enough. In the aftermath of the euphoria of Australia’s “climate election” in 2022, I was filled with hope that our nation had finally come to its senses, and that we now had leaders with the vision to make Australia the renewable energy superpower we know it can be. And yet, over a year into the new government’s term, our leaders continue with business as usual, ignoring the deafening alarm bells. If we remain silent and let things go on the way that they are, our political disengagement will provide the social licence needed for the exploitation of fossil fuel reserves to go on for decades to come.

Perhaps the most important message of the latest IPCC report is that how bad we let things get is still in our hands. But not for much longer. As American writer Rebecca Solnit writes: “It is late. We are deep in an emergency. But it is not too late, because the emergency is not over. The outcome is not decided. We are deciding it now.” What happens next is up to all of us.

Joëlle Gergis

Joëlle Gergis is an award-winning climate scientist and writer based at the Australian National University. She is the author of Sunburnt Country: The History and Future of Climate Change in Australia.

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