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Why water temperatures will continue to rise

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Professor Matthew England, from the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre, researches how oceans affect the world’s climate.     
Our oceans are a great moderator of not only our average seasonal climate but also the effects of climate change. There are consequences for this moderation. While the oceans can absorb large amounts of heat, this will have associated impacts such as increases in sea level and coral bleaching.

Having a planet with oceans has meant that the world’s warming over the last 100 years is a small fraction of what it would have been without them, a very sobering fact. This is not widely understood as many of us see very little change and can turn a blind eye to global warming implications in the belief that we will keep the planet habitable. The expert advice from people like Australia’s Ross Garnaut and the UK’s Nicholas Stern is that it makes economic and environmental sense to make changes now.

Even if the world stopped every greenhouse gas emission tomorrow the planet would continue to warm for several decades on a magnitude similar to what has occurred in the 20th Century. This is termed the commitment to global warming and would mean warming of about half to one degree, similar to last century.

There are nations in the world which have set targets of global warming rises to less than 2°C but, while a laudable target, there is no evidence that anyone has taken action to meet them. Such a target would also mean decarbonising our economies, an action very like a war effort, where a whole nation makes sacrifices to achieve a necessary goal.

With this in mind it seems astonishing that the warning signals from leading scientists have such little effect on politicians around the world. Greenhouse gases and global warming is not a new phenomenon. There have been reports as far back as the 1960s and the mid 1970s of the problems associated with an increase in greenhouse gases. One famous 1979 US report, commissioned by President Carter, warned that something had to be done about emissions immediately.

Thirty years later our greenhouse gas emissions have doubled and action is anything but immediate. Every delay means an ongoing delay in tackling industries that add to greenhouse gases, giving them reprieve after reprieve. It is a process similar to the smoking debate, where the tobacco industry bankrolled a campaign aimed at derailing the science that said smoking was unhealthy. The asbestos denials also come to mind, with millions spent on court cases and the like.

The weight of public opinion is no match yet for carefully coordinated plans to create delay on actions about greenhouse gases and, bizarrely, giving sceptics and naysayers equal media space, warps the real picture. Scientists do make efforts to produce reports that can be understood by the wider community.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports are a case in point. The fifth issue will be scrutinised as closely as the first, bringing together a phenomenal amount of information from a global community of scientists. This process needs to be applauded, not smeared. Errors such as the Himalayan glaciers flagged to be melted by 2035 instead of 2350 are immaterial in the context of a 3,000 page report on climate change, especially given that the glaciers could well be gone by 2100. Sensationalising this “flaw” conveniently obscures the real sensation, which is that we may well not need a word such as mountain glacier in several generations time.

Sceptics and deniers do delay actions and, while the majority of politicians support action, there is a vocal minority assist those non-believers as well as others who want political gain at the cost of action. Tony Abbot’s “Great Big New Tax” line of thought does not increase the chances of action, nor does Senator Nick Minchin’s claims that global warming is a hoax. This all flies in the face of the real scientific knowledge and, because climate change is gradual, it is hard for humans to notice its effects.

We don’t see glaciers or ice sheets melting, we don’t notice if oceans are rising or getting warmer and we don’t suffer any physiological effects at present. We must, therefore, rely on the scientific community to do that for us so it is very strange that we ignore their efforts. By the time that humans do suffer the physiological effects of global warming it will be too late. Inaction now means the likelihood of very large (and untried so far) geo-engineering projects to stem the tide of emissions. They will be vastly expensive and carry significant risks, as significant as the greenhouse problem itself.

Even when we have information that supports global warming, such as the rising waters threatening the island nation of Tuvalu and the disappearing mountain glaciers in Canada, we don’t see the urgency. This may be a hangover from the so called scare campaign of the Y2K computer bug but it does not reflect the fact that global action was taken to reconfigure computer systems, resulting in minimal damage.

There is no mystery to climate change. It is happening and it will have long lasting effects. The current rate of warming and the rate at which we burn fossil fuels is unprecedented in our planet’s history.

The science is clear: action is needed urgently.

Text: V.B. June 2010

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