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Is it too little too late to halt the effects of human-induced climate change on our planet? UOW experts respond to the challenge. 

Changing weather patterns are already threatening the world as we know as one record after another falls. Is it too little too late to halt the effects of man-made climate change on our planet? No, but we need to start now.

This October, academics and students at the University of Wollongong, along with local politicians and concerned community members, will gather for Global Climate Change Week (GCCW). The week of activities includes workshops, public lectures and community forums.

As part of GCCW, which runs from 9 to 15 October, The Stand looks at the question of climate change and talks with a number of local and national academics about our climate crisis.

The world is warming

In 2016, temperatures hit an historic high, breaking the record set in 2015, which had broken the record set in 2014. Do you see the pattern? It’s all because of us.

When asked whether it is too little too late to stop the impacts of climate change, Professor Tim Flannery answers quickly. “No, no. It’s not too late! But clearly the window is closing quickly.”

The former Chief Climate Change Commissioner believes there is still time and room to limit climate change within the 2˚C limit that scientists consider relatively safe, and which countries endorsed at the Copenhagen Accord in 2009.

“The temperature change has a direct relationship with the cumulative amount of emissions that are in the atmosphere, so we need to cut emissions as hard and fast as we can and we need to start taking Co2 out of the air,” Professor Flannery says.

People can reduce their carbon footprint in lots of simple ways: switch to more efficient light bulbs, turn off the lights where you are not using them, take public transport, ride a push bike or just walk.

Elizabeth Morison

Two degrees might have seemed achievable in 2009, but since then, a growing body of research has shown that the limit was too generous. Consequently, in Paris in 2015, the international community agreed to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. If current climate policies around the world continue, though, the expected result will be around 3.6°C warming.

University of Wollongong (UOW) climate change expert Dr Helen McGregor, from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, believes if the international community is not prepared to take the measures necessary to limit global warming even to 1.5°C, the catastrophes we are likely to face are greater extinctions of species, increased wild weather patterns and declining food security.

“I think that the most important message is that we need to start reducing emissions,” Dr McGregor says. “The solutions are there, I just wish everyone would just get on and do it.”

Dr Helen McGregor

Dr Helen McGregor says emissions reductions are urgently needed. Photo: Paul Jones

Young ideas for a greener future

For a lot of young people, the idea of fixing the climate crisis is overwhelming. But student Elizabeth Morison, who is studying a Bachelor of Conservation Biology, shakes her head.

“Yes, it’s a huge problem but people can reduce their carbon footprint in lots of simple ways,” she says. “You can switch to more efficient light bulbs, turn off the lights in any room where you are not using them, take public transport, ride a push bike or just walk.”

A member of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) Elizabeth says the AYCC is a movement of young people who are working to address the climate crisis. “The Australian Youth Climate Coalition is concerned about climate change not only for the planets’ current youth generation but also for future generations.”

If we just let the climate go the way we are doing today it will drive many more people into poverty.

Dr Keith Horton

Elizabeth believes young people often feel left out of the political debate on climate change, even though they are more likely than current politicians to see the unfolding effects of a warmer and drier planet.

“Young people have the most to lose from global warming, but we also have a lot to gain,” Elizabeth says. “Climate change is our best opportunity to create a world that works for everyone, not just a few.”

Australian Youth Climate Coalition member Elizabeth Morison.

Australian Youth Climate Coalition member Elizabeth Morison. Photo: Paul Jones

Health and social harms of coal-fired power

Dr George Takacs, from UOW’s School of Physics, advocates for renewables as the most efficient way to wean an economy off fossil fuels.

“People are concerned that renewables cost a lot of money. The fact is there are already a lot of clean technologies in place that are the cheapest sources of electricity. Not only is it better for our planet but it’s better for our living conditions,” Dr Takacs says.

“Let’s think about what it means to replace a coal power plant with a cleaner form of energy like wind or solar. People that live around the coal power plant are going to have a lot less air pollution, which means less asthma for children, and less chronic or acute diseases.”

And he may have a point. According to more than 300 doctors and other medical professionals associated with the group Doctors for the Environment Australia, the brown coal power plants located in Victoria’s La Trobe Valley, which are responsible for 85 per cent of the state’s electricity generation, should be closed because of the health damage they cause the local community.

Dr Takacs says it’s only a matter of time before the growing renewables energy sector employs more people than coal, oil and gas combined. Professor Tim Flannery agrees, “The cheapest energy today is wind and solar, the economical battle has already been won.”

The changes that matter

Dr Keith Horton, from UOW’s School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, is passionate about fixing our environment, both in our back yard and around the world.

“If we just let the climate go the way we are doing today it will drive many more people into poverty,” says Dr Horton, who has a keen interest in moral and political philosophy, especially the moral implications of world poverty.

He believes there is a clear relationship between climate change, changing weather patterns and frequent extreme weather events, including droughts and floods.

“Extreme weather events, like Hurricane Harvey, are a forceful reminder that the people who have done the least to contribute to climate change are already being hit hard by its devastating impacts. Tackling climate change is central to ending poverty.”

Inaction has a big cost to society. Climate warming will lead to shifting weather patterns and extreme events, rising seas and a host of impacts to food production, water resources and human health.

Dr Helen McGregor

But it’s just not the third world paying the price of climate change. Dr McGregor reminds us that climate change affects the living costs for everyone.

“Some people are concerned about the cost to taxpayers setting up the infrastructure for renewables and the related costs of electricity. But the cost of climate change to this planet is going to be a whole lot more worrying,” she says.

“Inaction has a big cost to society. Climate warming will lead to shifting weather patterns and extreme events, rising seas and a host of impacts to food production, water resources and human health.”

The Brisbane floods of 2011 cost an estimated $440 million dollars of damage to the city alone. On top of that, residents and businesses sent insurance companies 38,000 claims, worth $1.5 billion.

We cannot ignore the problem

“The reality is that we need to do something about climate change fast,” says Dr Janice Lough, a Great Barrier Reef researcher and Senior Principal Research Scientist for the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

“Australian and international research has shown that an increase in average global temperatures of just 1°C above the preindustrial period will cause coral reefs to lose all their corals by mid-century.”

If emissions continue to rise unchecked, the risks are profound. Scientists fear climate effects in years to come may be so severe that they could destabilise governments, produce waves of refugees, and melt the polar ice caps, causing the seas to rise high enough to flood most of the world’s coastal cities.

The latest State of the Environment report, commissioned by the Australian Government, found climate change “is an increasingly important and pervasive pressure on all aspects of the Australian environment”.  Some academics believe Australia lacks national policies that establish a clear vision for protecting and managing the environment, including climate change, between now and 2050.

With the growing political fight over power prices and energy security policy, Australia’s climate researchers are getting frustrated and disappointed with what they see as bickering and stalling over climate change action and renewable energy.

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