Lesley Hughes: hope is her strategy

Lesley Hughes: ‘The balance between optimism and pessimism is a very fine line …’

Australia’s 28th Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his cabinet were sworn in on Monday, 16 September 2013. His first act was to abolish the Climate Commission.

‘We knew it was going to happen and we had a plan,’ said Professor Lesley Hughes, a founding commissioner. ‘We had already registered the name “Climate Council”.’ She was speaking at the Bermagui Institute Public Dinner on 7 February 2019.

Julia Gillard established the Climate Commission in 2011 to inform the public on the effects of and potential solutions to global warming. In its two years the Commission produced 27 reports on the effects of climate change in Australia, global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the potential of renewable energy. It also hosted public forums across the country.

Chief Commissioner Tim Flannery was on the ABC’s Lateline the night the Commission was sacked. He invited the public to support the new body—a website would be launched at midnight.

‘At 12.01 am someone called James from New South Wales gave us $15,’ said Professor Hughes. ‘By that afternoon we’d raised $220,000.’ By the end of the week they had $1.2 million.

The lay of the land

Professor Hughes started with an overview of our situation.

  • Since the 1970s the climate has changed 170 times faster than during the previous 7000 years.
  • Twenty of the hottest years on record have been in the last 22 years. No-one below the age of 40 has experienced a year of below average temperature.
  • Oceans are absorbing 93% of the excess heat of the planet. Sea level rise is accelerating and is now at triple the rate of the 1990s. Sea levels are rising because of ice melts but also because warm water takes up more space.
  • At least half a metre in sea level rise is predicted by the end of this century, but this doesn’t factor in the collapse of Antarctic ice shelves. Substantial collapse could mean a 2 to 2.5 metre rise.
  • Oceans are 30% more acidic now, slowing the growth of coral reefs and impacting the shell development of molluscs.
  • A warm atmosphere holds more water. So when it rains, it rains more—like we saw in Townsville this month.
  • The future will see a lot more Category 4 and 5 cyclones. We will probably soon see the introduction of a ‘Category 6’.
  • At the other end of the water cycle, droughts are longer and more severe.

In Australia:

  • Heatwaves are the biggest killers of people of all weather events. The Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria killed 173 people, but twice that many died of heat stress in south-eastern Australia the week before.
  • The bushfire ‘season’ has lengthened markedly. There is now probably only one month of the year without out-of-control bushfires.
  • We lost 30-50% of coral cover in the Great Barrier Reef last summer and the summer before. Ten thousand square kilometres of mangroves in the Gulf of Carpentaria died during the same period.
  • In the Murray-Darling Basin, river red gums are dying due to drought and rising salinity.
  • In the Menindee Lakes, drought and mismanagement have combined to cause recent catastrophic fish deaths.
  • In the Northern Territory, sea levels are rising faster than on other coastlines and saltwater is encroaching on freshwater systems.
  • The Snowy Mountains region has lost 10% of snow cover every decade since the 1960s. ‘If you’re thinking of investing in a ski resort …,’ said Professor Hughes, ‘Don’t.’

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published last year states the relative risks of a plus 1.5° future compared with a plus 2° future. At plus 2° there is at least twice the risk of extreme heat events, loss of species, loss of crop yields, and losses to fisheries, compared with plus 1.5°. There is ten times the risk of an ice-free Arctic in any northern summer.

Australia is ‘in the leading pack’ of carbon emitters. The Government’s own projections are for an increase of 5.4% between now and 2030, although our Paris pledge was for a 26 to 28% reduction.

What to do?

We must rethink how we do conservation. There are some things we still need to do—and do better: reduce land clearing, and deal with invasive species, salinity and inappropriate fire regimes. We need to identify refuges for species and conserve them, eg the Wollemi Pine canyon, which has survived for 65 million years and many ice ages. We have to rethink restoration. Sometimes—and Professor Hughes admits that this is contentious—it’s not appropriate to replace species that have not survived in their native environment. ‘We need to become ecological engineers,’ she said. ‘We need to help nature move to a new space by building habitat where we can.’

Negative emissions technologies, which remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—reforestation, carbon capture and storage, modified agricultural practices, etc—will be necessary to keep temperatures down. ‘We know how to do most of them but to my knowledge we aren’t able to do any of them to the scale we need, or at a price that makes them practical.’

So what’s the chance of us staying below 1.5°? Not much. We are already over 1°. If all the Paris Agreement pledges are met 100% and on time, we’ll still reach 3° above present temperatures. And we are only a third of the way to meeting those pledges anyway. Keeping to 1.5° would require ‘far-reaching and historically unprecedented transformation in energy, land, urban and industrial systems in the next 20 years’. We need net zero emissions in all sectors by 2050 and this requires an annual investment of US$2.4 trillion in the energy system, and all sectors using negative emissions technologies by the end of the century.

‘You can make up your own mind about the likelihood of all those things being achieved,’ said Professor Hughes. ‘But we can’t give up. What we do now really matters. The decisions made in the next two to three years will determine the climate in the decades to come … But we must plan for a future that’s two degrees warmer.’

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for

The People’s Climate Marches ahead of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris attracted nearly 750,000 people around the world. The march in New York was the biggest single march in world history. Professor Hughes’s favourite placard? ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for’. She said, ‘That absolutely sums up the nature of the problem and the nature of the solution … It’s really easy to only blame politicians or businesspeople or Adani or whatever. But it’s all of us … It’s all our problem and we’re all in this together.’

In an article in The Monthly last year, Professor Hughes wrote about climate scientists: ‘We’re the only members of the scientific profession who hope every day that we’re wrong’. She discussed ‘the emotional health of climate-change scientists … [who] in extreme circumstances have faced hate mail and even death threats’.

So, against a backdrop of political denial, how does she keep going?

‘The balance between optimism and pessimism is a very fine line and I keep both of those in my head all the time,’ said Professor Hughes. Again, in that article: ‘Scientists are supposed to be objective, calmly weighing evidence like the blindfolded Lady Justice, rather than flawed and frightened human beings on an emotional rollercoaster oscillating daily between hope and despair.’ She quotes 20th century Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who wrote of the tension between ‘the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will’.

In Bermagui last week: ‘It’s really easy in Australia to think nobody is paying attention,’ she said. ‘But there are many governments around the world who are doing wonderful things—a lot of the European governments, the African governments … We tend to think everybody is a Tony Abbott-type clone or a Trump-type clone and certainly they have had a big and negative impact but it’s not that nobody is doing anything.

‘I take a long view,’ said Professor Hughes. ‘I have seen tremendous change … We really are at a tipping point in Australia for action right now, partly because we are facing so many climate-related disasters and partly because there is an appetite—politically—for change, especially with independents on the rise. I take heart from that.

‘Every carbon molecule that we prevent from going into the atmosphere makes less of a negative impact.

‘I don’t think hope is an option. Hope is a strategy.’

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