As I write this the IPCC has just released its fifth report on climate change, and the evidence points overwhelmingly to human activity as the cause of current climate warming. Yet I perceive an entrenching of positions by those who do not accept human-caused global warming – a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘yes, the IPCC would say that, wouldn’t they?’.
The opponents of climate change science in Australia seem to have become ideological, with entrenched beliefs and vested interests lined up against the evidence – the facts, models and projections – put forward by scientists. In this regard, their opposition is similar to the creationists’ position on evolution.
So where does this leave us? There is much evidence that no amount of fact-based argument will sway an entrenched belief, and this creates a very dangerous situation for the world when such beliefs unduly influence policies and actions.
Only a few weeks ago the Museum hosted a visit from Tony de Brum, Vice President of the Marshall Islands. Much of that country is likely to be inundated before the end of this century from sea level rises related to global warming.
Maps are routinely published showing which parts of the world’s coastlines are destined for inundation, including Australia’s, yet there seems to be a collective shrugging of the shoulders from key parts of the media and some of our political representatives: ‘Yes it is terrible, but it’s somebody else’s problem’ – somewhere else in the world, like China, or for someone in the future, like those who will have to live with the consequences.
We need a new way of talking about climate change and the beliefs that people hold, but I don’t yet know, nor have I seen, an effective way of doing this. Certainly trying to scare people or simply haranguing them does not work.
It seems that only when the impacts on everyday lives and economies become severe will most people or governments actually do something. Until then, we need to try to keep the factual, science-based debate on climate change alive, notwithstanding the entrenched views of others.
We in the Museum have some key roles to play in this debate. Our new science strategy sets out four major research priorities for the Museum, and one of these is to better understand the impacts of climate change on biodiversity.
On the human cultures side, we are working with communities who stand to be directly impacted by climate change, be it from rising sea level or more extreme weather events, to record how they see the situation unfolding.
And our learning programs will continue to communicate the science of climate change and the value of scientific thinking. We must continue to hope that a reasoned response to the greatest threat we have faced will eventually prevail.
Frank Howarth PSM
Director of the Australian Museum
First published in Explore 35(3) p1, Summer 2013