Weathering change with a joint plan of attack
IT'S without question the hottest topic of the moment - climate change.
But with 50 years of experience in meteorology and climate science, University of Southern Queensland's Professor Roger Stone says we are looking at the problem the wrong way.
To begin with, he says, we can dispose of arguments as to whether current high temperatures and drought conditions here and in other areas of the southern hemisphere are the result of predicted weather patterns or climate change - it's both.
The same unusually warm sea temperatures in the Central Pacific and cool temperatures in the Indian Ocean, giving us the El Nino effect, cause the reverse weather patterns in Europe and the Americas, resulting in record lows and flooding there.
"The world is usually out of balance with rainfall - when we're having droughts in Australia, they are often having floods in the northern hemisphere and vice versa," Professor Stone said.
El Nino is part of a predictable periodic weather pattern occasionally resulting in prolonged events such as that experienced in Australia between 1991 and 1995, so people who say they have seen it all before are correct … to an extent.
THE CLIMATE CHANGE EFFECT
The difference, Prof Stone says, is that climate change is making the impact of these seasonal climate patterns far more severe, protracted and more common.
Because Australia has the most variable rainfall of any nation in the world - with variability increasing, especially in northern Queensland - we are very much affected by climate change.
Prof Stone said the United Nations Commission for Agricultural Meteorology, of which he is president, brought together the work of climate science teams - including climate prediction models associated with agriculture and drought - from countries around the world.
This provides a global picture of weather and seasonal climate events, how these affect countries, and how we can learn from each other.
The key, he said, was "to have greater preparedness for when these events - drought, severe storms and flooding - occur".
That means getting governments to think long term about climate and its effect on our lives.
The climate problems we are experiencing globally due to greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere, Prof Stone said, would take at least 20 years to improve as a result of changes in our behaviour.
Having worked in government before becoming USQ Centre for Applied Climate Sciences director, he said some governments and politicians on both sides of the political divide were more willing to listen to environmental and climate concerns than others.
Part of the difficulty was that with each change of government and change in bureaucratic department heads, policy attitudes shifted, knowledge was lost and so little ongoing progress was ever achieved.
"The minute it starts raining, drought is taken off the agenda and becomes something for another day, so the next time it happens we are caught without answers again," Prof Stone said.
However, with the country now clearly looking "so bad", with "massive rainfall deficits" and unprecedented fires, he believes alarm bells are ringing that this is a climate crisis and we cannot afford to defer making long-term decisions.
But degenerating into political name calling, finger pointing and protesting for more to be done about greenhouse gases within Australia, he said, achieved nothing.
It was akin to burning the village witch in the Middle Ages, believing they had caused hailstorms.
"We are being too parochial in the way we think about climate change," Prof Stone said.
"This is a global climate system we are working with and the greenhouse gas emissions are almost entirely due to the northern hemisphere - they are responsible for 95 per cent.
"What we do in Australia has little effect (1 per cent of global emissions)."
That meant, he said, that while we needed to continue to do the right thing environmentally within Australia, we also needed to stop blaming ourselves and instead "ask our friends, particularly in the US, China and the European Union, to change what they are doing and set clear targets (to reduce greenhouse gas emissions)".
"That's where the real action has to be, and that's the tougher question - how we, as a tiny nation, are going to influence the global picture, because we are very much on the receiving end of this.
"We need to have a bigger voice on the global stage."
TOLL ON THE LAND
Those arguably hardest hit by the effects of climate change, including drought, associated fire, storm and flooding, are of course our farmers.
"The first thing we know is that farmers only make a good profit three years out of 10," Prof Stone said.
On average, they will have three really bad years and four average.
He said that contrast in results would increase, and while good seasons would return, farmers needed to be more attuned and responsive to weather and climate conditions than ever.
Many farmers, he said, watched very closely in autumn when, for instance, El Nino patterns generally end, before making decisions on whether to destock or increase stock and what to plant.
"In the future they are going to have to be very responsive and opportunistic to capture the good years when they are there," Prof Stone said.
Some, he said, for example had swapped from wheat crops to chickpeas, which were more drought resistant (where markets allowed), and to innovative plant-breeding programs such as stay-green wheat and sorghum that had also been developed.
Events such as the devastating fires in New South Wales and Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria, Prof Stone said, had already overtaken debate.
The question is where will it end, and how can we improve our future outlook?
Prof Stone said extremist views polarising the community could do only more damage.
We need to work together to take a stand to influence those responsible for large-scale global emissions.
He said long-term planning and policy were the answer, both to find power alternatives and to cope with existing climate-related threats.
As individuals, that meant contacting and lobbying our politicians - including state and federal local members, agriculture and environment ministers and shadow ministers and party leaders - to talk with their international equivalents and reinforce the need for greater responsibility and prompt long-term policy action against large-scale emissions.