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Global Warming Impacting Humanity

By Gideon Polya

14 February, 2009

Australia’s State of Victoria (capital Melbourne), has just suffered record-breaking heat wave temperatures and a tragic bushfire disaster (over 180 people dead, over 1,000 homes destroyed, over 300,000 hectares burnt). This tragedy has occurred on top of a background of sustained drought, man-made global warming and global government inaction.

An otherwise relatively cool summer was transformed 2 weeks ago when the temperature in Melbourne soared to over 43 oC (109.4 oF) for 3 days (28-30 January, 2009). A week later the temperature soared to 46.4 oC (115.5 oF) in Melbourne - about 47 oC (116.6 oF) where I live in Macleod, north of the city, and 47.8 oC (118 oF) at Avalon, the site of Melbourne’s second major passenger jet airport. However this horrendous heat was associated with strong winds that turned fires from lightning strikes and from psychopathic arsonists into rapidly moving firestorms.

People living adjacent to highly-inflammable Eucalyptus forests to the north and east of Melbourne were advised to have “fire plans” and to decide whether to stay and protect their property or to leave in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, a combination of tinder-dry bush, high temperatures and high winds created high speed fire storms that gave people little chance to escape when they finally realized the enormity of what they were facing.

There has been great outpouring of support for the thousands of surviving refugees and praise for the heroic fire fighters. In these circumstances one feels constrained not to diminish such national unity but the harsh reality is that man-made climate change has contributed to this catastrophe, Australia is a world leader in annual per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution and both the Federal Government and Opposition are united in support for “business as usual” GHG pollution and Australia’s world-leading coal exports.

I sought the opinion of several friends who had luckily escaped the conflagration and whose house in one of the worst areas had miraculously survived – should one be circumspect in these circumstances or publicly raise the issue of the climate change underlying this disaster? Their answer to my repeated questioning was unequivocally yes – speak out, because ignoring the Climate Emergency has helped create this disaster. Below I have summarized the expert testimony from Australian and US scientists on the climate change and the severity of forest fires.

According to a key 2006 paper in the top journal Science by Dr A.L. Westerling and colleagues.: “We compiled a comprehensive database of large wildfires in western United States forests since 1970 and compared it with hydroclimatic and land-surface data. Here, we show that large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations, and longer wildfire seasons. The greatest increases occurred in mid-elevation, Northern Rockies forests, where land-use histories have relatively little effect on fire risks and are strongly associated with increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt … We found that the incidence of large wildfires in western forests increased in the mid-1980s (Fig. 1) [hereafter, "wildfires" refers to large-fire events (>400 ha) within forested areas only]. Subsequently, wildfire frequency was nearly four times the average of 1970 to 1986, and the total area burned by these fires was more than six and a half times its previous level”. [1] .

According to Professor John Holdren (Harvard University, former Chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Director of the Woods Hole Research Center, and President Obama’s chief scientific adviser) in a recent lecture entitled “The Science of Climatic Disruption”, forest fires are being exacerbated by drought and elevated temperatures in America and Europe; the annual acres burned in the Western USA have now increased from about 0.5 million (1960-1980) to 2.5- 4.5 million (21st century); and the 14 hottest years on record have been since 1990. [2] .

According to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) the global mean surface temperature increase since about 1970 has been about 0.6 oC (the temperature increase since about 1890 has been about 0.8 oC) . [3] .

In response to a record heat wave in the State of Victoria, Australia, and its capital Melbourne (on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, January 28-30, 2009, the Melbourne temperature was unprecedently in excess of 43 oC), Professor David Karoly (meteorologist, University of Melbourne; chairman of the Victorian government's climate change reference group; shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with others connected with the IPCC) stated: "This week is unusual but it (the heat) will become much more like the normal experience, in the range of normal heatwaves, in 10-20 years … It is clear that the current (Victorian) public transport system [train network] is not able to cope and it is also clear that the water supply system is stretched ... The health services and the road system are also obviously stretched to their limits… The system can't cope now, and it is just going to get much worse”. [4] .

For societal reasons alluded to above, expert comment connecting this disaster with climate change has been limited although there has been much comment on other aspects such as risk management and preparedness (e.g. fight or flee, bunkers, fuel reduction, tree reduction around homes, warning sirens etc).

Thus according to some leading Australian bushfire researchers (psychologist Professor Douglas Paton of the University of Tasmania and the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), Bushfire CRC chief executive officer Gary Morgan, and bushfire and urban design expert Justin Leonard of the CSIRO, Australians need to be better educated about how to deal with bushfires. The current “prepare, stay and defend” or “leave early” policy may have to be modified in view of this latest tragedy and global warming. [5] .

However Professor Will Steffen (director, Climate Change Institute, Australian National University , ANU) has commented : "Events like this, severe heatwaves and severe fires, become more likely with an underlying change in climate …People better prepare for the fact that the risk is increasing ... (for) more frequent extreme events that are related to temperature, like heatwaves, like bushfires … Our climate is getting warmer, as it is in the rest of the world, and I think there's no doubt about that”. [6] .

Australian Greens Senator Dr Bob Brown : “Global warming is predicted to make this sort of event happen 25 per cent, 50 per cent more". [6] .

Greenpeace climate campaigner Trish Harrup: “The scale of this catastrophe, coupled with severe floods in Queensland, should be a clarion call to politicians for the need to begin treating climate change as a national emergency”. [6].

Climatologist Professor David Karoly (University of Melbourne) (ABC Lateline interview): “[hot temperatures] unprecedented .... The records were broken by a large amount and you cannot explain that just by natural variability … What we are seeing now is that the chances of these sorts of extreme fire weather situations are occurring much more rapidly in the last ten years due to climate change." [7].

Scientist Dr Greg Holland (US National Center for Atmospheric Research): “[high levels of greenhouse gases would] be with us for decades …We definitely need to change our habits so that we can leave our children and our children's children with a better world to live in … In the meantime we are going to have to adapt, we are going to have to accept that it is not going to be six days per summer of extreme temperatures. It may be 20 days per summer of extreme temperatures. And we have to take the appropriate actions to actually live with those conditions." [7].

The following is a statement from 200 intellectual and scientist delegates to the June 2008 Manning Clark House Conference: “Imagining the Real Life on a Greenhouse Earth”, 11-12 June, Australian National University, Canberra (e.g. climate scientists:

Prof Barry Brook, Prof Ian Enting, Prof Janette Lindesay, Prof Graeme Pearman, Dr Barrie Pittock, Prof Will Steffen; Earth and prehistory scientists Dr Geoff Davies, Dr David Denham, Dr Andrew Glikson (conference convenor), Dr Geoffrey Hope, Prof Malcolm McCulloch, Dr Bradley Opdyke; health and population experts Prof Stephen Boyden, Dr Bryan Furnass (conference co-convenor), Prof Tony McMichael, Dr Sue Wareham) and Mark O’Connor).

“Global warming is accelerating. The Arctic summer sea ice is expected to melt entirely within the next five years, - decades earlier than predicted in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 4th Assessment Report.

Scientists judge the risks to humanity of dangerous global warming to be high. The Great Barrier Reef faces devastation. Extreme weather events, such as storm surges adding to rising sea levels and threatening coastal cities, will become increasingly frequent.

There is a real danger that we have reached or will soon reach critical tipping points and the future will be taken out of our hands. The melting Arctic sea ice could be the first such tipping point.

Beyond 2ºC of warming, seemingly inevitable unless greenhouse gas reduction targets are tightened, we risk huge human and societal costs and perhaps even the effective end of industrial civilisation. We need to cease our assault on our own life support system, and that of millions of species. Global warming is only one of many symptoms of that assault.

Peak oil, global warming and long term sustainability pressures all require that we reduce energy needs and switch to alternative energy sources. Many credible studies show that Australia can quickly and cost-effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions through dramatic improvements in energy efficiency and by increasing our investment in solar, wind and other renewable sources.

The need for action is extremely urgent and our window of opportunity for avoiding severe impacts is rapidly closing. Yet the obstacles to change are not technical or economic, they are political and social.

We know democratic societies have responded successfully to dire and immediate threats, as was demonstrated in World War II. This is a last call for an effective response to global warming.” [8].

We can now realistically expect 450 ppm atmospheric CO2 by about 2030 (i.e. in about 20 years’ time assuming 3 ppm CO2/y, or earlier due to positive feedbacks) with a change in temperature (ΔT) 2oC above that in 1900. Above 450 ppm CO2 there is intensification of existing conditions (all Arctic summer sea ice will have gone by 2015, massive hurricanes, storm surges, droughts, mega bushfires, coastal and inland flooding, food shortages, huge mass mortality) plus increasingly major damage to coral reefs – including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef - which will be dying due to ocean warming and acidification above 450 ppm CO2 - with increasing damage to already stressed fisheries and agriculture with consequent mass starvation. [9].

This is inexorably happening due to inaction of governments around the world who are simply ignoring top scientific advice in the interests of short-term business profits. Yet it doesn’t have to happen if appropriate actions are urgently taken as summarized below in the 1-page Climate Emergency Facts and Required Actions statement of the Yarra Valley Climate Action Group (please send to everyone you can). [10].

Climate Emergency Facts and Required Actions.

Just as we turn to top medical specialists for advice on life-threatening disease, so we turn to the opinions of top scientists and in particular top biological and climate scientists for Climate Change risk assessment and Climate Emergency Facts and requisite Actions as exampled below (for detailed documentation of everything below see the Yarra Valley Climate Action Group website).

Professor James Hansen (top US climate scientist, head, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies): “We face a climate emergency”.

Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty: “We are in real danger.”

Professor David de Kretser AC (eminent medical scientist and Governor of Victoria, Australia) “There is no doubt in my mind that this is the greatest problem confronting mankind at this time and that it has reached the level of a state of emergency.”

Dr Andrew Glikson (palaeo-climate scientist, ANU): “The continuing use of the atmosphere as an open sewer for industrial pollution has … raised CO2 levels to 387 ppm CO2 to date, leading toward conditions which existed on Earth about 3 million years (Ma) ago (mid-Pliocene), when CO2 levels rose to about 400 ppm, temperatures to about 2–3 degrees C and sea levels by about 25 +/- 12 metres.”

Major Climate Emergency Facts.

1. Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration has increased to 387 parts per million (ppm) as compared to 280 ppm pre-industrial and is increasing at about 2.5 ppm per year with average global temperature about 0.8 degrees C above the pre-industrial.

2. Man-made global warming due to greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution from carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen oxides is already associated with major ecosystem damage (Arctic, ocean, coral reefs), melting of glaciers and Arctic sea ice, sea level rise, methane release from melting tundra and positive feed-back effects accelerating GHG pollution and warming.

3. Consequences of atmospheric CO2 concentration increase and warming to current 387 ppm: major ecosystem damage; current species extinction rates are 100-1,000 times greater than previously; to over 400 ppm: “new territory” not seen for millions of years with acute dangers from positive feedbacks; to over 450 ppm: major damage and death to coral reefs and associated fisheries; to over 500 ppm: major loss of ocean phytoplankton, ocean life, cloud seeding, the Greenland ice sheet and densely populated global coastal regions due to massive sea level rises.

Climate Emergency actions urgently required.

1. Change of societal philosophy to one of scientific risk management and biological sustainability with complete cessation of species extinctions and zero tolerance for lying.

2. Urgent reduction of atmospheric CO2 to a safe level of about 300 ppm as recommended by leading climate and biological scientists.

3. Rapid switch to the best non-carbon and renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tide and hydro options that are currently roughly the same market price as coal burning-based power) and to energy efficiency, public transport, needs-based production, re-afforestation and return of carbon as biochar to soils coupled with correspondingly rapid cessation of fossil fuel burning, deforestation, methanogenic livestock production and population growth. [10].

It is not necessarily too late – but time is certainly running out. What has happened to my State of Victoria this week – and indeed is still happening with massive fires still raging to the north and east of Melbourne – will be repeated elsewhere in forested areas around the world on the back of a steadily increasing background of increasing global temperature.

Please inform your fellow citizens and political representatives to heed the pleas for action coming from biological scientists and climate scientists as outlined above.

One very effective way you could act would be by sending the 1-page Climate Emergency Facts and Required Actions statement of the Yarra Valley Climate Action Group (see above and reference [10]) to everyone you can.

Dr Gideon Polya, MWC News Chief political editor, published some 130 works in a 4 decade scientific career, most recently a huge pharmacological reference text "Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds" (CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, New York & London, 2003), and is currently writing a book on global mortality ---
Other articles by this author


[1]. A.L. Westerling, H. G. Hidalgo, D. R. Cayan, T. W. Swetnam , Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity, Science 18 August 2006: Vol. 313. no. 5789, pp. 940 - 943
(DOI: 10.1126/science.1128834; see: ).

[2]. Dr John Holdren (2008), “The Science of Climatic Disruption”: .

[3]. NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS): . See also IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Summary for Policymakers:
and Chapter 5, “Projecting Australian climate change”, The Garnaut Climate Change Review (2008): .

[4]. Professor David Karoly quoted by AAP via TVNZ, New Zealand “Southeast under strain from heatwave” (2009): .

[5]. Professor Douglas Paton et al, quoted by Dani Cooper, ABC, Science online (2009):

[6]. Professor Will Steffen, Dr Brown and Trish Harrup quoted by Cathy Alexander, “ Expert predicts more mega-bushfires”, Channel 9 News (2009): .

[7]. Professor David Karoly and Dr Greg Holland, interviewed by ABC Lateline, “More severe weather forecast, David Karoly warns”:,27574,25033531-421,00.html .

[8]. Statement of the June 2008 Manning Clark House Conference: “Imagining the Real Life on a Greenhouse Earth”, 11-12 June, Australian National University, Canberra: .

[9]. Dr Gideon Polya, “Global warming, climate emergency” course notes, U3A (2009):

[10]. Climate Emergency Facts and Required Actions, Yarra Valley Climate Action Group (2008):

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