In the two years since my daughter was born, literally hundreds of climate records have been broken across Australia.
As she learned to roll, crawl and take her first steps, her milestones were being matched by unwelcome milestones in our climate system. Temperature records tumbled during her first summer, and then again during her second. This year, her third summer began months earlier than normal as heat, drought and fire marked our spring landscape.
Before my daughter was born, I wrote publicly of my worries for her future in an increasingly extreme climate. The early months of parenthood meant long nights with an unsettled newborn that gave me time to dwell. As we paced the nursery together, I would think “I am so so sorry.”
A thriving toddler now means that I have fewer late nights to linger on my anxieties for her future. But I also have more late nights to catch up on my work as a climate scientist. At the same time that I was nourishing my daughter, I also nourished my other ‘baby’ – the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC.
As a lead author on an IPCC chapter focused squarely on weather and climate extremes in our changing world, my job was to keep track of those alternative milestones of our tumbling climate records.
This is an academic task, underpinned by numbers, data, analysis and publications. This is a task free from those murky questions of politics, timing and sensitivities. This is about what precisely has been happening, where and why?
The report’s mandate is to be policy relevant but never policy prescriptive. While we assess the latest peer-review scientific literature of climate change, the policy remains tangential.
Catastrophic fires have burned across swathes of NSW and Queensland throughout November. Victoria now stands on alert as a Code Red has been declared for large regions.
On a late-night IPCC teleconference call this month, apologies were relayed for a colleague in California. A million people incurred a planned power outage in a bid to avoid any chance of igniting a catastrophic wildfire. At the very same time, the Canberra night air was imbued with the smoke of far distant fires.
Residents, emergency service chiefs, farmers and volunteers have demanded our attention turn to this unprecedented situation. But as temperature records tumble and our climate milestones accumulate, discourse in Australia has stalled. As reminders of the severity of Australia’s climate vulnerabilities become more and more frequent, the policy remains tangential.
Fierce debate has raged about climate change and bushfires and the sensitivity of allowing these words to inhabit the same sentence. Simply naming climate change is a dangerous distraction from the here and the now, from our emergency responses, and a callousness to the vulnerability of people and the tragedy of fire.
Instead, we are told that we must focus on the here and now, that victims of disasters unthinkable were likely complicit because of their voting histories, or that discussion of policy at such a time is just unhelpful.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian cautioned that now is not the time to discuss climate change. Her Deputy Premier, John Barilaro, added that anyone who talks about climate change during the fire crisis is a “bloody disgrace.” Columns are filled by commentators who read a book about bushfires or Indigenous burning practices or have a relative who lost a house in the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires. The numbers, data, analysis and publication are summarily ignored, the science dismissed and the policy remains tangential.
And so we go on and on with endless bickering. Years have passed by as I’ve patted my daughter in the baby carrier, pushed her in the stroller and now I dash after her balance bike. All the while, I listen to news and podcasts. Kyoto carry-over credits, Paris pledges, 26-28% of 2005 levels by 2030. Endless bickering.
Railroading discussion onto the crisis at hand, the only here and the only now, is manifestly inadequate. As a coalition of former fire chiefs warned, it leaves emergency services dangerously ill-prepared.
It also leaves us with the fundamental problem of climate change. Or more precisely it gifts our children with the unwelcome problem of climate change.
My daughter arrived in a world of 1 degree of global warming. This is a world of increasingly frequent and more severe extremes. This is a world already challenged by the scale and rapidity of change.
Our endless bickering has committed her to a world likely exceeding 2 degrees of global warming. A new UN report indicates that planned emissions of greenhouse gases to 2030 are 53% higher than what is needed to limit warming to 2 degrees.
This is a world of extremes and challenges I can’t perceive. This world is a bloody disgrace.
Many more milestones await us as parents – at the school gates on her first day of school, her first sleepover, and packing for her first school camp. And sadly, there will be a time she realises for the first time that her parents are flawed and that we have failed to think of her future, instead insisting on the here and now.
My mind returns to my late-night refrain to my newborn baby, that I am so so sorry.
If we are lucky enough our children will insist that the focus be on their here and now. If we are lucky enough our children will not feel compelled to return to our feckless arguments of greenhouse accounting tricks, our weaponizing of tone and throwing of insults. If we are lucky enough, they will forgive us.