Australia Pays Attention to Climate-Change Report

A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Paris is of special interest to drought-stricken Australia. Dr. Graeme Pearman has seen the report and is working on a related IPCC study due in April.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

On Friday, a United Nations panel on global climate change released a report stating that mankind is largely to blame for global warming. The report urged governments to take action or the world will suffer irreversible damage. Australians have taken a keen interest in the study since they're currently enduring their worst drought ever recorded.

Dr. Graeme Pearman was Australia's chief scientist for atmospheric research for three decades and is now an honorary senior research fellow at Monash University in Melbourne. He joins us from the studios of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Melbourne.

Graeme Pearman, welcome to the program.

Dr. GRAEME PEARMAN (Monash University): Thank you, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: I understanding you're working on another report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and it's due out in April. What themes are emerging from that report?

Dr. PEARMAN: Well, yes, you're right. The second report is still being finalized in detail. But certainly for Australia it has some fairly strong statements about particularly the loss of rainfall through much of our country. And I think as you - in your introduction, you mentioned the drought and the way that's focused people's attention here - the patterns of change that we're seeing right now are pretty similar to what this report is suggesting will become more the way it is within the - particularly the southern part of Australia as we move into the century.

ROBERTS: Are there unique qualities to Australia that sort of make it a leading indicator of some of the more global climate change symptoms we're likely to see?

Dr. PEARMAN: I'm not so sure that that's the case. I think that we are already a desert nation, and much of our country is limited rainfall. But I think where we're very sensitive is that much of our population is in the southern half of the country and it is this part that's going to be subjected to change, as the storm belts of the mid-latitudes move further poleward. We have, of course, other impacts; the shear temperature rise itself influences evaporation. And so we have two things: the evaporation and the rainfall deficit working to exacerbate our water supplies, water that we catch for power generation and for drinking.

ROBERTS: Give us some sense of how severe this draught is. I understand that Queensland, for example, is introducing plans to use recycled sewage in the drinking water.

Dr. PEARMAN: For most of the country this has been a loss of rainfall that's persisted over about 10 years. And so for parts of the country, water reservoirs are absolutely empty. And water is having to be brought into some of the farming areas just for farmers to survive. In their own mind, this is definitely part of global warming and climate change. And what they are concerned about then is how do they manage this as we go forward and do we anticipate more of it?

ROBERTS: Australia like the U.S. has not signed on to the Kyoto Treaty?

Dr. PEARMAN: No, it hasn't. It uses similar arguments to the U.S., that it doesn't want to damage its economy. It's concerned about the non-involvement at this stage of the developing countries, like India and China in particular. And it also uses the excuse - which is not an excuse the U.S. can use - that our total emissions are a relatively small part of the world's emissions, something of the order of about one and a half percent.

My own feeling about that is, is that of course you can go to most countries in Europe and their total emissions country by country are not too dissimilar for Australia's. And so if we all put up our hands and say we're waiting for someone else to do the changes that are necessary, then we'll get nowhere. And this is part of this problem, as to how do we satisfy the needs and the views and independence of individual states against the fact that this is a global problem with very, very different impacts for some countries than others. And particularly, for countries where the economies are weakened, therefore they have less capability of adapting.

ROBERTS: Over your career as a scientist, you have warned the Australian government repeatedly to take more action on climate change. You've even called it a national security issue. Do you think that there is now sort of enough consensus either in scientific or political community that people are paying attention to those warnings?

Dr. PEARMAN: The evidence of the last five or 10 years has really very much strengthened our concern that this is happening and it is due to greenhouse gases, that we are responsible, and that it does have potential for serious consequences around the world. The second concern that I have is that all evidence so far is that while there is a lot of talk about doing something about mitigating and trying to prevent further change, and to some extent adapting to these changes, at the end of the day very little is actually happening.

And that's a concern I have from a very fundamental point of view, because it's asking questions like do we actually have the government structures - internationally, nationally and locally - to be able to respond to these kinds of warnings in a timely fashion? And I'm not sure that the answer is yes.

ROBERTS: Dr. Graeme Pearman is an honorary senior research fellow at Monash University in Melbourne. He joined us from the studios of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Thanks very much.

Dr. PEARMAN: Thank you, Rebecca.

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