Insights from climate change researchers
Learn about the insights and thoughts from researchers at the Griffith Climate Change Response Program. The blog includes posts from researchers at the Program and also guest posts on climate change adaptation and mitigation issues.
- Primary forests: a priority nature-based solution - Cyril Kormos, Brendan Mackey, Russell Mittermeier & Virginia Young - 20 March 2020
- 3 defining features of Adaptation Futures 2018 - Dr Johanna Nalau, 25 June 2018
- Update from Prof Brendan Mackey & link to "I'm afraid something might be coming" blog post from Ben Brooker - Prof Brendan Mackey, 28 May 2018
- Cyclone Gita and the perils of organising conferences in a changing climate - Dr Johanna Nalau, 25 February 2018
- Wrapping up COP 23: where is everybody going? - Dr Tim Cadman, 17 November 2017
- Governing the forests: how fiscal instruments can act as a (dis)incentive to reducing emissions - Dr Tim Cadman, 10 November 2017
- And now for the weather: info-seeking & climate change adaptation in Pacific tourism - Dr Johanna Nalau, August 2017
- Forest accounting rules put EU's climate credibility at risk - Dr Joanna House, 15 June 2017
- Adaptation for people and planet - Are we thinking about adapting to a new climate, or resisting the change? - Dr Wade Hadwen, 19 May 2017
- Zombie anthrax, climate change unknown unknowns, and the problem of attribution - Professor Brendan Mackey, 9 August 2016
- Practical steps and policy innovations to address climate change in Queensland - Professor Brendan Mackey, 13 February 2016
- How good is the Paris Agreement? - Professor Brendan Mackey, 15 December 2015
- An objective way to decide on a fair Australian emissions pledge - Professor Brendan Mackey, 12 May 2015
- One step closer: the Lima climate change agreement - Professor Brendan Mackey, 15 December 2014
- Nowhere left to hide - Professor Brendan Mackey, 3 November 2014
- Strategies for improving the adaptation practice in developing countries - Dr Johanna Nalau, 7 May 2014
- Call for unified response to record Co2 levels - Professor Brendan Mackey, 14 May 2013
- Angry summer, complacent punters? - Professor Brendan Mackey,12 March 2013
- In the wake of DOHA - Professor Brendan Mackey, 11 December 2012
- When does weather become climate? - Professor Brendan Mackey, 4 September 2012
- Welcome - Professor Brendan Mackey, 9 August 2012
Primary forests: a priority nature-based solution
Re-posted from IUCN Crossroads blog, Cyril Kormas, Brendan Mackey, Russell Mittermeier and Virginia Young, 20 March 2020
We are quickly running out of time on climate change and biodiversity. It is critical that we prioritise the most useful nature-based solutions: protecting the planet’s remaining primary forests and intact forest landscapes.
This is a positive development, but whether it will result in real progress is still unclear. The effectiveness of nature-based solutions varies a lot, and choosing the right solution makes a world of difference. This is especially true in the case of forests. Many of the nature-based solutions to climate change being proposed today simply entail mass tree planting schemes. These initiatives may sound appealing but are in fact costly, largely irrelevant to addressing the climate and biodiversity crises, or worse, counterproductive.
We are quickly running out of time on climate change and biodiversity. It is critical that we prioritise the most useful nature-based solutions: protecting the planet’s remaining primary forests and intact forest landscapes.
Keep the carbon where it is
Nature-based solutions are defined by IUCN as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”. To understand which nature-based solutions we should prioritise, we need to think like doctors: our planet is running a fever, so our first directive is to ‘treat the cause, not just the symptoms’. This means doing everything possible to avoid further carbon dioxide emissions and making global warming worse.
The Amazon forest alone stores so much carbon that if it were all released through deforestation, global warming would exceed the 1.5°C threshold, even if we stopped using fossil fuels.
Forests and other ecosystems store vast amounts of carbon. There is more carbon in forest ecosystems – in the living and dead biomass of trees and in soils – than there is currently in the atmosphere, and in fact more than in all known oil and coal reserves combined. The Amazon forest alone stores so much carbon that if it were all released through deforestation, global warming would exceed the 1.5°C threshold, even if we stopped using fossil fuels.
Preventing carbon emissions from degradation and deforestation is therefore as necessary for mitigating climate change as reducing fossil fuel emissions. Given the climate emergency, it is crucial to keep those enormous carbon stocks exactly where they are – safely stored in forests and out of the atmosphere.
But that’s not the whole story
Primary forests – naturally evolved forests that have not been disturbed by industrial activity and retain their native biodiversity – store about 30-50% more carbon than degraded forests, including forests managed for commodity production. Their carbon stocks are also more stable and resilient than those of degraded forests or plantations because their biodiversity and ecosystem integrity make them more resistant to external pressures. Tropical primary forests, for example, are more resistant to fire, drought and invasive species than degraded tropical forests and plantations. This is a crucial point, and too often overlooked in forest policies and programmes. The native biodiversity and unique structure and composition of a primary forest, which has evolved over millennia (or longer), allows primary forests to maximise carbon stocks and keep those carbon stocks safe for the long-term.
In other words, climate change mitigation, biodiversity and ecosystem integrity are inextricably linked, and primary forests are a fundamental point of convergence – a place where biodiversity and climate mitigation values are greatest. This is what makes primary forests and other primary ecosystems truly irreplaceable. The biodiversity and carbon stored in primary forests are quickly lost but slow to recover.
Protect first, then restore
If the top priority nature-based solution for climate change is to protect primary forests and their biodiversity, the next order of priority is ecological restoration of degraded forests, also known as proforestation. This allows degraded forests to begin to regain their primary forest values over time.
Plantations store far less carbon than natural forests, protect far less biodiversity and are more vulnerable to disturbance, so their carbon stocks are far less secure.
Following proforestation, the next restoration objective should be to regenerate forests naturally where they have been cleared. Forests often regenerate most easily next to primary forest patches because even small remnants of primary forests serve a vital function as seed banks, and as habitat for seed dispersers. Focusing restoration efforts around these primary forests remnants is critically important to landscape restoration efforts. In some cases, ecological restoration cannot occur without active intervention because the land is too degraded. But this is expensive, and seed dispersers such as birds or monkeys replant forests better than humans. Allowing the forest to come back on its own is preferable where it is still possible.
On the other hand, tree planting schemes and large-scale plantations should be recognised as the lowest priority for climate mitigation and biodiversity. Seedlings planted today will not accumulate large amounts of carbon in the next decades – that is, the relevant time frame for staying below 1.5°C of warming. A degraded forest recovering from disturbance will drawdown much more. In addition, plantations store far less carbon than natural forests, protect far less biodiversity and are more vulnerable to disturbance, so their carbon stocks are far less secure. Because plantations are harvested on a regular basis, they also regularly release all or part of their carbon into the atmosphere.
This is not to say that plantations can’t be useful: assuming they do not displace local communities, food production or ecological restoration efforts, and their environmental impacts are mitigated, plantations can help meet wood demand and reduce pressure on natural forests. However, they are at best a marginal mitigation strategy.
Primary forests are irreplaceable
Primary forests are often the customary homelands of Indigenous Peoples, they are essential to protecting cultural and linguistic diversity, and they are fundamentally important to the livelihoods of local communities. They also provide a wide range of ecosystem services: they protect the most carbon and biodiversity, produce the cleanest freshwater, regulate water flows, have local cooling effects and prevent erosion. And yet they are disappearing very fast. We lose millions of hectares of primary forest every year. We have lost a third of the planet’s forest cover already, and less than a third of what remains is primary forest.
The message is simple. We are facing accelerating and interrelated biodiversity and climate change crises. We cannot resolve either crisis without prioritising the protection of primary forests and engaging in large-scale ecological restoration. This is critical to human well-being, to the diversity of life on Earth, and for a climate-safe future.
We have lost a third of the planet’s forest cover already, and less than a third of what remains is primary forest.
We know how to protect and restore ecosystem integrity: it requires empowering and supporting Indigenous Peoples and communities who are the traditional owners and stewards of these forests, and scaling up protected areas of all governance types, payments for ecosystem services, forest ecosystem connectivity conservation initiatives, and other effective area-based conservation measures. This will in turn require shifting funding from subsidies that fuel forest degradation and destruction to conservation – as well as greatly increasing the two percent of climate funding currently allocated to forests and prioritising it appropriately, to support the highest impact climate mitigation actions: primary forest protection, proforestation and ecological restoration.
Making primary forests a priority
In recognition of the crucial importance of primary forests, IUCN Members overwhelmingly approved a resolution at IUCN’s Jeju World Conservation Congress in 2012 to establish a working group to develop an IUCN policy on primary forests including intact forest landscapes. A second resolution at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawaii in 2016 continued this work, and following an extensive consultative process, the final policy was approved by IUCN’s Council in February 2020. Further promotion of the new policy will feature at the 2020 IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille.
Members of the IUCN Primary Forests Task Team: Cyril Kormos, Brendan Mackey, Virginia Young and Russell Mittermeier
Update from Prof Brendan Mackey and link to "I'm afraid something might be coming" blog post from Ben Brooker
Posted by Prof Brendan Mackey, Director, Griffith Climate Change Response Program, 26 May 2018
Cyclone Gita and the perils of organising conferences in a changing climate
Re-posted from Dr Johanna Nalau's Adaptation Hooks Blog, Research Fellow, Griffith Climate Change Response Program/Griffith Institute for Tourism, 25 February 2018
Wrapping up COP 23: where is everybody going?
Re-posted from Dr Tim Cadman's Blog, Research Fellow, Griffith Climate Change Response Program/Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law: Bonn, Germany, 17 November 2017
Governing the forests: how fiscal instruments can act as a (dis)incentive to reducing emissions
Re-post from Dr Tim Cadman, Research Fellow, Griffith Climate Change Response Program/Institute for Ethics, Governance & Law from Resilience Blog: 10 November 2017
In recent years, the concept of ‘governance’ rather than ‘government’ has become a popular term for describing the interactions between stakeholders in the sustainable development policy arena. In this context, especially in the arena of forest management, it is used to describe the structures and processes that steer, or co-ordinate the relations between multi-stakeholders (government, business, civil society). Usually, governance refers to human actors, but there are other forces that exercise influence over how forests are managed. One of the most important of all these, is that most essential resource: money. This brief report outlines the role that public finance, and most importantly the fiscal instruments developed by governments, can have a considerable influence over the fate of the world’s forests.
Research undertaken by the author in 2016-2017 investigated the extent to which fiscal incentives encouraged, or discouraged, private sector involvement in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) initiative known as REDD+ (“Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries”).
In Indonesia, REDD+ has been recognized as a potentially significant source of revenue, while at the same time providing an important incentive to contribute to reductions in global deforestation. However, in a series of interviews and surveys, forest-based business stakeholders identified a number of issues impacting on their ability to undertake activities that would lead to reducing deforestation and forest degradation, and emissions.
And now for the weather: info-seeking & climate change adaptation in Pacific tourism
Climate change adaptation is increasingly talked about in the travel & tourism trade media as vital to the sustainability of the sector, especially in regions susceptible to extreme weather events and the worst-case scenarios of sea level rise, such as Pacific Island nations. In this “GT” Insight, Dr Johanna Nalau, Research Fellow at the Griffith Institute for Tourism and Griffith Climate Change Response Program, Griffith University, Australia, explains the findings of her study of weather information-seeking among Fiji tourism operators and what the possible implications are for climate change adaptation.
Understanding differences in the info-seeking behaviour of tourism operators
Re-post from Dr Johanna Nalau, Research Fellow, Griffith Climate Change Response Program and Griffith Institute for Tourism from the Good Tourism Blog: August 2017
In the Pacific Islands, long white sandy beaches with iconic sunsets are often the main tourism attraction. Other attractions include pristine environments, coral reefs and marine life. The same weather and climate that enables the tropical environments to flourish is however also prone to cyclones and extreme events. The tourism industry bears often the brunt of adverse weather with decreased tourist arrivals and loss of business continuity.
Information clearly has a business value in that better information can help in making timely and even foresightful decisions on when to close down an operation and how to plan for expected business disruptions. As in our modern age most information is available through different kinds of media (TV, radio, internet), one would expect people to be able to access information relatively easily. Yet, often this is not the case. So what does impact on how tourism operators seek information?
We were curious about the factors that could explain differences in accessing, seeking and using weather and climate information among tourism operators in Fiji. We conducted a social science study in towns of Nadi and Suva in Fiji with both large and small tourism operators, and other tourism stakeholders. What we found was fascinating: people differed greatly in how they access weather information, who they trusted the most as a relevant source, and why they needed weather and climate information in the first place.
In our analysis three distinctly different groups emerged, which held in common particular factors for their behaviour:
Independent information seekers
The first group, “Independent Information Seekers” were individuals with high positions of responsibility in the organisation, and always with long-term experience with weather professionally. These individuals felt very comfortable in interpreting weather phenomenon by themselves, and they had often multiple websites and apps running at the same time on their computers and phones. For this group, it was very important to be on top of the situation, and distribute their analysis also to others who were dependent on their decisions for example regarding the evacuation of marinas.
Mediator-dependent information seekers
The second group, “Mediator Dependent Seekers”, were often managers who did not know necessarily which sites to go to and where to get the best information. They could sometimes call their relatives back in Australia or New Zealand and ask for weather updates as the Australian and New Zealand weather information seemed more accurate. This group of managers did not have high level of information literacy skills (how to navigate sites in the internet or which apps to download and use on their phone). This group was more comfortable in being informed by another person whom they trusted.
Observation-based information seekers
The third group, “Observation Seekers”, were more focused on observing the weather either based on their past experience of the place or by traditional knowledge signs that they had been taught in their community. The indigenous Fijians did not rely on usual media (TV, radio, internet) but, for example, read star formations and the way clouds were moving. Often this kind of knowledge is held within communities and people collectively discuss what particular signs might mean and then interpret the weather.
The kind of information in use
The operators used weather information daily, for the most part, depending on the nature of their operations. The active information seekers used a broader variety of information, whereas the mediator-dependent seekers mostly used TV, radio and official channels.
We also found that although many operators did not use longer-term climate information, many operators would welcome better and more consistent information at a seasonal scale so that they could do some forward planning. For example, it could be helpful to know the timing of rain periods for next business year and whether there are potentially drier and hotter periods in the next two-three years. If there is a marked increase in extreme events, such as cyclones, then better predictions could encourage activities such as cyclone-proofing tourism infrastructure.
Engaging the tourism sector in information use and access
So what does all this mean for the tourism sector and people’s planning and decision-making? One take-away message clearly is that if we want to support the sector and provide ‘useful’ information about weather and climate, we need to first understand the audience. If we do not know how people access weather information, extreme weather alerts, and why they trust particular sources, it is difficult to be heard. In many cases this may not matter, but there are situations in which timely and accurate information is life- (and business-) saving.
In Fiji, the existing relationships between the Fiji Hotel Association, Fiji Meteorological Services, NaDraki Weather Service, and the many operators could be enhanced to provide tailored training that responds specifically to the need of the tourism sector. This could even start from discussions around information literacy, promotion and awareness of accessible information and its interpretation.
Featured image: Pacific Ocean, February 1, 2016. Four named tropical cyclones existing simultaneously in Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC)’s area of responsibility. From left to right: Tropical Cyclone Olwyn, Tropical Cyclone Nathan, Tropical Storm Bavi, Tropical Cyclone Pam. Source: US Navy via CHIPS.
About the author
Dr Johanna Nalau is a Research Fellow at Griffith University in Australia (Griffith Climate Change Response Program (GCCRP) and Griffith Institute for Tourism (GIFT)). She is passionate about broadening our understanding of how people make decisions about climate change adaptation and what information is most effective in that process, including the tourism sector.
Dr Nalau’s research is very focused on two things: theory and stakeholders in the real world. She has a keen interest in exploring this persistent gap between what we know in theory about adaptation and what we actually do about it, and has explored this topic from a social science perspective in Australia, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Zanzibar (Tanzania), Fiji and, most recently, Samoa.
Forest accounting rules put EU's climate credibility at risk
Re-posted letter from Dr Joanna I House in Euractiv: 15 June 2017
Photo - From an atmospheric perspective, a reduction in the forest sink leads to more CO2 remaining in the atmosphere and is thus effectively equivalent to a net increase in emissions. [Yannik S/Flickr]
Forest mitigation should be measured using a scientifically-objective approach, not allowing countries to hide the impacts of policies that increase net emissions, writes a group of environmental scientists led by Dr Joanna I House.e.
- Hamper the credibility of the EU’s bioenergy accounting: Current IPCC guidance on reporting emissions from bioenergy is not to assume that it is carbon neutral, but rather any carbon losses should to be reported under the ‘Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry’ (LULUCF) sector rather than under the energy sector (to avoid double counting). EU legislation on bioenergy similarly relies on the assumption that carbon emissions are fully accounted under LULUCF.
- Compromise the consistency between the EU climate target and the IPCC trajectories. The EU objective of reducing GHG emissions of -40% by 2030 (-80/95% by 2050) compared to 1990 is based on the IPCC 2°C GHG trajectory for developed countries. This trajectory is based not just on emissions, but also on land-sinks. Hiding a decrease in the land sink risks failure to reach temperature targets and would require further emission reductions in other sectors to remain consistent with IPCC trajectories.
- Contradict the spirit of the Paris Agreement, i.e., that “Parties should take action to conserve and enhance sinks”, and that Parties should ensure transparency in accounting providing confidence that the nationally-determined contribution of each country (its chosen level of ambition in mitigation) is met without hiding impacts of national policies.
- Set a dangerous precedent internationally, potentially leading other countries to do the same (e.g. in setting deforestation reference levels). This would compromise the credibility of the large expected forest contribution to the Paris Agreement.
- Joanna I House, Reader in Environmental Science and Policy, Co-Chair Global Environmental Change, Cabot Institute, University of Bristol, UK
- Jaana K Bäck, Professor in Forest – atmosphere interactions, Chair of the EASAC Forest multifunctionality report, University of Helsinki, Finland
- Valentin Bellassen, Researcher in Agricultural and Environmental Economics, INRA, France
- Hannes Böttcher, Senior Researcher at Oeko-Institut.
- Eric Chivian M.D., Founder and Former Director, Center for Health and the Global Environment Harvard Medical School
- Pep Canadell, Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project
- Philippe Ciais, scientist at Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, Gif sur Yvette, France
- Philip B. Duffy, President and Executive Director Woods Hole Research Center, USA
- Sandro Federici, Consultant on MRV and accounting for mitigation in the Agriculture and land use sector
- Pierre Friedlingstein, Chair, Mathematical Modelling of Climate Systems, University of Exeter, UK.
- Scott Goetz, Professor, Northern Arizona University
- Nancy Harris, Research Manager, Forests Program, World resources Institute.
- Martin Herold, Professor for Geoinformation Science and Remote Sensing and co-chair of Global Observations of Forest Cover and Land Dynamics (GOFC-GOLD),
- Wageningen University and Research, The Netherlands
- Mikael Hildén, Professor, Climate Change Programme and the Resource Efficient and Carbon Neutral Finland Programme, Finnish Environment Institute and the Strategic
- Research Council, Finland
- Richard A. Houghton, Woods Hole Research Centre USA
- Tuomo Kalliokoski University of Helsinki, Finland
- Janne S. Kotiaho, Professor of Ecology, University of Jyväskylä, Finland
- Werner A. Kurz, Senior Research Scientist, Natural Resources Canada
- Beverly Law, Professor, Forest ecosystems & society, Oregon State School of Forestry, USA
- Donna Lee, Climate and Land Use Alliance
- Anders Lindroth, Lund University, Sweden
- Jari Liski, Research Professor, Finnish Meteorological Institute, Finland
- Brendan Mackey, Director, Griffith Climate Change Response Program, Griffith University, Australia
- James J. McCarthy, Harvard University, USA
- William R. Moomaw, Co-director Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University, USA
- Teemu Tahvanainen, University of Eastern Finland
- Olli Tahvonen, Professor forest economics and policy, University of Helsinki, Finland
- Keith Pausitan, University Distinguished Professor, Colorado State University, USAColin Prentice, AXA Chair in Biosphere and Climate Impacts, Imperial College London, UK
- N H Ravindranath, Centre for Sustainable Technologies (CST), Indian Institute of Science, India
- Laura Saikku, Senior Scientist, Finnish Environment Institute
- Maria J Sanchez, Scientific Director of BC3 (Basque Center for Climate Change), Spain
- Sampo Soimakallio, Senior Scientist, Finnish Environment Institute
- Zoltan Somogyi, Hungarian Forest Research Institute, Budapest, Hungary
- Benjamin Smith, Professor of Ecosystem Science, Lund University, Sweden
- Pete Smith, Professor of Soils & Global Change, University of Aberdeen, UK
- Francesco N. Tubiello, Team Leader, Agri-Environmental Statistics, FAO
- Timo Vesala, Professor of Meteorology, University of Helsinki, Finland
- Robert Waterworth
- Jeremy Woods, Imperial College London, UK
- Dan Zarin, Climate and Land Use Alliance
Adaptation for people and planet - Are we thinking about adapting to a new climate, or resisting the change?
Posted by Dr Wade Hadwen: 19 May 2017 - Re-posted from the Australian Rivers Institute
Ideally, adaptation strategies should reduce the vulnerability of the subject in question to the climate change impact of concern, but this is not always the case and it really depends on the approach and actions taken to adapt. Indeed, there are a variety of pathways to take when adapting to climate change and depending on the approach selected, the goals and outcomes of the endeavour can be quite different. In general terms, and depending on the system, we tend to opt for adaptation approaches that either build adaptive capacity or build resilience. Building adaptive capacity suggests that we can do things to improve the adaptive potential of subjects, whether they are human subjects or other species. The IPCC defines adaptive capacity as “the ability of a system to adjust to climate change (including climate variability and extremes), to moderate the potential damage from it, to take advantage of its opportunities, or to cope with its consequences”. An example of this building capacity approach lies in the local ‘water grid’ solution to securing water security for southeast Queensland, whereby water engineers and managers have optimised the connections within the water storage system to climate-proof the region in terms of water supply. Importantly, especially in the context of what climate change will do to sea level and the water cycle, this approach to building adaptive capacity actually makes it ‘harder to move’, because very significant investments and commitments are involved, where moving can be both a physical activity or a change in behaviour away from the current normal condition. In simple terms, focusing on adaptive capacity enables us to consider adjustments which enable us to continue living our lives as we do currently, rather than looking for opportunities and embracing change.
In contrast, building resilience refers to a deeper goal of strengthening and empowering subjects (or systems) to withstand and bounce back following particular climate stressors, especially extreme events. The focus here is on enabling the subjects in question to cope with change and embrace the opportunities that change will bring. Here we openly recognise that things change and that the system is dynamic. Indeed, enabling the dynamism of a natural system, rather than constraining it to a single state in time and space, sits at the very core of the building resilience approach to climate change adaptation. In essence, the building resilience approach applied in ecosystem-based adaptation gives species and ecosystems ‘room to move’. An example of a ‘building resilience’ strategy is the current management of all Great Barrier Reef lagoon catchments, where strict targets for sediment and nutrient reductions are set with the sole purpose of taking some of the non-climatic pressures off the reef, to enable it to respond to and adapt to climate change pressures.
Whilst both of these adaptation approaches can be applied in natural and human systems, our approaches tend to diverge when we are adapting specifically for human systems or species/ecosystems. Put simply, we typically aim to build capacity in human systems (and this is also a central plank of sustainable development initiatives), whereas we aim to build resilience in natural ecosystems. These goals are quite different and it should, therefore, come as no surprise that the outcomes of these approaches are also different. So why do we adopt different strategies in our approach to climate change adaptation for ecosystems and human communities? And what might the outcomes of these different approaches be for the subjects of the adaptation interventions?
In natural systems, the building resilience approaches are built around the premise that many species already have high levels of adaptive capacity and the factors limiting the expression of that capacity are the other (non-climatic) stresses in the environment. To this end, the ecosystem-based approach to adaptation, which typically aims to build species and ecosystem resilience by reducing the non-climatic threats in the system, is often promoted as the best adaptation approach as it will enable natural processes, species and entire ecosystems to adapt to the climate change threat. In short, these approaches enable species to adapt by giving them ‘room to move’ in evolutionary, physical and physiological senses.
In human systems, adaptation approaches focus on building adaptive capacity in order to optimise the conditions of a particular component of the system (ie ensuring water security). The approach to building capacity infers that unlike other species (which are considered to have high levels of inherent capacity to adapt), humans need assistance in building their capacity to cope with and respond to climate change impacts. Whether this is true or not is up for debate (although there is plenty of evidence that we are a very adaptable species!); the critical difference in approaches taken for human and natural system adaptation is that in natural systems we seek to reduce the level of human intervention (build resilience) and in human systems we seek to increase the level of human intervention, by way of adjusting to the threats through changing management, infrastructure, behaviours and so on.
What we need to do now, rather urgently as our climate continues to heat up, is consider whether an adaptation philosophy which focuses on building system resilience is likely to be a superior approach over one which enhances, or optimises, capacity for just some elements of the system. Should we be understanding, accepting and enabling change, or resisting it and holding our line in the sand in the face of unprecedented global change? If we can answer this question openly and honestly, together for both natural and human systems, we have the best chance of ensuring that the necessary transformations that will come in response to climate change are opportunities rather than catastrophic challenges.
Zombie anthrax, climate change unknown unknowns, and the problem of attribution
Posted by Prof Brendan Mackey: 9 August 2016
While the health impacts of climate change have been well documented, surely none of us to date have imagined something like this - a ‘zombie’ anthrax outbreak – actually happening outside a science fiction narrative.
Perhaps this is an example of what Donald Rumsfeld (when he was U.S Secretary of Defence) famously described as ‘unknown unknowns…the ones we don't know we don't know… that tend to be the difficult ones.’
It is not as if the ‘known knowns’ are not bad enough. From India over the weekend come this news reports:
‘A river, swollen by raging monsoon floodwaters, had torn down a bridge on the main road between Mumbai and Goa. More than 30 people are thought to have died when the great stone structure crashed into the torrent, taking with it two buses and a number of cars. Some of the bodies were swept more than 60 miles downriver in two days.’
As the journalist noted:
‘…the important point is that the region is awash with water. Just a few months ago, it was a very different story. The previous two monsoons were unusually weak. The result was a terrible drought in northern India, and parts of Pakistan and Bangladesh. And it was exacerbated by another extreme weather event - record heat. India experienced its highest temperature ever this summer, a blistering 51C. Rivers ran dry; water holes evaporated; reservoirs became dusty plains. And, once again, the statistics were staggering. More than 300 million people were affected by water shortages…A city of half a million people was left completely dry. It had to rely on supplies brought in by train.’
Has the climate change problem become so normalised that we accept zombie anthrax and droughts that leave an entire city without water as un-noteworthy? How can it be that 300 million people are affected by water shortages as the result of extreme weather events but that this does not register in our popular media as a climate change disaster?
Perhaps part of the problem resides in the difficulties of scientifically attributing a specific weather event to climate change. So long as the general view is that science cannot prove a specific weather event is the result of climate change then the matter is best ignored to avoid, among other things, the wrath of the flat Earth brigade.
This problem was the focus of a recent study by the USA National Academies of Sciences on the ‘Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change’. A major conclusion of the report was that a definitive answer to the commonly asked question of whether climate change ‘caused’ a particular event to occur cannot usually be provided. This is because event attribution studies generally estimate how the intensity or frequency of an event or class of events has been altered by climate change. Given this, the report suggests that the questions that the scientific community can attempt to address include ‘Are events of this severity becoming more or less likely because of climate change’ and ‘To what extent was the storm intensified or weakened, or its precipitation increased or decreased, because of climate change?’
The science therefore is ‘in’ that focussed studies can shed light on the extent to which an extreme weather event has a climate change signal and perhaps we should start thinking of recent events in India as an example of climate change ‘known knowns’.
There are other classes of climate change and impacts however, that are still best described as ‘unknown knowns’. Another USA National Academies study identified a host of abrupt climate change impacts that present substantial risks to humans and nature. Some are already under way such as the disappearance of late-summer Arctic Sea ice and increases in extinction threat for marine and terrestrial species. Other abrupt changes were noted of ‘unknown probability’ such as destabilization of the west Antarctic ice sheet and ‘abrupt changes unlikely to occur this century but possible in the more distance future’ including disruption to the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation and potential abrupt changes due to high-latitude methane.
Climate change ‘known knowns’, such as an increase in the intensity of extreme floods, should no longer surprise us. Rather, we need to be planning for and implementing adaptation responses now. It would also be wise to start anticipating climate change ‘unknown knowns’ at least in terms of being vigilant in our scientific monitoring. For example, a paper published by Geophysical Research Letters on 4 August examined the risk of physical, chemical, biological, and radiological waste from a U.S. military base in Greenland abandoned in 1967 being remobilized as the result of ice sheet ablation due to global warming.
But what of climate change ‘unknown unknowns? Are there more zombie viruses lurking in the frozen north? What science fiction-like surprises await us in our increasingly chaotic, climate changed world?
Practical steps and policy innovations to address climate change in Queensland
Re-posted from The Machinery of Government, "One year in, one year on": 13 February 2016
- mitigate or reduce greenhouse gas emissions as needed to hold the increase in the global average temperature to between 1.5–2° C above pre-industrial levels,
- establish the global goal on adaptation of enhancing adaptive capacity,
- strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change, and
- make available the finance needed for mitigation and adaptation.
While a 2° C increase does not sound like much, the average planetary surface temperature is only about 14°C degrees so a 2° C rise is an increase of some 15%. By comparison, a healthy body temperature is 37° C. If your body temperature increases 15% you will experience a life threatening fever of 42.6° C; a body temperature greater than 41.5° C is called hyperpyrexia and is considered a medical emergency.
Setting a global warming target of well below 2 °C is therefore highly significant as this will help further reduce the risk of planetary hyperpyrexia, avoiding many significant impacts arising from passing tipping points in Earth’s climate system.
What will need to happen?
We are already experiencing record temperatures and the impacts of an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, as predicted by science.
With ongoing impacts projected for the coming decades, the cost of inaction to managed assets alone should be sufficient to compel a step change in public and private sector responses.
Because greenhouse gas emissions arise in all sectors of the economy and enter the global commons of the atmosphere, greenhouse mitigation requires a closely coupled network of national and international regulatory regimes of high integrity in order to prevent leakage and double accounting.
Carbon in the form of greenhouse gas emissions is effectively the property of national governments; notwithstanding the existence of voluntary carbon markets.
A synthesis report of mitigation commitments submitted by nations for the Paris Agreement estimated that global cumulative atmospheric CO2 emissions can be expected to reach 748.2 billion tonnes in 2030. This is 87% of the post 2015 global carbon budget for 2° C, leaving only 235 billion tonnes of CO2 or about a further 23 years of business-as-usual emissions.
Missing the mark?
The Australian Government has a national carbon mitigation policy called the Direct Action Plan which it argues is sufficient to meet Paris Agreement targets; though this claim is contested. Nonetheless, even Australia’s arguably modest mitigation commitment, a 26–28% reduction in emissions below 2005 levels by2030, will still require a concerted effort.
While the Australian Government’s response is important in providing the overarching incentives and enabling environment, it is at the state and local government levels where the on-the-ground action occurs for adaptation as well as mitigation.
The Queensland Government, therefore, is to be congratulated for its endeavour to develop a state-wide climate change adaptation strategy (Q-CAS).
To be effective, the Q-CAS should encompass a governance framework that includes appropriate institutional arrangements, engagement and communication strategies, along with monitoring and evaluation. A strategy is needed that:
- Provides a vision for adaptation in Queensland and obtain a broad as possible endorsement of this vision from business, the public and community groups, politicians, along with experts and practitioners,
- Articulates a succinct, accurate and accessible narrative of the future climate risks facing Queensland and why adaptation is critical in key sectors, and
- Promotes best practice principles for adaptation and resilience planning.
Promoting effective adaptation responses is crucial
- Policies should be reviewed, including planning systems, regulatory frameworks and legislation, in terms of whether they are hindering adaptation or might be causing maladaptation,
- It is vital that the general public are aware of risks and response options
- Many sectors and organisation are already responding to the challenge of adapting to a rapidly changing climate and the government can assist by facilitating collaboration among the adaptation community within Queensland and beyond the State’s borders.
- The government could provide a state-wide framework of guidance documents and resources on how to conduct impact and vulnerability assessments and to identify adaptation options. This type of guidance would be particularly useful for getting consistency and an economy of scale in the actions of local governments and how they implement key legislation in a changing climate
- Given the managed assets at risks are both private and public, it will be important to ensue private investment also considers adaptation and maladaptation in their decision-making
- Innovative risk spreading instruments may be required and the government here could play a facilitating role. This is particularly relevant for sectors like agriculture that are directly reliant on weather patterns for profit, let alone long-term survival
- The Queensland government could support adaptation pilot projects that can be realistically scaled-up, either through direct funding, in-kind or enabling legislation, and through
- Promoting the monitoring and assessment of the effectiveness of adaptation actions and reviewing the availability of the data and information needed for adaptation, addressing any barriers to their access and use.
In the lexicon of international policy, this is called ‘climate action by non-party stakeholders’ and the Paris Agreement acknowledged the significance of their contributions.
What more could Queensland do?
- Recognise the role of the private sector in implementing and financing mitigation actions
- Incentivise low-carbon investments and enhance private sector capacity to manage the risks to such investments
- Enhance sharing and dissemination of information and knowledge to help catalyse further actions
- Encourage the use of common, comprehensive accounting and reporting approaches to increase confidence in the reliability and transparency of mitigation action assessments, and
- Explore the desirability and feasibility of carbon markets, above and beyond that of the Direct Action Plan, to further incentivise actions by the private sector.
However, Australia and Queensland’s economy remain heavily dependent on fossil fuel energy which generates 85% of Australia’s electricity. Exports of black coal alone in 2013–14 were around 375 million tonnes, 68% of our total energy exports, and export earnings from thermal coal, oil and gas total around $58 billion annually. This economic dependency on fossil fuel is a major barrier to energy policy reform and development of a comprehensive approach to addressing the challenges of climate change.
How good is the Paris Agreement?
Prof Brendan Mackey post - re-posted from John Mendue's Pearls and Irritations Blog: 15 December 2015
Finally, we have a new international climate change agreement to guide action post-2020. The Paris conference delivered on its promise thanks to skilful diplomacy by the French, a general sense of good will among nations, dedicated national delegates working through the night more often than not seeking consensus language on difficult issues, along with numerous high-level backroom machinations.
The question now of course is just how good an agreement is it and by what criteria should it be judged? The philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr warned against allowing sentimentality, naive thinking or plain stupidity to cloud our judgment on prospects for enlightened public policy to be sustained in the face of powerful vested interests especially those underpinned by hard line ideologies. We should therefore keep Niebuhr’s advice in mind as we consider the Paris Agreement especially given the well-known influence of the fossil fuel industry on climate change matters and the reluctance of most governments to seriously address the issue.
The international climate change negotiations, now in their 22nd year, revolve around a complex and growing agenda. Negotiations in Paris hinged on finding “landing sites” where governments could converge on agreed text around key issues concerning (1) the level of ambition regarding the global mitigation goal, (2) differentiation between nations with respect to responsibilities and capacities, (3) providing the finance needed to support climate action in developing countries, and (4) the adequacy of the national mitigation pledges contained in the so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) along with mechanisms for their monitoring and compliance. As these issues are interdependent, the negotiations were complex and evaluation of the outcomes is not straightforward. Here I limit myself to commenting mainly on the level of ambition and INDC issues.
Article 2 sets the long term mitigation goal as “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”. The international Community had already agreed to limit global warming to below 2 °C but recognizing the need to reach for 1.5 °C is a major advance as this would potentially avoid many significant impacts including inundation of the coastal zone and tipping points in Earth’s climate system.
Combining estimates from the IPCC 5th Assessment Report and the Global Carbon Project, the total global carbon budget for 2 °C (i.e., the amount of carbon dioxide than can be safely emitted from 2016 onwards) is only about 863 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). A synthesis analysis undertaken by the U.N. climate change secretariat of mitigation commitments submitted by nations in INDCs estimates that global cumulative atmospheric CO2 emissions are expected to reach 748.2 billion tonnes in 2030. This is 87% of the post 2015 global carbon budget for 2 °C, leaving only 235 billion tonnes of CO2 or about a further 23 years of business-as-usual. The global carbon budget for 1.5 °C has yet to be rigorously estimated by the IPCC.
The inadequacy of the INDCs in light of the 1.5-2 °C goal is recognized in the “Decisions” part of the conference outcomes document and the Paris Agreement establishes the INDC as an ongoing instrument for ramping up mitigation action on an ongoing basis as prescribed in Article 4.3 “Each Party’s successive nationally determined contribution will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition…”. Furthermore, Article 13 establishes a Transparency Framework to monitor and review on a 5-year cycle the adequacy of INDCs in light of a global stocktake of the aggregate mitigation efforts and compliance in terms of their implementation, among other things.
While the INDC and Transparency Framework provisions in the Agreement are commendable, providing a practical pathway for working towards the agreed global mitigation goal, and are applicable to all countries, major concerns remain. The compliance committee that is established under Article 15 to monitor and review the INDCs and their aggregate impact is something of a toothless tiger being “… expert-based and facilitative in nature and function in a manner that is transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive…”. It would seem that “name and shame” will be the primary tool available for this committee to deploy should individual countries fail to meet their mitigation commitments and increase their ambition or if national commitments in aggregate continue to fall short of the emissions reductions needed to limit warming to the 1.5-2 °C goal.
If the year was 2006, the Paris Agreement would be rightly heralded as an extraordinary achievement and deserve without reservation a 5-star rating. However, as we enter our 22nd year of climate change negotiations under the U.N. Framework Convention, all the heavy lifting remains to be done by the next generation and too much is left to good will and the hope of technological innovation yet to come.
However, we should celebrate the fact that 195 countries have reached consensus and voluntarily given their consent to be bound by this Paris Agreement. When we look at the situation in Syria, it is far better to be addressing international problems through dialogue and cooperation than by dropping bombs. The Paris Agreement does establish processes and mechanisms that will enable significant mitigation and adaptation actions. It unambiguously signals that humanity and our economies have embarked on a fossil-free, low carbon future. For the first time, it is formally recognized in climate change law that conserving ecosystem carbon stocks including forests is central to achieving mitigation goals and that both biodiversity and human right must be protected when taking climate action.
Being an optimist, I am giving the Paris Agreement a 3-star rating. I do hope events show, in this case, Niebuhr to be wrong and that I have not allowed sentimental and naïve thinking, or worse, to cloud my judgement.
An objective way to decide on a fair Australian emissions pledge
Posted by Prof Brendan Mackey: 12 May 2015
What should Australia’s pledge be?
The carbon budget carve-up
Contract and converge
Deeper cuts needed
One step closer: the Lima climate change agreement
Posted by Prof Brendan Mackey: 15 December 2014
Nowhere left to hide
Posted by Prof Brendan Mackey: 3 November 2014
- Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history
- Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia
- Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems
- Substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades can reduce climate risks in the 21st century and beyond, and
- Many adaptation and mitigation options can help address climate change, but no single option is sufficient by itself. Effective implementation depends on policies and cooperation at all scales.
Adaptation is no longer optional but must become integrated into strategic planning at all levels and in all sectors. As the report notes, even if we succeed in reducing fossils fuel emissions to zero this century, this does not mean that the climate system will be instantly stabilised. Components of the Earth system (such as sea levels) will continue to be disrupted for millennia. Climate-related hazards and associated risks will place increasing burdens on local governments with severe implications for, among other things, insurance of public and private assets.
Strategies for improving the adaptation practice in developing countries
Posted by Prof Brendan Mackey: 7 May 2014
Today we have a Guest Blog from Dr Johanna Mustelin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Griffith Climate Change Response Program.
Call for unified response to record Co2 levels
Posted by Prof Brendan Mackey: 14 May 2013
The time has passed where the climate change problem can be used a political football to give parties an advantage at election time. The problem demands requires long term systemic changes over decades, which must be done carefully to minimize risks to the economy, and will require constant adjustments to policies and how they are implemented as circumstances change and evidence emerges as to which approaches work and how they can be improved. The time has come for parties to put aside self-interest and take a fresh approach. We have done this before during WWII when Prime Minister Menzies formed the Advisory War Council which included the Leader and members of the Opposition. While the political parties are currently treating the climate change problem as a war, there is a limit to the usefulness of the war analogy as in this case there is no enemy (or if there is, it is only ourselves we are fighting). Call for unity Australia needs a National Unity Platform for Climate Change Action with membership from all political parties, all levels of government, the business sector and civil society. A multi-sector, multi-level approach is essential. State and local governments are critical for both mitigation and adaptation. The demand for innovation will be met from the private enterprise. Local communities are where all policy responses eventually land and are implemented. The traditional role of government will remain, providing appropriate regulatory regimes to safeguard the integrity of policies, actions and associated investments, and ensuring they deliver long-term public good. There will need to be a focus on long term planning, shared goals and staged implementation. The September Federal election would be an appropriate juncture for an all-party parliamentary declaration of intent to establish, irrespective of who wins government, a National Unity Platform for Climate Change Action.
 Archer, D. et al. Atmospheric lifetime of fossil fuel carbon dioxide. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 37, 117–34 (2009).
Angry summer, complacent punters?
Posted by Prof Brendan Mackey: 12 March 2013
In the wake of Doha
Posted by Prof Brendan Mackey: 11 December 2012
When does weather become climate?
Posted by Prof Brendan Mackey: 4 September 2012