Joëlle Gergis
Climate crisis deepens with El Niño

As a climate scientist, it’s becoming increasingly hard to know what to say to the public as horrifying evidence of a worsening crisis continues to mount.

In recent weeks record-setting megafires burned through Canada, unleashing a plume of toxic smoke stretching more than 3000 kilometres across North America. It turned the skies above New York an apocalyptic orange, choking residents with air pollution worse than New Delhi. In South-East Asia, the tropical nations of Thailand, Vietnam and Laos endured brutal heatwave conditions that shattered records throughout the region. Thailand recorded its hottest day in history, reaching 45.4 degrees on April 15. When factoring in humidity, the heat index “feels like” temperature reached an unimaginable high of 54 degrees. Meanwhile in Antarctica, although frozen areas of the ocean have been very low since 2016, sea ice recently plummeted to record lows for this time of the year. Coastal areas in the Bellingshausen Sea fringing west Antarctica are alarmingly ice-free for the first time – even though the southern hemisphere is deep in winter – causing more than 60 polar scientists to issue an urgent call to action stating their deep concern that further “irreversible change is likely to occur without accelerated efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.

Humanity is now literally on very thin ice.

Like many people, my disbelief, rage and anxiety keeps rising as an endless stream of disasters inundates our newsfeeds. Exactly how bad are we going to let things get? We can already see the destruction caused by the 1.2 degrees of global warming that has already played out. We don’t need to use our imaginations to grasp the impacts of a rapidly destabilising climate – the evidence is all around us. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report issued seven volumes documenting the science, impacts and solutions in exhaustive detail, so we can’t say we weren’t warned. The only question really left to ask is: Are we genuinely prepared to push our planetary system past the point of no return?

As many people would be aware, a number of weather services around the world have issued an alert that an El Niño event is very likely to intensify in the Pacific Ocean in the second half of 2023. During an El Niño, the south-easterly trade winds that usually maintain warm waters to the north of Australia weaken, resulting in localised ocean cooling and warmer-than-usual water off the coast of South America. This releases more heat into the atmosphere, causing hot and dry weather to prevail over Australia as our rainfall shifts towards the eastern Pacific. When this happens, we face an increased risk of heatwaves, bushfires and drought over much of the country. And because global temperatures are rapidly rising – the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 2010 – the presence of an El Niño will almost certainly set new records as the planet’s relentless warming trend continues.

Many local communities across Australia are already on their knees. The cumulative impact of catastrophic flooding during the La Niña of 2020-23, ongoing coronavirus-related losses to our health and finances, increasing cost-of-living pressures, and the resurgence of political extremism and intolerance for social progress has even the most resilient of us against the wall.

The last thing we need right now is a bloody El Niño.

As the northern hemisphere swelters through terrifying heat, wildfires blaze across usually frozen parts of the planet and ocean currents in the North Atlantic start to falter, I have a growing sense of dread about what might be in store for Australia this year. To make matters worse, all international climate models assessed for the Bureau of Meteorology’s latest seasonal forecast are predicting cooler-than-average conditions in the Indian Ocean will form during July. This typically suppresses winter and spring rainfall over much of Australia, drying up the land and precious water resources. When a so-called “positive Indian Ocean Dipole” event coincides with an El Niño in the Pacific, it amplifies El Niño’s drying effect. Many of Australia’s worst drought years – such as 1982, 1994 and 2006 – have occurred during this double-whammy influence of Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean cooling in our region.

The last time we had a major El Niño was in 2015-16. As any coral reef scientist will tell you, 2016 was a bloodbath. Record-high ocean temperatures saw close to a quarter of the Great Barrier Reef die in a single year. Since then, another three mass bleaching events have struck the reef. Experts estimate that between 2016 and 2017, about 50 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef’s shallow water corals were killed. Because there are long gaps in reef-wide monitoring, it is still unknown – or undisclosed – exactly how much more has died since the 2020 and 2022 bleaching events. I fear the approaching El Niño will deliver the final death blow to the largest living organism on the planet. Large-scale ecosystem collapse like this is not something I thought I’d ever witness in my lifetime. I want to howl at the injustice of it all.

So let me say it once again – the relentless burning of fossil fuels is cooking our planet. We are destabilising the planetary conditions that have existed throughout all of modern human history; we are knowingly unravelling the only life force known to exist in the entire universe.

So why exactly are we doing this? To be blunt, our political leaders are choosing to support the fossil fuel industry down to the bitter end. It really is as simple as that. Instead of being brave enough to enact policies that will protect the collective good, our leaders are choosing to safeguard the profits of an industry that sells products they know are destroying the planet. The clarity of the science is in stark contrast to the grubby nature of politics, where morals are jettisoned in favour of corporate and political gains.

Current policies have the world on track to warm about 2.5-3 degrees by the end of the century which, at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, would be absolutely disastrous for human societies and the planet. Despite the IPCC’s repeated warnings and clearest statement yet that there is a “rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”, world leaders last year diverted a record $US1 trillion into fossil fuel subsidies, according to the International Energy Agency.

Despite the stated commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies as part of the Glasgow Climate Pact signed at the COP26 climate summit in 2021, the next year global subsidies for natural gas more than doubled, while oil subsidies jumped by 85 per cent. It’s worth remembering more than 500 people with links to the fossil fuel industry attended COP26. In fact, they were the largest delegation – more than any single country present at the meeting – outnumbering Pacific Island negotiators by more than 12 to one.

Back home, Australian federal and state governments provided a total of $11.1 billion in funding and tax breaks to assist fossil fuel industries. That’s more than the $10 billion the federal government proposes committing to its Housing Australia Future Fund to build desperately needed affordable housing. To add insult to injury, Australia has 118 coal, oil and gas projects in the investment pipeline, despite its newly legislated commitment to cut our emissions 43 per cent by 2030. That’s just six-and-a-half years away and we are still investing in an industry we know is dangerously warming the planet.

In May this year the Northern Territory government approved the expansion of gas production in the Beetaloo Basin, about 500 kilometres south of Darwin, despite strong opposition by scientists and traditional owners. It’s a project the federal Department of Industry, Science and Resources website brags has the potential to “rival the world’s biggest and best gas resources”, with production planned over the next 20 to 40 years.

At a time when the world urgently needs to transition away from fossil fuels and invest in clean energy sources, approval for the development of a giant gas field is evidence “business as usual” is still going strong here. At least the former Coalition government was upfront about its intention to expand the fossil fuel industry with its post-Covid “gas-fired recovery” policy. The Labor Party claims to have ended the climate wars while continuing to support the fossil fuel industry during a global climate emergency. The hypocrisy is sickening. How long is the Australian public going to be appeased by hollow promises and provide the social licence for this madness?

The fact Australia is hell-bent on propping up the fossil fuel industry while the rest of the world suffers from corporate greed is obscene. It is unforgivable. Millions of people all over the world are being displaced by extreme weather disasters with every passing season. In Australia, there are still people living in shipping containers, tents, caravans and other makeshift housing since the Black Summer bushfires and catastrophic flooding savaged their homes. Staring down the fossil fuel industry will be hard – perhaps harder in Australia than anywhere else in the world – but trying to live on a destabilised planet is going to be a hell of a lot harder.

Right now the Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting ocean temperatures in the El Niño monitoring region of the Pacific to reach a monstrous 3 degrees above average by spring this year. That would eclipse the peak warming of the record-breaking 2015-16 El Niño that bleached more than 75 per cent of the world’s coral reefs. I have no doubt the impacts of the next El Niño will set a new suite of appalling records that will wreak havoc on our already fragile world.

I honestly don’t know what it will take for our political leaders to listen to the repeated warnings of the global scientific community – it is searingly clear we need to phase out the burning of fossil fuels immediately. The knowledge that this day may come too late is becoming increasingly hard to bear. My only hope is enough rational, compassionate people mobilise to demand an end to this heartless insanity.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2023 as "El Niño’s menace".

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