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7am Podcast

Climate scientist, contributor to The Saturday Paper and a lead author for the IPCC Joëlle Gergis – on what’s headed our way and what we have to do to avert crisis.

El Niño is coming, at the worst possible time

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El Niño is coming again and Australia is vulnerable.

The UN’s World Meteorological Organization declared this week that the extreme weather event has begun, and the impacts will be felt across our health, ecosystems and economy.

Today, climate scientist, contributor to The Saturday Paper and a lead author for the IPCC Joëlle Gergis – on what’s headed our way and what we have to do to avert crisis. 

 

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Guest: Contributor to The Saturday Paper and a lead author for the IPCC, Joëlle Gergis

Read Transcript
[Theme Music Starts]
 
##RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*.
 
El Nino is coming again - and Australia is vulnerable. 
 
The UN’s World Meteorological Organisation declared this week that the extreme weather event has begun, and the impacts will be felt across our health, ecosystems and economy.
 
Today, climate scientist, contributor to *The Saturday Paper* and a lead author for the IPCC, Joelle Gergis – on what’s headed our way, and what we have to do to avert crisis. 
 
It’s Thursday, July 6.
 
[Theme Music Ends]
 
##Archival tape -- Reporter 1:
“After a seven year absence, El Nino is here to stay. The World Meteorological Organisation has officially declared the presence of this meteorological phenomenon from the tropical Pacific Ocean, which causes weather disturbances around the world.”
 
##Archival tape -- Reporter 2:
“This declaration of an El Nino is a wake up call to governments around the world to mobilise preparations to protect people's health ecosystems and to save lives and livelihoods from the weather extremes that will come.”
 
##Archival tape -- Reporter 3:
“From tropical cyclones to heavy rainfall to severe droughts. The world's hottest year on record 2016 coincided with a strong El Nino and the WMO says even that record could soon be broken.”
 
##RUBY:
So Joelle we’ve just heard an El Nino event has been declared. To begin with, what might that mean for us here in Australia?
 
##JOELLE:
So El Nino is the largest source of year to year climate variability on the planet. So aside from the seasons, El Nino really has major impacts in terms of wind patterns and rainfall across about 60% of the globe. So it's actually a natural phenomenon that happens every 2 to 7 years and Australia's a bit of a hotspot area. So during an El Nino event we get a lot of high pressure that prevails in our region, which means we get hot and dry conditions. So during these events we tend to see an increased risk of things like heat waves, bushfires and drought over much of the country. 
 
So some of our worst drought years in Australian history are actually during these El Nino years, which is why a lot of people are very concerned about them. And the last major El Nino we had was in 2015, 2016, and we actually had a really bad bushfire season. So parts of western Tasmania, which are usually really wet, we saw World Heritage areas like rainforest areas actually burned during this.  
 
So we've basically warned the planet 1.2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. So basically natural variability is now being amplified by this warming trend. And so in the past we would have had an El Nino and it would have had its major impacts. But now everything is really amplified because of the amount of heat that's in the system. The other thing that's really going on this year, which is really important for the Australian region, is that we also are seeing conditions in the Indian Ocean, also in its phase, which causes hot and dry conditions. And so when you tend to get this sort of locking in of the Indian and Pacific oceans, it amplifies El Nino’s drying effect. And so we expect to see, beginning in July, the development of these conditions in the Indian Ocean, which are really conducive to these hot and dry conditions. 
 
##RUBY:
And given what you said about what we saw the last time we had a major El Nino in 2015-16 mass deaths in the Great Barrier Reef. Can you tell me a bit more about the state that the Barrier Reef is in now and what your fear is for the reef? If this El Nino event intensifies as it's predicted to do?
 
##JOELLE:
So during an El Nino we get, as I said, high pressure prevailing in our region. So that leads to hot conditions and fewer clouds, which means that the ocean surface can warm a lot. And so when that happens, you can see severe coral bleaching during these El Nino events. So during the 2015, 2016 El Nino, we saw record high ocean temperatures, which actually saw about a quarter of the Great Barrier Reef die off in a single year. 
 
##Archival tape -- Reporter 1:
“Exclusive footage of the Great Barrier Reef shows what could be the most severe and extensive coral bleaching on record.”
 
##Archival tape -- Reporter 2:
“It's the second consecutive summer of extensive coral destruction or bleaching on the reef. Last year, two thirds of the corals in the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef died. The worst die off in history.”
 
##Archival tape -- Reporter 3:
“The research team is warning that to save one of nature's true wonders, Australia must take decisive action on climate change. The Government in Canberra has acknowledged that global warming was the biggest long term threat.”
 
##JOELLE:
And then coral reef experts have calculated that around 50% of the Great Barrier Reef’s shallow water corals were killed off after that event. So that is catastrophic when you think about the impacts. But to make matters worse, we know that the reef is also bleached twice since then. So in 2020 and also again in 2022. So the situation really is very grim and we still don't know exactly how much more has died off during these last two events. So if we get another mass bleaching during this El Nino event, so the 2023, 24 season, then I fear that the reef might not survive. So it really pains me to say that I think we are bearing witness to the death of the Great Barrier Reef and it's not something I ever thought I would witness in my lifetime and it's actually a really hard thing to say out loud.
 
##RUBY:
And Joelle, when you say when you tell me as a climate scientist that you think that we're likely to see the end of the Great Barrier Reef in your lifetime, and that is not something that you thought you would be saying. It is pretty confronting. I suppose my question for you is, at what point did your prediction of how this would go change and how did you grapple with that?
 
##JOELLE:
Yeah, look, the things I'm saying, I'm not comfortable saying, trust me, it's a really uncomfortable feeling bearing witness to this. But I guess as someone who was involved as an IPCC author and getting to look really closely at data from all over the world, I think the urgency is sometimes lost on the general public.
 
We've witnessed just over one degree of warming and we've had this widespread disruption to nature and human societies. And the situation gets progressively worse as we reach 1.5 degrees. 
 
The IPCC basically says they're really hard adaptation limits. So beyond two degrees, adaptation is simply not possible in some parts of the world, like low lying coastal regions and mountain and polar areas. 
 
And so I think it's really important to remember that currently we're making the problem worse by continuing to burn fossil fuels. 
 
And remember that we're currently on track to breach 1.5 degrees of global warming in the early 2020s and two degrees as early as the 2040s, so it's pretty terrifying to think about the mess we’ll be in if we really don't try and rein this in.
 
##RUBY:
We’ll be back after this.
 
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##RUBY:
Joelle, when we talk about what's driving climate change, where of course we're talking about the continued burning of fossil fuels, as you say, and the Australian government continues to support the industry. How have your opinions on the political class and the decisions that are made on climate changed over time? And what are your thoughts on the position that we're finding ourselves in now and the seeming lack of urgency to change course?
 
##JOELLE:
It's infuriating and it's heartbreaking.
 
So here in Australia, only around 36% of our energy is generated by renewables. And despite being the sunniest continent on the planet, less than 15% of our electricity is generated by solar. So we have really huge potential to be a leader in the green economy, but we're still choosing to back fossil fuels even though we know that they're cooking the planet. So right now the Federal Government has a renewable energy target of 82% by 2030, and yet we're still looking at 118  new coal, oil and gas projects in the investment pipeline. So it really is inconsistent with what the science says that we need to do. 
 
So the IPCC report basically states that the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for virtually all of the observed warming of the planet since pre-industrial times. And we know that we need to halve global emissions by 2030 and achieve net zero no later than 2050 to have a chance of stabilising the Earth's climate to under two degrees of global warming, which is set out in the Paris Agreement. But right now these currently implemented policies under the Paris Agreement have us on track to warm around two and a half to three degrees by the end of the century, which is absolutely catastrophic.
 
So I think it's one of these situations where the scientific reality is absolutely being lost on our decision makers. And I think that someone like me is starting to despair, that people are going to get this at all. And I think that we really have to understand that it quite clearly is a matter of life or death. And it's not dramatic. It is absolutely grounded in the science. And it's not nice being the bearer of bad news. But I don't really know what I meant to say at this point. It's extremely frustrating.
 
##RUBY:
It is striking. I mean, the clarity of what you say about climate does stand in contrast to the compromises and the rhetoric and the things we hear from politicians when it comes to addressing it.
 
##JOELLE:
Well, that's right. And I think that's what is a source of huge confusion and also frustration to scientists, because we can just see how bad the situation is. And the hardest thing to accept is that we actually know that we need to transition away from fossil fuels, but we're not prepared to do it as quickly as the science needs us to. And so I guess it really comes down to what are we going to do about that?
 
##RUBY:
And when we talk about the outcomes, the consequences of all of this, we don't really have to look very far do we? Can we talk a bit about some of the events that we've seen recently, the mega fires in Canada and what's coming if we don't change?
 
##JOELLE:
Well, effectively, what we're seeing play out right now is entirely consistent with what we expect a warming planet to look like. So increased incidence of wildfires in places which are usually covered in snow. Mind you, these are like polar areas. I mean, Canada, it's extraordinary to think and they've actually had a record breaking season, there in terms of their wildfires
 
##Archival tape -- Reporter 1:
“Canada's wildfire season is now officially the worst ever recorded, and it's only going to get worse as peak fire season continues.”
 
##JOELLE:
and also just the deadly heat that's been experienced in tropical regions around the world.
 
##Archival tape -- Reporter 2:
“Bangladesh is facing its longest heatwave in half a century. It's forced the closure of schools, increased demands on the nation's power supply and affected livelihoods.”
 
##JOELLE:
It's terrifying, quite frankly. 
 
##Archival tape -- Reporter 3:
“The latest heatwave to hit the continent said temperature records in multiple countries, including India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore, as well as some cities across China.”
 
##JOELLE:
And as I mentioned, the Great Barrier Reef is in really bad shape and really having like a natural event, like an El Nino playing out on the background of this warming is taking us into uncharted territory. So basically, it's going to continue to escalate until we rein in the burning of fossil fuels. And this is really where we're at right now. So we are witnessing these really large scale changes and it's really quite depressing, to be honest.
 
##RUBY:
And on a more personal level, could you speak to how you navigate your way through the climate crisis and the inaction that you observe and and how you continue on speaking about it and giving these warnings?
 
##JOELLE:
To be honest, I'm finding it increasingly hard to do the work. 
 
I mean, I'm in front of this day in, day out, which is really challenging. And I think as every season passes, I'm actually shocked at just how quickly things are changing. So I think the next 6 to 12 months are going to be really, really interesting in terms of the global impacts that we're seeing unfold. But I must admit, I have my dark days where I do feel, I guess, a sense of despair that we don't have action fast enough and that this extraordinary country that we all love is being destroyed before our eyes and there's something we can do about it and we're choosing not to. And I think that's really hard for me and for a lot of climate scientists who feel like we have worked our guts out. We have produced seven volumes for the latest IPCC assessment round. It's all there. We just need our political leaders to be brave. And so I vacillate between optimism and feeling like the solutions exist. There is something we can really do about this. And then I really feel despairing that the political will still isn't quite there. So I'm hoping that people step up because, you know, I really do believe that the 2020s are a make or break decade that we'll look back at and say, you know, where were you? How did you show up and what did we do to avert this crisis?
 
##RUBY:
Thank you Joelle for talking to me today.
 
##JOELLE:
It's my pleasure. Thanks, Ruby.
 
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[Theme Music Starts] 
 
##RUBY:
Also in the news today …
 
The NSW Police Senior constable charged with tasering 95 year old dementia patient Clare Nowland - who died days after the incident - has appeared in court via video link.
 
The Magistrate, Roger Clisdell, said he was disgusted with the situation, as the court had expected Senior Constable Kristian White to appear in person.
 
Clisdell said while a letter about White’s absence had been sent to the local court registrar, it had never been agreed to.
 
And
 
Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney has named four priorities for the proposed Voice to Parliament in a speech to the national press club.
 
Minister Burney said she would ask the voice to consider four main policy areas: health, education, jobs and housing.
 
Her speech was delivered after weeks of questioning by the opposition over the scope of the proposed body, including claims it could demand changes from the Reserve Bank.
 
I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*. See you tomorrow.
 
[Theme Music Ends]

Background Reading

opinion
July 1, 2023
Climate crisis deepens with El Niño