A highly confidential report by the Office of National Assessments has warned the government that global warming is expected to lead to more tropical cyclones in southern Queensland, an ice-free Arctic Sea, and the possible break-up of the West Antarctic ice shelf leading to substantial sea-level rise.
The ONA warns of “potentially adverse implications from these developments … for the security of Australia’s export markets for coal” and urges the government to consider a move away from fossil fuels, although “it might be possible for raw coal to be burned in central locations, such as power stations built close to the sea, where carbon dioxide can be chemically stripped from emissions and dissolved at depth in the oceans”.
The secret report, titled Fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect, notes that the “most disturbing” feature of scientists’ predictions is that the mean global temperature could, without any mitigating measures, rise by 4-6°C by 2100.
“Given that the temperature difference between the ice ages and intermediate periods was a mere 5°C, this prediction suggest massive and unacceptable changes” including sea-level rise of six metres following the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice-sheet. The process could be irreversible, it noted, and “would flood many of the major cities of the world, as well as the delta regions of rivers such as the Ganges and Mekong, which support large populations”.
The amazing thing about this ONA report, which I mention briefly in my book Scorcher, is that it was prepared in 1981! This is one of those rare instances when it is acceptable for a writer to use an exclamation mark, because the first major conference on climate science was not convened until 1988.
The analysis predicted that an international agreement would be likely to set an upper limit on atmospheric carbon at twice pre-industrial levels. This is precisely the recommendation of Ross Garnaut and Nicholas Stern, who have recommended a target of 550 ppm.
Climate scientists now predict much more serious impacts from a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. The ONA reported an expected warming of 2-3°C, while the accepted mean value is now 3°C. But the consequences of 3°C of warming are now believed to be much more severe, including some of those canvassed by the ONA as following unchecked emissions growth, such as the collapse of the West Antarctic ice-sheet.
The astoundingly prescient author of the 1981 study, whom I am told left the organisation to pursue a successful career as an energy analyst, had a pretty good understanding of human psychology too.
He suggested that the public are unlikely to be moved by scientific predictions: “… public alarm will only be generated by manifest change, or a threat of it, such as a rise in the sea level”.
What he did not say is that, if humans must wait for their eyes to confirm the predictions of scientists, it will be far too late to do anything about it.