Megafires are not academic

Forbes reporter/columnist Ariel Cohen had me back down a rabbit hole with his article “The age of the ‘megafire’ is upon us.” Recent news had reprised the grief I experienced at our 2020 megafires here in Australia, which Cohen aptly says “killed more than 30 people, destroyed 6,000 homes and businesses, and burned 20% of the country’s forest.” Cohen is an analyst, not prone to hyperbole, but he quotes scientists saying we’ll look back at 2020’s fires as a fond memory, and even he concludes with the same message: “What we are seeing on the West Coast and around the world will soon shift from an anomaly to the new normal. The age of the megafire is upon us.”

I’m also observing with pulsing dismay the irrational push to view all these megafires as just a target for better forest management, while discounting any global warming footprint. The rationalist in me, the actuary, combines with the writer to foretell slow inevitable cycles of people resisting the science, then getting burnt out and killed, before, before eventually (too late, too late) the reality sinks in. Right now, in my mourning state of mind, humanity might not respond/adapt to the age of the megafire for another decade. How can this be so?

Defiance 12

Hope Jahren

Lockdown shows us how brilliant our world is without them. From Hope Jahren’s brilliant The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here

I’d never heard of attribution science

Anthroposphere article

I had never heard of what is being called “attribution science” until I read “How Weather Lost Its Innocence: An Illustrated History of Extreme Weather Attribution” by Kai Kornhuber and Amy Howden-Chapman, which came out on August 12. Paraphrasing, probably blithely, until recently it’s been impossible to numerically (rather than broadly quantitatively) ascribe climate change risks to … well, climate change. But now modelling is reliable enough, and events are crystal clear enough, to allow comparison of what happens now, with wildfire or a heatwave or a hurricane or flood, with what would have occurred (the “counterfactual state”) had emissions stayed low.

This kind of scientific work properly began after Europe’s 2003 heatwave. “Now,” write the authors, “fifteen years and 30 ppm of additional carbon dioxide later, the number of attribution studies has sharply increased, alongside the frequency of record-breaking extreme weather events due to largely unmitigated emissions. Today, climate attribution analysis exists in various forms … Thus, the question repeatedly posed to scientists during an extreme event – ‘Was this heat wave fuelled by climate change?’ – can be answered with increasing confidence. With extreme weather attribution, weather has lost its innocence.”

At first after 2003, attribution science papers took over a year to emerge after any big event. Now, attribution is being done almost in real time. TV weather presenters will increasingly be challenged to use such numbers on their shows! Legal actions are already being initiated.

Why aren’t my friends talking about this, I mused over the couple of hours I accorded the well-written overview by these authors? I closed my eyes and pictured an accelerating wave. Once we do begin to accord attribution science a place in regular discussion, surely political action will follow? Surely?

Will my grandson snorkel the Great Barrier Reef?

Coral reefs

Back on July 27, journalist Guy Kelly’s “The biologist in a race against time to save the Great Barrier Reef” came out in the Telegraph Magazine, and I noticed it today (edited a bit) in the Good Weekend magazine of my paper back home, The Age. British (but now in Sydney) biologist Emma Camp and one of the world’s foremost climate change/coral reef experts spoke to, of all things, an explorers’ conference:

Climate change is compromising not just the Great Barrier Reef, but reefs globally. Warmer, more acidic, low-oxygen seawater is fundamentally affecting the biology of the corals, and this is compromising whether they’ll be able to exist in the future. In just three years, over a third of the Great Barrier Reef has been lost.

Camp turns out to be both pessimistic and optimistic. She is exploring the idea of grafting on coral evolved to exist in more acidic water, which sounded to me, as I read it, intriguing but most speculative. As Guy Kelly explores her scientific world, she ends up summing up:

The best case scenario in 50 years is that we have coral reefs that are still biodiverse, serving their function, and we have an even healthier marine environment than we do now, respecting biodiversity not just for its value to us as humans. The worst case scenario is that we’ve lost coral reefs as we know them. I don’t want to tell my future grandchildren that this was a privilege I had, but they won’t, and it was all because we didn’t do enough.

I reflected that my ongoing task is to clearly identify the truth about the world’s coral reefs (Guy’s article has a graphic showing the world’s eight major coral reefs, our Great Barrier Reef being the largest). I suspect the truth is more or less suppressed simply because of tourism impact. I think I’ll turn to the IPCC next.