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Worried about climate change?

You're living in it

by Claire Miller
Environmental Reporter

IF YOU have ever wondered what to expect from climate change as the planet warms up, consider the roll-call of natural disasters over last week.

In the United States, the West is ablaze in the worst fire season since, well, since anyone can remember, really. Some 350,000 hectares across 11 states are burning out of control, with no relief in sight. Billions of dollars of property and priceless forests have been reduced to ash. The legacy of erosion, damaged water catchments and wildlife loss will be felt for decades.

The fires follow a hot, dry spring preceded by the warmest winter on record and a scorchingly dry summer before that. In fact, according to the US Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a series of warmer-than-average seasons has been drying out the continent since 1997.

Meanwhile, in far eastern Russia, a typhoon dumped the equivalent of three months of rain over several days. As floods sweep away bridges, power lines and homes around Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, on the Chinese border, a new typhoon is forming in the Pacific Ocean. At the same time in north-eastern Brazil, ``killer'' mudslides are crushing towns after days of torrential rain. In Canada, remote settlements were evacuated on Saturday as out-of-control fires laid waste to 14,000 hectares in the north of the central province of Manitoba.

And in northern Bangladesh and north-eastern and northern India, monsoonal floods have cost millions their homes and dozens their lives since the start of August; the floods are bigger and faster than ever with too little vegetation and soil left in the Himalayan foothills to soak up the rain.

Looking back over the year, record floods drowned Mozambique in February. Severe drought in Mongolia is finishing off the few livestock that survived a cruel winter and the drought before that. Crops are failing in the fourth year of drought gripping East Africa. Floods from unseasonal rain in Kazakhstan in May destroyed crops and livestock and left 3000 people homeless.

Closer to home, Victoria's four-year big dry has broken records and shows no sign of breaking. In the south-western corner of Western Australia, a 30 to 40 per cent drop in average rainfall has persisted for 20 years - so long there are fears it may be permanent.

On the face of it, there is no obvious link between all these regional, disparate natural disasters born of severe storms and unseasonal seasons.

But they are the latest incidents in an ominous, emerging global pattern of more frequent, more extreme weather events. Munich Re, the German insurance giant, keeps count: 755 natural disasters last year alone - well up from the previous record of 702 in 1998 and the long-term average of 600. Insured losses cost Munich Re $US22 billion, second only to 1992 when Hurricane Andrew alone cost it $US17 billion.

In its annual report on natural hazards, the company says there is no sign of abatement: ``If we compare the last 10 years of the 20th century with the 1960s, we will see that the number of great natural catastrophes increased by a factor of three, with economic losses - taking into account the effects of inflation - increasing by a factor of more than eight and insured losses by a factor of no less than 16.''

The question facing the international scientific community is whether this is the start of the predicted greenhouse effect in which rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the upper atmosphere lead to climate change and a higher probability of ``freak'' weather events.

Given the natural variability of weather, the chief of CSIRO atmospheric research, Graeme Pearman, said it was too early yet to say definitely whether climate change was under way. But ``I think maybe it is,'' he said.

``It might be a decade of variability that might go away, but it is the kind of pattern we might see in climate change, in that certain regions might be affected differently ... It is the kind of change we would anticipate.

'' Earth is almost one degree warmer than a century ago; scientists predict it will be two to three degrees warmer by 2100. Small variations drive big changes: the planet was only five degrees cooler during the last Ice Age when glaciers kilometres thick buried Europe and much of North America.

Since the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago, the global average has been stable at about 15 degrees with minor fluctuations either way of only half a degree at most. In this climate, human civilisation was born and flourished.

Anna Reynolds of Climate Action Network Australia said what is new today compared with past climate change is the speed of the warming and the existence of six billion people, their cities and agriculture. Much more is at stake: the Red Cross says the world already has 25 million ``environmental refugees'' driven from their homes and land by natural disasters and ecological degradation.

Dr Pearman said scientists began collecting climate data in 1985, saying it would take until 2000 to determine whether the rising greenhouse concentrations and apparent changes in climate were due to natural variability or human activity.

Their verdict will be presented in an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report to the November round of the United Nations climate negotiations in The Hague. ``It is becoming such a big change that this is unlikely to be natural,'' Dr Pearman hinted. ``This is likely to be the greenhouse effect that people have been talking about for more than 100 years."

''Professor Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research, was in no doubt when giving evidence to the Australian Senate inquiry into climate change earlier this year.

``First of all, it has got to be stated that global warming is under way now and there is a very high probability it is enhanced by human activities,'' he said. ``The effects will be irreversible. That means they will last for many centuries."

The Age Publication
11 August 2000


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