Nobel prize winner Brian Schmidt: ‘Climate change … the great challenge for humanity over the next 100 years’

This opinion piece was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 17 June 2015.

East Antarctica glacial stronghold melting as seas warm. (Photo: Esmee van Wijk / Australian Antarctic Division)

Climate change is the most visible part of what I see as being the great challenge for humanity over the next 100 years.

That challenge is living on a planet that is 12,800 kilometres across with seven and then eight and then nine billion people. We need to come into some sort of equilibrium, one where all those people can live sustainably on Earth.

One of the most visible ways we are affecting the Earth is through climate change. We need to address this issue because it is going to change the planet.

My concern is that if we fail to tackle climate change it will potentially lead to destabilisation of the world as we know it. That’s the big downside if we get it wrong.

I would say that at this point humans are struggling to deal with the issue.

We’re dealing with something where the individual problems associated with climate change are born over decades, and are not easily ascribed to climate change. It is something that doesn’t feed well into the political process, which tends to be short-term and event or anecdote-driven.

Australia needs to be involved with the world discussions on this.

If we look objectively at climate mitigation, yes we do have large reservoirs of coal, which are probably not going to be able to be used. I fully expect that the demand for Australia’s coal reserves will drop off dramatically in the next 20 years.

But we’re also very strategically located near the world’s largest population centre, Asia, and we have arguably the best renewable energy sources in the world, in the form of large expanses of land that can feed wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear energy if we felt that was the right thing to do.

If you look at our strategic advantage, one might argue we have even more advantages in a renewable energy economy than in a fossil fuel one.

Australians should be looking to help secure our own future. Do we really think the world isn’t going to take action on climate change? My guess is that it is. We need to be gearing ourselves and our economy up for that future or we’re going to find ourselves in a very uncomfortable place.

I started thinking about the big issue in the past five years, when I started seeing a consensus of models predicting ranges of climate change based on what I thought were reasonable expectations of CO2 emissions.

In the past five years it has become very apparent to me where the world is heading and how hard it is going to be to reduce CO2 emissions. I’ve also attended the World Economic Forum and I’ve had a sense of what 4 degrees of warming looks like.

Since winning the Nobel prize, I’ve had time to think about climate change. Before that I spent most of my time thinking about astronomy.

I see this as an issue where the beginnings of the problems will come towards the end of my life. When my kids are 70 this could be an incredibly important issue for them. As for my grandkids, who don’t exist yet, I really do fear for them and humanity if we don’t tackle this.

It hurts me when I see science not doing a good job defending itself on the basis of scientific argument. I feel science is empowered to defend itself but we need to do it in a way that is measured and reflects our scientific values. When we are attacked by politicians – this isn’t happening so much in Australia but in certain pockets of America – that makes me angry.

Largely, here in Australia, we have argued our case to politicians and they have reacted, moderated by the election process and the people who were voting.

Over the next five years, I suspect Australian voters will put more pressure on politicians to be active than they have in the past five years. If they don’t, people like me haven’t done a satisfactory job.

My hope is that the world will chart a sensible course to keep the temperature change due to greenhouse gas emissions below 2 degrees. Two degrees is still going to cause some uncomfortable change.

We need a plan at the Paris climate change talks to keep it under that number. My confidence that will happen is not high, but I think citizens of the world need to demand it.

Republished with permission from the author.

Brian Schmidt is the Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University. He was previously a Distinguished Professor, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow and astrophysicist at the University’s Mount Stromlo Observatory and Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Dr. Schmidt is known for his research in using supernovae as cosmological probes. He currently holds an Australia Research Council Federation Fellowship and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2012. He shared both the 2006 Shaw Prize in Astronomy and the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics with Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess for providing evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Follow him on Twitter.

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