FEATURE: A history of climate change


It was in the late 1800s that scientists first argued that human emissions of greenhouse gases could change the climate. But David Karoly, a Professor of Meteorology at the University of Melbourne, says it was another century or so before a consensus emerged, and policymakers began to take note.

“At that stage, in the 1980s, there were a number of scientific studies indicating that increasing greenhouse gases due to fossil fuels were likely to have a future impact on warming the climate system,” he said.

“The governments around world decided it was appropriate to commission an independent analysis of all scientific studies to assess how much influence human emissions were likely to have in the future, or were having already in impact on climate.”

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the IPCC, issued its first report in 1990. In response, the UN General Assembly agreed to begin negotiations for a framework convention on climate change.

Rio agreement

Two years later, world leaders gathered for what’s now known as the Rio summit.

The executive director of the Australia Institute, Richard Denniss says 170 countries reached an agreement at the summit.

“They agreed that climate change was real, and was caused by the excessive release of greenhouse gasses from man made activity,” he said.

“They agreed that we needed to introduce a carbon price to start moving us away from reliance on coal and oil – and they agreed rich countries should move first, because it was rich countries that caused the problem and it was rich countries who could best afford to solve the problem.”

And it’s those three principles that came to underpin the Kyoto protocol, initially adopted in 1997. It committed so-called Annex 1 industrialised countries to cutting their emissions by 5 per cent from 1990 levels by 2012.

Developing problems

But developing countries, including rapidly expanding economies like China and India, were spared mandatory targets.

And for that reason, the United States and Australia refused to sign on, according to Kenneth Green, a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

“The fundamental shortcoming of Kyoto was that it was basically a redistributionist scheme that developed countries were never going to go for,” he said.

“At the core of Kyoto is the assumption that developed countries are going to transfer massive amounts of wealth – no matter how you define it, through offsets, or through foreign aid, or investments in transfer of technology – to developing countries.

“And frankly, they’ve never done that and they’re not likely to do that at the expense of their own economy – especially to countries which are their economic and geopolitical rivals.

“And so Kyoto was fundamentally flawed and it needs to be dismissed as an approach or it will never happen.”

But the Australia Institute’s Richard Denniss argues that the U-S Australia position was deceptive.

“Because the explicit agreement coming out of the Rio earth summit that led to the Kyoto protocol was that rich countries needed to move first, because for the last hundred years it was us that filled the atmosphere with the global warming that we’re already experiencing,” he said.

“So the idea that John Howard and George Bush discovered somewhere in the small print that China and India were left out is just absurd.”

Climate change sceptics

And another voice had emerged in the public debate – that of the climate sceptic – those who disputed that changes in climate were caused by human activity.

Jules Boykoff is an associate professor of politics at Pacific University.

He and his brother Maxwell Boykoff analysed coverage of climate change in four major US newspapers from 1988 to 2002, and found that coverage of the sceptics’ view had skewed the debate.

“So when you’re looking at whether humans are causing global warming, and you give both sides equal time roughly, to give their opinions and their ideas, you’re actually performing a bias in favour of those who are global warming sceptics, which is not in line with the idea of the dominant science community, that humans are in fact causing, to a certain degree, global warming.”

Public interest

By 2006, the issue of climate change was dominating public debate.

An Inconvenient Truth, featuring former the US Vice President, Al Gore, broke box office records for a documentary when it premiered in the US on Memorial Day weekend.

As the film took the issue of climate change into people’s lounge rooms, Richard Denniss says another report that same year took the issue into the boardrooms.

“The Stern Review was an incredible contribution to the debate, because it was the first authoritative statement that was taken seriously by the international policy community, that pointed out simply that the cost of failing to tackle climate change dwarfed the costs of tackling climate change,” he said.

The next year scientists from the IPCC issued their fourth report – and along with Al Gore won a Nobel Peace Prize.

Copenhagen hopes

By 2009, all eyes were on Copenhagen, where leaders are hoping to lay the groundwork for a successor protocol to Kyoto.Hacksaw Ridge 2016 live streaming film online

“My hope for Copenhagen is that our elected leaders show some leadership, that they literally take responsibility for the urgent need to tackle climate change, and commit themselves to targets for reduction that are consistent with what the science says we need to do,” Richard Denniss said.

“But my fear is we’ll see more of what modern politicians love the most – and that is to sign up to long term goals which will be irrelevant for their own political futures, and refuse to do anything in the short term.”