SYDNEY: Trying to set the record straight on climate change in the middle of a hotly contested national election, the Australian Academy of Science has taken a stance and produced a report that tackles the critics of the science.
"Climate change is not science fiction," said Suzanne Cory, president of the academy at a press conference in Canberra announcing the launch of their publication The Science of Climate Change: Questions and Answers.
It was written and reviewed by 16 of the country's foremost scientists across a range of disciplines, including oceanography, climatology, geology and physics.
Knowns and unknowns
In the booklet, the scientists highlight what is known with certainty, while "including a frank discussion on the uncertainty," added Cory.
The document, one of the clearest statements on climate change yet produced, is designed to be scientifically rigorous but aimed at general audience.
According to a statement by the academy, the document aims to "address confusion created by contradictory information in the public domain."
Politicians don't know what's safe
During the current election campaign, both the Labor government and the Liberal-National conservative coalition have sparred over climate change, with some politicians expressing doubts about the science.
A University of Queensland survey of more than 300 federal, state and local government politicians in Australia released in early August 2010 found that almost 70% of politicians believe human-induced climate change was occurring.
But it also found more than 40% thought a increase of 4˚C was 'safe' - despite scientific warnings that a global temperature increase of just 2˚C or more could be dangerous.
It also found widespread confusion about what climate change really meant: 75% believed the Great Barrier Reef is threatened by global warming, but only 55% agreed that ocean ecosystems were also threatened – even though the Great Barrier Reef is part of the ocean's ecosystems.
Written and produced over seven months, it was scheduled to be launched today as part of Australia's National Science Week – which now just happens to coincide with the last week of a federal election where climate has become a hot-button political issue.
It is based on extensive research into the records of the Earth's distant and recent past, climate models and the known physical principles of greenhouse gas, the document intends to explain the current situation, and outline where the questions and certainties lie in the scientific community.
2010: the year of the heat wave
With the global average temperature of the Earth's surface increasing over the last century, and greenhouse gases the proven cause, it is expected that global temperatures will continue to rise.
"2010 is becoming known as the year of the heat wave," said Neville Nicholls, president of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society. "With 17 countries having set new record hot temperatures."
"While 'one swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day' a ratio of 17 new hot records to only a single new cold record is pretty convincing evidence that the world is warming. So this accessible summary of climate science, prepared by Australia's peak scientific body, is timely and welcome."
Two committees establish questions and answers
In an effort to contribute to the public understanding of the current state of climate change science, the Academy set up two committees of internationally recognised scientists to address the most important and commonly asked questions.
This involved the establishment of a working group of a number of the world's most eminent climate scientists to identify and answer the seven 'big' questions in most urgent need of answers.
An oversight committee consisting of highly regarded fellows of the academy and other climate experts then comprehensively reviewed the answers to ensure that they were consistent with the current and extensive research in the field.
Seven big questions
From the definition of climate change to its evolution and future consequences, the document aims to summarise and clarify the current understanding of the science of climate change for non-specialist, non-expert readers.
While acknowledging that there are still significant uncertainties in our current understanding of climate change, particularly in regards to future consequences, in answering the seven big questions it provides some fundamental, absolutely certain conclusions.
"The document acknowledges the significant uncertainties that surround our knowledge about how climate change will continue to unfold this century and beyond," said Will Steffen, executive director of the Climate Institute at the Australian National University in Canberra.
"But it makes absolutely clear that we know two critical aspects of climate change with a very high degree of certainty: climate change is indeed real and is already happening, and human emissions of greenhouse gases are the primary cause."