Climate Change
November 4, 2008

For the first time in Australian history, the first major action of an incoming government has been the ratification of an international treaty. The Rudd Labor Government has ratified the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

The “greenhouse effect” debate was first triggered in 1896 and the debate continues to this day. There is now a growing feeling that a controversial scientist may have had the right idea after all.

In 1896 the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius warned that carbon dioxide emissions could lead to global warming. It was not until the 1970s that scientists had a greater understanding of the planet’s atmosphere and so they agreed that the 1896 warning was probably correct.

Earth already lives within a greenhouse. It is one of the wonders of the Solar System and a reason why Earth has life and the others probably do not.

Heat waves from the Sun enter Earth’s atmosphere (as shortwave solar radiation) and Earth’s heat goes into space (as long wave infrared radiation). On average, the outgoing infrared radiation balances the incoming solar radiation and so a natural balance has been maintained over thousands, if not millions, of years.

Without the greenhouse effect, Earth would not be such a hospitable place for human life.

The problem, first suggested in 1896, is that all the additional gasses (notably carbon dioxide) going into the atmosphere from human activities (such as manufacturing) may be helping to trap even more long wave radiation within the atmosphere – and so warming up the planet. This would be an enhanced greenhouse effect.

The first suggestions that Arrhenius may have been on to something, occurred decades after his death. After World War II, the US Navy developed submarines to patrol regularly under the Arctic Circle and the North Pole (one of the front lines in the Cold War).

The US Navy therefore began taking measurements of the thickness of the ice in case the submarines had suddenly to break through the ice sheet to come to the surface. The Navy noted that something strange was happening – the ice seemed to be getting thinner.

Meanwhile at the South Pole, some other troubling information was being located. Antarctica is part of the old giant super-continent Gondwanaland (as were Africa, Australia and India). International scientific teams have been exploring the icesheet that covers the landmass. They were able to measure the changes in Earth’s atmosphere – just as Arrhenius had suggested. More recent activities have included the disturbing measurement of the icesheet’s melting.

By the late 1970s there was a growing scientific consensus that Earth was getting warmer and that human activity might be to blame. Meanwhile the insurance industry also noticed something odd with the weather. The industry globally paying out more for weather-related damages and so it started to speculate that some parts of the world would become uninsurable because of climate change.

The first international treaty on this subject was signed in 1992 (Australia is a signatory). An addition to that treaty was signed in Kyoto in 1997 (the Kyoto protocol), which the new government has now accepted.

There is growing concern about whether the world is doing enough to halt the climate change process. But at least the Rudd Government is now moving in the right direction