From the ‘if it bleeds it ledes’ department, this masterpiece of campfire self-intimidation appeared in Tuesday’s Herald.
One can’t help but be impressed by the gullibility of any reporter who still takes the word of David Karoly, the most litigious liar in Australian climate science, at face value. It’s not as if we didn’t try to warn them in The History of the Climate Debate:
Climate academics’ jobs just became easier this morning, with the invention by David Karoly, Prof. (U. Melb.) of an ‘organized campaign of death threats’ against them.
We’ve reproduced it in full, because Fair Use is far too good for such, well, yellow journalists.
With extinctions even fewer and farther between than anyone expected, scientists have begun to ask the awful question: are there any species left?
In 2016 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature famously added species to its red ‘endangered’ list, in a move one critic likened to “bolting the stable door when the horse was already extinct.”
“Twenty, 30 years ago, when the climate issue first appeared on our radar, the big question was: can we name a single species killed off by global warming?” recalls Dr Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a Professor at the University of Queensland.
“Today it’s become: can we name a single species?“
It may be harder than you think, adds Guldberg, a marine climatologist who’s forged a reputation for discovering the annihilation of the Great Barrier Reef more often than anyone else. He now opens all his public lectures on the climate tragedy by challenging his audience for the full Linnaean name of the last species they saw in the wild.
“A lot of umming and ahhing ensues,” he says with a chuckle. “After a minute I let them off the hook. Relax, I say—there’s a reason you’re struggling to think of one.
“Species have been extinct for years. If my team is right, then the planet ran out [of them] sometime in the early noughties.”
It’s a disturbing thought. But it’s backed by the latest math, he assures me—and better still, it passes muster on the fastest computers taxpayers’ money can buy.
“Look at these beauties,” Dr Guldberg whispers reverently during a tour of the server room at UQ’s Centre for Excellence in Extinction Modelling. He’s been the Director of the $95m facility since it opened last year on the site of a repurposed Brisbane hospital.
But you don’t need to understand the models—and even the scientists who programmed them would be hard pressed to do so—to grasp that the basic conclusion is beyond legitimate doubt, says Professor David Karoly, a science expert.
“Remember the basic high-school maths that describes the decay of radioactive materials?” Karoly asks me in his office at the Institute for the Understanding of Systems Catastrophe at Melbourne University.
“Well, those same equations tell us,“ he says, scribbling them on a whiteboard, “that the rate of species loss has to be proportional to the number of species left, don’t they?
“Which is why every ecobiologist worth their salt was telling us, a long time ago, that extinction rates were going to fall rapidly as the impacts of climate change began to be felt.”
And the rest, says Dr Karoly—who says he’s also a historian—is history.
“You’re an environmental reporter,” he explains. “So I don’t have to tell you that nothing’s going extinct these days. But what happens when we plug zero [extinctions per year] into the left-hand side?”
Karoly, a showman at heart, waits a beat for the full horror of the right-hand side of the equation to sink in.
“I’m not going to tell you this result is easy to accept. But what’s the alternative? Denial?” he asks, grimacing involuntarily.
“You look like you’re, what, about 35, 36? Let’s say you learned about exponential decay in Year 10, which would make you fifteen or sixteen at the time, then—can I have the whiteboard back for a sec?
“That means you’d have to deny… twenty years of mathematics [in order to pretend there are still species out there]!”
Such grim realism isn’t limited to mid-career Professors either. The same requiem for the planet’s species seems to be echoed all the way up the academic food chain.
Even Lifetime Former Gillard Government Climate Commissioner Prof. Will Steffen, Australia’s leading climatologist, is forced to concur with Dr Karoly.
“Climate change is now happening even faster, and its impacts are even more devastating, than the scientists warned us,” Dr Steffen tells me at Canberra’s ANU, where he mentors the next generation of planetary obituarists.
On a continent where climate experts are expected to cut their teeth on the question of prehistoric wombat stride lengths, Steffen broke the mold by coming from a completely different continent and lacking any qualifications beyond a chemical-engineering doctorate. But his unconventional career path was rewarded in 2013 with the rank of Scared Scientist, Australia’s highest climate honor.
“Not that they were wrong, of course,” he hastens to add. “They were just being good scientists. They [made a mistake because they] Erred on the Side of Least Drama, as [the historian] Naomi Oreskes puts it.”
Other scientists, meanwhile, had been measuring drama levels in the ecosphere directly, in real time. And the picture they saw was so alarming that, if not for the fear of being attacked as ‘alarmist,’ they might have raised the alarm in time.
“Tragically, society’s response was a day late and $95m short,” says Dr Steffen. Last-ditch efforts to preserve species in a captive state were doomed by the perennial bane of all life-forms: biology.
“Species just didn’t seem to want to mate. We discovered the hard way that you can’t just put two of them in a cage, light some scented candles and hope for the best.”
It’s not known what role species played in the ecosystem, if any, but one thing is certain: it was a critical one. ■