My personal climate change bind


Coal Ship Most people think that the effects of climate change will take place in other places and far off into the future, and are too dire to bear engaging. I don't have the comfort of such detachments. The trajectory of climate change is in a sense a family story.

My dad is a seafarer. He navigates cargo vessels for a European company on contracts which last from three to six months. Most people don't realise how critical seafarers are to economies. Ships are the arteries of globalised industry, carrying an estimated 90 percent of trade. Quite obviously, the only way that bulk commodities such as grain and steel can be transported from one country to another is over the ocean. This is particularly the case for Australia.  

My own sense of the mining boom comes from Dad plying the routes from Australia to different parts of Asia far more often in the past decade than he did when we were growing up. I knew about the bottlenecks at Dampier and Port Hedland before I read that export volumes were straining port infrastructure. I usually ask Dad what they are loading when he gets there. Coal. Industrial salt. Iron ore.  

Lately, mining billionaire Andrew Forrest has been running a campaign about 'Our Iron Ore', pushing for a parliamentary inquiry into prices, targeting his multinational competitors BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto. Such machinations by miners always seem tawdry to me; billionaires acting like they are oppressed and fighting on our behalf is patently pantomime. We saw it in their successful campaigns against an emissions price scheme and mineral resources super-profit tax.

The 'carbon tax' repeal is particularly egregious not just because the price signal had in fact slowed the increase in emissions. Dad was born and raised in Leyte, an island on the eastern seaboard of the Philippines. In 2013, the category 5 super typhoon Haiyan pummelled Leyte and other parts of the Visayas region. The damage in his birthtown was not as horrific as in Tacloban; only one relative lost the roof to their house.

Of course no single typhoon can be directly attributed to climate change, but the science tells us that increasingly warm surface conditions in the Pacific affect cyclone characteristics such as intensity, size and movement. Based on fatalities and damage, the five worst typhoons on record in the Philippines happened in the past decade.

In my dad I see the labour of seafarers and other workers from developing countries contributing to the wealth of nations that generate the most emissions per capita. He provides a service for an extractive industry that lobbies against policies to curb the severity of climate change. These companies get to accumulate profit for their owners and shareholders; he gets to go home to a country that is vulnerable to climate change.

Haiyan had followed Bopha in Davao and Washi in Cagayan de Oro, where our family lives. The night before my sister's wedding, the river inundated entire communities and swept more than a thousand people to their deaths. My mum said not long afterward that her father, an engineer born in the Ilocos region, had migrated to Mindanao to escape the fierce typhoons that would periodically lash the north. He would have thought it remarkable to see such extreme weather events in the south.

I have to live with these connections: the fact that I am an Australian citizen and that my government is committed to doing as little as possible to address climate change; that my father plays a role in generating wealth for miners who then use it as a means to influence politicians; that the lack of a coherent, internationalist policy in Australia is at the expense of countries that are climate change-vulnerable, including where my family lives.

I think that this has been one of the hardest things to prosecute in the area of climate change – the idea that there are things that bind us. In Tacloban, where Haiyan had swept a cargo ship inland into the middle of town, someone sprayed graffiti on the bow: the words 'climate justice'.

Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister .

Coal ship image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, climate change, coal, seafaring, family, personal narrative



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Existing comments

"Of course no single typhoon can be directly attributed to climate change, but the science tells us that increasingly warm surface conditions in the Pacific affect cyclone characteristics such as intensity, size and movement."
Does anyone trust the science these days? There’s good news! According to IPCC AR5 WG1 (Fig 3.1, p 261), in Western Pacific near Philippines, we’ve seen a mere .1 deg C ocean warming in last 40 years in the upper ocean (0 to 700 m). In fact, since 1995, totally contradicting modelled warming predictions, satellite data says there’s been *no* warming of the overall Pacific whatsoever – in fact, a slight cooling! Back to the IPCC report (AR5): it says there was "low confidence" that on a global scale, intense tropical cyclone activity had increased along with the .8°c global warming since the 19th century. The only specified regional exception was the North Atlantic (and that was due to aerosol changes in the atmosphere, NOT global warming). AR5 also predicted "low confidence" in increased cyclonic activity on a global scale in the first half of this century. (SPM p.5). If “the science” had pointed unambiguously to increased tropical cyclone activity in certain areas, such as the Western Pacific, you can be sure the IPCC would have reported this, even if only a “low confidence” level had been predicted. It didn’t! After 2050, AR5 says it’s “more likely than not” that the Northwestern Pacific might experience more cyclones. However this is already a dial back from “likely” in AR4, so don’t place your bets: it’s based on the models, and the models, it has constantly been demonstrated over time, have been overly alarmist in many IPCC predictions. In sum: according to IPCC AR5, not only can we not attribute Haiyan to climate change. We can’t attribute any increases in global cyclone activity since 1900 to global warming (even though the world has undoubtedly warmed since then), we can’t say with any confidence things will get worse up to 2050, and beyond that, our modest estimates of cyclone doom and gloom are based on models that … (and here I comment. HH.) have already proved grossly pessimistic.

HH | 25 May 2015  

Thanks Fatima.
Climate change is real and it is here as you have just described. Your story about the Philippines is familiar to the people of the Pacific Islands such as Kiribati and Tuvalu. Young people from there were recently in Australia trying to tell us about what is happening to their homes. How many are listening? These are also some of the "little ones" Pope Francis is so worried about that he has written his first encyclical about it. Meanwhile the fossil fuel industry and finance sector move to make as much as they can before the end while our politicians enable it all to happen.

Anne Lanyon | 26 May 2015  

Provocative emotionally moving. This is the reality. Poor nations suffering most and first. But the privileged deniers all heed the warning.Climate change cometh to all.
Thank you Fatima.

Lyn Bender | 26 May 2015  

Thank you very much Fatima for providing a personal insight and perspective on the issue of climate change!

Peter Sabatino | 26 May 2015  

Not to have a sensible carbon trading scheme at this time is maddness. The one we should have got and almost did, linked to Europe, was about right at leads just as a start. Setting the carbon tax too high was a big mistake, making the whole thing hostage to far right populism (again!). The Greens as usual grossly overplayed their hand and ruined it for everyone.

Eugene | 26 May 2015  

Fine essays like Fatima's here bring home the truth on a personal human scale of what climate change is doing to people. I have only contempt for the pseudo-scientific claptrap cited by one correspondent - obviously sourced from a denialist think tank. It is so disturbing to read on the same day of so many former politicians - one of whom at least I had respected - going to work for the coal seam gas industry - the frackers., whose activities will both hasten climate change, pollute Australia's inland underground aquifers, and pollute our best agricultural lands. Shame on you, former politicians. You know your names. The people expected more of you.

Tony Kevin | 26 May 2015  

I suppose that with exponentially increasing world populations, particularly in poorer countries where governments invest very little in safe housing infrastructure, people with no other choice expand into areas once sparsely populated and construct settlements without proper surveying and infrastructure. That is what was taught concerning the ecology of human and other animal life populations in my university course. If that is an enduring truth it might be expected that larger populations, inadequately and less than safely housed, will suffer greater death rates and settlement destruction in any cyclone, leaving behind a trail of seemingly worse destruction attributed solely to a greater storm intensity. A false impression perhaps? Darwin is a living example of disastrous cyclonic destruction nearly a half century ago which has not been repeated since infrastructure and housing construction was properly funded and completed according to sound engineering principles. Some Pacific countries might survive the climate change we are having when we're not having a "warming change" a little better if they invested their overseas aid in their own people rather than in the ruling class's Swiss bank accounts, lifestyles and shoe cupboards.

john frawley | 26 May 2015  

Oh dear, so even the IPCC has now fallen into the clutches of the fiendish denialists? What hope is there?

HH | 26 May 2015  

While I'm not generally a fan of HH's contributions, I don't think this one looks at all like pseudo-scientific claptrap. Is the IPCC a denialist think tank, Tony Kevin?

Gavan | 26 May 2015  

In reply to HH: I cannot see how Figure 3.1 in the WG1AR5 report justifies HH's claim about the Phillipines.Concerning satellite data, Aprt from this, it was reported in New Scientist, 16 May 2015 issue, that the slowdown in sea-level rise was a measurement error - in fact sea-level rise is accelerating. As for predicting cyclones, this is the weatherman's job. All climate models can say is that in the long run, there will be more cyclones and that some of these would be more severe.

Peter Horan | 26 May 2015  

I don't know where HH gets his information but so far this year there have been three Cat 5 "Super" Typhoons in the northwest Pacific , one narrowly missing Luzon (Northern Philippines).This is a record number of severe storms so early in the season .The reason is thought to be due to abnormally warm ocean temperatures in the area where they are born. I dread to think what will happen if a Super Typhoon impacts Manila or another populous area of Southeast Asia in the next 4-5 months . Maybe it will take a Cat 5 Severe Tropical Cyclone to impact a major Australian city - (Brisbane/Darwin/Perth) for us to realise the impact of Climate Change is having on the poor of our world. My wife comes from the Illocos region ( Baguio) Northern Philippines so we are quite well informed on the destruction these storms cause each year.

Gavin O'Brien | 27 May 2015  

Thanks, Peter Horan, for having the decency to follow up my references to the IPCC report rather than name calling. 1. What are you seeing in that figure? As far as I can tell, the area of the Pacific surrounding the Philippines has colours indicating warming anomalies in the 0.05 to 0.1 range in the key provided.(Mostly in the 0.05 to .075 range. The 0.075 to 0.1 areas are about 1000 ks to the east.) 2. I didn't comment on sea level rise but thanks for the ref. to the article which I've yet to study. I do note, though that the observed acceleration is so small it's "not statistically significant." (The acceleration is less than the margin of error: 0.043 +/- 0.058 mm/yr2.) 3. I stand my comments re. cyclones as an accurate summary of the IPCC AR5 predictions. Thanks again. And to Gavan.

HH | 28 May 2015  

Gavin O'B, as stated in my first comment, I'm relying on the IPCC AR5 (WG1) which came out a couple of years back, and which naturally didn't take into account the 3 supertyphoons this year. If the IPCC could find no correlation between a .8°c global surface warming over 100 years and increased intense cyclone activity, I doubt whether this year's cyclone pattern so far, albeit a record, is going to cause it to alter its verdict, especially given the minuscule amount of upper ocean warming - about .1°c over the last 40 years - in the area where these typhoons generated.

HH | 28 May 2015  

"We have to look deeply at things in order to see. When a swimmer enjoys the clear water of the river, he or she should also be able to be the river. . . . "If we want to continue to enjoy our rivers--to swim in them, walk beside them, even drink their water--we have to adopt the non-dual perspective. We have to meditate on being the river so that we can experience within ourselves the fears and hopes of the river. If we cannot feel the rivers, the mountains, the air, the animals, and other people from within their own perspective, the rivers will die and we will lose our chance for peace. "If you are a mountain climber or someone who enjoys the countryside, or the green forest, you know that the forests are our lungs outside of our bodies, just as the sun is our heart outside of our bodies. Yet we have been acting in a way that has allowed two million square miles of forest to be destroyed by acid rain, and we have destroyed parts of the ozone layer that regulate how much direct sunlight we receive. We are imprisoned in our small selves, thinking only of the comfortable conditions for this small self, while we destroy our large self. We should be able to be our true self. That means we should be able to be the river, we should be able to be the forest, the sun, and the ozone layer. We must do this to understand and to have hope for the future." This is a quote Richard Rohr recently shared in recent exploration of the" Franciscan way " If only our PM & his Ministry could become attracted to such Wisdom.

john kersh | 28 May 2015  

Thank you for that series of thoughts and well argued points. What it seems to me is that we as a people need to be prepared to listen and accept some of the difficult choices rather than the easiest and seeming loudest all the time. The public discourse needs to be well argued for change and brave like yours is.

Faye Lawrence | 29 May 2015  

HH, I would like to know why someone dedicated to the notion of neoliberal economics AND Christian values would go to such an extent to gather snippets of evidence to devalue the efforts of environmental conversation. Do you really believe out planet earth's atmosphere can tolerate anything we throw at it? Or are you really just protecting profits at any cost?

AURELIUS | 01 June 2015  

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