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‘Everybody’s scared’: The first mention in Australian media of global warming could only gesture to the future

Nobody in 1971 imagined the world’s oceans acidifying and 8.8 million tons of plastic every year killing off millions of marine animals. Microplastic even in sea life in the Mariana Trench? Inconceivable.

In 1970 mega fires (those devouring more than 100,000 acres) were rare in the US but in the last decade a warmer, drier climate has fuelled dozens. They, like blazes on a Greek island, are a new normal and forgotten as quickly as floods in Germany that caused scientists to parse reference to “hydro meteorological extremes that have become more extreme”.

Megafires are the new normal in California.

Megafires are the new normal in California.Credit:AP

Ehrlich, 89, lives with his wife, Anne, on the Stanford campus. It’s in northern California, where, between last summer and this, maximum temperatures leapt 5 degrees which may, disturbingly, be a non-linear bump in the warming trajectory.

I rang him and asked whether he ever expected to see such scorching summers fuelling fires that make air in Denver and Salt Lake fouler than Delhi’s. He said, “I was expecting an increase in these events. But the speed of the changes has surprised and frightened me.”

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Ever think noxious smoke from fires in California would fill the sky in New York? He visits Australia annually regarding it as second home and was able to riposte, “Not until my experience in Sydney in 2019 – and in California in 2020.”

I asked him about tipping points. “I think we’re well beyond the tipping points on climate disruption – and loss of biodiversity, land use change, over-harvesting, toxifications.”

As someone whose advocacy kick-started much environmental activism he thinks the IPCC report understates things. He says mishandling of the pandemic is a bad signal for responses to climate. “The scariest thing is politicisation of masks and vaccines – people rioting against mandates designed to save the health and lives of themselves and their loved ones.”

What happens, he asks, when we face the necessary changes for climate?

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Fifty years ago Ehrlich and his questioner were only able to gesture at a transformation that today dominates diplomacy, forces mammoth energy companies to exit coal and the EU to plan carbon tariffs. Warmer oceans, coral bleaching, huge fires in the Mediterranean and methane pluming from disintegrating permafrost: it’s a changed planet but in 1971 in an ABC studio only just visible as through a glass, darkly.

Bob Carr is a former NSW premier of NSW and Australian foreign minister. He is professor of Business and Climate at UTS.

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