IT was a long way from picture postcard blue skies in Cairns yesterday as the nation’s top 450 climate scientists gathered to take stock of global warming.
The tropical rainstorm may pale alongside the political cyclone that has been unleashed by the federal government’s talk about a carbon tax. But the continued wet weather may prove relevant to this week’s scientific discussions, which are expected to have a heavy focus on how much there is still to understand about climate change.
For Australia, whether the north can expect to get more or less rainfall because of global warming remains one of the great unknowns.
The Cairns meeting is Australia’s peak biannual conference at which climate scientists meet to discuss the state of research.
And while organisers of Greenhouse 2011 say participants represent a broad church, the uniform view is undeniably one of a warmer future for the planet.
Beyond that, everything from atmospheric carbon, feedback cycles, ocean temperatures, sea levels, carbon sinks, mitigation and adaptation are on the table for discussion.
Delegates will even be told how emotional responses to climate change represent a missing link to behaviour, with those who accept man-made climate change motivated to act by fear. Others who believe the climate is changing naturally are likelier to feel irritation and refuse to engage or respond.
CSIRO principal research scientist Kevin Hennessy says understanding the causes, both natural and human, of climate change is central to the conference agenda, as is consideration of future projections of climate change globally and regionally.
Surprisingly, a key theme through the conference will be the state of scientific uncertainty.
This does not mean that sceptics have crashed the CSIRO-sponsored climate change party, however.
“These are the real uncertainties as opposed to the uncertainties that some of the sceptics might claim are important,” Hennessy says.
The uncertainties include things such as the various causes of regional climate change and extreme weather events, uncertainty about the future level of greenhouse gas emissions, the rate of global warming, the rate of future sea level rises and the scale and impact of future extreme weather events.
“When we are talking about global warming it is not about whether there will be global warming but about the rate of change,” Hennessy says.