(originally published - Autumn 2010 newsletter)
Dr Graeme Pearman AM FAA FTSE trained at the University of Western Australia. He joined CSIRO in 1971 and was Chief of Atmospheric Research from 1992 to 2002.His personal research focused on the global carbon budget; and why atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases are changing.
Dr Pearman was a pioneer in Australian climate science, alerting government and industry to observations of climate change indicators in the early nineties.Among other awards he has received the CSIRO Medal, a UN Environment Program Global 500 Award, Medal of the Order of Australia and a Federation Medal for his services to science.
Dr Pearman is now the Director of Graeme Pearman Consulting Pty Ltd, an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow with Monash University and contracts to private and public sector groups. He is currently a member of Greenfleet's Nationa lAdvisory and was also a former Director and Chairman of the Greenfleet Board.
How have you seen the general attitude towards the environment change over time?
Forty years ago, environmental issues were often seen to be the purview of extreme green groups whereas, the environment is now much more mainstream. This is particularly so for younger people, as now, education brings with it a more inclusive view of the environment.
What did you find most challenging in your role as the Chief of Atmospheric Research for CSIRO?
Conservatism within and outside the organisation meant that the emergence of the environment and in particular the climate-change issue was not always seen as being important. Also, I struggled with the emerging view that public servants should not be free to speak about what their expertise revealed to them. I have perhaps a naïve view that anyone should be able to speak about their views and everyone else is entitled to listen or reject those ideas.
In 2007-2008 you delivered more than 150 briefings on climate change science to companies, governments, peak industry bodies and the general public. What sort of reactions did you get at the time?
Mostly this is great. By and large I am invited by companies wishing to manage the risk of climate change. They generally understand that we do not know everything we would like to know about the climate, but that there is a risk that has to be managed. The interface between what I know and what they know about their own businesses is exciting and profitable.
In your opinion, what are the biggest short- and long-term threats facing Australia due to climate change?
In the short term, the greatest threat to Australia is widespread loss of water resources that give rise to potential risk of bush fires, loss of agricultural productivity, and major interference to biological systems. The frequency of more intense meteorological events is likely to impact on coastal inundation and risk to infrastructure. In the longer-term, there is a risk of the collapse of natural ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef, but also of many terrestrial ecosystems. Part of the threat is the sheer lack of general understanding of the fragility of complex systems such as ecosystems. But perhaps the biggest threat is ourselves: our personal and shared views of what constitutes wealth, well being, success and achievement. For these underpin the ongoing desire for more materials and the need for more energy.
Climate change demands new paradigms of behaviour, business and commerce. This new world offers enormous opportunities. These may lie particularly in new ways of sourcing and using energy; in new energy resources, the so-called renewables; in energy efficiency in both energy generation and utilisation; in new opportunities for transport; in better ways of managing the land to deliver value in terms of products, biodiversity, protection and stewardship over the quality of the soils. New exciting ways of doing businesses can be underpinned with attention to the ethos of sustainability, managing risk and building resilience in the face of uncertainty. The possibilities abound.
You recently visited Antarctica; can you tell us about your trip?
Simply a wonderful experience. I suppose I was ready for the impact of a truly grand and imposing physical environment. But I was less prepared for the biological productivity of the oceans; the teaming level of life. And to be so close to it was really amazing.
What are your hopes for the future?
The threat posed by climate change has exposed the fact that societal evolution as random and un-strategic as it is, has led to a role for markets, advertising, a commitment to growth and consumerism, paradigms of behaviour and ethics, etc.,that appear to be unsustainable. My hope is that we will learn from this threat, because its messages are much more profound than climate change itself-and that is very important. To do so requires critical appraisal of the way things are, the way we are, our institutional structures that determine so much of the direction that we take. I hope for a future in which human values and goals are more consistent with strategic views of where we wish to be as a species and less about the next purchase or the next election.