Australia's departing Chief Scientist on climate change

Professor Penny Sackett, the articulate and charming Nebraskan who came to be Australia's Chief Scientist, resigned last week smack-bang in the middle of her five-year term. Although she was reluctant to discuss the reasons publicly, she was emphatic that the decision was hers and hers alone.

Penny was perhaps best known for her clear stance on global warming, especially her view that we need to halt global increases in CO2 emissions by 2015 and decrease them rapidly thereafter. I had met and interviewed Penny last year and found her to be funny, warm, immensely intelligent and an exceptional communicator. I had become intrigued at why her public speeches on the urgency of global warming were so completely at odds with the policies that our government was putting forward.

The ABC recently published a fuller version of our conversation. Here's an excerpt:

On committed warming:

"There's a fundamental concept that I think is ill-understood and that is the relationship between the emissions and the global temperature. I worry about this because there is actually something we can do about it and still we're not acting quickly enough. It's my feeling that most people think that the temperature curve looks just like the emissions curve but it's not that way at all. I believe our emissions will start to decrease, but it's very important to realise that the temperature will not drop when that happens because the CO2 will not come back down out of the atmosphere. Most of it stays there for a very long period of time, and it continues day after day to contribute to the greenhouse effect."

On Australia's potential to take advantage of the new economy.

"I think that as a developed nation, each and every Australian has two of the biggest carbon feet in the world, and - let's face it - an economy that is highly dependant at the moment on fossil fuel. If we can change, then surely anyone in the developed world can change, and then we become leaders. Not only moral leaders, but we will be better placed in an economic sense to take advantage of the new economy, which is coming and has already arrived in many places."


In what may be some of her final words in the role of Chief Scientist, she warned that "all countries should immediately seek ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also prepare for the effects of climate change that are already underway, and those that the current science tells us we have yet to expect from the emissions that are already in the atmosphere."


I personally hope she can continue to educate people about the science of climate change and the necessity of urgent action.

Posted by steve.oconnor on Sunday, 27 February, 2011

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