“What mistake did I make?” The scientist attempting to sound the alarm about climate change asked.
Graeme Pearman reflects, “I often ponder: what did I do incorrectly? Why did individuals not react? Is that my duty?”
The experienced climate scientist expresses his frustration when Guardian Australia visits him at his residence outside of Melbourne.
“When you go through the entire process and rigor of conducting science, the hope is that at the end, people will comprehend your findings and factor in any potential risks,” he explains.
“Well, that is not how it functions.”
“Over the span of almost 20 years, Australia regressed in terms of taking action on climate change. Personally, this is quite frustrating.”
Two alpacas are currently occupied with maintaining the grass outside. On the deck, a pergola is covered in blooming pink wisteria, while inside the house, Pearman is struggling to complete a challenging jigsaw puzzle featuring a Van Gogh masterpiece on the kitchen counter.
The tranquility and relaxed splendor are quite unexpected, considering our purpose here is to discuss his lifelong research on a phenomenon that could potentially cause the extinction of numerous species, alter coastlines due to rising sea levels, and intensify storms and wildfires.
2 molecules were being
More than five decades ago, Pearman was employed at the government science organization, CSIRO, and quantifying the amount of carbon dioxide molecules present.2
There were molecules present in the air.
He proceeded to create the initial climate science program for the government and advise three prime ministers (Hawke, Keating, and Howard) on the topic of climate change. Following a contentious split from CSIRO, he then traveled to various community groups and fossil fuel company board rooms to deliver talks on climate change.
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If one were to identify the pioneer of Australian climate research, 82-year-old Pearman would certainly be a top contender.
are used up
Six volumes of air are depleted.
In 1971, Pearman began working at the CSIRO where he and his coworker John Garratt were tasked by their supervisor Bill Priestley to create, test, and install equipment capable of measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.
Every Thursday Pearman and Garratt drew air samples from a 10 metre-high mast above a wheatfield in Rutherglen, Victoria.
Pearman was surprised to find that his measurements closely aligned with those recorded by US scientist Charles Keeling in Hawaii, even though they were taken 8,600km apart in a different hemisphere.
Pearman wondered why the concentration should remain consistent for both of us. This was observed above a field of wheat and atop a mountain in Hawaii. These two hemispheres are vastly dissimilar, so it raised the question of why this would occur.
Starting in the late 1950s, Keeling observed an increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. By the late 1960s, he attributed this rise to the burning of fossil fuels.
Pearman believed that Keeling’s hypothesis was incorrect and that the increase was due to inconsistent methods of measuring.
“We initially questioned the accuracy of his findings. It seemed implausible that humans could have such a significant impact on the world’s climate. However, within a year, we were convinced that Keeling’s research was correct.”
Pearman collected six samples of air from Australia in 1974 and brought them to various laboratories, including Keeling’s, where CO2 levels were being measured by scientists.2.
In a matter of years, various measurements were being collected from airplanes and Pearman played a role in establishing a permanent monitoring site for atmospheric gases at Cape Grim, located on the north-western tip of Tasmania.
Cape Grim in May 1976 was first measured to have a reading of carbon dioxide.2
During our interview, the most recent reading showed a level of 417 parts per million, which is a 26% increase from the current level of 328 parts per million.
The country of Australia recently experienced its most elevated winter temperatures ever recorded, coinciding with what is expected to be the Earth’s hottest year on record.
In the midst of the past ten years of Australia’s climate disputes, it is often overlooked that the Hawke administration in 1990 proposed a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2005.
In 1989, the United Nations honored Pearman and the CSIRO with a global accolade, acknowledging that Australians were highly knowledgeable about climate change, comparable to other communities around the world.
In 1987, Pearman hosted a conference where he invited scientists from various industries such as irrigation, agriculture, energy, and the environment to share their perspectives on how climate change may impact their respective fields.
Eventually, Pearman progressed up the ranks and became the chief of the atmospheric research division at CSIRO.
In the early 1990s, Australia appeared to be in a favorable position and well-informed.
Pearman acknowledges that he underestimated the complexity of translating scientific findings into policy and implementation.
are often the main drivers behind changes in policy.
Policy changes are often influenced by political pressure and vested interests.
Pearman and his team were informing both the general public and political leaders of the potential dangers of climate change, while Australia’s fossil fuel businesses were using their influence and financial resources to sway policy decisions. Ultimately, the scientific evidence was overpowered by the interests of those with a stake in the fossil fuel industry.
In 2003, Pearman became a member of the Australian Climate Group, a panel of specialists organized by WWF and a multinational insurance company. The group published a report in 2004 recommending that Australia reduce its emissions by 60% by 2050.
Becoming a member of this group would result in Pearman’s downfall.
He has a hunch, though uncertain, that the government may have exerted significant influence on CSIRO due to their proposals of limiting fossil fuel consumption.
“I believe it may have been a statement made at the government level expressing a desire to discourage negative discussions about the future of these specific commodities,” he explains. “I do not recall ever doing so myself; I merely highlighted the potential consequences of pursuing that particular future.”
“Out of nowhere, I found myself engaged in a conversation about the idea of leaving, and it left me feeling devastated.”
Pearman assumed an academic position at Monash University and established a consulting business aimed at delivering updates on cutting-edge scientific research to both the corporate world and the general public.
He has accumulated over 500 presentations and remains active in publishing scientific papers.
However, he remains dissatisfied with the lack of progress.
There are still individuals discussing the use of huge gas reserves that should not be extracted. This is because whether we or someone else burns them, they will contribute to increased warming.
“We need to put an end to this. It is not just Australia’s responsibility, but that of the entire global community. Australia should be taking the lead, not falling behind.”
Pearman is naturally inclined to have a positive outlook, however, the country’s persistent support of fossil fuels is causing this optimism to be overshadowed by feelings of negativity about the future.
According to him, it is inherent in human nature to value other species. However, humans have also shaped the mentality of prioritizing wealth creation over other values.
“We will not be able to reverse this situation quickly.”
Pearman feels secure about the future because young people are knowledgeable.
I believe individuals should be brave enough to seek out courage if they lack it, in order to acknowledge that the world is constantly evolving and will continue to do so in the future. They should have the courage to take action and contribute to this necessary transformation.
It is now the time for the older members of the community, as they have already had their turn.
“Take initiative and own your actions by doing what you believe is necessary.”
The series “Weight of the World: A Climate Scientist’s Burden” explores the experiences of three groundbreaking scientists and the toll their discoveries took on them. Despite facing the hottest year on record, these scientists remain hopeful. Check out the full series for more.