Dr Joelle Gergis joins Fenner

18 March 2019

First of all, what will your role be at Fenner, and what do you hope you can bring to the school?

I'm the new climate science lecturer at Fenner, recently arrived from the University of Melbourne. I'm currently redeveloping the climate variability and change courses offered by the school. I’m planning to be part of a second year course that we would like to call 'Fire, Flood and Drought' and I’d like to develop a third year course 'Climate change – past, present and future'.

I'm hoping to provide Fenner students with a multi-disciplinary foundation for a career in climate change science and the practical challenges of adapting to life on a warming planet.

I'm also a member of the ARC Centre for Climate Extremes and ANU's Climate Change Institute, so I'd like to be a collaborative bridge across disciplines here in the Fenner School, as well as between our colleagues across campus, Australia and the world.

 

What research are you working on right now?

I'm currently serving as a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report, which is a United Nations co-ordinated, global review of climate change science due for release in 2021.

I'm in Working Group 1 dealing with the physical science basis for the assessment, working on chapter 8 on 'Water Cycle Changes'. I've also been roped into contributing chapter 2 on 'Changing State of the Climate System' and Chapter 1 'Framing Context and Methods'. It's a huge, multi-year international effort, so it's currently taking up a lot of my research time.

Aside from that, I'm working on some collaborative projects including assessing the long term behaviour of prolonged El Nino events, a historical analysis of temperatures extremes (heatwaves and snow/frost events) using newly recovered observations and historical documents, and a review of historical Australian droughts for an international synthesis effort.

I'm also occupied with exciting project piecing together a daily weather record for Perth back to 1830 with colleagues from the University of Melbourne, the Bureau of Meteorology and the University of Western Australia.

 

Your work has been used as part of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment report into climate change, specifically looking using a temperature reconstruction for the last 1,000 years in Australia. What can the past tell us about how the climate is changing, and what choices we can make in the future?

While the Bureau of Meteorology's instrumental weather observations are the very best we have, they only begin in 1900 so they don't provide us with a complete picture of the range of natural climate variability we can experience here in Australia.

I led a large, international project to use natural archives like tree rings, corals and ice cores that have annual banding that allows them to be directly compared to instrumental records to reconstruct past temperatures in the Australian region. This allowed us to extend Australia's temperature record, year by year back 1,000 years into the past, providing a much longer context for assessing recently observed warming.

Our results showed that the most recent period is the warmest experienced in Australia over the past 1,000 years. A comparison with climate model simulations revealed that the warming could not be explained by natural variability alone. It was the first study of its kind for our region, providing yet another solid piece of evidence that Australia's climate is changing rapidly.

 

Do you think there are some fundamental misunderstandings of how our view of climate and weather patterns in Australia, specifically on how floods and droughts work?

In my book Sunburnt Country: the history and future of climate change in Australia, I try and dispel the myth that we are simply the 'land of drought and flooding rains' and that what we are experiencing now is all just part of natural variability. But if you want to hear more of my views on that, please buy a copy of my book or enrol in one of my climate courses!

 

What is you view on the speed at which action is happening for climate change? Do you think we still have time to make a proper impact, or should adaptation be as big as a priority?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2018 Special Report on stabilising global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels concluded that it is geophysically possible to limit warming to under 1.5C. The only thing that stands in the way is the political will to rapidly implement strong climate change policy across a range of sectors.

Aside from mitigation, obviously we also need to improve our national capacity to adapt to increased climate variability and extremes.

My view is that climate change is no longer a scientific issue, it's really more of a cultural and social issue we need to face collectively.

 

Science communication is clearly a passion of yours - do you think the general public truly understands what is happening to our climate and the extent of the dangers to the environment, species and our way of life? Is there more we can do to explain the science or should we try to influence the public with other ways?

Since my book Sunburnt Country was released in April 2018, I've spent countless hours travelling around Australia, giving public lectures and media interviews, as well as appearing at all the major writers' festivals across the country trying to raise awareness about climate change and what it means for life here at home.

By and large, I think every day Australians understand what's going on and want to do anything they can to help turn things around. I know people can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the science, but reminding them of their personal power as a politically-engaged citizen and as a consumer really helps.

There is a sustainability revolution currently underway all over the world and even right here in Australia. The question is: are you willing to be a part of it?