Soon after this top scientist warned that conditions were ripe for wildfires, Australia went up in flames. Such warnings can go ignored in the country, where the government has downplayed human-caused climate change. Arblaster's career shows the challenges posed by the politicization of science policy.
On an evening in the Southern Hemisphere’s late spring that was still cold enough for a jacket, Julie Arblaster joined about 100 other choral singers at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra rehearsal studio to practice a new piece of music. Its name was “Fire of the Spirit.”
It celebrated a female mystic from the 12th century whose words might have been spoken by environmental activist Greta Thunberg in the 21st: “The Earth sustains humanity. It must not be injured; it must not be destroyed.”
Arblaster, an Australian climatologist, had just co-authored a paper about a weakening Antarctic polar vortex. She knew it would combine with a worrying set of conditions that can occur in the waters surrounding her vast country.
The eastern Indian Ocean was cooler than normal, and the western Indian Ocean was warmer than normal, part of a cycle known as the Indian Ocean Dipole. When combined with an El Niño – when waters are warmer than normal over the equatorial Pacific Ocean – and a weakening of the Antarctic polar vortex, the result was often a bad fire season.
“I mean, we’re in this massive drought at the moment,” she said in her Melbourne office, pointing to a chart in the paper that explained Australia’s vulnerability to fires.
And even though the paper analyzed conditions that predated this day in October 2019, it was clear to Arblaster that the conclusions were about to be borne out.
“Well, this is suggesting that for this October-to-January period, it’s not going to get any better.”
It didn’t get better. By the time the chorus performed “Fire of the Spirit” three weeks later, Australia had been enveloped in wildfires. When torrential rains finally doused the country in early February 2020, flames had scorched at least 186,000 square kilometers. Thirty-four people had died, nearly 3,000 homes had been destroyed, and upward of 1 billion koalas, kangaroos and other wild animals had been incinerated.
At the time, Arblaster mused on the terrible juxtaposition of conflagration and the coming summer holidays.
“It's usually a time of celebration at the end of the school year and a time to recoup and get back to nature,” she said. “But the nightly news this year has been shocking in comparison and puts in stark contrast to our government’s lack of leadership on climate change.”
For Arblaster, 47, such criticism of elected officials doesn’t come easily – even though she’s one of the most influential climate scientists in the world. She ranks 105th on the Reuters Hot List, a gauge of the clout of the top 1,000 researchers publishing scientific papers related to climate change, and 11th among the list’s fewer than 125 women.
She answers questions with political implications slowly, picking her words carefully, sometimes pausing mid-sentence to gather her thoughts.
Her hesitancy goes back, in part, to the five years she worked for the Australian government’s Bureau of Meteorology. There, in her role as a civil servant, she said, “I wasn’t allowed to talk about” the science freely.
Climate change is a politically charged issue in much of the industrialized world. But the debate is especially heated in Australia, one of the world’s top coal producers.
The center-right political leadership, including the current coalition government led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Liberal Party, has a long history of minimizing research that shows how the use of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, is causing the planet’s rapid warming. In 2019, the Australian government approved the controversial Carmichael coal mine, which is expected to produce millions of tons of coal; most of it will be exported to India, a nation choking on coal soot. In recent years, Australia has slashed government-funded research into climate-change adaption from about $50 million in 2008 to $9 million in 2014 and less than $1 million in 2018. The initial cuts were made by a coalition government as part of a budget-trimming process.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack made headlines in early 2019 by saying people who worried about climate change were “inner-city raving lunatics.” In 2017, shortly before taking over as prime minister, Morrison himself taunted an opposition party member by brandishing a large lump of coal, saying, “This is coal; don’t be afraid.”
Soon after Australia’s terrifying infernos erupted, Morrison denied there was any link between climate change and the blazes. By February last year, he acknowledged a connection. But he also said that reducing the amount of flammable brush was as important to reducing fires as reducing emissions; while this can help, some political leaders in Australia and the United States have focused on brush to try to downplay the effect of climate change on wildfires.
More recently, the government’s tone has softened further, and it has promoted the idea that Australia is ahead of its promises to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. Critics say the government is using a drop in emissions as a result of the economic slowdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to mask an inadequate response to climate change.
Reuters submitted detailed questions for this story to several representatives of the Morrison government. They declined to respond.
In years past, climate scientists around the world were much more likely to stay out of the politics of public policy. They produced the science; regulators and elected officials and activists did the rest. That’s changed in recent years, with some scholars entering the political fray, yet most remain cautious about plunging in deep.
Arblaster reflects that prudence, expressing uneasiness with taking on her country’s leadership directly, even as she readily says that more needs to be done to reduce emissions.
“Australia is projected to get worse with climate change, and climate scientists foresaw a worsening fire season at least 30 years ago,” she said.
It’s not just fires. The Great Barrier Reef has been ravaged by three extreme periods of ocean heatwaves this decade. And the country has suffered through drought and below-average rainfall almost every year this century. This summer’s fire season was quiet – but it was marked by flooding not seen in generations.
“Strong action towards reducing emissions federally and globally should clearly be the primary goal if we want to reduce our risk to these types of events in the future,” Arblaster said.
Arblaster was reluctant to be interviewed for this series. She agreed to talk on the condition that her partner and their son not be named. Her partner, a scientist himself, still works at the Bureau of Meteorology, and is under the same restrictions she once was.
“That doesn’t mean I’m not passionate about the need for climate scientists, myself included, to communicate with the public, with policymakers, with everyone about the urgent need to act on climate change,” she said. “It’s just not my style to attack individuals publicly. If I’m to be in any way effective, I need to stay true to myself rather than try to be someone I’m not.”
A skeptical continent
The Australian government’s skepticism about the findings of climate science is widely shared among the continent’s people. Only a quarter of Australians believe humans are primarily to blame for climate change, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in 28 countries before the wildfires erupted in late 2019. That put Australia near the top of the list of countries skeptical about humanity’s role in the planet’s warming, along with Russia, the United States and China – all countries whose economies are among the most reliant on fossil fuels.
And even after the fires had raged for six weeks, that proportion of skeptics was virtually unchanged, according to a follow-up poll conducted in early February 2020.
Australia also has an outsized percentage of people who don’t believe climate change is a serious problem, according to the same poll. Twenty-five percent of Australians said climate change isn’t important to them personally, fifth-highest among the countries polled, after the United States, at 29%, and just above Saudi Arabia at 21%.
By comparison, just 7% of Mexicans said it isn’t important, and 9% of Indians.
Noted climatologist Michael Mann says the skepticism expressed by some Australian elected officials helps inoculate many citizens from accepting the science.
By chance, Mann, who ranks 37th on the Reuters Hot List, arrived in Sydney just before the fires started for a six-month sabbatical to study the links between climate change and extreme weather alongside scientists at the University of New South Wales. He was there as some coastal areas were evacuated by sea when wildfires blocked the roads. He saw Sydney engulfed in choking smoke.
“Being here and witnessing the larger problem and seeing the death and destruction in the habitat decimation by these bushfires is, you know, it’s sobering,” he said.
Wildfires are part of the natural cycle in places such as Australia and the American West Coast. Climate change, however, exaggerates the severity and extent of fires. It magnifies the periods of hot and dry conditions, which also exacerbate the problem of a volatile underbrush.
“It’s one thing to study climate change from an academic or scientific standpoint,” Mann said. “It’s something else to be on the front lines and witnessing it play out.”
Mann is best known for his reconstruction of the previous 1,000 years of temperature around the planet and creating the so-called hockey stick graph, which illustrated the rapid warming of the atmosphere over the last century.
He takes a different view from Arblaster on engaging in political combat over climate change. He’s all in.
While in Sydney, he used the fires as an opportunity to take on climate-change skeptics, and was all over the airwaves. One argument mounted by the government was that the fires were triggered not by natural causes, but by arsonists – a view that Mann repeatedly argued was nonsense, a “massive disinformation campaign” meant to deflect attention away from human-caused climate change as the primary reason.
In truth, a small number of fires were caused by arson. Far more were caused accidentally by humans, while others were caused by lightning from thunderstorms that produce no rain on the ground. The fire season, however, was exacerbated by an extreme drought, driven by climate change.
“There is an effort right now to prevent the public from making that connection by arguing that this is all arson rather than climate-change-related,” Mann said at the time. “But Australians are seeing this up close, and they’re feeling the direct effects.”
In a February 2020 discussion on the public television broadcaster ABC, Mann was seated next to Jim Molan, a senator from the ruling Liberal Party. Mann said the only way to deal with human-driven climate change – and mitigate extreme weather such as the wildfires – is to significantly reduce the use of fossil fuels.
The moderator then asked Molan about Mann’s assertion that humans have caused climate change. The senator replied that his “mind was open” to other explanations and that he read about those explanations every day.
But when pushed for specifics on those explanations several times, Molan conceded, “I’m not relying on evidence.”
The audience jeered and a delighted Mann responded: “You said it, you said it.” As the audience enjoyed a laugh at the senator’s expense, Mann turned the rhetorical knife: “You should keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.”
Molan’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Arblaster said she has seen the clip, which made the rounds on social media. She declined to comment on the exchange or on Molan’s views, saying only that “the best decision-making should be based on peer-reviewed evidence, scientific evidence.”
Music as metaphor
Arblaster’s other calling is choral music. On that spring evening back in 2019, she made her way into the Melbourne rehearsal hall clutching the score for the upcoming choral performance. She took her place in the seats to the left of the choir director, among the other sopranos. The room gradually filled, the tenors directly in front of the director and the altos to his right.
The piece was new, written by the son of orchestra conductor Andrew Davis to commemorate his father’s final year on the rostrum. The choral director and the pianist had played the piece, but even they hadn’t heard the words, based on a text by the mystic Hildegard von Bingen nine centuries ago. Section by section, starting with the sopranos, they sang their sometimes discordant parts.
“O fire of the spirit and Defender, the life of every life created. Holy are you – giving life to every form. Holy are you – anointing the critically broken.”
Over several hours, with the director humming, cajoling, even cheering them along, the sopranos, altos and tenors came together.
Music, Arblaster said a few weeks later, is central to her life, along with family and science. “I suppose it is a bit like a metaphor for how science is done,” she said.
Especially so when likened to the study of climate change and extreme weather, in which Arblaster has made her name: Scientists from differing backgrounds and disciplines collect evidence etched on the planet’s crust, dissolved in the seas and swirling in the atmosphere. Like a choir reading music, they apply their knowledge and expertise, and when their collective voices come together, they offer an explanation of how humans are altering the climate.
“You are the teacher of the truly learned, whose joy you grant through Wisdom’s inspiration.”
Arblaster says she is happiest engaging with students, collaborating with other scientists, conducting research and, at the end of the day, returning home to her partner and their now primary-school-age son.
It’s a family-based life that hearkens back to her happy childhood, which fell apart in her teens.
She grew up in a small town on the banks of the Murray River, a couple of hundred miles north of Melbourne.
“My dad was very much into classical music. It was the only thing we were allowed [on the radio] at our home. I sang a lot as a kid,” she said.
She was 3 years old when doctors diagnosed her father with cancer. He was treated with radiation, but cancer kept returning.
When she was 12, her father died. Three years after that, so did her mother, also of cancer. Her two older brothers were already at college, but she remained in her hometown, living with family friends.
“Australia is projected to get worse with climate change, and climate scientists foresaw a worsening fire season at least 30 years ago.”
The day after the rehearsal, Arblaster sat on a stool at a bar in downtown Melbourne before heading out to meet her partner and son for pizza at an Italian restaurant.
Losing her parents at such a young age changed her in ways that are unclear to her, she said, looking down at her beer.
“To be honest, I'm not much of a planner, and I’m not really sure why,” she said.
Her schooling taught her that her mathematical computer-simulation models can predict the direction of the planet’s climate. Scientists try to anticipate new inventions, the adoption of cleaner energy technologies or unexpected natural events when they model different scenarios. They can’t capture everything, but what is clear is that if greenhouse gases aren’t significantly reduced, the world faces a significantly warmer future.
Her own experience, though, has taught how unpredictable life can be. Even she doesn’t know, for sure, precisely how hot and dry the climate will become.
“I think, for me, it’s that you can never really anticipate what's going to be around the corner. So, I don’t really worry about [my son], and what it’s going to be like for him, even when he’s a teenager, because I don’t know.”
Later, she said that when thinking about her child’s future, “I’m not thinking scientifically, I’m thinking emotionally, and who knows?”
But she is confident the science is directionally correct. “When I think about climate change, I think about what it’s going to be like in 20 years’ time. I think we’re in big trouble.”
The color purple
Monash University, where Arblaster is a climate scientist in the School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, is about a 20-minute drive from her home. In the pre-pandemic world, Arblaster left work early a couple of days a week to pick up her son from daycare and walked him home. On the other days, her partner did the same.
One day in late October 2019, it was her turn to pick up the boy, and she had a packed schedule. She had pulled together a group of postdoctoral students and other scientists to discuss research into the behavior of the Southern Hemisphere’s subtropical jet stream, and other atmospheric conditions, which dictate much of Australia’s weather.
The first person to present work was Darryn Waugh, a climate science professor from New Zealand who works at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Ranked 798th on the Reuters Hot List, Waugh studies atmospheric dynamics. He wanted to talk to Arblaster about her 2013 Ph.D. thesis, which looked at how the warming of the tropics can shift the southern jet stream toward the South Pole.
She placed her purple-bound thesis on a conference table and opened it to a page of charts and graphs. Almost talking to himself, Waugh observed how a narrow jet stream tends to be located closer to the equator and a wider jet stream tends to move toward the pole. Understanding how currents of air move around the planet as it warms is essential to weather forecasting. Their talk lasted about 30 minutes and strayed into the technicalities of adapting global climate models to fit regional climates by shifting some of the underlying constants used in the calculations.
They could have gone longer, but Arblaster had to move on – to a meeting with an administrator, a sit-down with a doctoral student, the pickup of her son, the choral rehearsal that evening. She closed the purple cover of her thesis.
“It's usually a time of celebration at the end of the school year. But the nightly news this year has been shocking in comparison and puts in stark contrast to our government’s lack of leadership on climate change.”
Most bound thesis covers aren’t purple, she said. This one is an appreciative nod to her partner, who supported and encouraged her to work on her Ph.D.
Around the time she was finishing her doctorate at the University of Melbourne, the country was suffering through a historic heatwave that came to be known as the “Angry Summer.”
At the time, her partner was on a team of meteorologists at the Bureau of Meteorology that produced the national forecast model and temperature map. But they were confronted with something new: The color used in their system to display temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius, or 122 Fahrenheit, was white. The record temperature for Australia is 50.7 degrees set on January 2, 1960, and forecasts above 50 were unheard of.
Previously, deep red was the typical color for heatwaves: the color for temperatures in the 40s. But now temperatures were expected to rise above 50, which would display on a map of the continent as white. When he showed the map to colleagues before releasing it publicly, his boss balked. White as a symbol for potentially record-breaking heat did not work graphically.
So, her partner picked purple, without any real thought. The weather service released its forecast, which included the new color. And within 24 hours, news spread around the world that Australia was so hot that it needed a new color for its forecast maps.
“One thing about the purple patch is you read on the climate-skeptic blogs that it was a conspiracy by the bureau” to draw attention to climate change, her partner explained during family pizza night the evening after her rehearsal. “But it was just how to fix a problem. It wasn’t a conspiracy. It was just me and my bad, um, aesthetics.”
Changing the subject, Arblaster turned to her son: “Do you know what Mummy and Daddy do for work? What are we?”
Hinting: “Are we pizza makers?”
“No,” he yelled. “Scientists!”
“Yeah!” she replied and the two high-fived each other.
Waugh said he sympathizes with Arblaster’s sensitivity to controversy. He met her a few years ago while the two worked on a chapter assessing how the atmosphere’s ozone layer has been affected by climate change for a report mandated by the Montreal Protocol. The protocol, a 1987 international agreement reducing the aerosols and other chemicals that damage the planet’s protective layer, is widely cited as an example of governments working together to solve a global environmental crisis.
Since doing the chapter, the two have become friends, and when Waugh is in Australia, the native Kiwi stops in to visit Arblaster.
“Julie's always kind of reserved, very kind of level-headed. When we have these panel discussions, she’s not the one who speaks up loudly.”
But that doesn’t undercut her influence as a scientist, he said.
“The press’ view of who the leaders are in terms of different fields of science, but, in particular, climate science, I think is very biased towards people who speak up the most,” he said. “Whereas if you went and asked the people working in the field, I think they would come up with some of those people, but they would also come up with a list of names other than that.”
On occasion, Arblaster does speak out. When Prime Minister Morrison was relatively new to the job, she wanted to see if his position on climate change had evolved.
“It's been a year now, and it's very clear from the budget: He’s not interested in taking any leadership on climate change. And I think that's a mistake,” she said at the time.
Still, few things cause Arblaster more distress than the limelight.
At the beginning of the rehearsal that spring evening, the choir director made a few housekeeping announcements. He said a little about the music. Then he explained to the singers why a photographer and reporter were focusing on Arblaster, asking if any of them didn’t want to be included in the photographs.
No one was concerned, but the entire choir turned to Arblaster, who was sitting in the second row, midway down the soprano section. And when the director had finished his explanation about her and her work and why she was being profiled, the choir burst into applause.
Arblaster didn’t say a word. She shrank into her chair, smiling, her face crimson at being the center of attention.
The Hot List
By Maurice Tamman
Photos by Lucas Jackson
Data analysis: Maurice Tamman
Data provider: Dimensions, part of Digital Science
Graphics: Maryanne Murray
Photo editing: Corinne Perkins
Design: Maryanne Murray, Troy Dunkley, Pete Hausler
Edited by Kari Howard