CSIRO Climate Scientist, Dr. Wenju Cai, Talks To Asian Scientist Magazine

We interview Dr. Wenju Cai, an ocean climate researcher at the CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research in Australia.

AsianScientist (Jul. 20, 2011) – In 1983, a policy passed by Bob Hawke, Prime Minister of Australia, proved pivotal to the career of Dr. Wenju Cai, then a student at Amoy University in Southern China.

Forming the initial batch of exchange students to promote trade and cultural relations between the two countries, Dr. Cai arrived in Australia. In 1990, he began his career with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the national government body for scientific research in Australia.

Cai (pronounced “Chai” as in China), as he is known to his colleagues, is now a Senior Principal Research Scientist at the CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research where he leads an ocean climate team. An expert in climate modeling, he coined the analogy of a “three-headed dog” savaging Australia’s climate, referring to the three climate influences of the El Nino, the Southern Annullar Mode, and the Indian Ocean Dipole.

Dr. Cai notably contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report which won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Just this week, CSIRO announced that Dr. Cai had been awarded a five-year CSIRO fellowship, the 2011 CSIRO Office of the Chief Executive Science Leadership Award, to form a research team that will study climate influences on Australia.

In an interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, we ask Dr. Cai about his plans for his upcoming research, his views on geoengineering, and the biggest misconceptions about climate change the public has.

Dr. Cai, congratulations on your recent CSIRO award. What do you hope to achieve during this five-year period?

Thank you. Australian climate is strongly influenced by tropical variability, such as the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events. For example, we have just been through a 13-year drought (since 1997), followed by devastating floods over northern and eastern Australia during the 2010/2011 summer in association with the La Niña condition.

During droughts, southeast Australia often experiences severe bushfires such as Ash Wednesday (16 February, 1983, 75 deaths) and Black Saturday (7 February 2009, 173 deaths). Conditions for these major bushfires are usually established by an IOD event in the previous spring (Sept-Oct-Nov) season.

Given the great importance of ENSO and the IOD, we hope to understand how these drivers and their impacts will respond to climate change.

For example, will the response of climate drivers induce more severe floods, droughts, and bushfires?

How can Australia prepare for the future changes in its climate, such as decreasing autumn and winter rainfall, and the drying of southern Australia?

Yes, the autumn and winter rainfall over southern Australia is projected to reduce. Since 1950, autumn rainfall over southeast Australia has decreased by about 50 percent.

For southern Australia, autumn rainfall is very important because it represents a “wetting mechanism” for the catchment, so that rainfall in the peak season (winter and spring) can be efficiently converted to runoff and inflows. With a projected reduction in autumn rainfall, the implication is that there will be a significant reduction in inflows to Australia’s longest river system, the Murray-Darling.

There are a number of measures that can help us prepare for this (and government and water managing agencies are already moving in this direction), such as reducing irrigation commitment, increasing value of water uses, enhancing water reuse, storm water harvesting in cities, and so on.

Australia has shown to be susceptible to climate change, are there any aspects of true geoengineering (climate engineering) that you would find acceptable?

I am not very keen on geoengineering. If we have a problem we should try to cure it from its root. We don’t have sufficient scientific understanding as to the full consequences of such engineering. I think reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the way to go.

You have worked with environmental agencies in Australia, Japan, Canada and the United States. Do you think the various agencies and countries are doing enough in the areas of climate, water and atmospheric research?

Australia has a lot more to lose than many other countries. For example, take the 13-year drought and the drying of the Murray-Darling River which supports annual rural production worth up to $30 billion. In 2007, the Murray-Darling’s annual inflow reached only seven percent of the long-term mean, and Australians began to realize how very vulnerable we are.

Coming with that realization is a substantial increase in investment from all levels of governments in understanding, detecting and attributing the observed trends, and projecting future changes in climate. On a pro rata basis, Australia’s investment is substantial and very well justified.

I don’t think many other countries have faced such a situation. It is hard to know what other countries would have done in a similar situation. The reality is that a country invests at a level demanded by its citizens through its political system.

You grew up and studied in China, and your career has been based in Australia. Would you be able to comment on the future of climate research in China?

I am forever grateful to China where I not only received a free university education, but also free accommodation and food throughout my Undergraduate and Master’s degree years.

Always proud of this heritage, I am known in Australia as “Chai” from China. Towards repaying my debt to China, I have been involved in international programs in which China plays a leading role, and also in several Australia-China collaborative projects.

From my participation, I learned with pride the tremendous investment that China has been making in renewable energy, technologies that reduce carbon intensity, ocean observation, and climate modeling. The scale of resources that are available and the amount of progress that has been made actually outpaces many developed countries.

What is the biggest misconception about climate change that the public has?

My experience in Australia is that the public recognizes that climate is changing. During the peak of the drought when all states had water restrictions, I heard people speak about moving to a region where water is not an issue. There might be a place where water is not an issue, but there is not a place that isn’t affected by increasing climate extremes.

Another misconception is that “I cannot do anything about it”. The truth is that there are many things we can do to mitigate climate change.

The biggest misconception is this idea that “We are a small country; whatever we do does not matter.” If each of the fifty states in United States of America runs the same argument “We are only a small state, whatever we do does not matter” , the world climate future would be bleak.

Climate scientists find themselves in the cross hairs of both public and political opinion. Do you think this extra attention helps or hurts the cause?

I believe that the extra attention will ultimately help the cause. The cross hairs arise from discussion as to what and how to do something about it.

It involves a cost, and some are less able to afford it and are understandably anxious about it, and the anxiety is expressed in the political debate in our democratic system.

When that anxiety eventually subsides, the issue of climate change will be accepted as something we have to deal with every day – but from a lower carbon-intensive lifestyle.

To read more about Dr. Wenju Cai’s research, visit:
Wenju Cai’s research at CSIRO.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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