Climate Tasmania

A Tasmanian take on the thorniest global issue since the dinosaurs. Based on Peter Boyer’s newspaper column in the Hobart Mercury.

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A challenge to the PM to lift his game

Effective climate action in Australia is looking farther away than ever, but it’s not an impossible task. [25 November 2014 | Peter Boyer]

In early July 1971, Labor opposition leader Gough Whitlam stirred a hornets nest when he shook hands in Beijing with Zhou Enlai, premier of the country we knew and feared as “Red” China.

Gough Whitlam meets with Zhou Enlai, Premier of China, in Beijing, July 1971. BELOW: The telegram that started it all [WHITLAM INSTITUTE, SYDNEY]

Gough Whitlam meets with Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing, July 1971. BELOW: The telegram that started it all, 14 April 1971 [WHITLAM INSTITUTE, SYDNEY]

Sensing electoral advantage, prime minister William McMahon and others in the Coalition went on the attack, labelling Whitlam a communist puppet who’d been duped by China’s leaders into taking the side of Australia’s enemies in Vietnam.

Their fun at Whitlam’s expense ended abruptly just 10 days later, when US president Richard Nixon announced that he would visit China in 1972. McMahon never recovered from the shock.

How times have changed. In welcoming China’s president Xi Jinping to Parliament House last week, the prime minister, Tony Abbott, acknowledged Whitlam’s bold vision in putting aside ideology to pave the way for what is now our most important trading relationship.

It would be nice to think that Abbott fully grasps the universal truths about leadership revealed by Whitlam’s China visit, about exploring new paradigms and cutting across established boundaries.

If so, it would be even better to think he might find a way to put these into practice. There’s no time like the present, with his prime ministership and government now stuck up several policy dead-ends, the result of blinkered ideological thinking.

The signs weren’t good in the lead-up to the G20 meeting in Brisbane. An early mistake was trying to keep climate off the agenda, driven by his position that climate and the economy are two separate, discrete entities. It’s a position he shares with treasurer Joe Hockey.

As the G20 wound down, Hockey was asked by Barrie Cassidy on the ABC’s Insiders program whether he accepted that climate change was potentially one of the biggest impediments to economic growth. “No, no I don’t – absolutely not,” was Hockey’s emphatic reply.

Science tells us that human-induced climate change is with us now and will have a rising impact on our lives. Whether we deal with it or not there’s a large and rising cost attached, which must affect economic growth. Hockey’s response makes sense only if he denies the science.

Two days later came the news that the Indian government, through its State Bank of India, was offering a $US1 billion line of credit to Adani Mining, an Indian-owned company struggling for private funding to exploit Queensland’s huge Galilee Basin coal reserves.

Campbell Newman’s Queensland government is throwing in hundreds of millions dollars for port and rail infrastructure. Newman shares with Abbott a passion to see Galilee reserves exploited.

But it’s a doomed passion. Private investors are staying away in droves, spooked by announcements that India’s and China’s long-term energy policies will be focusing increasingly on renewables.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi made positive noises about coal while in Australia, but in India Modi’s energy minister Piyush Goyal is moving in an altogether different direction, declaring a firm policy to develop renewable energy and phase out coal imports.

In China, a government think-tank analysis released last week found that to meet its pledge to have its emissions peaking by 2030, China will have to begin cutting coal consumption in its industrial east before 2020. Not a nice prospect for Australian coal exports to China.

The Abbott government’s support for a doomed coal industry and its separation of economy and climate are wins for ideology over commonsense. If that problem persists we’re in deep trouble.

The government faces multiple policy imponderables mainly of its own making. Not least of these is Direct Action, a friendless climate policy that’s failed to win scientific or economic endorsement. In its present form it’s a dodo, incapable of flying and headed for extinction.

The evidence is mounting that ditching the carbon price scheme in July was a serious error. Pitt & Sherry electricity market specialist Hugh Saddler has discerned from July onwards a distinct upward movement in both black and brown coal generation, and a downward shift in renewables.

There’s always hope. One prospect is a new post-2020 climate treaty with China. Two of that country’s recent bilateral agreements, with the US on limiting carbon emissions and with Australia on free trade, provide an opening.

Given China’s determination to ratchet up renewable energy production and its expressed interest in helping other countries develop infrastructure, like very fast rail systems, such a treaty could provide a huge shot in the arm to clean energy and transport infrastructure in Australia.

At the same time, with international pressure for more ambitious emissions targets it’s clear that we won’t have a hope of lifting ours without both a price on carbon and a modified “direct action”, with teeth, to plug inevitable gaps.

To achieve this Abbott would need a good measure of Whitlam’s big thinking. His handling of the Ebola crisis isn’t encouraging, but you never know. The threat of oblivion is a great motivator.

For those who labour, some cheering news

The US-China climate pact is shaping as a game-changer in the battle against global warming. [18 November 2014 | Peter Boyer]

When things need doing and authorities are nowhere to be seen, people have a way of filling the gaps. I had this lesson brought home to me at the Australian Network for Plant Conservation’s 10th annual conference in Hobart last week.

“As we focus on our economy we cannot forget the need to lead on the global fight against climate change”: Barak Obama speaking at the University of Queensland in a speech in which he announced a US pledge of $3 billion to a Green Climate Fund to help developing countries deal with climate change. PHOTO ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

“As we focus on our economy we cannot forget the need to lead in the global fight against climate change”: Barak Obama speaking at the University of Queensland in a speech in which he announced a US pledge of $3 billion to a Green Climate Fund to help developing countries deal with climate change. PHOTO ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

While most science is done by paid professionals aided by technology, human eyes, ears and hands remain in short supply, and that’s where the citizen comes in.

As “citizen scientists”, people with no formal scientific training are guided by trained scientists in collecting data about what’s happening out in the real world. They may also be involved in analysing the data, and sometimes get to be named as co-authors of scientific papers.

As the plant conservation conference heard in numerous presentations, citizen science is taking off in Australia as demand for scientific research rises in inverse proportion to government funding.

Large numbers of ordinary people me are getting down and dirty in field programs across the country, helping science get a better handle on how species and ecosystems are faring on land and, in the case of the Tasmanian-based Redmap scheme, out at sea.

They’re finding species that science had believed extinct, while watching others disappearing before their eyes. They’re catching fish that they’ve never seen before and reporting the catch to Redmap: evidence that the Australian marine environment is changing under our noses.

ClimateWatch, an initiative of Earthwatch Institute in partnership with the Bureau of Meteorology and the University of Melbourne, organises groups around the country to help gather biodiversity data over land and sea around the country, including Tasmania.

Citizen scientists learn through their observations about happenings out in the natural world with immense, profound implications. Their effort rewards them with a precious and unique gift: intimate contact with the planet that sustains them.

It won’t resolve the climate crisis, however. Neither citizen scientists nor any of the countless other volunteers labouring for a sustainable future can manage the heavy lifting that’s badly needed. That must come from government.

In Beijing last week a remarkable thing happened which might just be a game-changer. In the first climate pact between the world’s leading economies, Barak Obama of the United States and Xi Jinping of China stood side by side to announce plans to rein in their countries’ carbon emissions.

Negotiations have been going on behind closed doors for nine months to secure this landmark agreement, under which the US committed to tough new emissions targets and China agreed on a deadline after which its emissions would begin to decline.

The commitment of both countries is not trivial. Obama’s pledge to have emissions in 2025 at least 26 per cent below what they were in 2005 effectively doubles the rate of emissions reduction required under his administration’s earlier commitment.

China’s goal is to have emissions on a downward path by 2030, although it is saying it expects the peak to come earlier. In announcing China’s first-ever emissions target, Xi is locking in an ambitious plan to displace King Coal with Russian gas and renewable energy.

There are obstacles in both countries, inevitable in a strategic shift on this scale. With a hostile majority in Congress Obama can’t get a legislated carbon price. His path is to take executive action under existing clean air laws while vetoing any Congressional bills that try to stop that.

A bigger challenge will be the 2016 US presidential elections. The China deal has ensured that climate change will feature prominently in the campaign to elect Obama’s successor.

The Democratic and Republican party primaries, which begin next year, will be crucial. If public opinion swings strongly behind Obama’s agreement there’s a chance that both parties’ selected candidates will support it too, though right now that looks unlikely.

For his part, Xi faces simmering discontent about the state of air in Chinese cities, laden with polluting particles from heavy industry and coal-fired power stations. If he can give his people blue skies again they will forgive him a great deal, even at the expense of a slowing economy.

The impact of the China-US deal is being felt around the world, but it has delivered a massive shock to the Australian body politic, an unfolding story that I’ll explore next week.

With our own political leadership indifferent to the science of man-made climate change or in outright denial of it, the vision of the leaders of the world’s economic superpowers acknowledging its truth and agreeing on plans to fight it has come as a huge relief.

The labourers in the field, citizen scientists or just plain citizens, have made a big investment – emotional, intellectual and in some cases financial – to try to get the world to see the threat of man-made climate change. To them, this is truly a breath of fresh air.

The high price of today’s inaction

What we do now and over the next decade to lessen our impact on the planet will determine our future. Doing nothing is not an option, says the IPCC. [11 November 2014 | Peter Boyer]

A sprightly octogenarian scholar and a former car radio installer with a passion for flying, an unlikely team if ever there was one, took me on a trip down memory lane last week.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon officially launches the AR5 Synthesis Report in Copenhagen on 2 November

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (centre) officially launches the AR5 Synthesis Report in Copenhagen on 2 November

I didn’t read Paul Ehrlich’s best-selling book The Population Bomb when it was published in 1968, but a few years later when my first child was born I felt its huge impact. We all got to hear about the political movement it helped to spawn, ZPG, for zero population growth.

The book’s dark prediction that over-population would bring mass starvation by the 1980s badly underestimated the impact of the post-war “green revolution”, which trebled world food yields. In the popular media Ehrlich became something of a laughing stock.

But Ehrlich, now 82, doesn’t know how to take a backward step. Treading the boards of the University of Tasmania’s Stanley Burbury Centre last week at his only public meeting while in Australia, he was as articulate, forthright and unapologetic as ever.

In his sights is the failure of politicians in Australia, Canada and his own United States to recognise the global climate and environmental crisis. The US Congress’s newly-elected, climate-blind Republican majority was made up of “morons”, he told his capacity audience.

Also on the double bill that night was Dick Smith, who turned his car radio business into a chain of electronics stores before selling out to Woolworths. As well as indulging his lifelong passion to explore the world from the air, he’s now busy educating us about the perils of over-population.

Ehrlich is gloomy about our future, but not Smith. He firmly believes that we have it in us to break our addiction to the false and pernicious idea that perpetual economic growth is possible. He thinks that Australians are beginning to “get it”, and that leaders will follow.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change offers some support for Smith’s optimism. Its latest “synthesis report” has found that undertaking sufficient mitigation to keep warming within acceptable limits would reduce economic growth by a very acceptable 0.06 per cent.

But the report, which distils and updates the thousands of pages of detailed analysis comprising the IPCC’s fifth comprehensive climate review released earlier this year, also supports Ehrlich’s concern that countries’ continuing failure to enact effective measures radically increases the challenge.

We’re running out of time, says the IPCC. To keep the cost of abatement within manageable limits we have to turn around our rising emissions trajectory within a decade. The longer we wait, the more it will cost us, and the more likely we are to suffer irreversible climate change.

Continuing as we are now, the report says, will deliver us a world close to 5C warmer than it was 100 years ago, along with a very unstable climate, vanishing food and water, irreversibly damaged ecosystems and biodiversity, and human misery and mayhem on a global scale.

We’re now experiencing more high temperature extremes and fewer cold extremes. As the century progresses, extreme rain events and heat waves will happen more often, and the heat waves will be hotter and last longer.

We already know what it will be like, says ANU epidemiologist Dr Elizabeth Hanna, an expert on the impact of global warming on human physiology. She told the ABC’s Radio National Breakfast that thousands of people are already dying because the world is too hot for them.

Human bodies generate heat, and ten times more heat when we move, which is why we prefer temperatures around 22C. Business as usual will lift summer extremes in Australia above 50C for prolonged periods, over 13C above humans’ core temperature and 28C above our comfort zone

How will our bodies deal with this? Not well, says Hanna. “If the temperature is close to our core temperature, or hotter, we cannot shed this extra heat. Our core temperature gets too high and we go into heat stress and ultimately death.” End of story.

ENERGY MINISTER Matthew Groom feels I should have acknowledged his effort in helping to persuade Canberra to retain a Renewable Energy Target. However, the RET that’s now the preferred option is not today’s legislated RET but a lesser one that would disadvantage hydro, solar and wind.

His public statements on the RET have focused on the Labor opposition. His target should have been the federal government. Besides trying to kill off the RET, it deprived Hydro Tasmania of many millions of dollars this financial year with the repeal of the carbon price.

We need both him and Will Hodgman to find it in them to break a taboo and confront the prevailing attitude in their party, and particularly in the Abbott government, that our rising carbon emissions are of no consequence. The continuing silence is costing us dearly.