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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Reminding our leaders what’s important

Our leaders refuse to give carbon emissions the priority they deserve. It seems the rest of us must remind them of their responsibilities. [16 September 2014 | Peter Boyer]

New Yorkers rally for climate action. PHOTO MATTHEW ANDERSON

New Yorkers rally for climate action. PHOTO MATTHEW ANDERSON

Next Sunday I’m making yet another visit to MONA, Hobart’s wonderful Museum of Old and New Art. This time it’s not art that’s drawing me there, but an event on the other side of the world.

Next week’s New York climate summit has been touted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as an opportunity for world political, business and civic leaders to announce the actions they plan to take to reduce emissions and to deal with climate change.

The UN aims to have 100 or more heads of state at its New York headquarters next Tuesday. The idea is to try to get some momentum in the lead-up to next year’s Paris conference, so that this landmark meeting in December 2015 achieves its ambitious goals with a minimum of fuss.

US President Barak Obama is expected to go to New York, but other key climate players will be missing. Among them are the leaders of China and India, respectively the world’s largest and third-largest carbon emitters, and Canada, whose present government regards climate policy as a mug’s game.

Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper and our own Tony Abbott declared a lot of common ground on climate policy when they met in June, so it will be no surprise to find Australia without a political representative at the meeting.

That will concern Australians and many others, but of greater global concern are the positions taken by the leading developing countries in the next year or so as preparations gather pace for a post-2020 global climate agreement, to replace the venerable Kyoto Protocol.

The key players here are four emerging nations calling themselves the BASIC group: Brazil, South Africa, India and the big one, China. Representatives of these countries met in India last month to thrash out their positions for Paris.

The outcome was a setback for countries in the developed world, including Australia. The BASIC countries declared themselves disappointed at what they saw as a lack of commitment among developed countries to help emerging countries develop effective carbon-abatement measures.

The Indian climate change minister, Prakash Javadekar, said after the meeting that “developed countries must walk the talk” after their 2009 commitment to provide developing countries with $100 billion a year by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation had failed to materialise.

Such is the political manoeuvring around international climate negotiations. But a much more substantial reason for all countries, developed and developing, to get serious about carbon abatement was disclosed in a UN report released last week on global emissions.

Last year saw the biggest increase in 30 years in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air, the report said. At the year’s close, the carbon dioxide level was the highest ever recorded at 396 parts per million. At Hawaii’s Mauna Loa station the reading went above 400 ppm.

Our instrumental record for atmospheric carbon dioxide goes back only to 1958, but proxy data from ice cores, ocean sediments and other sources tell us that today’s level is higher than it’s been for at least 20 million years.

On top of this, last month a US research team published estimates that if all coal and gas power stations now existing or scheduled to be built operate for the average functioning life of 40 years, they will keep emissions at or above today’s levels for decades into the future.

Ban Ki-moon says that national leaders must respond to expert scientific advice on climate. The government says it acted on expert advice to send us to war, but it’s chosen to ignore advice from its chief scientist and all our scientific agencies that climate change demands our urgent attention.

Australia’s leaders talk a lot about national security but are silent on the most pressing issue of all. Like a scandal in the family, it seems climate and the high carbon intensity of our economy must never be mentioned. What are they frightened of?

Change will happen if a critical mass of people feels strongly enough to come out and declare publicly that their political leadership is failing them. Huge popular rallies forced an end to the Vietnam war. It can happen again.

The biggest climate rally ever is to be staged on Manhattan Island next Sunday, two days ahead of the UN summit. A mass march in the streets of central New York aims to tackle obstacles to effective climate measures while emphasising reasons for hope and possibilities for change.

Millions around the world will join the US effort to demand strong national actions to secure for our children and grandchildren a world safe from the ravages of climate change. At the time of writing over 100 events had been organised throughout Australia. This is democracy at work.

Hobart’s event to support the New York rally will be a public gathering and picnic on the lawns of MONA at Berriedale, beginning at 1 pm on Sunday. Other Tasmanian events are at Burnie Park (starting 1pm) and Train Park, Deloraine (12.30pm). More details at http://peoplesclimate.org

The China syndrome

The notion that global warming is just a mental construct is damaging Australia’s climate response as well as its opportunities for technical leadership. [9 September 2014 | Peter Boyer]

One of China”s first wind farms, in Mulan, Heilongiang Province. Since 2009 China has been the world’s largest producer of wind turbines. PHOTO LAND ROVER: OUR PLANET

One of China’s first wind farms, in Mulan, Heilongiang Province. Since 2009 China has been the world’s largest producer of wind turbines. PHOTO LAND ROVER: OUR PLANET

The science of climate is complex, as we know, but it seems dead simple alongside another great conundrum of our age, how to get people and governments around the world to respond effectively.

Here’s a confession: I can be slow to acknowledge an error. But I’m among many friends. Psychologists say that when faced with stark evidence that they’re wrong, people will commonly “change” the evidence to match their position.

Now, confronted by evidence that our present pattern of fossil fuel use will bring intolerable temperature rises within our children’s lifetimes, we behave as if it’s just a mental construct.

The English environmental thinker George Marshall, whose video presentations I’ve long admired, has just written a book with a title that says it all: “Don’t even think about it: why our brains are wired to ignore climate change”.

Marshall points to our “loss aversion”, a term coined by Nobel prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman to describe a natural human tendency to be more sensitive to losses than gains.

This is exactly what we don’t need in dealing with global warming, where we have to make sacrifices now to avoid losses that are many years or decades away. The result can be psychological paralysis.

Marshall has identified a related deep-seated impediment to our acting on climate change: the “passive bystander” effect. We tend to put our group’s collective responsibility ahead of our personal responsibility, and wait for someone else to act, because that’s how we evolved.

This may all sound like just another academic mind-trip, but far from it. As Marshall and many others attest it’s a key to the big political and social shifts needed to deal with climate change. In that battlefront, China looms large.

The Australian debate during the past decade has been dominated by talk about how rapidly-rising Chinese carbon emissions are dwarfing our own, rendering ineffectual and irrelevant our own puny attempts to cut emissions at home. This is the passive bystander effect at work.

Australia’s 1.5 per cent of global emissions seems tiny set against China’s carbon emissions, now about a fifth of the world total. So some business and political leaders ask, why should we lift a finger and risk being at a trading disadvantage?

It’s easy to find examples of tardiness in other countries, and everywhere these same sorts of people are saying that action is unwarranted because so-and-so hasn’t yet acted. But it’s a weak, narrow, short-sighted argument, serving no purpose beyond today’s balance sheet.

For many decades the economist Ross Garnaut has been one of Australia’s leading scholars of China. In a Melbourne University address late last month he confronted head-on the national narrative that growing use of coal by China makes our climate measures pointless.

China’s rapid economic growth, raising its carbon emissions above those of the United States to around a fifth of the world’s total, seems to fit neatly with the argument that Australia should sit on its hands.

But in recent years, as Garnaut describes it, “China took the world by surprise.” The country shifted towards lower-energy activity and lower-emissions energy with a massive scaling-up of renewable research and manufacture, with cost benefits for the whole world.

Garnaut points out that the Chinese economy is a big ship that takes a while to turn around, and the shift from coal to other energy sources won’t have a big impact until after 2020. But all the indicators in each year since 2011 show that this shift is well under way.

China has already, in Garnaut’s words, “transformed expectations of what is possible in global climate change mitigation, this time in a positive direction”, while also preparing Chinese industry for a century of global leadership in renewable energy and electrified transport.

The Chinese government is dominated by technically-trained people who’ve grasped not just the climate threat but also the need to think ahead and rapidly apply technological solutions. Australia could benefit hugely from this if our government could only see the problem, and the possibilities.

With next year’s UN climate meeting in Paris seeking agreement on global climate action out to 2030, it’s crucial that Australia is able to respond with ambitious emissions-cutting measures.

Instead, we’re on the brink of divesting from new energy technology by cutting the Renewable Energy Target, while expanding our coal exports to India. We’re giving a leg up to fossil fuel interests when we should be doing everything we can to shut them down

Tony Abbott supports a global role for Australia in an emergency, yet he can’t see the need to be a leader in confronting the vastly bigger menace of greenhouse warming, and the huge possibilities opening up to Australian innovators if we do.

This enemy isn’t an obvious one, like Islamist extremists or Ukrainian separatists. As Abbott has pointed out before, it’s an invisible gas. It takes real vision to see its dangers and act against them.

• Nine energy-efficient Tasmanian homes will be open to public viewing next Sunday, Sustainable House Day. Among them is the Fern Tree home of Torquil Canning and Alice Ryan, featuring passive solar design and other solar technologies. Go here for more venues.

Amateurs at work

The Abbott government believes it can ignore its climate experts with impunity. [2 September 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss puts a point on Q&A. [SOURCE: ABC]

Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss puts a point on Q&A. [SOURCE: ABC]

A fortnight ago investment banker and company director Maurice Newman mused aloud that “climate change is determined by the sun, not humans”.

In a long article in The Australian, Newman wrote that scientific conclusions about human-induced warming reflected a deliberate bias, because “the more scientists pointed to human causes, the more governments funded their research”.

“Like primitive civilisations offering up sacrifices to appease the gods, many governments, including Australia’s former Labor government, used the biased research to pursue ‘green’ gesture politics”, damaging economies and diminishing the West’s influence, Newman wrote.

In other words it was politics and personal ambition, not science, which led to the view that climate is being changed by humans. If that’s so, we’ve been hoodwinked by our professional scientists.

Newman’s lack of a scientific background doesn’t preclude him from writing about climate science, any more than it does me. But several things set this case apart.

The world’s professional science bodies, including every national science academy, agree that humans are the main cause of global warming. According to all the expert surveys of peer-reviewed scientific literature, this is also the view of an overwhelming majority of individual scientists.

Newman is therefore questioning the integrity of not just individual professionals but the scientific establishment as a whole, in Australia and throughout the world. That takes a lot of gall.

There’s also the fact that lay people can easily misinterpret the specialist jargon of research papers. In writing about a scientific outcome I tend to look for what scientists, especially a paper’s authors, say about it. If possible I deal with an author myself.

It seems Newman did none of this in claiming that a long-term study of solar activity by Finnish physicist Ilya Usoskin and others, and work by “leading British climate scientist Mike Lockwood”, supported his argument.

He said that Lockwood considered the sun’s cyclical influence, currently waning, made global cooling “more likely than not”. But a 2012 paper by Lockwood and others said that the cooling impact from solar by 2100 would be “a very small fraction” of expected human-induced warming.

Newman claimed that the Usoskin paper  supported the case that the sun was the dominant influence on climate change, but the paper is about the sun, and doesn’t discuss climate on Earth at all.

Australia’s chief scientist, Ian Chubb, surmised that he’d got his information from “trawling the internet”, and advised him to steer clear of climate science and stick to business matters. Whatever his sources, Newman’s article misrepresents the science.

“Nonsense” and “flat earth stuff” was the assessment of Michael Raupach, head of the ANU’s Climate Change Institute, at a Science Week function in Canberra. He said Newman was “cherry picking about one per cent of the information, taking it completely out of context”.

We could reasonably ignore the article if Newman was just another businessman, but he isn’t. He’s the head of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council.

If the government was inclined it could have ensured that Newman’s views got the credibility they deserved. It still could. Tony Abbott could publicly remind him that his advisory role is limited to business matters and that in the circumstances he should stay off his hobby horse.

But Abbott hasn’t, and nor has the deputy prime minister, Warren Truss, whose National Party has been even less accepting of climate science than the Liberals.

On the ABC’s Q&A show, Truss refused repeatedly to say whether Newman was wrong. “I think we need to listen to all the scientists,” he responded. “Certainly there are scientists who have different views and one thing that I thought everybody believed around the table was that we should be open to whatever views are being expressed.”

So where are these different views coming from? I seriously doubt that Truss could name a single Australian currently employed as a climate scientist who supports Newman’s claims.

Truss’s counsel to “be open to whatever views are being expressed” says it all. Our national leadership is duty-bound to seek the best possible advice on issues requiring specialist knowledge, yet it treats the science of climate as an exception, open to anyone’s tin-pot beliefs.

The idea that carbon emissions and the science of global warming are of little consequence also informed the Warburton Renewable Energy Target report, out last week. Measures recommended in the review would eliminate Australia’s most effective remaining tool for cutting emissions.

The tacit acceptance of Newman’s article and the very existence of the Warburton report have laid bare the government’s disengagement with climate policy and its careless disregard of the accumulated wisdom of science.

If this isn’t deliberate it’s the work of deluded, clueless amateurs. Either way we’re in big trouble.