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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Wealth, waste and the futile generation war

It’s pointless trying to blame another generation for the problems we face. The problems belong to us all. [15 April 2014 | Peter Boyer]


Every now and again we’re reminded of the thing we call a generation, and it’s often a confronting experience.

We know a human generation to be the period of time that most people take to produce offspring, but this can vary depending on the situation. Generations tend to be longer in boom times with high numbers of women in jobs than during an economic depression, for instance.

In poorer countries, where people have a lower life expectancy and less access to birth control, the age gap between parents and their children can be 15 years, or less. In developed countries a generation averages around 25 years.

I said “people”; I should really have said “women” or “girls”, because it’s the age of mothers, those in our population who do the childbearing, which really defines the length of a generation. Fathers are sometimes a generation older than their partners.

But fathers and mothers alike tend to get very heated in defence of their younger days, in the kind of inter-generational disputes we see from time to time in the letters columns of the Mercury.

A few weeks ago a Kingston reader blamed baby boomers for pretty well everything bad in today’s world, attacking how they took holidays while younger people struggled with “the mess the boomers have left behind”.

It got an instant, heated response. “It’s the greed of more recent generations that have to have everything straight away and pay for it later (or never) that is part of the problem,” said one. “There was no buying on credit cards; we saved money to buy the necessities.”

Another suggested the younger generation should “give up gym membership and walk”. “You could cut out the lattes, make your own lunch or dine out on special occasions only. Try public transport. If you enjoy a night out, socialise at home.” Ah, the generation gap.

Things get a whole lot more complex when we look at generation as a cultural phenomenon, in terms of human behaviour and interaction, because we’re all in it up to our necks. Generation matters to us. It forms a huge part of who we are.

Which brings me to the musings of a Bellerive correspondent earlier this year. He recounted a discussion about shopping bags at a supermarket checkout, in which an older customer was berated by a young cashier for not caring enough “to save our environment for future generations”.

There followed a long catalogue of reasons why the older generation was no less “green” than later ones, which bears repeating at length.

In those times, said the writer, Brian Marshall, bottles were returned via the corner shop to a plant to be washed and re-used. Groceries were put in cartons or paper bags which were then re-used. People used stairs because there weren’t lifts, and walked or used buses for work or shopping.

The list went on: washing and re-using cloth nappies, drying clothes on a line instead of a dryer, blending food by hand instead of using electric mixers, packing breakables in newspapers instead of styrofoam or bubble wrap, mowing grass by hand.

“We exercised by working so we didn’t need to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. We drank from a tap or fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle. We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen.

“People took the bus and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning mum into a 24-hour taxi service in the family’s $50,000 people carrier. We didn’t need a computerised gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 23,000 miles out in space to find the nearest pub.”

“Here endeth the lesson,” was the wry conclusion.

Brian Marshall can be forgiven for being a bit tetchy. He was reacting to what he saw as an attack on his generation, and his defence is a good one with much to teach us all, young and old.

As a baby boomer myself I related to what he said. It was a nice reminder of how over this past half-century we’ve come to rely increasingly on powered machines and other technology while making a habit of discarding ever-growing amounts of superfluous stuff.

We’re entitled to a grouch now and again, but inter-generational warfare is a futile business. Our parents or our children aren’t better or worse than us simply because of that fact. There are no heroes or villains here, just people doing what they feel is necessary to get along.

The supermarket cashier wasn’t entirely wrong. The era of the baby boomers kick-started the steady climb in fossil fuel use culminating in today’s astronomical levels. We were the first generation to take unlimited energy use for granted, and to discard what we didn’t want.

By example and experience, we prepared our children well for increasingly extravagant times. The oil squeeze in the 1970s, the stock market collapse of 1987 and the 2008 “global financial crisis” were just hiccups in our march to prosperity.

Of course, that’s defining prosperity in the very narrow sense of material gain, taking no account of waste or unsustainable use of resources. Now, our children are getting the sense that underneath it all, things are not all that good. Because they’re human, they blame their parents.

But pointing a finger is actually pointless. We boomers could argue that our own parents should have been more wary of unfettered economic growth, but who could blame them for wanting to be unrestrained after their experience of the Great Depression and a world war or two?

The crisis that is confronting us is not the fault of one generation ahead of any other, but the responsibility of acting on it belongs to us all. We’re all in this together, young and old. Here endeth the lesson.

Government shuns expert help on climate

The government’s alternative to the Climate Change Authority looks decidedly shonky. [8 April 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Bernie Fraser, chair of Australia’s Climate Change Authority. PHOTO FAIRFAX MEDIA

No-one’s going to be telling Tony Abbott or his environment minister, Greg Hunt, how to do climate policy. That’s why they’re trying to get rid of Australia’s Climate Change Authority (CCA).

The CCA’s role is to give independent advice to government on the best ways to address climate change, just as the Productivity Commission advises on how to achieve a more productive economy. It’s a statutory body which can’t be abolished without parliamentary approval.

In February this year, as required under the still-unrepealed Clean Energy Act, the CCA released its weighty “Targets and Progress Review”, a 400-page assessment of Australia’s progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the economy and within specific sectors.

The CCA’s chairman is Bernie Fraser, former head of federal Treasury and governor of the Reserve Bank. Its members include Australia’s chief scientist, Ian Chubb, business leader Heather Ridout, mining executive John Marlay and the distinguished economist John Quiggin.

The preferred source of advice for the Abbott government on its “Direct Action” climate policies seems to be big business and the Productivity Commission, waiting in the wings if the CCA is axed. In other words, the subject is to be dealt with in terms of business’s bottom line.

But climate change is not something that the Productivity Commission could take on in its spare time. Evaluating policy effectiveness involves a huge swathe of information from climate science and carbon accounting to the politics and economics around carbon both here and overseas.

Sadly, this is the political reality we’ve now come to. Any notion that the Abbott government will treat the array of issues around climate change on their merits is well and truly out the window.

Fraser and the rest of the CCA aren’t going away without a fight. Research for the Targets and Progress review showed current commitments to be inadequate, and the review recommended a trebling of Australia’s emissions target to ensure a “credible” position internationally.

The government supports an emissions target of no more than 5 per cent below 2000 levels, a much weaker target, says the CCA, than those of Britain, Norway and the United States. It has advised a target of 15 per cent, achieved using international carbon permits at a cost of well under $1 billion.

Bernie Fraser is now in his 70s. At his stage of life and having been told he’s not wanted by the government (though it can’t sack him without the say-so of parliament), he clearly feels at ease speaking his mind about government climate policy.

In a speech to the National Press Club last month, Fraser warned that Australia was risking being left behind by other countries, including both the United States and China, now moving quickly to cut emissions.

Direct Action was “lightening, rather than adding to the policy tool kit,” he said. The government would measure its success “primarily by short term budgetary considerations, not by considerations related to climate science.”

“While the government professes to accept the science of climate change the indications are that it is unlikely to back that acceptance with appropriate actions,” he said.

“It seems clear to me that in the area of climate change policy the government is backing in business interests, and big business interests for the most part, ahead of the community interests.”

This is clearly getting to Fraser. In an interview with the Guardian’s Lenore Taylor, he bluntly characterised the climate change debate as a battle between the “good guys” (the “mainstream scientific bloc”) and the “bad guys” (the “mavericks who don’t accept the science”).

The mavericks could be ignored, he said, if it wasn’t for people in “positions of influence, in industry associations or companies, or in the government and the opposition” who “say they believe the science but then don’t act as if they do.” That pretty much sums up Tony Abbott.

The response of economists to the CCA Targets and Progress Review has been generally positive. In contrast, all independent economic analysis of the government’s Direct Action and its centrepiece, the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), has been at best neutral, but mostly negative.

Under the ERF, businesses and other entities proposing to reduce emissions compete for government grants. Economist Ross Garnaut told a Senate committee that even the minimal 5 per cent target would cost upwards of $4 billion a year more than was budgeted.

The government’s green paper released just before Christmas, says Garnaut, amounts to “a shooting of the breeze” without any detail on what is proposed. He cautioned against rejecting the carbon tax until the replacement legislation was “in full view”.

When asked on the ABC’s 7.30 last month whether he supported Greg Hunt’s or Ross Garnaut’s view on Direct Action, the highly-regarded former Treasury head Ken Henry replied: “Ross has spent a long time looking at these issues. I wouldn’t question Ross.”

Where does all this leave us? In place is an inadequate but functioning carbon scheme, now operating as a fixed price, or tax, and scheduled to become a market-based scheme in 2015.

Labor wants to bring the transition forward to July this year but won’t get parliamentary approval. However, it has joined the Greens in blocking repeal of the existing scheme, ensuring it remains in place until after the new Senate takes its place in July.

And we have Direct Action, the government’s chosen “do-it-yourself” path, waiting in the wings but yet to be disclosed in any detail, to which no independent analyst has given a tick of approval.

Last week’s UN report on climate impacts and adaptation laid out in stark detail the vulnerability of Australia’s biodiversity, marine areas and food production to impending changes brought about by our carbon emissions. This is real. It’s not some sort of political game.

Plenty of food for thought in national conference

Town and country are joining forces in a big revival of local food. [1 April 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Dr Nick Rose of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance makes a point at the Food 4 Thought national conference.

On World Environment Day in June last year, when Australians were diverted by Julia Gillard’s battle to save her prime ministership, her agriculture minister launched a $1.5 million program called Community Food Grants.

Senator Joe Ludwig made much of the tiny program, an offshoot of the National Food Program launched a fortnight earlier to help build national food capability.

The grants weren’t easy to come by, requiring applicants to find equivalent amounts from others in cash or equipment, yet the offer attracted 364 applications to set up cooperative food gardens and city farms, farmers’ markets and the like. For many small communities that was no mean feat.

Their effort would have heightened the disappointment they felt in February on being told in a letter from the federal agriculture department that a “tight fiscal environment” had put paid to the scheme.

Then to add insult to injury, national vegetable grower organisation AusVeg said it was pleased the scheme was axed, claiming it posed “a potential risk to the national horticulture industry”. Many community gardens, said AusVeg, were run down and didn’t meet commercial standards.

But a commercial grower attending “Food-4-Thought” the sixth national community food-growing conference in Hobart last week, would have left assured that there was nothing to fear from a resurgent local food sector, and wondering what all the fuss was about.

In fact, says Costa Georgiadis, presenter for the ABC’s Gardening Australia and a keynote speaker at the conference, food gardens don’t compete with commercial growers, which supply big retailers and the export market. They support local communities by helping to market seasonal, local food.

As for the conference delegates, representing an estimated 60,000 community food workers and volunteers around the country, they shrugged off the disappointment of losing the grant money, treated the AusVeg attack as a misunderstanding, and got on with their business.

And what a business it is. Peta Christenson (Cultivating Community), Chris Ennis (Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies), Kirsten Larsen (Eco Innovation Lab, Melbourne University) and Nick Rose (Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance) opened a door on the huge possibilities opening up in the sector in Melbourne and Sydney.

As they told it, farms and community gardens located in Australia’s major cities are teaching people to produce food in new ways, helping them develop marketing skills, and providing food for restaurateurs now developing menus for locally-grown food and meat.

In this UN-declared International Year of Family Farming, farms and gardens in Melbourne are now providing for half a dozen kinds of outlets: the Open Food Network, farmers’ markets, online sales, small retailers, restaurants and “fair food” wholesalers.

They are helping small retailers to sell their wares under a local food banner, emphasising the value of supporting producers and other local businesses to strengthen the local economy, and helping to eliminate food waste by setting up “food to farm” composting services.

And they are bringing all these threads together in the Melbourne-based Open Food Network (OFN), describing itself as “a free, open-source, scalable e-commerce marketplace and logistics platform” for communities and producers to connect, trade and co-ordinate movement of food.

OFN is a network of online farmers’ markets, open for everyone to take part. By allowing products to be traced from farm to table, it puts control over food back into the hands of farmers, consumers and local enterprises. Potentially, this is a revolution in direct farmer-to-eater communication.

Inspired by similar US and UK online ventures, OFN is planning to expand well beyond Melbourne, setting up the Open Food Foundation as licence holder of open source software providing local groups everywhere with a free, easy-to-use online food management tool. What about the role of government?

If the abandonment of Community Food Grants and the 2013 National Food Plan is any guide, government in Australia is not much interested in supporting local food. But other governments, such as Ontario, Canada, have a very different attitude.

Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, took two huge steps to a more sustainable future in 2013. It became the first jurisdiction in North America to ban coal-fired energy production, and it passed a Local Food Act to foster successful, resilient local food systems and economies.

Ontario, which has strongly supported locally-grown and marketed food since the 1970s, has invested more than $116 million over the past 10 years in promoting and celebrating the province’s produce.

Here’s where local food starts to go mainstream: Ontario’s local food laws include a 25 per cent tax credit for farmers who donate their produce to eligible community food programs, such as food banks.

Canada shares a great deal with Australia, including a federal government unwilling to take firm action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. If a Canadian province can achieve a Local Food Act, why can’t a certain “clean, green” Australian state?

• In the next 15 years $100 billion is to be spent on developing new coal mines in Queensland and NSW. This will involve the savings of ordinary Australians, raising the question, are fossil fuels bankrupting our nation financially as well as ecologically?

This will be the subject of a live video feed tonight (6-7pm) at the Centenary Theatre, University of Tasmania (Grosvenor Street, Sandy Bay), from the University of Melbourne, where Ben Caldecott, founder of Oxford University’s Stranded Assets Program, will be guest speaker.