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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How powerful men are skewing the climate debate

A position of authority guarantees neither knowledge nor wisdom. [22 April 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Maurice Newman during his time as ABC chairman. PHOTO THE AUSTRALIAN

You probably don’t need to be told that the male of our species is more inclined to risky behaviour than the other half of the population. It’s how we’re made.

It’s risky behaviour to ignore the advice of all the world’s national science academies and the vast majority of government science agencies that human greenhouse gas emissions are a future danger.

A 2011 US study that looked specifically at deniers of human-induced climate change, using polling data obtained over the decade to 2010, found strong evidence that such people included a disproportionately high level of conservative white males.

There was a further refinement. The study, by Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap, found that one category of conservative white males “express an even greater degree of climate change denial”. These were the especially confident ones: those who say they understand global warming very well.

The evidence was “compelling”, said McCright and Dunlap, that in denying a human role in climate change such men were responding to what they saw as a threat to their identity and the systems that supported them. In other words, their denial is a defence mechanism.

Most of us have just enough confidence to get by and no more, but some have it in spades. Those who come most readily to mind are corporate heavyweights, people used to giving orders who get irritated when others question them. People who don’t allow time for doubt, especially self-doubt.

People like Dick Warburton, chairman of Westfield Retail Trust and a some other financial organisations, and now in charge of the Abbott government’s review into Australia’s Renewable Energy Target (RET).

Or like David Murray, former head of the Commonwealth Bank, Peter Costello’s choice to head up the Future Fund, and recently-appointed head of the Abbott government’s financial system inquiry.

Or Maurice Newman, former chair of the Australian Stock Exchange and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and now heading up the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council.’

“I am not a denier of climate change,” Warburton said in February when he was appointed to head the RET review. “I am a sceptic that man-made carbon dioxide is creating global warming.” That’s all right then.

Murray went a few steps further last November when he told an ABC-TV interviewer that “the climate problem is overstated”. Like his fellow business-chief Warburton, he believes the scientific wisdom about human-produced carbon dioxide causing warming is simply wrong.

Murray said that disputation among climate scientists revealed a breakdown in scientific integrity. Never mind the 20 years of evidence cited by the American Association for the Advancement of Science that 97 per cent of scientists concluded that humans caused global warming.

Then there’s Maurice Newman, who as chair of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council is now firmly ensconced in Tony Abbott’s ear. Like Warburton and Murray, he built his career in financial institutions, including many years at the head of Deutsche Bank’s Australian arm.

Like Warburton and Murray, Newman discounts the science behind human-induced warming, but in his case it’s much more antagonistic. He has embarked on open warfare against the science and one of its outcomes, the development of renewable energy, especially wind energy.

Newman went on the attack in two newspaper columns on 31 December 2013 and 15 January 2014. He said the theory of human-caused warming was a massive popular delusion, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was actually a political body that had been “captured by the green movement”.

(Just by the way, the IPCC liaises with governments but is led by and mainly made up of working climate scientists. Its current scientific report is written by over 600 scientists drawing on over 9200 research papers, and vetted by 1000 expert reviewers, mainly scientists.)

Newman presented as a champion of the poor. Those who drove the “climate change delusion”, he said, favoured the rich and powerful (people like him) “at the expense of the poor and powerless”.

Deploring “childish personal attacks” by those he disagreed with, he drew on media reports and two prominent US contrarian scientists, Roy Spencer and Richard Lindzen, to declare that we’re now witnessing “the unravelling of years of shoddy science and sloppy journalism”. Ouch.

A rural property owner, he has vigorously opposed establishment of wind farms both on nearby properties and elsewhere, claiming that their turbines are a threat to human health. He has close ties with anti-wind farm groups, including the Waubra Foundation.

Last year a Victorian government publication, “Wind farms, sound and health”, questioned the health risk from wind farm noise, saying that at normal residential distances a wind farm was quieter than a car 100 metres away, and that inaudible sound of any frequency can’t affect health.

Newman is unmoved, and in January got none other than Tony Abbott to call for yet more wind farm research by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

The NHMRC is showing signs of wind farm research fatigue. Having reviewed the science in 2009, it instigated another review and two months ago said it had found “no reliable and consistent evidence that wind farms directly cause adverse health effects in humans”.

Warburton, Murray and Newman are men of power. They have no scientific training, but from their lofty perch, they and their government allies have concluded that the combined effort and findings of virtually all practising climate scientists count as nothing against their word.

They may enjoy delivering their opinions, and so might we except for the impact of their statements, from positions of authority, on the reputation of science and the future of everyone.

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]

PHOTO SONICRIM.COM

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.