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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Rising emissions and a leader in denial

With the world’s carbon emissions rising at an increasing rate, Tony Abbott chose to stay away from a UN leaders’ summit on climate. [30 September 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop addresses the UN climate summit. AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT PHOTO

Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop addresses the UN climate summit. AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT PHOTO

A slew of reports this month on our response to climate change all carry the same clear message. If the world acts decisively and soon to rein in carbon emissions we can have a stronger economy and a habitable planet. If it doesn’t, we’re cooked on both counts.

The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, formed by seven countries on four continents to analyse the economic issues around climate action, reported that a low-carbon “new climate economy” will be a far more productive one than what we have today.

Fossil fuel will ultimately ruin our economies, says the commission, but if we focus our spending over the next 15 years on renewable energy, better agriculture and more liveable cities, we’ll finish up with economies that work better for us and the planet.

Studies of the economies of Australia, the US and Europe strongly support the commission’s finding that reduced use of fossil fuels by means such as abandoning coal, oil and gas subsidies will ultimately deliver higher long-term economic benefit at a much lower cost.

The UN-sponsored Sustainable Development Solutions Network, based in New York, and the Paris-based Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations have commissioned a long-term global investigation they call the “Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project” (DDPP).

Last week’s DDPP report describes technologies and scheduling for a carbon-neutral global economy by 2050, ahead of a more comprehensive account of economic and social considerations to be released by June next year leading into the crucial UN climate summit in Paris.

The report points out that “to make a strong and convincing case for action at the national level, DDPs must be country-specific and developed by local experts”, which is why a report on Australian options for deep emissions cuts also came out last week.

The Australian study, by the non-profit ClimateWorks Australia and the Australian National University, used established modelling tools to identify feasible and least-cost options for attaining a carbon-neutral Australian economy by 2050. It found that Australia could achieve this and also maintain economic prosperity by making strategic transitions in electricity production and transport using currently-known technologies.

So it can be done, but will it? The Global Carbon Project, an international team of carbon-tracking scientists, released evidence this month that while we’re definitely moving, it’s in the wrong direction. Global emissions in the year to June 30 rose at a higher rate than in the previous year.

Three papers published in the science journals Nature Climate Change and Nature Geoscience, plus a fourth soon to be published by Earth System Science, say that to avoid dangerous warming the world must cut its emissions by over five per cent a year for several decades.

Professor Michael Raupach of ANU’s Fenner School in Canberra, who led the research, said that if global carbon emissions were shared equally between all people, Australia and other developed countries would have to cut emissions by over 15 per cent a year for several decades.

That level of reduction would go down like a lead balloon among developed countries, so the GCP approach is to find a “sweet spot in the middle”, acceptable to both rich and poor countries. One thing’s for sure: Australia’s current bipartisan target (five per cent by 2020) is grossly inadequate.

Corporate establishments locked into the fossil-fuel economy are driving government decision-making in many resource-rich countries, including Australia, where politics are fraught with fear of a resurgent renewable energy sector and a complete blindness to its huge possibilities.

Some political leaders go to the extreme of effectively denying the truth of what Raupach and virtually all climate scientists are saying about carbon emissions. Among them is our own Tony Abbott, who last week visited New York for a UN meeting on action against terrorism.

Had he arrived just a day earlier he could have joined 125 other world leaders in another UN meeting, the first leaders’ summit in five years on what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called “a defining issue of our age”, climate change.

But the prime minister chose instead to give a speech in parliament about terrorism. The sad fact is that while violence against people is something he feels he can handle, befitting a man of action, a forum on violence against nature is way out of his comfort zone.

The emissions evidence is yet another reminder from science that we’re on borrowed time. Yet both federal and state governments are treating climate change as if it’s a secondary issue, or no issue at all. The challenge for the rest of us is to compel them to sit up, take notice, and act.

• Climate Action Hobart’s response to the climate challenge is an afternoon workshop next Sunday on people power: what we can do about climate change which no government can stop. It starts at 1pm at the Phillip Smith Centre, Glebe. Information: climateactionhobart.org

Memo Paul Harriss: Life is more than black and white

Paul Harriss’s zealous campaign against the forest conservationists is undermining his own government’s authority [23 September 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Paul Harriss seeks to put an end to forest protest. PHOTO ROB BLAKERS

Paul Harriss seeks to put an end to forest protest. PHOTO ROB BLAKERS

The noise of discord around the world is more deafening by the day, which tells us more about information flows than about conflict itself. We’ve always found reasons to differ with each other. Disagreement is part of being human.

Our leaders exploit this by using martial phrases to rally people to a cause, like Bob Hawke’s “war on drugs”, and the “war on terror” embraced by John Howard and now Tony Abbott. These things are really about health and criminality, but so what? A war is what grabs people’s attention.

The British and the many nations they spawned invented clever ways to channel our innate aggression. They created and codified most of the ball-games we know today, and invented the adversarial principle now enshrined in political and legal systems across the world.

Ireland and Sri Lanka, among others, have shown that if enough people want conflict it can be kept going for a long time. We’re not inclined to that level of violence on our own southern island, but we’ve shown we’re not too bad at sustaining our own form of debilitating conflict.

Depending which side you’re on, the great forests of Tasmania are a resource to be protected at all costs or a resource crying out to be exploited. The belligerents believe that they can’t be both, that we have to choose a side just as in football. There can be no in-between.

In 2009, in the fourth decade of the “forest wars”, a handful of people from both sides of the conflict decided it was time to sit down together and talk, which required that they place themselves in the continuing crossfire. That turned out to be a brave decision.

For Terry Edwards, chief executive of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania, it meant distancing himself from key political supporters, just as it was a leap of faith for Michael O’Connor and others in the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

The peace talks were a massive undertaking for Phil Pullinger, head of Environment Tasmania, and Wilderness Society chief executive Vica Bayley, each of whom had given a big part of their lives to protecting forests. Now they were sitting down to do deals with the enemy.

Three years of exhausting negotiation ended suddenly and unexpectedly in November 2012 with a signed agreement. The Tasmanian government took six more months to get enabling legislation passed, and then only with some deft manoeuvring to get around upper house obstruction.

This was a moment to be savoured, but we never got the chance. The moment the legislation passed, the air was filled with complaint. There was predictable animosity from logging advocates, but more surprising to me were the vehement objections from the conservationist side.

PEOPLE’S CLIMATE MARCH: PHOTOS BY ANDY CUNNINGHAM  About 400 people gathered at Hobart’s iconic Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) on Sunday in support of the People’s Climate March in New York City. Led by the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, the march sought to focus attention on today’s Leaders’ Summit at the UN, ahead of the crucial Paris meeting next year.

PEOPLE’S CLIMATE MARCH: IMAGES BY ANDY CUNNINGHAM About 400 people gathered at Hobart’s iconic Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) on Sunday in support of the People’s Climate March in New York City, where 340,000 marchers included the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. About 5000 such events around the world sought to focus attention on today’s Leaders’ Summit at the UN, ahead of the crucial Paris meeting next year.

Kim Booth and Christine Milne of the Greens, along with Peg Putt of Markets for Change, thought Pullinger and Bayley had been naïve. Jenny Webber of the Huon Environment Centre felt betrayed. To novelist Richard Flanagan, the deal empowered a rogue agency in Forestry Tasmania.

It wouldn’t have been lost on the signatories that opposition from both sides was a strong sign they got it right, but those complaining were impervious to such a notion. Many of them remain so.

Paul Harriss led the fight in the Legislative Council for a return to Tasmania’s old forestry regime. For him the agreement, far from opening a door to peace, inflamed the smouldering anger he felt against anyone who sought to stop or limit native forest logging.

Backed by Premier Will Hodgman he won a House of Assembly seat in the March elections. After Hodgman picked him as resources minister, the pair worked together to ensure parliament scrapped the forest agreement. For reasons that escape me, they chalk that up as a win.

Harriss appointed no environmentalists to his forestry advisory council, which he said would be “focused on growing the industry, not shutting it down.” That’s despite reservations expressed by Terry Edwards, who knows better than most that wisdom in this debate is not confined to one side.

But Harriss is not finished. He wants to see the forest protest movement ground into complete submission. Against expert advice that current laws are quite enough, he’s now rammed through the lower house new anti-protest measures with yet heavier fines and gaol terms.

The intensity and narrow focus of his cause brings to mind the crusade by Virginia (US) Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli against the highly-regarded climate physicist Michael Mann.

Cuccinelli was so enraged by Mann’s “hockey stick” temperature research that he took him to court in 2010 for allegedly committing fraud by manipulating data. After an expensive legal battle lasting two years, and with zero evidence submitted against Mann, the court threw the case out.

Such uncompromising hostility can be found on both sides of the forest debate, but has no place in government. The refusal of Harriss and his leader to see this subverts their authority and blackens their records.

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