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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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.

In praise of big thinkers

I owe much to the wide-ranging, fearless thinking of two Tasmanians. [26 August 2014 | Peter Boyer]

“Breezin’ Along”: The world as John Evans saw it in 2012.

“Breezin’ Along”: The world as John Evans saw it in 2012.

About seven years ago I got a telephone call from someone introducing himself as “Evans from Premaydena”. He asked if we could chat a while. I enjoy a good conversation so I took him on.

The idea of prosperity for all, he said, was a recipe for disaster. The second law of thermodynamics told us we were living beyond our means, that there just wasn’t enough energy on the planet.

The discussion continued in this vein for half an hour or so. He must have thought it worth something because he called again a few days later with fresh thoughts about our bleak future. And so on, sometimes a couple of calls in a day, for years.

He visited me in his rusty old Datsun ute with his ageing blue heeler, Molly, and lent me his original 1970s Whole Earth Catalogue. Once I joined a friendly breakfast party on his old boat on the Derwent estuary. In the process I found out quite a bit about him.

On leaving Hobart High School (where his red hair earned him his lifelong nickname, Blue) he became a government clerk, but he craved the outdoors and eventually took up professional fishing.

Fishing people are never ordinary. It takes courage to go regularly out into the open sea on a smallish boat. Being out there is to be reminded frequently of the raw, magnificent, terrifying power of wild nature. Over the years John soaked it all up, and pondered.

As fishermen do, he thought about the survival of species. After retiring from lobster fishing and taking up oyster farming, he hooked himself up to the internet and spent long hours reading what others said about energy, oil and the future of humanity.

At seminars about energy and sustainable living he soaked up information and chatted with like-minded souls. He had one or two other telephone confidants besides me; each of us grew used to hearing his world views, sprinkled with expletives and earthy jokes.

John sometimes struggled to express himself verbally, but found an ideal vehicle for his passion in watercolour painting. I would get a Christmas card each year graphically depicting Earth on the brink, victim of human greed and vanity.

Many found John hard to like, especially those unfortunate government agents who had to confront him over his casual attitude to marine and building regulations. For him these were matters of no consequence. I’m inclined to agree. The future of humanity is much more important.

At first glance you wouldn’t get a more dissimilar pair than John and another friend and mentor of mine, Tom Errey. But Tom, too, has a deep concern about the health of Planet Earth, and like John he’s spent a lot of time communicating that concern to me.

Tom is now well into his nineties. In his handwritten letters to me I see no sign of advancing years, but a sharp, clear mind, a ruthless logic and an enviable talent with the written word.

Last week he enclosed a letter from his daughter, Vivian Martin, describing her work as a school teacher in Marrickville, in Sydney’s inner-west.

Not one to confine herself to classroom teaching, Vivian is heavily engaged with her diverse community, fostering parents’ active participation in their children’s education and setting up multilingual workshops, film festivals and art events.

The scope and ambition of her thinking tells me she’s a chip off the old block. For years Tom has shared with me, via clippings sent by mail or personal delivery, his copious reading of climate and energy topics in newspapers and magazines. With each package has come a letter.

Each of these gems carries the accumulated wisdom of over eight decades. Tom’s long life spans the Great Depression, World War II (at the end of which he was an Australian army soldier in occupied Japan) and everything that’s happened since.

His erudition is formidable, as is his dedication to digging out the truth of the matter. I’d guess that nothing he encountered over all those years escaped his critical attention. Some may have found that hard to take, but I value it.

When I wrote in a recent piece of being “down here in the Roaring Forties”, Tom politely berated me for encouraging a European prejudice that people living on our side of the world were beneath others, “down under”. I take his point: repeating a prejudice just reinforces it.

Underlying it all is Tom’s fierce devotion to the natural world, the cradle of human evolution. Sometimes he gives the impression that he wouldn’t care if humans vacated the scene and left Earth to other species, but his obvious pride in his daughter’s work tells me he’s no misanthrope.

Tom was still with us at last check, but he tells me I should expect a departure any time. He has bequeathed his body to medical science. John, having moved to Dunalley in 2009, died suddenly a month before wildfire consumed the town in January 2013.

Approaching spring reminds me of my father in his last weeks, painstakingly writing of birds at their business outside his nursing home window. Like Tom and John he was a big thinker. Like them he saw his life as a privilege bestowed by a bountiful Earth, for which he was always grateful.

• The national March Australia campaign seeks a voice for the Australia we really want. It will happen in Hobart on Sunday with a walk to Parliament House, starting at Princes Park at 11.30 am.

Oil vulnerability: out of sight, out of mind

By ignoring transport energy, Matthew Groom’s proposed energy strategy will be looking at less than half the picture [19 August 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Oil price volatility is our biggest energy threat. PHOTO SAM ROSEWARNE, MERCURY HOBART

Oil price volatility is our biggest energy issue. PHOTO SAM ROSEWARNE, MERCURY HOBART

Energy minister Matthew Groom has rightly identified a state-wide energy strategy as an important government priority, and last week he invited Tasmanians to help out by putting in submissions.

An issues paper covers power generation, building thermal efficiency, billing information and just about everything else a government and its community should consider in planning and managing energy used in homes, offices, factories and other buildings.

Which would be fine if that’s all there is to an energy strategy. But it’s not even half of it.

The biggest single component of energy costs in Tasmania is transport. All our petrol and diesel fuel is imported, costing Tasmania about $1 billion annually or about $2000 a year for every person in the state. Transport fuel consumes about 56 per cent of household energy budgets.

While noting that high petrol prices encourage more fuel-efficient motoring, the issues paper says that because we’re completely dependent on oil imports the government can do little to bring those prices down. So does that mean it’s pointless to include it in an energy strategy?

An increasingly volatile global oil market in coming years is expected to have a significant impact on business and household budgets, which may be enough to cripple an already-stressed Tasmanian economy. No sensible government would leave this policy field entirely in the hands of others.

And there’s plenty we can do, if we put our minds to it. The government needs look no further than two important publications dating from late last year.

The Tasmanian Oil Price Vulnerability Study was commissioned by Nick McKim, then Greens leader and a minister in the Labor-Green government, and released publicly in December 2013.

The release was a low-key affair, as if the government didn’t want it to be noticed. But it offered valuable data and expert analysis about the impact of a volatile global oil market on the Tasmanian economy, pointing out our island’s special vulnerability to supply and price fluctuations.

The study found that the Tasmanian economy was much more dependent on freight- and fuel-intensive export industries than the Australian average. Our big exporting industries of aluminium and other metals, mining and forestry products were significant losers from oil price rises.

Analysis of past trends showed a big rise in Tasmanian oil consumption over the past decade, while projections for the next 20 years showed demand for freight transport nearly doubling.

According to Monash University modelling for the study, if Tasmania’s present level of reliance on imported fuel continues, real wages will fall further behind the rest of Australia while declining productivity and investment will have a severe impact on our exports.

But the oil price study wasn’t all bad news. It identified changes to transport operations and other measures in non-transport areas which, while reducing our oil price vulnerability, would also make us more resilient in dealing with other challenges, including climate change.

Some of these suggestions, such as minimum fuel efficiency standards, depend on national policy shifts, but most of them are capable of being largely or wholly implemented by a Tasmanian government with a bit of political nous.

Some of them were also listed in the second publication I mentioned that came out in late 2013, Climate Smart Tasmania.

Like the oil price study, this was guided through its difficult development by a dedicated band of public servants and some expert consultants’ advice. It was a multi-year exercise with extensive public consultation involving a wide cross-section of the Tasmanian community.

The result is a treasure-trove of ideas that which would enhance policy development for any government of any political persuasion. Among its 81 carbon abatement and adaptation measures were 11 actions designed to make Tasmanian transport less reliant on imported fuel.

I downloaded these files when the two reports were published. But here’s a thing: neither of them now seems to be accessible on the relevant departmental websites. I did a search for them and drew a blank in both cases.

This isn’t surprising. Though the two documents were non-partisan and refreshingly non-political, incoming governments of whatever colour like to foster the illusion that good comes only from their own side of politics, so they had to be quietly pushed off the stage.

Matthew Groom has given assurances that he has read the “Climate Smart” strategy, and that’s to his credit. He may well pick up on some of the good ideas there and adopt them as his own. I hope so.

I hope, too, that in developing his energy strategy he’ll consider the elephant in the room which is transport, and take time to consult the oil price study of last year with its fine analysis of the closely-coupled future of transport energy and the Tasmanian economy.

His energy strategy process may yield a perfectly sound guide to planning electrical and other stationary energy. But if he ignores the transport conundrum he’ll fail to deliver any sort of comprehensive solution, to the detriment of our whole economic future.

Securing the best energy strategy possible for Tasmania will require Groom to break a mould. He’ll have to accept that this is bigger than party politics and that good ideas can come from anywhere. And he’ll need to reach out for support from across the Tasmanian community.

It won’t happen, you say? Maybe you think that politicians don’t have the bottle or the largeness of mind to take such a step, but I’d like to think Groom has it in him to prove you wrong.

• The deadline for submissions about an energy strategy is September 8. Emailed submissions may be lodged with the Department of State Growth, energystrategy@stategrowth.tas.gov.au