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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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,

For the sake of appearances, Greg Hunt sells out

Approval of the Carmichael project ignores the biggest impact of all [12 August 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Galilee Basin country, 300 km west of Mackay, Queensland. PHOTO ANDREW QUILTY/AAP

Galilee Basin country, 300 km west of Mackay, Queensland. PHOTO ANDREW QUILTY/AAP

Most people want to be seen by others as the genuine article, someone honest, reliable, what-you-see-is-what-you-get. But being human is complicated.

As long as we continue to have a social life, there’s always packaging involved. It might just be a change of clothes and a brush of the hair before going out, or something more elaborate and expensive, right up to plastic surgery, steroids, a complete body makeover.

Appearances drive how humans organise themselves. Schools and hospitals need to seem successful in meeting their obligations just as much as they need actual success. Business needs not just profitability but the appearance of it, which is why we hear so much about business confidence.

Substance is often peripheral in politics, but appearance is always front and centre. All democratic leaders must be accepted by the people they claim to lead if they’re to survive. Every political action and statement is motivated by the need to appear strong, capable and in charge.

In the biggest public or private organisations, maintaining the appearance of being in control is an industry in itself with a life of its own, where leaders employ people, sometimes whole armies of them, to develop and maintain a massive and complex mythology.

I know a bit about this. In a past life I was an information manager, the sort of title given to people paid to ensure the body corporate always looks competent and in control of its destiny.

In those inevitable times when my organisation made a mistake and definitely wasn’t controlling its destiny, I sought to avoid having to lie, but I knew this was in itself a kind of lie. I felt uncomfortable but I did it, because my job was to keep up appearances.

So it goes across much of government, business and society in general. Deception and delusion are so much part of life in our market-dominated world that we often struggle to tell fake from real.

Swimming against this tide is science, whose sole purpose is to penetrate outer appearances to find real inner nature. Today, when everyone is used to fudging things, science is confronting us with the reality that things we’ve taken for granted have to change, rapidly and decisively.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency have separately concluded that the planet will heat to a dangerous level unless we leave at least two-thirds of all presently-known coal, oil and gas reserves in the ground.

The Abbott government and its business supporters treat this expert advice from the world’s peak climate and energy bodies not as a challenge from science to be addressed but an empty leftist threat to be ignored. If that isn’t culpable negligence, I don’t know what is.

Environment minister Greg Hunt never neglects to tell us that he takes climate change seriously. Last month he approved a Queensland coal mining project, Australia’s largest-ever, subject to “the absolute strictest of conditions”, as he put it.

Those conditions, Hunt said, would ensure that the Carmichael mine, inland from Mackay, will have a net zero impact, with all negative effects avoided, mitigated or offset. But he left out completely the mine’s most devastating impact, on atmospheric carbon levels.

Hunt can claim a precedent. When Labor minister Tony Burke approved the Whitehaven mine at Maules Creek, NSW, last year he ignored the fact that burning the coal from there will emit about 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, the same as New Zealand’s total emissions.

Whitehaven faces continuing local anger over what coal-mining is doing to biodiversity, water and landscape in the Upper Hunter Valley, just as Carmichael coal has attracted ire for the threat to the Great Barrier Reef posed by shipping it out. But the climate impact has slipped under the radar.

Location of Galilee Basin, Carmichael mining lease, and proposed railway and port facilities. MAP BY SOUTHWIND

Location of Galilee Basin, Carmichael mining lease, and proposed railway and port facilities. MAP BY SOUTHWIND

When Carmichael coal is exported to India and burned, it will release 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year for the mine’s lifetime of more than half a century. This is about a fifth of Australia’s annual total from all sources, way beyond any single enterprise in our history.

In an illuminating moment during discussion of the Carmichael decision on The Bolt Report last week Andrew Bolt, not known for his support of the science of human-induced warming, asked Hunt point-blank, “Won’t this, by your own calculations, mean hot days get hotter?”

Hunt responded that climate was a global responsibility – “no one country can do it alone” – adding “we have to bring people out of poverty.” The Carmichael mine, he said, “is about providing electricity to up to 100 million people in India”.

He wants us to believe that an altruistic Abbott government supports the Carmichael mine because coal power will always be cheap (not a safe assumption) and because it wants poor Indians to have a chance in life. Whoever believes that will believe anything.

Pressed by Bolt, he argued that the Carmichael decision represented a “balance”, “not extreme left or right”. His choice of words might have come from another anti-abatement line, that with every scientific statement supporting global warming there must always be a contrary one, for balance.

It’s all about appearances. Greg Hunt’s job isn’t to look after the environment, but to lend a veneer of environmental credibility, however thin, to a government that wants our coal resources exploited to the maximum extent possible while there’s still someone prepared to pay for them.

One day, probably decades too late, everyone in the world will be able to see the damage we did for those pathetic thirty pieces of silver.

The mysteries of El Niño are as deep as the ocean

A few months ago, a strong El Niño event later this year seemed certain, but no longer. What’s happening? [5 August 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Sydney in a dust storm in September 2009, during the most recent El Niño event. PHOTO ROB GRIFFITH, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sydney in a dust storm in September 2009, during the most recent El Niño event. PHOTO ROB GRIFFITH, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Every now and again we get a reminder of our place in the scheme of things. One such event for me was in 1987, in my first crossing of the Southern Ocean.

Aboard Australia’s veteran supply ship Nella Dan, we were headed south for Antarctica after a spectacular sunset over Heard Island. We didn’t know it then, but this would be that ship’s last completed voyage before it grounded at Macquarie Island and was scuttled.

Around that time I recall reading an Eric Newby tale about a windjammer travelling around Cape Horn. On the Southern Ocean, where the wind blows around the globe unimpeded by land, Newby described swells like no other, spanning a quarter of a mile from trough to trough. Here I was in that very ocean.

After a nauseous fortnight the ship’s company was looking forward to calmer waters in the sea ice, but that night a storm blew up. I got tired of rolling and sliding in my bunk and went up to the bridge to see what was happening. My moment of truth came when I looked out to see, in the ship’s headlights, a wall of water towering above us. It had to be at least 20 metres high.

Arne Sorensen, Nella’s master, seemed calm enough, but from where I stood we seemed destined for oblivion. I forgot about feeling seasick and just hung on and watched, transfixed by the mighty spectacle, until dawn broke, the wind dropped and the sea ice stilled the waves.

We use terms like unfathomable or deep as the ocean when we talk of mysteries, because the oceans are Earth’s greatest mystery. We’re well-placed to appreciate this down here in the roaring forties. Tasmania has some of the most unpredictable weather on the planet. We’re slowly making sense of it, learning to unravel the patterns of oceanic weather systems like the one that gave us last week’s storms, and pieces are being added to the jigsaw all the time.

Conditions in three oceans dominate Australian weather: the Pacific, the Indian and the one that joins them together, the Southern, whose rain-providing westerly winds are gradually heading southward leading to long-term drying of southern Australia. But the big one is ENSO, or the El Niño Southern Oscillation. ENSO happens in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, but it has an effect right around the world. Its most direct impact is felt in adjacent countries including Australia (where it is associated with droughts and floods) and the United States.

Most of the time, ENSO is in a neutral or negative (La Niña) phase. During a La Niña, surface waters in the eastern Pacific are cool and the atmosphere in the western Pacific is warm and moist. At these times eastern Australia is most likely to get flooding rains and intense cyclones. But once every few years, for reasons still unclear, this situation reverses. A warming of surface waters off Peru (El Niño) extends westward at the same time as high atmospheric pressure predominates over Indonesia and the western Pacific (the Southern Oscillation).

During our winter, an El Niño brings generally drier conditions across Australia, New Guinea and Indonesia, as far west as India and in central America and the Caribbean, while it’s wetter in Chile and the central Pacific. In our summer it’s hotter here while the US is wetter. An El Niño can be less than a year long, but sometimes extends over two years. Some El Niño events, such as in 1982-83 and 2002-03, can trigger intense and prolonged drought in Australia. Others, like the 1997-98 event, cause a strong rise in global temperature.

While science has found common patterns, each ENSO event is different. They are hugely complex, with ocean and air conditions combining in infinitely variable ways and involving trade winds, ocean circulation and a host of other atmospheric and oceanic conditions. El Niño is known to have a warming influence, yet we didn’t have one in June when the global average temperature was the highest on record for that month, or for the January to June period which was the third warmest such period on record.

Understanding El Niño is a work in progress, which has become very obvious over the past few months as scientists try to understand the very mixed messages coming from sea surface temperatures and atmospheric pressure over the Pacific. Is an El Niño coming, or isn’t it? Early this year strong surface warming in the Pacific off Peru produced signs very similar to the lead-up to the powerful 1997 event. It seemed all but certain that we were in for another strong El Niño event, with drier, warmer conditions on our side of the Pacific and flooding in the Americas.

The trend continued through to April, but then some anomalies cropped up. The warming waters stopped expanding as signature westerly winds from Indonesia into the Pacific that persisted through the early months of 2014 unexpectedly dropped away. A month ago meteorologists were still saying it was more likely than not that an El Niño would happen later this year, but now that’s been trimmed back to a 50-50 chance. What’s going on, and how might this affect Australian weather?

No-one is better qualified to talk about ENSO than Neville Nicholls of Monash University’s School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment. He has studied the phenomenon for over 40 years and is now a world authority. In Hobart tonight, in a public lecture at the University of Tasmania’s Stanley Burbury Centre hosted by the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, he will offer his insights into what ENSO has in store for us over the next year or so. The event starts at 6 pm.